CFA Student Profiles: Evelyn Israel ‘10

What follows is the third 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 Evelyn Israel ‘10, a dance major who spent two summers at the Summer Institute put on by Urban Bush Women, a dance company devoted to bringing “the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people through dance” from “a woman-centered perspective, as members of the African Diaspora community” who have performed twice before at Wesleyan’s CFA.

How did you first hear about Urban Bush Women?

When they came to campus our sophomore year and performed with Compagnie Jant-Bi (in spring 2008).

What happened after the performance? How did you become involved with the group?

The biggest thing that actually got me involved wasn’t the performance but was a workshop that Jawole gave the morning before I saw the performance. We really got to see her process [when she had] us think about our parents or our mothers and our grandmothers and made up some movements to go with that–I really appreciated that. The biggest thing was actually at the very end of the workshop she talked about how that summer they were having a summer institute for ten days that was about movement and about discussing democracy. I was in a sociology class at the time called “What is Democracy?” and I was obsessed with thinking about what democracy means for our everyday lives– not just in terms of voting–and I thought “movement, democracy, race–all together in one–this is exactly what I’m interested in.”

What was that summer institute like? What kinds of things did you do?

I was so excited when I found out about it and then by the time it got to the summer I [started worrying, thinking] “they’re a real company that dances for real, and this is going to be so physically challenging…” and then I got there and it was absolutely everything I could have imagined. The way that it worked was that in the morning we had three movement classes, either yoga or pilates, and then our next class was a community dance class, where each day we did a different African-based movement style (so hip-hop one day, New Orleans Second Line one day, and West African dance one day), and then the other class we had was an Urban Bush Women repertory class, based on moves they do. The morning really woke me up and was really strength-building, and that was really powerful for me. In the afternoons we discussed more, we had some presentations about what some things meant and we read some quotes and responded to them. In the afternoons we did more choreography…[for example], we would take three words that we were thinking about, from material we had read or something else, and make up a movement per word. Toward the end, in the last four days, the classes in the morning were shortened because we started creating more for the performance for the ninth day.

After this summer institute, how did you maintain contact with the company?

Actually, one of the things I did during the performance was me and four of the current or former company members had this little section that we had created together, so I had a really strong relationship with them…not as much with Jawole, but I had kind of really put myself out there the whole time…I guess part of that was really important to me to go back again the next summer.

How do you feel your contact with the group has informed your own practice as a choreographer and dancer?

The first Summer Institute is really something that has greatly informed my practice. Right now I’m working on a senior project involving thinking about racism, about the ways that whiteness plays out in particular, and how movement can be used to explore that. My belief in that as a strategy entirely came out of the first Summer Institute. One of the exercises that we did [in my senior project] in which one group talks and the other responds in movement comes directly out of the first Institute.

How do you see the work that you’ve been doing now, which has come out of this interaction, developing in the future?

Another thing that really came out of the first Institute I went to has entirely to do with this is the idea of working with my own community and fighting racism through working with white people as opposed to going into schools that have fewer resources. That’s also a really great thing to do, but I think there’s also a lot of work to be done in terms of raising awareness in white communities and communities with more money, which is the kind of community I come from. So that’s where this project comes out of, of wanting to work with white people and around issues that have to do with the white side of racism and white privilege. I am definitely interested in trying to continue that as a practice.

In a sentence or so, could you share the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from working with Urban Bush Women?

Working with my own community is one, constantly reminding myself to tap into humility…those are two really big ones. Also to honor and respect the kind of work [the company] does. I’ve been reading a little bit about the company and Jawole for my senior project and through that I’ve deepened my respect for their work and how long they’ve been doing it.

Airlifted from Sweden

What’s it like to be airlifted from your university in Sweden to join the faculty at Wesleyan for a semester?  Erik Westberg was delighted to tell us.  He is the professor of choral conducting and choral singing at the Pitea College of Music, Lulea University of Technology in Sweden and is visiting this semester conducting Wesleyan’s Concert Choir and teaching choral conducting.

He’s here on a grant from STINT, the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education, which supports a visiting professor program with the idea, as Westberg says, “to bring ideas from here back to Sweden.” Historically, the program has selected history and literature professors–Erik is the first music professor to be chosen. A list of professors is sent to American universities, who then have the opportunity to choose a professor for a residency. As Westberg puts it, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, director of the Wesleyan Orchestra, and Krishna Winston, Dean of the Arts and Humanities, saw his name and “decided why don’t we bring this Swedish guy here?”

Westberg says, this year’s choir “had auditions… In the beginning I was a little bit worried about what was going to happen if no one showed up…because [the group] is my instrument. But it turned out that some 40 students applied and we chose 22 of them for the choir.”

