A CFA Intern Returns

Amy Crawford ’05 was a government major who sang…actually, she didn’t realize she could sing until senior year. She was a keyboardist in the Jazz Orchestra, and music faculty member Jay Hoggard invited her to take the mic. She returns to Wesleyan this Saturday to perform an evening of her original music at Crowell Concert Hall.

We at the CFA are particularly excited about the concert because Amy was the first Center for the Arts “Arts Administration Intern.” Not only that, she stayed on after graduation to serve as the project coordinator for the town-wide event, Middletown Dances! In her first two years after graduating, she put together a life for herself that included arts administration jobs during the day and gigs as a jazz singer by night. Then she took the job of Education Coordinator for the Grammy award-winning, Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy. The chorus received an invitation to perform with Elton John, and that’s when everything changed: “I found myself preparing the children to sing this music that I had listened to when I was in high school…it was melodic and powerful. We ended up at a rehearsal on a Sony soundstage and I felt the energy of Elton and his band combined with the voices of these children, and I realized this was an energy I wanted to be a part of.” So after the sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden, she set about writing her own songs. Her influences are the Beatles, Dido, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Stevie Wonder and Jon Brion. And today, after spending some time at the Berklee School of Music, she has officially made the transition from jazz singer to a more contemporary popular sound. I can tell you she has a beautiful, clear voice. Her sound is upbeat and polished with a vintage sheen.

In addition to working with her own band, most recently she has been touring the country with the band, DeLeon, playing keyboards, singing and co-writing songs with them. The band has opened for Ozomatli, Mike Gordon and Os Mutantes.

She talked about what was most important about her time at Wesleyan: “I discovered how much I cared about the arts… The enormous flexibility of the school… I was extremely indecisive during my time there, but I had the ability to explore what I wanted to explore. The idea that I was a government major but I was still able to do a senior recital was amazing. I can’t wait to be back on campus!”

And I can’t wait to see her.

Amy Crawford
Saturday November 7 at 8pm in 
Crowell Concert Hall

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts

Connections Across Borders

Rachel Boggia majored in neuroscience at Cornell and went onto receive her MFA in Dance from Ohio State. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the dance department. Perfect profile for Wesleyan, right? This weekend, we have the opportunity to see her work as a choreographer and as a dancer, alongside her colleague, Artist-in-Residence Iddi Saaka, in an evening of solos and duets entitled, Connection. Some of you may remember that last year Rachel’s faculty dance performance had to be canceled because of a last-minute injury (by last-minute, I mean it happened when she was warming up an hour before her first performance!) So some of us have great anticipation at seeing the work of someone who has been such an energizing presence in the arts here since she arrived in the Fall of 2008.

Saaka, a Ghanaian who heads the department’s West African dance program, will perform a solo he choreographed. Entitled Belonging, the piece addresses the restricted flow of movement across borders. When I spoke with him earlier today, he talked about how many Africans want to leave their homeland to see the world, but so few visas are granted. The work asks the question— how does that kind of hindrance play out in your psyche? He will also perform Looking for Evidence, a duet choreographed and danced with Liam Clancy, Saaka’s former classmate from UCLA’s World Arts and Culture graduate school. The work explores human commonalities despite issues of race. Saaka comments, “On the surface we are the same: we are both male dancers, we look the same, we went to the same school, we are friends, but how are we different? And how are these differences danced?”

Boggia will also be collaborating with former classmates from graduate school at Ohio State. (She said they’ve known each other for over eight years and have kept in very close touch.) Choreographer Vanessa Justice has created a work entitled Visitor, a meditation on personal identity. In an interview, she said that the metaphor of taking off clothing is used. “The character is shedding the layers that society has imposed on her…Since I am performing in my own culture, the work is less about cultural identity and more about personal identity.” The next solo is by choreographer Marlon Barrios Solano who, like Justice, is now based in New York. It is an improvised work inspired by the films of Maya Deren (an American avant-garde filmmaker and theorist of the 40s and 50s).

