Re-witnessing the “Hearts and Minds” of war

October 30th, 2014 No comments

To start at the end: After the credits rolled, Homi Bhaba asked us to stand and take a moment of silence not only for the victims and 156_DF_box_348x490_originalveterans of the Vietnam War, but also for the act of re-witnessing the violence of the war. The audience rustled to its feet, putting programs on the ground and jackets on seats, and after the shuddering of retracting theater seats died away, there was silence.

The silence was in stark contrast to the preceding 112 minutes of alternately gut-wrenching and glamorous noise and images that we had seen in the Academy Award-winning film Hearts and Minds (1974) by Peter Davis ’57. Bhaba, a professor and the director of the Mahindra Humanities Center, was host for the Oct. 27 event, which was part of the Carpenter Center Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Seminar on Violence and Non-Violence. Forty years on, the screening drew a full house, and the audience laughed, shifted nervously and often simply didn’t know how to react to the collection of clips.

Sequences in the film jump, for instance, from a Washington banquet to welcome home prisoners of war, their silhouettes standing and applauding as President Richard Nixon thanks the pilots who flew the B-52s to bomb Vietnam, to aerial views of the bombs landing in smoky, fiery splashes on forests, fields and villages. Then, a distressed Vietnamese father whose daughter has been bombed to death while feeding the pigs on their farm in Vietnam asks Nixon, through the camera, whether her death was worth it; then, a moaning woman being pulled away from a coffin as men refill the grave with earth. Finally, General William Westmoreland in a pinstriped suit, sitting serenely in front of a rippling lake, saying calmly, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

Professor Robb Moss of the Visual and Environmental Studies department, explained that if documentary films such as Hearts and Minds have “courage to move associatively as well as analytically,” they are able to create a story out of the collage of images rather than depending on one character’s storyline. “We’re told bit by bit by bit, by fragments and moments, the attitudes and aftermath,” he said. “It’s impossible to predict what the next shot will be, and it moves by a sort of visceral logic.” Read more…

At the keyboard with Jonathan Biss

October 29th, 2014 No comments

Pianist Jonathan Biss (Photo: Benjamin Ealovega)

Thirty seconds after Jonathan Biss has finished responding to the first of my questions, my fingers are still furiously flying across my laptop keys. The award-winning pianist and professor crackles with energy and enthusiasm, and has a lot to say; I don’t want to miss a thing. It’s clear that Biss is the kind of person who spends plenty of time thinking and talking about (and playing) music. And so it comes as no surprise that enrollment in the online course he teaches for the Curtis Institute of Music through Coursera has had more than 30,000 participants, or that his essay Beethoven’s Shadow ranked as the No.1 music eBook on Amazon. Biss will give a Learning From Performers master class 4 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 30 in Kirkland House Junior Common Room. Biss spoke with me about growing up surrounded by music, developing a framework for understanding and appreciating music, and sharing his love of music on a massive scale. An edited version of our conversation follows.

How did growing up in a musical family shape you inside and outside of the arts?
Music is an organizing principle, or even a defining force in my life, and that’s definitely very much the result of the household I grew up in. I don’t see music as simply something that is beautiful and wonderful but ultimately not really related to anything else that we do. The values that one learns as a musician – the discipline, the drive to focus on something great and the collegiality of working with other musicians (and trying to develop a common understanding of something that’s not easy to understand) – turn you into a more fully-fledged, three-dimensional person. I can’t even begin to guess if I would be a musician if I hadn’t grown up with music all around me, and that has been the main fact of my life in terms of the way I see the world and all the things I am and aspire to.

You teach a popular Massive Open Online Course on Coursera. How did you get involved with Coursera, and what attracted you to teaching a MOOC?
I am a person who is first and foremost obsessed with music. Although the center of my relationship with music is performance, I’ve always been interested in having a relationship that is multi-faceted or ventilated, rather than one where you only play concerts or prepare to play them. I think the way in which a performer relates to the music that he or she plays is an interesting one, and so thought it would be fascinating to teach a class about the way the music works psychologically on the player and on the listener. When I found out that Curtis was interested in online teaching, I immediately jumped at this fantastic opportunity to reach people Read more…

Former NEA chairman receives A.R.T. Brustein Award

October 28th, 2014 No comments

Robert Brustein, Rocco Landesman and Jared Bowen in conversation at the Loeb Drama Center.

Every year, the American Repertory Theater founding director Robert Brustein honors a theater artist whose work has significantly influenced the art and theater. On Monday Oct. 27, the 2014 Robert Brustein Award was presented to Rocco Landesman, long-time theater producer and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under President Obama. Students and patrons of A.R.T. gathered at the Loeb Drama Center to see Landesman receive his award.

When A.R.T. artistic director Diane Paulus introduced Landesman, the list of his credits went on for so long it was almost humorous. After naming upwards of 20 productions, Paulus paused and delivered the punchline: “Just to name a few.” The crowd chuckled.

After Paulus’ introduction, Brustein took center stage to present the award to Landesman, his former student, colleague, collaborator and friend.

Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927 in a monoplane known as the ‘Spirit of St. Louis,’” Brustein began. “I like to think of Rocco Landesman, born along the Mississippi banks of the same city in 1956, as the ‘Shpritzer of St. Louis.’ He transports up not with monoplanes, but with monologues. He’s one of the great talkers of our time.”

A conversation between Landesman and Brustein, moderated by WGBH’s Jared Bowen, followed the award presentation. The discussion touched on the trajectory of Landesman’s career, arts education and elitism versus democracy for the arts. Read more…

A flaneur and the motion of art

Renee Zhan ’16, a resident of Leverett House concentrating in Visual and Environmental Studies, Film/Animation Track, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to study at Paris’s Gobelins International Summer School for character animation in July of this year. Zhan is a member of the Harvard Monday Gallery, has set designed for Harvard theater productions (Is He Dead? and The Motherf**cker with the Hat), and was poster artist for two Hasty Pudding Theatricals shows (HPT165 & 166). After graduation, she plans to pursue a career in animation.

Renee Zahn '16

Renee Zahn ’16

I arrived in Paris, France on July 3 to attend a three-week animation masterclass/workshop at Gobelins, l’ecole de l’image. The renown of the school is worldwide. It ushers students straight into the halls of Disney and Pixar. The professors are true masters of the craft. They see little details in animation that I had never even before considered: Keep the pupil moving to keep a character alive. Find your characters’ positions. Don’t be afraid to break joints; it keeps things limber. Minute details of character performance are picked apart and put back together to create truly lifelike portrayals of motion.

Perhaps even more intimidating than the professors were my fellow students. I had never before been surrounded by so many dedicated, focused animators. These kids lived and breathed animation. Milt Kahl and Glen Keane were their gods. It was both inspiring and terrifying. Being thrust amongst these kids who were truly and completely dedicated to this art form, I was forced to reevaluate my own relationship with it.

I had thought that I was crazy about animation. I had thought that there was nobody who could possibly love it as much as I did. But I realized, in those frustrating, challenging, wonderful three weeks, that maybe I don’t have a wild, all-consuming love for animation. Maybe our relationship is more complicated than that. If anything, maybe it’s a tumultuous, unhealthy, acidic, violent marriage. But it is a marriage nonetheless. I’m committed. There’s nothing else I’d rather do. And from 9-to-5 everyday that’s what I did. Read more…

Discovering art through religion

October 27th, 2014 No comments
Mustapha Khan Jr. ‘84, Amy Brenneman ‘87, and Kimerer LaMothe tell students and alumnae of the Study of Religion how the Harvard department influenced their careers in art.

Mustapha Khan Jr. ‘84, Amy Brenneman ‘87 and Kimerer LaMothe told religion students and alumnae how the Harvard department influenced their careers in art.

Religion scholars of past and present gathered Oct. 24 and 25 at Harvard University’s Barker Center to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the undergraduate concentration in the Comparative Study of Religion.

Among the events that convened dozens of alumnae and students from the concentration was the Pathways into the Arts Roundtable, which explored how the study of religion can lead to or bolster professions in the arts. The panelists included filmmaker Mustapha Khan Jr. ‘84 (Imagining America, Sesame Street), actor Amy Brenneman ‘87 (Heat, Private Practice, The Leftovers) and dancer Kimerer LaMothe.

Khan launched the panel, and his story began with religion. Growing up as an evangelical Christian in inner city Philadelphia, he began preaching as a young teenager. After high school, Khan decided to pursue his studies at Harvard when he began to question his life as a reverend.

“The idea of making meaning in the world, especially how kids make meaning in the world, was of great interest to me,” said Khan. “I went around to various professors and various departments, and when I met Diana Eck and Bill Graham, and especially my advisor Dorothy Austin, my mind really opened up. I realized that instead of preaching, I just wanted to listen, to ask better questions, and to learn from the department. And from that point I became a listener. I realized that that’s how you make meaning out of the world.” Read more…

Chesney Snow and the beatboxing mission

October 21st, 2014 No comments

Chesney Snow was getting off the T when he took my phone call. It was a shaky and noisy connection even without the crowds of people I heard milling about him, and part way through the conversation, Snow had to run for cover from a sudden downpour of rain. Snow is an award-winning actor, beatboxer, poet, musician, producer and songwriter, and, as a result, he is hair-raisingly busy. And yet we chatted for almost an hour about his career, his film American Beatboxer (which will be screened Oct. 24 at Askwith Lecture Hall at Harvard) and a beatboxing workshop (Oct. 25 at Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute). Both events are offered through the Office for the Arts Learning From Performers program. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Chesney Snow

Chesney Snow

First encounters with beatboxing:

When I was about 11 or 12, I lived in Mississippi. My cousins and I used to make rhymes and beat on buckets, and get anything we could to make a beat. We would write rhymes and raps to it, and so I ended up emulating the old school rappers. That’s how I started, with my cousin Bobby, who would really encourage me to do the impossible. That was, in one sense, the beginning of me exploring what I could do with my creativity whether that be with my voice or any aspect of my artistry.

Sources of inspiration:

I try to observe people or observe animals or nature and how they interact. So, if you listen, you can hear intense rhythm in raindrops. You can really find a music that is happening naturally. If I’m doing a play and my character is supposed to embody the heartbeat of a neighborhood or a city, I’ll go to that neighborhood and city and just listen, just listen for hours. Read more…

Finding the depths of “pool (no water)” at OBERON

October 20th, 2014 No comments

We all dream of owning a pool, right? One Year Lease Theater Company brought a pool to OBERON, American Repertory Theater’s second stage, with a production of Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water), which played over the weekend in Cambridge. (The show has now moved to New York City’s Barrow Street Theatre ,where it will run Oct. 21-Nov. 24.)

Here’s the story: When a famous artist invites her old friends to her luxurious home and swimming pool for a long awaited reunion, a horrific accident abruptly ends the festivities and puts their host in a coma. However, does the night really need to end? Perhaps, it’s only the beginning. Perhaps, it’s the beginning of the group’s next art project – their host’s suffering – exploited and celebrated. OYL explores art and envy in a unique rendering of the play. As no lines are assigned to any one character, it was up to director Ianthe Demos to divide the lines and find the rhythm of the words that were to drive the piece. Rhythm is further expressed through the production’s distinct use of movement. With just a few white tables, the actors hop, skip and jump across the stage with an energy that surges throughout the show. It’s all part of Demos’ process. In our video, she talks about exploring the text and the depths of feeling in the play.

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Creating “tappiness” with choreographer Michelle Dorrance

October 20th, 2014 No comments

Michelle Dorrance stopped by Harvard’s Holden Chapel last week to teach an Office for the Arts Dance Program master class on the art and craft of tap dancing. Tappers in and around the Yard spent two hours learning from the Princess Grace Award-winning performer, choreographer and teacher. The video says it all.

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Harvard Art Museums: Teaching machines of the 21st century

October 18th, 2014 No comments

Thomas W. Lentz, Glenn D. Lowry, Jennifer L. Roberts and Paul Ha discussed the role of art museums.


On Oct. 16, University President Drew Faust gathered a panel of experts of the art world in anticipation of the grand re-opening of the Harvard Arts Museums after six years of renovation.

“In some ways we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a university with a museum readily available to us,” said Faust in her opening remarks. “Whole classes of Harvard undergraduates have had their Harvard experience without being able to just drop in and look at the treasures in the museums. We have to relearn all of that. We have to reactivate those ways of being.”

The panel was moderated by the director of the Harvard University Art Museums Thomas Lentz, who said that the reopening of the museums provides the perfect opportunity to step back and ask: Why is it important to have museums on campuses in the 21st century? The panel discussion revolved around this question and the idea of the museum as “teaching machine.”

Jennifer Roberts, a professor in the department of History of Art and Architecture, said that the tendency to describe museums as “luxury” or “treasure” is a dangerous “terminological problem.”

“When we say treasure, we often imagine something exclusive, something that’s static rather than dynamic and something that’s supplemental rather than structural,” said Roberts. “When I look at the objects in that building, I see that they’re partially treasures, but they’re also intelligence. They’re forms of non-verbal intelligence, of historical intelligence, of artisanal, material and spacial intelligence. These are forms and models of thinking that our students can learn a great deal from, as much as any other type of learning and intelligence that they might come across,” Roberts said. Read more…

“Little Murders” breaks the fourth (third, second and first) wall

October 16th, 2014 No comments
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Students rehearse on the “Little Murders” set at the Loeb main stage. Photo: Elizabeth Leimkuhler ’15

Little Murders, a dark satire written by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, first opened on Broadway in 1967. The production was a complete flop.

In Little Murders, Feiffer imagines a New York City in complete turmoil: The protagonist family, the Newquists, is interrupted by phone calls from heavy breathers while violent altercations between snipers and the police rage in the streets. America of 1967 couldn’t relate quite intimately enough to the Newquists’ dystopian world. But after 1968, in the wake of assassinations, protests for civil rights and televised wars abroad, the world of the Newquists no longer seemed so far-fetched. And so, when a revival of Little Murders hit the stage in 1969, it thrived in this new context.

Now almost five decades later, Little Murders will open on the Loeb Mainstage as this year’s Visiting Director’s Project, a program run by the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club and sponsored by the American Repertory Theater. Much like the audience of the ’60s, Shira Millikowsky, artistic associate at the A.R.T. and this year’s visiting director, experienced the metamorphic possibilities of Feiffer’s play.

“I first read Little Murders when I was in college, and I loved the play because I loved the main character, Patsy. It’s so rare to find plays that have such strong, young female leads, especially a play that was written more than five years ago.” says Millikowsky. “Then, I re-read it this summer and what struck me was how relevant the play felt, more relevant than it had felt to me 10 years ago. As I was reading it, war was breaking out between Israel and Gaza, and we were just learning about what ISIS is, and at the time Ebola wasn’t even on our minds in but was certainly happening. With all of this, and with global warming and the recession of 2008, the feeling that things could fall apart at any moment is a lot more alive in our consciousness — for me personally and for us as Americans politically. So I felt this new connection to it that I hadn’t felt before.” Read more…