When asked about his impressions of Wesleyan so far, he noted with appreciation “that students come from different cultures, from different countries… different backgrounds” and commented on the broad range of their interests. “Maybe one difference between my student chamber choir in Pitea is that a lot of the students are going to be music majors, maybe teachers in voice, or piano teachers,” he said, noting that Wesleyan students who participate in the choir come from a variety of departments. Invoking the Swedish word “smörgåsbord” to describe the freedom to explore academically at Wesleyan, that ability “to find your own way,” as Westberg puts it, is something he is keen to talk about back at home.

In addition to taking away an appreciation for the liberal arts college experience, quite a different scene from his home university with 700 students in the music program and where he is in charge of four concert choirs, Westberg has been a valuable and instructive presence for the Wesleyan community.  Hansel Tan ‘10, Westberg’s teaching assistant, says “the music we’ve made together with Westberg as a choir has been unlike anything else I’ve heard on campus: in an extremely good way. His genteel nature rubs off easily, and deep inside everybody wants to be a Swede!” Looking to integrate his own expertise within the Wesleyan context, in October the choir performed an evening of Swedish choral music combined with a tribute to John Cage and his work at Wesleyan. This Wednesday, Westberg’s Pitea Chamber Choir of Sweden will join the Wesleyan Concert Choir to put on a collaborative concert, Jul, Jul! A Winter Concert of Choral Music. Westberg says about a third of the repertoire will be a joint effort of both choirs. The Wesleyan choir will perform selections by Swedish and Norwegian composers, the Swedish Choir will perform the Lucia procession, and part of the concert will include a sing-along with the audience. Westberg sees the concert as an opportunity to exchange ideas and hopes his Swedish students will get to know the students here.

We are indeed fortunate to have Westberg in residence: not only has his experience been informative for his own career, but his presence has given our students new skills and perspectives, as well as exposure to new and challenging music. We hope you’ll join us for this evening of musical and cultural exchange.

The Wesleyan Concert Choir and The Pitea Chamber Choir (Pitea, Sweden): Jul, Jul! A Winter Concert of Choral Music
Wednesday, December 9, 7pm
Memorial Chapel
Free admission

And, a special performance by The Pitea Chamber Choir:
Thursday, December 10, 7 pm
South Congregational Church
9 Pleasant Street (across from the South Green)
Free admission

Dance and the Environment in Threshold Sites: The Ultimate Meal

It’s been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to write about Feet to the Fire, our campus-wide exploration of climate change from science to art. The initiative made possible the creation of four new works by members of Wesleyan’s arts faculty. If you haven’t been to the Feet to the Fire website recently, then you probably haven’t seen the podcasts we produced about two of them: Ron Kuivila’s The Weather, at Six and Alvin Lucier’s Glacier.

The video about Hari Krishnan’s work Liquid Shakti is still in production, but this Friday night in the Schoenberg Dance Studio, we’ll have the opportunity to see the fourth and final commissioned work performed live! Threshold Sites, choreographed by Nicole Stanton in collaboration with Wesleyan students and faculty, was originally scheduled to premiere last May, but because of the tragic events at the end of the semester, the performances were postponed.

Associate Professor of Dance, and Chair of the Dance Department, Nicole Stanton created the work over the course of last spring working with students in her Repertory and Performance course. In conjunction with the Feet to the Fire theme, Stanton invited three professors to co-create a curriculum with her that used research methodologies from social science, evolutionary biology, experiential anatomy, and dance to examine some of the relations between body/self, home/community, and environment/ecosystem, through the lens of food. The resulting multi-media performance weaves dance, song, spoken word…and a meal.

Gina Ulysse in Anthropology provided students with an understanding of theories emanating from the field of cultural studies as they relate to somatic, community, and ecological awareness. Michael Singer from Biology familiarized students with how an ecologist uses practices of scientific observation in the field, taking students out into nature to see how he sees. Andrea Olson, a visiting scholar from Middlebury College in Biology and Dance, conducted an intensive workshop that focused on the development of awareness and respect for the human body and for the environment and charted the relationships between the two. Stanton then synthesized the information into movement expressions and choreographed the work.

“This was a different choreographic experience for me,” she said in an interview I had with her yesterday. “Usually I take an emergent form or context that develops in the studio and the research springs from that investigation. Because of the Feet to the Fire commission, I took a topical approach for the first time.” Friday night’s performance includes a multi-generation cast–three of the original cast members (others graduated), two students who are new to the work, two faculty members (Stanton and Katja Kolcio, Associate Professor of Dance) and four guest artists (Kolcio’s parents and in-laws who are all professional performers!). The work features group segments, a solo by Stanton, and music from around the world, including Ukrainian, German, American, and Senegalese folk traditions. The performance is followed by a communal feast to be shared with the audience.

Threshold Sites: The Ultimate Meal
Schonberg Dance Studio, 247 Pine Street
Friday, December 4, 2009 at 8pm
Seating is limited; to reserve your seat, contact Michele Olerud in the Dance Department,, or call 860-685-3488

Pamela Tatge
Director, Center for the Arts