The final work on the program is Jovain Sweet, choreographed by Boggia and danced by Boggia and Saaka, inspired by the break-up of a relationship. The dancers will wear elaborate headdresses that will conceal their identities allowing the dancers to assume a number of symbolic meanings.

It promises to be a widely varied and engaging concert.

Fall Faculty Dance Concert
Friday & Saturday, October 30 & 31 at 8pm

Patricelli ’92 Theater
Wesleyan University

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts

Great Musicians; Good People

Rani Arbo and Scott Kessel ’88 and their beautiful son, Quinn, are regulars at the CFA. I remember when they sat in my office years ago talking about whether or not to live in Middletown or Northampton. I was so thrilled when they picked right! They are world-class musicians whose artistry is equaled by the generosity of their spirit. They were founding faculty members at the Green Street Arts Center, performing at Macdonough School when the Center was still only a dream. They did a fantastic outdoor concert for us in the summer of 2003; Scott, a Wesleyan studio art major, is not only a musician, but a fine artist. His work graces Kidcity among other Middletown locations and he designed the community mandala that was built in Olin Library when the Tibetan monks were here….the list goes on. In between all of their work in Middletown they manage to give 60-70 concerts per year with their band, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem at venues across the country. Hailed by The Boston Herald as “one of America’s most inventive string bands,” The Vintage Guitar Review has said their work “explodes with energy and relaxed good humor…” We are so fortunate to have them in our midst and are delighted to present them (minus Quinn…but I get the feeling he could be onstage soon) with band-mates Anand Nayak ’97 and Andrew Kinsey this weekend. They will be performing selections from their first-ever family CD, Ranky Tanky, at Crowell Concert Hall at 2pm on Saturday, October 24.

Rani told me that this was a natural progression for the band. They are all parents now, and were interested in taking their original sound and turning it to younger audiences. Also, it will allow them to do more in the communities where they tour by providing a family concert option. “Ranky Tanky is very upbeat and fun,” she said. “It has a solid set of roots in older music: the sounds of the 30s to the 70s. It’s the kind of music that parents and grandparents will relate to. Kids seem to really love it. I had a pack of neighborhood kids in my car last week and they were all singing along.”

So call some friends, bring your kids and grandkids and come be charmed by this wonderful band…I can guarantee their warmth and energy will uplift you.

P.S. please take a look at their website…the writing is fantastic, the images are engaging (how can you resist the one of them jumping in the air by the side of the Connecticut River?). It’s a fine example of how artists should put themselves out there on the world wide web: http://www.raniarbo.com

CFA Student Profiles: Asa Horvitz ’10

What follows is the first in a series of profiles of Wesleyan students by Alexandra Provo, ’10, the CFA’s Arts Administration Intern. These students all have one thing in common: they became deeply engaged with one or more artists presented by the CFA. Sparked by the artist’s workshop, performance or exhibition on campus, they began a lasting relationship that affected the trajectory of their academic exploration. We hope you will send us your comments about these and future interviews.

Last week I sat down with Asa Horvitz ’10, a music major with a passion for performance. Though he was involved in physical theater prior to coming to Wesleyan, he marks his encounter with international artist Ang Gey Pin as a turning point in his artistic life and a true catalyst of his expression.

Gey Pin, originally from Singapore and of Hokkien Chinese descent, attended the University of Hawaii and studied in California in the 80s in the Objective Drama program at UC Irvine. There, she worked with Jerzy Grotowski, an influential Polish theatre director. She went on to work with him in Italy from 1994-95 and 1998-2006 and was the lead performer in One breath left (1998-2002) and Dies Irae: My Preposterous Theatrum Interioris Show (2003-2006).

Theater Faculty member Claudia Tatinge Nascimento suggested Gey Pin to the CFA’s Outside the Box Committee. Nascimento had included Gey Pin’s research methods in a recent book. Gey Pin was invited to teach a quarter-long course and present public performances in the fall of 2006.

Grotowski is actually what drew Asa to Gey Pin’s course. He saw a poster advertising the class and recognized Grotowski’s name, which his high school theater teacher had mentioned as a strong influence. For Asa, the class “already held this aura for me…I had this sense about the work of this group of people.”

Though he was initially put on the waiting list, he was eventually admitted to the course. There, he and roughly 16 other students unlocked blocks in their bodies through intense physical training. According to Asa, it was “very linked to play, very much like a game but with specific images associated.” There was also a singing element to the class and students each developed a short individual project, which Asa compares to an etude.

Though the course lasted only one quarter, Asa developed a strong relationship with Gey Pin. He attributes this partly to the eagerness of first year students and their willingness to throw themselves into projects wholeheartedly. He also accounts for his intense involvement in terms of loss: in high school he had worked with a theater company for five to six hours per day for credit, and without that full time commitment “I was honestly freaking out,” he says. “I approached [the course] with desperation.”

He reported a curious response to seeing Gey Pin’s public performance later in the semester. “It made no sense to me, I didn’t really like it…afterwards I couldn’t stop shaking and I had sort of an embarrassing public meltdown underneath World Music Hall. I’m tempted to say that something in her mode of presence, her extreme embodiment, spoke to my body directly…I had a vivid sensation of being reminded of something that I already knew but had forgotten. It was a reminder of the needs of my body and that the freedom I had experienced as a kid could be something to work and rediscover as an adult living in a de-physicalized society. It was a serious wake up call.”

After returning home for winter break and digesting what had happened, he wrote her a letter asking to work with her again. She replied that she was going to be in Poland that summer, and why didn’t he come? “So I went to Poland, not knowing what I was getting into.”

Well, what he got into was two weeks of intense study with Gey Pin (sometimes working from 7 am to 1 am!) and exposure to other performance groups. According to Asa, what’s been valuable for him is that “she is empathetic but also has really high standards.” He notes that it was transformative for him to have “someone who is a professional treating me seriously, holding me to professional standards. To have that kind of pressure put on you, the growth is just exponential.”

Back at Wesleyan, Asa’s growth as an artist is certainly evident. After his summer in Poland, he returned to Wesleyan in the fall of 2007 and formed a theater company, called No Face Theater, with Mark McCloughan ’10 and Gedney Barclay ’09. They are still working–their most recent performance was last spring.

Rather than seeing his experience with Gey Pin as an opportunity to engage in theater outside of his academic life, Asa noted that he views the two as “a network of things that inform each other.” His understanding of his own artistic production and that of others “has been tempered by my critical education…I couldn’t do without either.”

The relationship continues to thrive. Asa spent this past summer with Gey Pin and her partner in Tuscany and Umbria, and next year will be apprenticing with Theatre Zar (a Polish performance group he met through Gey Pin). “When artists take you seriously you realize if you want to make it happen you can,” says Asa.

— Alexandra Provo, ’10

Some Responses To Emergency Response Studio

From time to time, I’ll be inviting various faculty/staff/students to write for my blog. Nina Felshin is the curator of exhibitions at the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery. When she told me about meetings she’s been having with various students about her current show, Emergency Response Studio, I asked her to write about it. She and I invite your comments:

The first time I learned that a group of students had raised questions about the show was when Argus writer Sarah Lamming ’13 came to interview me in the trailer on September 22. One week later her thoughtful review appeared in the paper.

I was actually delighted that she didn’t beat around the bush. Right off the bat she told me that certain words like “privilege” and “classist” had been used to characterize the artist and the project. “Privilege” in reference to artist Paul Villinski, perceived as a rich white guy who could afford to create the trailer, and “classist,” referring to a perceived insensitivity toward the community that suffered the most in New Orleans, many of whom are still living in formaldehyde-ridden FEMA trailers.

Alexandra Provo ’10, this year’s CFA intern, also shared with me that she, too, had some initial concerns before learning more about the project and the artist’s intentions. Alex, an Art History major with a special interest in environmental issues, proposed that we organize a student forum near the trailer, a little “dejeuner sur l’herbe” sans lunch and nudity. At Alex’s suggestion dessert would be on the CFA.

