I grew up studying and loving ballet and modern dance, but I always felt a little “meh” about tap. But after I watched MacArthur “Genius” award winner Michelle Dorrance perform with New York City Ballet dancer Tiler Peck in the Hulu documentary Ballet Now, I realized how wrong I’d been.
Dorrance brings her tap dance company Dorrance Dance to Ann Arbor on February 21-22 -- and trust me, you should be there. Her company’s style calls back to early black American tap dance and also pushes the art form forward effortlessly. Dorrance Dance will perform three works in Ann Arbor: Jungle Blues, a jazz-age inspired piece; Myelination, the titular ensemble piece; and Three To One, a more experimental work featuring only one dancer in tap shoes.
I went to the Martha Graham Dance Company's April 26 performance at the Power Center and was blown away. (The troupe also performed April 27.)
I’ve seen the Martha Graham Dance Company (MGDC) on several occasions before, as well as many of the endless companies the group's namesake has inspired, but never before have I loved them so much. The dancers performed four pieces: Secular Games (Martha Graham), Deo (Maxine Doyle & Bobbi Jene Smith), Lamentation Variations (Aszure Barton/Nicolas Paul/Larry Keigwin), and Chronicle (Graham). Each piece was emotional, wholly different, and an example of ferocious physical ability.
MGDC is in its 93rd season, which makes it the oldest dance company in the United States; they first appeared in Ann Arbor in 1932. Watching on Friday night, I was struck by how fresh Graham's choreography feels, even almost a century later. Graham is credited with the creation of a new American art form in modern dance. Her movements use sharp angles and the pull of gravity, both of which set her apart from ballet. Her work is also unbelievably difficult. There are moments in her choreography where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: for example, one dancer did a series of split leaps into the air from a standing position across the length of the entire stage. Even the onstage pauses in movement, which are usually put into a piece to give the audience a moment of stillness and the dancers a moment to breathe, are angular and uncomfortable.
There is no rest for a Martha Graham dancer.
French dance company Ballet Preljocaj performed its new full-length contemporary ballet, La Fresque, at the Power Center on March 26 and 27. Ballet Preljocaj, presented by UMS, was in Ann Arbor for the fourth time and as usual, the company did not disappoint. (I was at the March 27 performance.)
La Fresque is based on the Chinese myth of a man who is drawn into a painting of young women. The man falls in love with and marries one of the women but is thrown out of the alternative universe by the woman’s guardians. The ballet ends with him looking at the painting again. Nothing has changed except the hair of one of the subjects, which is now up in a bun, with a flower in place to symbolize their marriage.
New Yorker journalists Ronan Farrow and Ken Auletta came to the University of Michigan on March 19 to discuss their work in breaking the Harvey Weinstein story. In particular, they spoke about what changed between 2002, when Auletta first attempted to write the story, and 2017, when Farrow succeeded. Farrow and Auletta were here on behalf of journalism powerhouse The Wallace House, and the crowd was full of noteworthy journalists. I waited in a long, snaking line to enter Rackham Auditorium and felt slightly inadequate.
For his writing on Weinstein and other powerful harassers, Farrow, along with The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The Pulitzer joins a long list of Farrow’s other accomplishments: he graduated (yes, graduated) from Bard College at 15, earned a Yale law degree, worked for the State Department, and wrote the New York Times bestseller War on Peace: the end of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence. At some point in there, he also had a cable news show, became a Rhodes scholar, and is currently finishing a PhD from the University of Oxford. Ken Auletta is no slouch either, with 11 books and more than 25 years writing for the New Yorker under his belt. All of this is enough to make anyone feel that their life has been nothing but a pointless meandering of time.
The end of pregnancy is a strange time. You wait for the biggest change that can happen to a person other than death and yet, for most, you don’t know when the change will happen.
When will the baby be born? When will a woman become a mother?
When I was pregnant with my son, I read the title essay of A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya probably 15 times. It became almost a talisman to me, a promise that he would eventually be born, that I would be able to cross over to motherhood.
When my water broke just like Anna described in her essay, unexpectedly and fast, I still had no idea what was coming. I was still perched between womanhood and motherhood.
In A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother, Prushinskaya writes beautifully about her experience balancing between places, between states: between pregnancy and motherhood, and between her Soviet homeland and her current home of Ann Arbor.
I spoke with Prushinskaya about her experience writing the book, how motherhood has changed her as a writer, and the birth of her second son. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Your essay “Uncertainty: Or a Woman Is a Woman, and Then Sometimes She Is a Mother” meant so much to me as I was preparing for the birth of my son. The description of your house shifting after your son’s unexpected home birth sticks with me -- it encompasses so much that is heartbreaking and wonderful about birth. You also had your second child at home, right? How did that change the feel of your house?
A: I’m so happy to hear that reading that essay was helpful -- one of the wonderful things about publishing these essays has been getting the chance to hear more birth stories and other experiences related to pregnancy, birth, motherhood (or not). I did end up having my second son at home, too. I don’t think I will ever feel the same about school buses! I live by a school, and right around the time my second son was born, I could see the school buses lining up through the windows. Now around that time if I’m home, I’m taken back to the birth, even if for a moment.
Q: One of the most profound changes that I went through after giving birth was a sudden, almost painful, tenderness, as though I had lost all of my armor. I’m so impressed with your ability to stay articulate in your writing through the postpartum emotional landscape. Was that difficult?
A: Actually, the experience of writing this felt similar to my experience of growing a baby and giving birth, in that I also sort of felt like a portal for the writing. Writing this book, the writing just sort of flowed, and I haven’t experienced that kind of creative energy since. So, it was surprisingly easy to get the pages written in that way, although I agree with you, for me the postpartum emotional openness was also wild. The more difficult aspect of working on this book was being more open with the world about my experiences, and I doubt I would have been able to write this book and allow for that kind of openness without the context I was writing in. (Though I don’t think pregnancy and birth exclusively allow for this kind of experience -- I imagine other trying and transformative life experiences can carry the same kind of energy.)
Q: Your book includes photographs between each essay. What made you decide to include these?
A: MG Press, my publisher, also puts out a journal called Midwestern Gothic, in which the work of Midwestern photographers is featured alongside writing. My publisher suggested that I have a look through the MG photos for possible interstitials for the book. I had been thinking about how to create pauses between the essays, and I wanted the pauses to invoke a similar feeling of an imprint in time. So I found the images sort of serendipitously within the MG photo collection.
Q: What has been the most surprising way that motherhood has changed you as a writer?
A: I’m not sure if it’s a direct correlation, but becoming a mom made me want to have more direct impact through my writing. For example, I wanted to learn more about the 1,4-dioxane pollution here in our area and ended up writing some stories on the issue about one year after my first son was born.
Q: The last essay in the book takes the form of a short play. What made you chose to write it this way, and why did you pick this piece to end the book?
A: I mention the 36 questions to love study in the book, the study I came across in The New York Times, which “explores whether intimacy between two strangers can be accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions.” I was thinking about my relationship with the baby, who felt sort of like a stranger though I was already in love with him, and I was also with the baby for long stretches of time, which I remember as feeling very strange at first. So, that’s the inspiration for that piece. I liked that piece as the end because for me motherhood creates more questions than answers.
Q: You mention a wide variety of writers throughout this book. Is there a book or author that you return to over and over again?
A: Yes, definitely! I have a few that I have returned to a couple of times, including many of the authors I mention throughout the book. Right now the book I am re-reading is Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
Anna Prushinskaya will do a quick Michigan book tour for "A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother" in spring 2018, kicking off at Literati around early April.
When Orange Is the New Black's Laverne Cox walked out onto the Rackham stage, my immediate thought is that she is even more beautiful in person than on screen or in photos, and I don’t exactly understand how this is possible. She looks as though the sun is shining directly on her. I think maybe this is what actually mastering the art of highlighting looks like, but I’m also sure I could put on all the makeup in the world and I would still never look like that.
I’d like to say that as soon as she started speaking, all such frivolous thoughts left my head, but frankly, that would be a lie. I did settle in with the rest of the sold-out crowd that has come to see her as the keynote speaker on Nov. 15 for the 2017 CEW Spectrum of Advocacy & Activism Symposium put on by the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan, and for the next hour and a half, listened to a great (if slightly scattered) talk that encompassed gender and race theory, her life story, and how the Ann Arbor community should respond should white supremacist Richard Spencer come to campus.
Cox opened her speech with an emotional acknowledgment of the standing ovation she was met with when she walked out on stage: "To see a whole room of people standing, applauding for a black transgender woman? I don't know, it still feels revolutionary." And it did to me, too, to see a whole room of people react to her speech as though they were in church, clapping and snapping along to her powerful words. The crowd was extremely diverse and I was moved to see so many folks of all ages, races, and genders listen so intently to Cox without questioning her right to speak.
Cox titled her talk “Ain’t I a Woman,” after Sojourner Truth’s famous 1851 speech at the Women’s Rights Convention. White Americans have manipulated, exploited, and questioned the womanhood of black women since the day our country was founded, and now cis Americans do the same to trans women. Cox described how she, like Sojourner Truth before her, has been told that she isn’t really a woman, then executes a perfect hair flip and asked, “And ain’t I a woman?” The crowd went wild. The applause kept coming as Cox seamlessly transitioned from bell hooks to Cornel West to Judith Butler. I was trying to keep a list of every academic she mentioned and I wrote so fast that my hand cramped. I also had to ask my seatmate to borrow extra paper.
In recounting her life’s story, Cox told one particularly disturbing tale of her third-grade year, in which her teacher warned her mother that if she didn’t act soon, Cox would “end up in New Orleans wearing a dress.” Following this, Cox was forced to see a therapist who suggested injecting her prepubescent body with testosterone to make her more masculine. Luckily for Cox, her mother rejected this proposal, but that didn’t stop her childhood from being riddled with bullying, a church that branded her a sinner, and a suicide attempt at only 11 years old. Cox said she was lucky to get an excellent education and escape the violence of her youth. This is not, however, the experience of most trans women of color, a point that Cox was quick to make. She reminded the audience that 2017 has been the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, and trans women of color are hit the hardest by this violence.
Despite this upsetting truth, Cox seemed genuinely hopeful about the future. She argued for bringing people into conversations rather than calling them out. Cox truly seems to believe in finding the humanity in everyone, although when asked about Richard Spencer’s possible visit to the University of Michigan campus, she was clear that certain beliefs and behaviors couldn't be tolerated. She stated that her current focus is on voting rights and working against gerrymandering. She implored the audience to “vote, vote, vote,” and she left us with the advice, “Stay woke and stay strong!” At that, the crowd rose as one to clap. Cox did one more hair flip, then turned and walked off stage, leaving behind some of the sunshine that she brought in.
A (partial) list of the scholars, artists, and activists Cox referenced in her speech:
Simone de Beauvoir
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
On April 14, my favorite podcast, Buzzfeed’s Another Round, put on a live show at the Michigan Union. If you don’t have a favorite podcast, what makes you think you’re some kind of special non-nerd? Another Round is now your favorite podcast--get listening! If you have a different favorite podcast, that’s fine. I also used to have a different favorite podcast. But it also means that you just haven’t listened to Another Round yet. So get listening!
Hosted by the unbelievably sharp duo Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, Another Round is a show featuring interviews with such amazing people as Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hillary Clinton, and Queen Latifah, among many others. However, the show is much more than just interviews. It's also chock full of brilliant critiques on race, gender, and politics, hilarious opinions on animals, amazing stories, live bourbon drinking, and advice about calling your mom. Thanks to U-M's School of Social Work People of Color Collective, the show was free and open to the entire public. Heben and Tracy performed to a packed audience that rightfully lost its mind when they showed up.
The show started with the segment “Tracy’s Animal Corner,” in which we learned how truly terrifying owls are. I'll admit to having a positive association with owls before this event, but I think I may have switched sides and now agree with Tracy that they probably are demon animals brought up from Hades. The second segment of the live show, “Is This Real Life?” generally addresses what truly abhorrent thing white folks have recently done. Luckily for the audience’s mood, this particular story leaned more towards hilarious than rage-inducing. And I learned from it that apparently most white folks don’t know about shea or cocoa butters, so get on that.
The guest interview was Flint musician Tunde Olaniran, who was smart and funny as he talked about music, belonging, choreography, and the Flint water crisis. He finished with an amazing performance that had everyone out of their seats and dancing. Despite all of the mega-celebrities that Heben and Tracy have interviewed, they treat all of their guests with the same respect and excitement, which was wonderful to witness in person.
I left the show feeling uplifted and inspired. As a white woman, this podcast and live show is not made for me, and that’s a good thing. It’s made for black people, and I feel lucky just to be able to listen in. Tracy and Heben had wonderful and moving advice about being confident for the young black women in the audience, and I saw a few people tear up amidst all of the laughter. As corny as it might sound, I felt honored to share the same space as Heben and Tracy even for just a few hours, and I could tell I wasn’t alone. Now go start listening to Another Round!
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL.
The University Musical Society presented an amazing live performance of The Triplets of Belleville to a sold out crowd at the Michigan Theater on Friday night. The theater screened the movie while a live band played the soundtrack onstage. UMS announced this program on social media in February 2015, so I had a full year to look forward to it. Even with that anticipation, all my expectations were exceeded.
I was accompanied by my wife, my best friend, and my 88-year-old Grandma, who particularly loves The Triplets of Belleville. When the movie first came out, I walked into her house only to have my hearing almost destroyed by the soundtrack blaring from the speakers. She came downstairs with a triumphant grin and asked “Guess what CD I bought at Borders?!” It was not a hard guessing game.
For the uninitiated, Triplets is a 2003 animated film written and directed by Sylvain Chomet about the Tour de France, an aging jazz trio, the wine mafia, and the feud between an overweight dog and a train. In addition to its wonderfully strange story and delightful animation style, the film set itself apart by almost entirely eschewing dialog in its storytelling. The soundtrack, heavily influenced by jazz of the 1920s (but also prominently featuring Bach's Prelude No. 2 in C Minor), featured the Academy Award nominated song "Belleville Rendez-vous".
The first surprise of the live performance (to me; not to folks to read the event description more clearly) was that the conductor was Benoît Charest, who actually composed the soundtrack. It was amazing to see the person who had written the music that I love so much, and watching him conduct was a joy. In addition to conducting, he sang, played the guitar (and vacuum!), and danced along to the music. Charest also provided the French commentary for the Tour de France scenes.
The eight piece band, Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville, was excellent and played in sync to the movie, occasionally looking up to the screen to make sure their timing was precise. At a few points during the show, the musicians got up and moved around to the center of the stage in order to play some of the more unusual instruments highlighted in the movie, including a newspaper, a cooking pot, and a vacuum cleaner. My favorite part was when the conductor, along with a few of the other band members, danced on a wooden board while clapping and snapping to create a rhythm section. After they pulled this off, they high-fived each other while the audience cheered.
The live performance of The Triplets of Belleville was an incredibly joyous event. The entire band seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience. Perhaps the only thing that could have made the evening better would have been a hound dog trained to act (bark?) out the role of Bruno, the movie’s lovable pooch. Of course, it’s highly likely that I’m the only person in the audience who would have liked this. Everyone I attended the performance with loved it, and the crowd was practically giddy as the theater emptied out. The music amplified the story and made each emotion shown on screen both stronger and sharper. My grandma called the night “a real treat.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and is interested in finding a local instructor for vacuum playing lessons.
The University of Michigan Department of Dance trains young people to be excellent modern dancers and then frequently asks them to perform bafflingly academic pieces. Their most recent performance, Momentum, running at the Power Center from now until February 7th, showcased this duality. The first three pieces were all choreographed by Department of Dance faculty, and the finale by guest choreographer Camille A. Brown.
Momentum opened with a piece by local dance legend Peter Sparling. I generally like Sparling’s work, but recently he has become enamored of video projections which tend to overwhelm his choreography. His work for Momentum, “Big Weather,” featured not one but two video screens between which the dancers moved. The videos contained a strange mix of images, including stars, corpses, sandbags, and at one point, a stuffed elephant falling slowly from a table. The dancers wore heavy rubber boots that they took off and on throughout the piece, which was set to pounding and not particularly rhythmic percussion music. If I’m not describing much of the dancing, it’s because I was too distracted by the trappings of the piece to focus on the actual movement. At his best, Sparling, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, can choreograph wonderfully thoughtful modern dance pieces. However, “Big Weather” seemed more the work of an artist who has been insulated within academia for a little too long.
I was worried about the issues that would plague the second piece, “Cheating, Lying, Stealing,” choreographed by Bill DeYoung, because the program notes described it as about “the relentless dog-eat-dog momentum of office dynamics.” But after a strange start featuring a fake tennis match (which I quickly forgot), “Cheating, Lying, Stealing” became a fun and fast piece that worked beautifully with the music choice. The lead dancer, dressed in silver lamé, danced with such a stunning and precise ferocity that I could easily understand why all of the others dancers were following her lead by the end.
Amy Chavasse’s piece “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” showcased some of the younger and less experienced dancers and brought a great sense of play to Momentum. I had a hard time focusing on the beginning because I was preoccupied by a dummy that was covered in duct tape and tied up to a movable piece of shattered plexiglass at the back of the stage. I half-expected the dummy to turn out to be a real dancer who might pop out at any moment, so I braced myself for the surprise. I did not have this same fear with the life-size stuffed alpaca watching static on TV in the front of the stage, although I found it equally confusing. “Goodbye to Wayward Flesh” featured some nice partnering and the dancers, dressed as what I can only describe as futuristic merpeople, seemed to be truly enjoying themselves.
The last piece of the night was choreographed by Camille A. Brown, who will be bringing her new work Black Girl–Linguistic Play to the Power Center on February 13th. Brown’s piece, “City of Rain,” was far and away the best of the night. It would be worth going to see Momentum for this work alone, which allowed the Department of Dance to show off their most amazing dancers. Of particular note is Beynji Marsh, a junior from Chicago who could easily be mistaken for a professional dancer. Marsh’s precise control over his body is matched by the emotion and nuance he brought to the choreography. He is a true and notable talent and I look forward to seeing his dance career flourish. All of the dancers in “City of Rain” were excellent, and it was a moving and lovely end to the evening.
Stuffed alpacas and rubber boots aside, Momentum is worth your time. The dancers are talented, though their abilities were sometimes lost amid the choices of some of the more academic choreographers. Notably missing from Momentum was a piece from faculty member Robin Wilson, who is one of the most accessible and excellent choreographers in the Department of Dance. Wilson acted as Rehearsal Director for “City of Rain,” but it would have been great to have gotten an original work from her as well. I could have done with fewer video screens and unused but overbearing set pieces. My date for the evening, my father, suggested that the faculty be required to choreograph to only Katy Perry music for a year, just for the challenge. Although I’m more of a Taylor Swift fan myself, I can’t help but agree with the sentiment. In the meantime, get a ticket to Momentum and enjoy it for–and despite–all its weirdness.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at AADL and former dancer.
Momentum continues its run at the Power Center through this weekend, with performances Friday and Saturday, February 5 and 6 at 8 pm, and Sunday, February 7 at 2 pm. Tickets range from $22-$28, and students with ID can attend for $12.
Southern band The Avett Brothers will play Hill Auditorium on November 6th. I stumbled into The Avett Brothers purely by accident: I bought their album Emotionalism solely based on the cover art, which was printed with silver ink (what can I say? I have simple, glittery tastes). Luckily for me, I actually liked the music in addition to the sparkle. The Avett Brothers play folk rock with a bluegrass twist, which translates to plenty of banjos AND indie rock lyrics.
Between the band’s experience (they’ve been playing together since 2000) and the fantastic Hill Auditorium acoustics, this show is sure to be wonderful.
Evelyn Hollenshead is a Youth Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.
The Avett Brothers play Hill Auditorium this Friday, November 6, at 7 pm. Purchase tickets online or in person at the Michigan Union Ticket Office.