A conversation with motion artist Reggie Wilson

February 27th, 2015 No comments

2014_Spring_ReggieWilson_MasterClass_613x463When he and I spoke recently, venerated choreographer Reggie Wilson opened my eyes to new and challenging ways to think about dance and movement. Wilson is at the helm of the post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dance company Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, and will offer a master class in modern dance tonight (February 27) at the Harvard Dance Center. (The class is at capacity and is not open to the public.) An edited version of our conversation about Wilson’s research, choreography, and style of dance follows.

What is post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dance?
What do you think it means?

I don’t know.
It means that it’s several words strung together, and you probably have to experience it to understand what that means. It’s dance – best to be experienced and not read. That’s the basic concept behind it, but actually and literally each one of those words are ideas that do relate to ideas that happen in the movement and in the research for the movement and in the structuring of the movement. At the same time it’s using the ideas that it’s being drawn from, and if you actually put them together as words they don’t necessarily mean something that’s immediately comprehensible.

What does research for a dance piece entail?
It can vary from choreographer to choreographer, and for me it can vary from dance work to dance work. So the research might be actual field research, going to work with a community to understand who they are – like ethnographic research. The research can take place in any number of ways and can also include work that’s actually done in the studio, trying to find new ways of moving or trying to perfect old ways of moving. Read more…

Wendy Whelan: Restless and ready to dance

February 24th, 2015 No comments
Wendy Whelan

Wendy Whelan

Wendy Whelan laughs as she reminisces about her first encounter with ballet, which she describes as an attempt by her mother to calm a hyperactive 3-year-old girl. Ballet gave her discipline, but it didn’t diminish her energy: There’s electricity in Whelan’s voice as she talks about dance. Last year, when Whelan took her final bow after 30 years with the New York City Ballet, she promised it was not her farewell to dance. “It’s not an end,” she told the New York Times in October, just before her final performance. The dance world didn’t have to wait very long to see where she landed next. Whelan kicked off a U.S. tour of her inaugural independent project Restless Creature in January.

In a conversation with choreographer Brian Brooks 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26 at the Harvard Dance Center, Whelan will discuss the artistic collaboration with Brooks on Restless Creature, as well as her career as a creator and performer of dance. She will also perform during the show’s run with Celebrity Series of Boston Feb. 28 and March 1.  I spoke with Whelan about her origins as a ballet dancer, her upcoming projects and the ability to transform oneself as an artist. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What drew you to dance and what made you stay?
I got sorted into dance by chance as something to soothe my restlessness as a child. I was a hyper little middle child of three, and apparently I was really rough on my baby sister. So my mom said, “Let’s find something for this one to do!” It ended up that my grandmother had run into my mom’s old ballet teacher, and she said “Bring her in!” And they just plopped me into ballet. I stayed because there were so many elements that intrigued me, the first being the release of energy, the second being the imagination that was brought into play. And then ultimately, the discipline added another element to it for me. I never turned back once they gave me that option.

You were with the New York City Ballet for about 30 years, you must have seen a lot change in that time. How did those changes transform you as a dancer throughout that time?
I joined the company as an apprentice a year after Balanchine died, so the company was filled with his chosen dancers. There were classic dancers like Francisco Moncion, Suzanne Farrell and Patricia McBride, and then all of the youngest people that he took in like Darci Kistler. So I was strongly influenced by his aesthetic, because it was very obvious and apparent through these dancers, and the Read more…

Escaping to India (with Ghungroo)

February 22nd, 2015 No comments
Disha Verma '15, a student choreographer for Ghungroo, dances with other students.

Disha Verma ’15, a student choreographer for Ghungroo, dances with other students.

In a Boston winter like this one, with massive snowdrifts squeezing the sidewalks and blizzards as an every day occurrence, remembering a climate that is warm, dry, and sunny can is nearly impossible. However, we can all take a break from the cold and make an imaginary trip to India Feb. 26-28 in Agassiz Theater, thanks to the Harvard South Asian Association‘s annual dance performance, Ghungroo. Each year more than 300 students participate in this celebratory event, characterized by addicting, far-ranging music such as Bollywood film scores and recent American pop songs. The event, which is the result of months of planning, is typically sold out days in advance. I spoke with three of Ghungroo’s student choreographers, Disha Verma ’15, Zeenia Framroze ’15, and Radhika Rastogi ’15, about the highs and lows of helping to coordinate the dancing of such a massive and popular event.

What is your favorite part of choreographing Ghungroo?
: I really enjoy watching people who have never danced before learn the steps and add their own flair to the dance. It’s a really rewarding part of teaching the dance.
Zeenia: The challenge in choreographing Ghungroo is making your steps both fun for the dancers and appreciable by the audience. I also just love when people from around the world start humming my favorite Bollywood songs.
Disha: Dance played a big part in my life growing up, and it’s one of the aspects I love most about Indian Read more…

Getting (to talk to) the girl(s)

February 20th, 2015 No comments
Getting the Girl

Getting the Girl

Ally Kiley ‘15 and Liz Kantor ‘18 are deep in excited conversation about their upcoming project, Getting the Girl, when I meet them in Clover for a late post-rehearsal dinner and chat. The show, which runs 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20 at Leverett House Library Theater, features an all-female cast and staff, drawing from a talented pool of undergrads who have worked diligently to create an original musical revue with unconventional arrangements of classic musical theater songs, as well as original compositions and text. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of this project.

Ally Kiley: I wanted to do something else this semester, since the show I’m directing on the Mainstage, Middletown, is at the end of the semester. Then, after the season list came out, I realized there weren’t really any musicals, except The Last Five Years, which has two people [Avenue Q hadn’t been announced at the time]. There are so many amazingly talented men, but they’re in the Pudding, so I thought there should be something for the women of musical theater, especially because there are so many talented senior girls, and especially after working on Little Women last year, I’ve just really liked the women of musical theater here. So I basically then came up with this idea in theory and thought, “Why not execute it?” I approached Liz about music directing and arranging some stuff, and it was super easy to find people to want to do it.

What are the structure and content of the show?

AK: The premise originally was to have songs that passed the Bechdel test, but then we broadened it a little bit and made it songs that are not love songs that women sing. And there’s kind of a narrative structure – I’m not sure how apparent it’s going to be. The opening song is Spark of Creation, which I think is very fitting because this piece is created very collaboratively and that song is all about the first woman wanting to create.

How did you approach creating original material for the show?

AK: Everything’s been happening collaboratively, and we had a questionnaire people filled out at the beginning with questions that Taylor Kay Phillips wrote: Who’s your favorite female role model? What’s your favorite part of being a girl? What’s your least favorite part?  Read more…

DIY artist: A conversation with George Ko ’15

February 17th, 2015 No comments
George Ko (Photo courtesy georgekopiano.com)

George Ko ’15 (Photo courtesy georgekopiano.com)

Pianist George Ko ’15 knows a lot about the pianos at Harvard. “There are 250 pianos at Harvard, and most were built in the 1950s,” he says. “The one in the Adams Lower Common Room was built in the 1930s. The one in Kirkland, 1912. I played on a piano in the University Hall Faculty Room yesterday that was built in 1900.”

It’s the Faculty Room where Ko will be performing Thursday, February 19 in his Harvard University Debut Recital as part of the Music Department’s University Hall Recital Series.

This is not exactly what Ko expected to be doing in his junior year. “I came into Harvard thinking I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “I was an economics concentrator. My dad had given me my first briefcase when I was 5. I had four start-ups.”

He tells me that though he had played piano for 16 years, he wasn’t too serious about it and practiced only a few hours a week; he spent most of his time in the iLab, a 27-minute walk from Pennypacker, his freshman dorm. “But I was actually really miserable,” he says. “So one day in sophomore year, I was sitting in one of the pews at Sanders listening to the Boston Philharmonic play Brahms 4th Symphony, and I just knew: I had to be a musician.”

Ko ended up taking a year off – “to see if I could do it” – even spending a few months in Los Angeles learning how to conduct an orchestra. (“Conducting is the most difficult job in the orchestra,” he says. “With just the movement of the baton, you have to communicate to the orchestra the dynamics, beat, tempo, feel. You have to convince them to follow your vision. I realized I could only really work at being  Read more…

A new LENS for music

February 17th, 2015 No comments
The Parker Quartet, Steven Pinker, and Team Project LENS

The Parker Quartet, Steven Pinker, and Team Project LENS

It began like any other classical-concert-cum-TED-style-talk. The night’s musicians, including the neatly attired members – two violinists, a violist, a cellist – of the acclaimed Parker Quartet, arrived to great applause from the throng gathered in Thomas Paine Hall on the freezing evening of February 13, and, along with venerated psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, took the stage. The concert-lecture presentation called “The Myth of Modern Violence” was organized by Project LENS (“live exchange of notes and sounds”), and featured performances of several dynamic pieces from the classical repertoire (the MusicThread) with an accompanying mini-lecture (the TalkThread) by Pinker.

Project LENS co-founder Ariel Mitnick ‘13, who played later in the evening alongside the Parker Quartet, explained the impetus behind the project: “[Co-founders] Rainer [Crosett ‘14], Alan [Toda-Ambaras ‘13] and I have always had a foot in each of two worlds – musical and academic – and we’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the dual experience. Beyond that, we feel strongly that we’ve benefitted from it. But it’s surprisingly difficult to identify precisely why we feel it has been so stimulating and fulfilling. Our hunch is that, in large part, it has to do with connections that we form between music and our other studies, even though this often happens unconsciously.” Read more…

Filmmaker and writer Damien Chazelle ’08 heads to the Oscars

February 16th, 2015 No comments

800x600Film director Damien Chazelle ’08 will be at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 22. His film Whiplash has garnered five nominations including: best picture, best actor in a supporting role (J.K. Simmons), best film editing, best sound mixing and best writing/adapted screenplay (Chazelle). Whiplash is a jazzed-up drama about a talented drummer (Miles Teller) hoping that, under the tutelage of a ruthless conductor (Simmons), he might become one of the greats. I spoke with Chazelle about his break-out film and how his time at Harvard brought him to the center stage of the Oscars.

Whiplash is getting a lot of attention. What’s most exciting to you about this?
I guess it’s still a little surreal to me. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written. It’s the most close to autobiography. So for that to be something that other people can connect to, I think it’s a reminder that the more personal something is, the more universal it can be. A lot of people, myself included, were worried that a movie like this about a certain subculture of the world that most people aren’t familiar with or wouldn’t care about would shut off a lot of people. So I kind of feel reaffirmed.

You take a close look at mentors. Who was your top mentor at Harvard, and what was his or her influence on you as an artist?
I had three really key mentors. Rob Moss, Alfred Guzzetti (both of them have been in the VES department since the beginning) and J.D. Connor who was in the English department and the VES department. The three of them opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about film. I grew up wanting to make films so that passion was already there, but the VES department stripped everything away that I had learned before and gave me an old 16 mm camera, put it on my shoulder and that was it. I Read more…

Eric Oberstein Ed.M. ’10: From GSE to the Grammys

February 15th, 2015 No comments
Eric Oberstein

Eric Oberstein

Eric Oberstein Ed.M. ’10, an up-and-coming arts administrator, came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education hoping to expand his understanding of the impact of arts education in both K–12 and higher education settings. But he has always been interested in music, and this year, as a producer, Oberstein won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album: Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s The Offense of the Drum. The record marks Oberstein’s sixth collaboration with O’Farrill, who was also joined in performance and composition on the album by Harvard professor, composer and pianist Vijay Iyer. I heard from Oberstein about his early musical influences, and how Harvard shaped his path to a Grammy. An edited version of our exchange follows.

Can you tell me a little about your musical background and your path to working with Arturo O’Farrill?
I grew up just outside of Queens on Long Island. I’m half-Cuban; my mom was born in Havana. And I grew up playing music – sax and drums – and being around Cuban music and Latin jazz. I had the good fortune to meet Arturo O’Farrill the year before I came to Harvard, and I  was working as the assistant director of his nonprofit, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance and helping to manage his 18-piece Latin jazz big band. Because of my background as a musician, Arturo invited me in 2009 to produce my first album Read more…

A dance offering at Harvard

February 14th, 2015 No comments
Jill Johnson led Boston Ballet dancers in a master class.

Jill Johnson led Boston Ballet dancers in a master class.

For 60 minutes, the Harvard Dance Center was transformed into a Boston Ballet rehearsal room, and we were invited to peek inside. Six lithe principal dancers moved to the floor, clad in their sweats and leg warmers, and Harvard Dance Program director Jill Johnson took her place at the front of their formation. The male dancers rolled their shoulders, and the female ballerinas rocked up and down between the balls and tips of their toe shoes, preparing to practice an excerpt from William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.

“Why don’t we space it?” Johnson proposed. And so, quite literally, the dancers oriented themselves to this particular space, marking their movement while Johnson hummed a few eight-counts of Schubert’s  9th Symphony. When they finished this drill, the dancers moved back to their starting positions, and someone cued the music. The Schubert came from the speakers, and the dancers were in motion.

The Boston Ballet and the Office for the Arts Dance Program’s Dance Talk on February 13 drew a crowd of students, faculty and local Cambridge dwellers, all of whom were united by a love and appreciation for dance. I had waltzed in with my sister, a Northeastern University student and recreational dancer, who whispered noteworthy names into my ears throughout the evening. “That’s the artistic director, Mikko Nissinen,” she explained, as Nissinen and Johnson greeted the audience and introduced the evening’s program. The event was organized as sneak peek into two excerpts from the Boston Ballet’s upcoming spring repertoire, followed by a Q&A with Johnson, Nissinen, principal dancer Dusty Button and soloist Bradley Schlagheck. Read more…

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‘Choose to grow': A conversation with Derrick Wang ’06

February 9th, 2015 No comments
Derrick Wang '06 Photo:  Matthew Fried

Derrick Wang ’06 Photo: Matthew Fried

Derrick Wang carefully mulls over his thoughts, rolling each phrase around on his tongue before airing it in the cozy corner office of the Office for the Arts where we met on a crisp, so-cold-you-can’t-feel-your-face Friday morning. He speaks with a poetic eloquence that tells of an education conducted in both the languages of law (he attended the University of Maryland Carey School of Law) and music (a Harvard ’06 music concentrator). It’s no wonder, then, that he was able to transform hundreds of pages of legal opinions into a lush and riveting opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, which will have its world premiere at the Castleton Festival in Castleton, Virginia, in July 2015. I met up with the composer to talk about his artistic path at Harvard and beyond. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Tell me a little bit about your opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, and how you arrived at the original concept.
Scalia/Ginsburg is a comic opera inspired by the opinions of Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. The idea for Scalia/Ginsburg came to me when I was a law student at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. I was studying constitutional law, as one does, and reading Supreme Court opinions, when I came across what would become the three magic words: “Scalia, J., dissenting.” I realized that every time I saw this phrase it would be followed by a very vivid and impassioned expression of Justice Scalia’s point of view, and it seemed to be an almost operatic expression. I thought, “This, especially in conjunction with the perspective of Justice Ginsburg, would make for an interesting opera.” I also found out that they are themselves great opera aficionados, and so I thought, “Well, now I have to write this opera!” It just seemed like a perfect match of subject and form, and it has been a lot of fun to work on. The libretto is in the form of a law review article, in that every line or stanza contains some sort of citation of legal precedent because the opera of course draws from Supreme Court opinions. I thought then that it would be interesting for the score to have operatic precedents, so that too is filled with references and citations.

Tell us about your involvement in the arts as an undergraduate at Harvard.
I was involved in the HRDC, appearing in a production of Pippin in the Loeb Ex in my freshman fall. I didn’t do much in that show, but I do remember it featured Katharine McPhee in the role of Fastrada. (She went to Boston Conservatory). I directed and co-wrote the Freshman Musical; one of my collaborators was Michael Mitnick. I composed two Hasty Pudding Shows (HPT 156 & 157) and I composed pieces for the Bach Society Orchestra and the Brattle Street Chamber Players. It’s nice to be able to talk about this, because when you go out into the world no one is really interested in what you did during your freshman year. Which raises an interesting Read more…