Later that same day a sign went up near the ERS declaring it to be “Classist,” “Condescending” and “Useless Art”. It was definitely time to plan the forum—hopefully one in which students would feel comfortable expressing their views in the presence of the curator, yours truly. It took place the same day the Argus article appeared. Thirteen students showed up in addition to me and Alex.

Our conversation reminded me that it’s critical to see things in context and not assume anything without first digging deep. Paul Villinski, for example, like most other artists in the world, is not rich. At 50 he is just now beginning to survive off the sale of his work. He had to raise every penny that went into the trailer whether it was through grants or through in-kind contributions. Interestingly Paul’s trailer cost approximately $86,000 to complete. Each no-frills, off gassing FEMA trailer in New Orleans cost $85,000. As for rich, white male artists: relatively speaking, only a handful of artists get rich from their art. And yes, while most of them are white males, to assume that Paul is one of them is just that, an assumption.

I was probably most deeply moved and disturbed by the characterization of “classist.” In my view, Paul’s work is as an attempt to demonstrate that in post-disaster settings those who are left homeless deserve humane and respectful treatment and that if an artist could design and produce a truly livable and sustainable space for the same price as a FEMA trailer, why isn’t the government planning in advance for future natural and unnatural disasters? Could it be that planning for poor people, especially poor people of color, is not a priority in this country? If the trailer is classist how come FEMA trailer inhabitants wondered aloud to Paul why the government didn’t hire him as consultant?

At the forum, students shared their perspectives with me and I hope that more students will take advantage of the opportunity to discuss their points of view. Art at its best should provoke and inspire. I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

Nina Felshin
Curator of Exhibtions, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery

Be Transported: The 2009 Navaratri Festival

I graduated from Wesleyan in 1984 and, while a student here, attended a Navaratri performance of South Indian vocal music by T. Viswanathan. I was completely seduced by the rhythms, the soaring heights and the visceral lows of his voice. I felt that in one evening I was transported out of my student existence into a culture that was new to me–one where both the pleasures of deep listening as a means to spiritual transcendence and the virtuosic capacity of the human voice were celebrated. Viswa founded the Indian music program at Wesleyan, and I had the great pleasure of working with him in my early years as CFA director (Viswa died in 2002). He taught me so much about his music, his negotiating skills, and his belief that this festival should annually give people on our campus and in our community an opportunity to see some of the finest Indian musicians and dancers working today.

Music faculty members B. Balasubrahmaniyan (Balu) and David Nelson (on mridangam) will open the Festival on Thursday night. I spoke with Balu in between classes today and he told me that in 1990 he was one of only eight students selected to learn Viswa’s family tradition in a six-month workshop in Chennai. Seizing on Balu’s talents, Viswa regularly invited Balu to perform with him on tours in India. Balu now leads our South Indian vocal program at Wesleyan. He has a truly “extra” ordinary voice — sometimes when I close my eyes, I think I’m hearing Viswa.

Friday night brings North Indian music on the sarod, a beautiful guitar-like instrument, performed by rising star Alam Khan. Alam is the twenty-seven year old son of the legendary Ali Akbar Khan, who was widely recognized as one of the leading musicians to introduce Indian music to the West. On Saturday, you can attend free workshops in South Indian dance and in ghatam, a clay pot instrument with a rich, distinctive sound. Also, Avon, Connecticut resident and filmmaker Gita Desai will show excerpts of her new film Raga Unveiled, giving audiences a fascinating window into the world of North Indian Hindustani music. And on Saturday night, the CFA welcomes Karnatak music giant Kadri Golpanath, one of the few players of this tradition on the saxophone. “It’s extraordinary how he is able to play the nuances of this music on a keyed instrument,” Balu said. “He has led a whole generation of musicians who are attempting to play this traditional music on new instruments. We are lucky to have him.”

Finally, on Sunday, A.V. Srinivasan, a great friend of the CFA’s, will lead a Hindu Puja, a religious service celebrating the victory of good over evil, followed by a performance of a work entitled “TriShakti” by Chicago’s acclaimed Natya Dance Theatre, a young vibrant group of classical dancers that are some of the best practitioners of Bharata Natyam working in our country today. I had the pleasure of seeing them in New York and I was taken by their energy, their beguiling facial expressions and the joy in their dance.

So please join us for this year’s Navaratri Festival. You will be transported.

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts

The Awesome Transience of Weather: Stephen Petronio Company

Stephen Petronio is known for his collaborative interactions with pop culture, high art, contemporary music and fashion. So, it’s no wonder he was able to attract trailblazing photographer Cindy Sherman and genre-crossing composer Nico Muhly, among other artists, into the creative process of building his latest work, I Drink the Air Before Me, which comes to Wesleyan’s CFA Theater this weekend. When I spoke with Stephen yesterday, he was heading out of rehearsal and he reminisced about the last time he was at Wesleyan. It was the Spring of 1998 and he brought NOT GARDEN with music by Bach, Gounod and Sheila Chandra.

His newest work is a “meditation on the speed and power of weather in all its awesome transience.” Wesleyan is in the middle of this year’s Feet to the Fire initiative–an exploration of water in both its power and scarcity. When I heard that Stephen was creating a work that would evoke the movement of water, wind and weather events on stage, it seemed to me that we could offer our audiences a visceral experience of this precious element.

The title of the piece comes from Ariel’s line in Act V of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In his program notes, Petronio explains that he was struck by “Ariel’s desire to hurl himself through a raging storm, with unthinkable speed and utter certainty, in pursuit of his goal” and that the work was inspired by “the whirling, unpredictable, threatening, and thrilling forces of nature that overwhelm us.”

When I asked Stephen what audiences should look for as they watch the work, he said: “Don’t work hard to find literal meanings in the work: look at how the movement is built…I’m an abstract artist that makes ideas in the body, not in the mind.”

Stephen is a hugely charismatic leader in the American contemporary dance scene. He began to dance at Hampshire College in 1974 and went on to become the first male dancer of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (1979-1986). Founding his own company in 1984, the Stephen Petronio Company is celebrating its 25th Season and has performed in 26 countries around the world. He is noted for works of breathtaking speed, heart-wrenching stillness and great sensuality. He is interested in making compelling contemporary dance that resonates with the moment and culture in which it is made. While he often features pop or rock music in his works, for I Drink the Air Before Me, he turned to composer, Nico Muhly. “Nico is his late twenties; a wildly creative classical composer with an electronic music edge,” states Petronio.

Muhly also wrote sections of the score to be performed by a youth chorus recruited at each tour site. I had just heard Michael Gosselin’s Chamber Choir from Middletown High School perform as a part of Wesleyan Music Professor Neely Bruce’s Ives Vocal Marathon, and it seemed a wonderful way to showcase the high caliber of music education we have in Middletown.

I will also note that this work will open the 10th anniversary of the Breaking Ground Dance Series at Wesleyan’s CFA. To our dance-loving patrons who have returned year after year to see new works by established artists like Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown or artists you may never have seen before, such as Brian Brooks and Rubberbandance, we thank you for taking this journey with us and look forward to celebrating this season with you.

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts

Christine Balfa and a Bowl of Gumbo

I had a wonderful conversation with Christine Balfa yesterday… Christine is the youngest of four daughters of the legendary Dewey Balfa of the Balfa Brothers, largely responsible for giving rise to the popularity of Cajun music in this country. Christine and her group, Balfa Toujours, will open the Crowell Series on Friday night.

When I talked with her, she told me she’s getting used to a new schedule because her two daughters are back in school after being home-schooled for a year, and they are all adjusting. She found she couldn’t keep up with everything since Dirk Powell, her husband and accordianist for Balfa Toujours, has been on the road so much with Joan Baez, and she’s been working not only with Balfa Toujours but also with the all-women Cajun band, Bonsoir Catin (catin means “my dear” in Cajun French, she tells me). She’s excited about coming to Wesleyan this Friday…she’s heard all about it from Kevin Wimmer ’85, bass player for the group. Unfortunately, Kevin had a prior engagement that conflicts with our date, so he’ll be replaced by Yvette Landry, the bass player from Bonsoir Catin. Courtney Granger, great-nephew of the Balfa Brothers, will round out the group.

“I always knew music would be a part of my life,” she said. She’d appeared playing the triangle alongside her Dad as a child, and then, in the summer of 1991, never having written a song before, she wrote nine. “It was my way of dealing with his loss; I could still feel his presence if I was making music.” She found out her older sister, Nalda, twenty years her senior, had also written songs for the first time that summer, and the two of them made a cassette recording and took it to a local music producer who wanted to record them. Eighteen years later, Balfa Toujours is touring the world.

“When you play traditional music, you face a lot of differing opinions,” Christine said. “There are the folklorists who feel you should play the songs exactly as they were first played and others who set out to intentionally change the music and make it contemporary. In both of those cases, people are looking at it through their heads…they think about it too much. But if artists think about things too much, they aren’t open to being creative. There’s a place for all of these opinions, but in Balfa Toujours, we play what we feel. We play what’s in our hearts.”

As an added bonus, this Saturday, September 19 at 4pm, the CFA will screen the documentary film, Dewey Balfa: Tribute Concert, directed by Middletown’s own Ed McKeon. I spoke with Ed last spring at a meal hosted by Barry Chernoff at his home. Barry is the Director of Wesleyan’s Environmental Studies Program and the dinner was in honor of the company of Stan’s Cafe (remember the Rice Show?) Barry and Ed decided to give our British visitors a Cajun meal. Barry cooked the gumbo and Ed, the jambalaya. I mentioned to Ed that we’d be bringing Balfa Toujours this fall, and he told me about the documentary. The film features a tribute concert performed a month before Dewey died. A local radio station broadcasted it live so that Dewey could hear it in his hospital room. Christine told me: “I didn’t know Ed that well, but soon we knew he had the sensitivity and spirit to make this production happen. We were all going through such a tough time.”

See you this weekend, and please write and let us know what you think of the concert!

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts

Welcome to the new CFA blog

Welcome to the new CFA blog and to the opening of our 2009-2010 Season. We are hosting this blog to further connect the campus and community with the work on our stages and in our galleries. For those of you who come to the CFA from outside the campus, we feel that there should be some “value-added” in subscribing to/attending events on a college campus. So we’ll invite you to enter into stimulating dialogue about the works we present by reading the thoughts of some of our faculty, students and visiting artists. You’ll see interviews with some of the artists who are coming to campus and reviews of work that has toured here and has gone on to other cities. You’ll catch up with news of artists who have made the CFA their artistic home over the past few years, read about what our faculty and students are doing on and off-campus, hear about continuing connections between our students and visiting artists, etc. Please send us your comments and suggestions as this is a new venture for us!

My office overlooks the CFA courtyard, and as I write, the Emergency Response Studio has just arrived. Yes, an artist’s studio will be parked in our courtyard until November 8. The artist is Paul Villinski, and he has brought this completely sustainable, off-the-grid trailer to Wesleyan as the core installation of curator Nina Felshin’s upcoming exhibition, Emergency Response Studio, which opens this Friday, September 11 from 5 to 7pm. Inspired by what he found in post-Katrina New Orleans, he transformed a FEMA-type trailer into an artist’s studio/living space. It has a bedroom, a bathroom with a shower, an eat-in kitchen and a workspace. Villinski believes that artists should have the opportunity to “embed” themselves in post-disaster settings and be able to make works that respond to the setting so that the artist’s voice is heard. Nina had heard about the premiere of the exhibition at Rice University, and then happened to have dinner with the interior designer of the bedroom space who told her she had to see it. What she found was an installation that is every bit as beautiful as it is functional…an exhibit that has a great deal to say to those of us interested in living sustainably without sacrificing aesthetics. The exhibition also ties into Wesleyan’s Feet to the Fire program about climate change, which continues this year with a focus on the water crisis and the availability of clean freshwater. I do hope you’ll join us for the opening on Friday and have the opportunity to meet Paul and take a peek at this magnificent trailer.

Best wishes for the new academic year,
Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts