60th Ann Arbor Film Festival: Japanese documentary "Shari" is an empathetic, dreamlike look at a changing planet

FILM & VIDEO REVIEW

A still image from Nao Yoshigai's film Shari featuring a person standing in a forest in winter wearing a large, strange, bulky, red, full-body suit

The subject of Japanese director Nao Yoshigai's Shari creeps up on you as unexpectedly as the hulking, crimson, woolly creature that shambles through the film in a series of dreamlike interludes. The film focuses on the Japanese town of Shari in 2020, and at first seems to be a series of well-observed vignettes chronicling the lives of its residents. But as we meet the townspeople—a baker, a fisherman, an eccentric art collector—they all return to a common topic: the tension between human life and the natural world. Shari's residents discuss feeling drawn in by their town's natural beauty, but they also describe a delicate push-pull between conservation, tourism, and industry. One resident offers the metaphor that Shari's natural resources are a principal upon which people should collect interest, rather than squandering the initial investment.

Shari's residents are also all preoccupied in different ways by the same anxiety: the town has experienced its lightest snowfall in 40 years. There are fewer fish in the ocean, plant growth is stunted, bears are skipping hibernation because they can still find food, and the townspeople have an overall sense of unease.

Things are not as they should be. 

From Marsalis to Schubert: The Philadelphia Orchestra spent two evenings serenading Hill Auditorium with contrasting programs and conductors

MUSIC REVIEW

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra by Todd Rosenberg 

Philadelphia Orchestra musical director Yannick Nézet-Séguin photo by Todd Rosenberg

When Yannick Nézet-Séguin sprang onto the stage last Friday night at a packed Hill Auditorium, he was seemingly filled to the brim with energy. Though the Quebecois conductor and pianist is nearing 50, last weekend his every movement in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra seemed to be infused with a kind of youthful exuberance, from his stretch across the conductor’s podium to shake concertmaster David Kim’s hand prior to the performance, to the athletic exertions he subsequently made during the most bombastic moments of the evening’s program. 

U-M's Basement Arts theater troupe used "The Visit" to explore the dangers of group-think

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Graphic for the Basement Arts production of The Visit. It features an image of Lady Justice wearing an mask with dollars in the place where her eyes should be.

Image courtesy of Basement Arts

It doesn’t take a genius—or a grand performance on stage—to reveal how people will do anything for money.

On February 25 and 26, Basement Arts, a U-M student theater organization, gathered at the Newman Studio in the Walgreen Drama Center and performed Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, which shows how far people will go.

First published in 1956, The Visit tells the tale of millionaire Claire Zachanassian who returns to Güllen, the small town where she grew up. Excited by her visit, the townspeople decide to take this opportunity to better their town and their lives as they’ve fallen on hard times. But Zachanassian has a different plan in mind: In exchange for a one billion dollar donation to Güllen, she wants the townspeople to kill Alfred, the man who she became pregnant with, then jilted her.

Ann Arbor's Creal Microgallery offers tiny exhibitions for unsuspecting pedestrians

VISUAL ART REVIEW

A photo of Jim Cherewick's paintings at the Creal Microgallery

Installation view of Inspire/Expire exhibition, paintings by Jim Cherewick at Creal Microgallery. Photo by Joe Levickas/Creal Microgallery.

The first reaction a pedestrian might have upon encountering the Creal Microgallery in suburban Ann Arbor might be amusement. This tiny, breadbox-sized art space on Creal Crescent, not far from the North Maple Road and Miller Avenue intersection, resembles one of those little free libraries often found on residential streets. It provides curbside delivery of fine art to passers-by from dawn to 11 pm daily. This may not be a grand structure like the elegant Stettheimer dollhouse in the Museum of the City of New York, with its tiny masterpieces by Alexander Archipenko, Gaston Lachaise, and Marcel Duchamp, but it’s no joke either. 

The microgallery’s founder and curator, Joe Levickas, was inspired to start the project by dislocations in his life during the COVID-19 pandemic. He describes bringing up his idea for the gallery with his wife. “What if we put up a gallery in our front yard?” A real team player, she replied, “You should totally do it.” He acquired a 16”x10”x12” box with a glass front, painted it robin’s egg blue to match his house, and the rest is (art) history.

Singer-songwriter Allison Russell brought her "Outside Child" and open book to The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Allison Russell by Marc Baptiste

Photo by Marc Baptiste

Singer-songwriter Allison Russell seeks out what she calls the “hidden canon” of the oral tradition: the songs, stories, lore passed on through time, primarily from and for women. Ann Arbor's The Ark is one of those places where the hidden canon has been voiced frequently for a very long time, and Russell’s concert there on February 25 felt like the perfect place to carry on that tradition.

As part of its Black History Month celebration, musical theater met Kahil El’Zabar & Co.'s jazz in perfect harmony at Encore

MUSIC REVIEW

Kahil El‘Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on stage with singers from the Encore Musical Theatre, February 18, 2022

Kahil El‘Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on stage with singers from the Encore Musical Theatre, February 18, 2022. Photo courtesy of Encore.

The “great American songbook” and jazz have always had a strong relationship. Popular songs have been an important source for jazz improvisation from the very beginning and jazz has influenced popular music composers to adapt dynamic rhythms, blue notes, and the uptempo style of the emerging jazz players of the 1920s.

The Encore Theater is celebrating Black heritage with an exciting pair of musical reviews this month. On February 18, a program called Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theater made a strong case that the popular music of the golden age from the 1920s to the 1950s was a collaboration of a diverse group of performers and composers that is still rich and vibrant today. Many of those who created the American Songbook were first-generation immigrants from Europe and Black Americans who found a common voice.

The man making that case is, as the Encore program says, the legendary Kahil El’Zabar, an inspired percussionist, driving band leader, and wise teacher. El‘Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble joined forces with four superb singers to give us a sampling of show tunes, blues, and pop standards in a smokey setting on the Encore stage. Each song segued from vocalist and band to rich, lively, thought-provoking jazz improvisations on the music and then rounded back to the singers.

U-M's modern-leaning production of "Antigone" explores grief in the pandemic age

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sam White, founder of Shakespere in Detroit, guest directed the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance’s recent production of Antigone (February 17-20). She felt the weight of the pandemic while conceiving of the staging and decided that rather than putting on a play written in 441 BCE as some sort of separate escapism from our current world, the two can interact and help one another.

Because the "Layl" belongs to lovers in choreographer Ali Chahrour's musical play

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

UMS's production of Layl. A couple is embracing in this black and white photo.

Photo courtesy of UMS

The curtains opened and revealed a dark stage. It was silent, and over the course of a few minutes, lights started to show the audience fragments of what was on stage while keeping the illumination dim enough that you had to squint to see there were people with instruments tucked in the left corner of the stage.

Eventually, the light, though still low, revealed everyone on stage: Sharif Sehnaou on guitar, Hala Omran with a microphone, Aya Metwalli with a guitar, Simona Abdallah on drums, and above them all, Ali Chahrour lay on top of the speakers, one arm dangling and the other with a bouquet of dead flowers in his hand.

This is the entry to Layl (Night) by Ali Chahrour, presented at the Power Center in Ann Arbor on February 12.

Mary Sibande's "Sophie/Elsie" sculpture anchors UMMA's African art gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Sophie/Elsie is a striking sculptural figure, vibrant and visible from a distance, a colorful, bright beacon in the newly expanded and reopened African galleries at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Johannesburg-based artist Mary Sibande’s fiberglass sculpture, created in 2009, and initially on display during UMMA’s closure, is now permanently installed. In the early days of the museum’s closure, Sophie/Elsie was visible from outside the galleries—then, construction came, and she was no longer visible from outside.

But Sophie/Elsie is once again on display in the reimagined space of UMMA’s African galleries. Along with works by Jon Onye Lockard, Shani Peters, Jacob Lawrence, and many more, Sibande’s sculpture brings new life to the gallery space as part of the ongoing initiative We Write to You About Africa, in which “contemporary African artists, scholars, and curators will be asked to write about their work on postcards, in their first language, and mail them to UMMA where they will be displayed alongside their works.”

The reinstallation—including a gallery extension—is now open to visitors in the Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen Gallery of African art and Alfred A Taubman Gallery II.

Ann Arbor Gallery Crawl: Catching up with recent exhibits and new art spaces

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Double Goddess: A Sighting in the Abyss by Ayana V. Jackson at A2AC Gallery

Double Goddess: A Sighting in the Abyss by Ayana V. Jackson at A2AC Gallery. Photo by K.A. Letts.

COVID-19 has wrecked plans and canceled events for nearly two years (and counting). It has sabotaged the momentum and slashed the incomes of Ann Arbor’s small community of visual artists and galleries, leaving a cultural landscape greatly altered in ways large and small.

But the creatives here are nothing if not resourceful and, well, creative. 

My recent tour of the art spaces and non-profits in Ann Arbor and environs left me encouraged—and impressed—by the resilience of the city’s art community. Here are some of the changes I came across while reintroducing myself to the local art scene in early December 2021: