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From Margins to Mainstream: A Brief Tap Dance History

Originally published October 5, 2016. Updated June 21, 2019.

Dorrance Dance
Photo: Dorrance Dance in performance. The company returns to Ann Arbor on February 21-22, 2020. Photo by Nicholas Van Young.

Brief History

Tap dance originated in the United States in the early 19th century at the crossroads of African and Irish American dance forms. When slave owners took away traditional African percussion instruments, slaves turned to percussive dancing to express themselves and retain their cultural identities. These styles of dance connected with clog dancing from the British Isles, creating a unique form of movement and rhythm.

Early tap shoes had wooden soles, sometimes with pennies attached to the heel and toe. Tap gained popularity after the Civil War as a part of traveling minstrel shows, where white and black performers wore blackface and belittled black people by portraying them as lazy, dumb, and comical.

Evolution

20th Century Tap Tap was an important feature of popular Vaudeville variety shows of the early 20th century and a major part of the rich creative output of the Harlem Renaissance.

Tap dancers began collaborating with jazz musicians, incorporating improvisation and complex syncopated rhythms into their movement. The modern tap shoe, featuring metal plates (called “taps”) on the heel and toe, also came into widespread use at this time. Although Vaudeville and Broadway brought performance opportunities to African-American dancers, racism was still pervasive: white and black dancers typically performed separately and for segregated audiences.

Tap’s popularity declined in the second half of the century, but was reinvigorated in the 1980s through Broadway shows like 42nd Street and The Tap Dance Kid.

Tap in Hollywood

From the 1930s to the 1950s, tap dance sequences became a staple of movies and television. Tap stars included Shirley Temple, who made her film tap dance debut at age 6, and Gene Kelly, who introduced a balletic style of tap. Fred Astaire, famous for combining tap with ballroom dance, insisted that his dance scenes be captured with a single take and wide camera angle. This style of cinematography became the norm for tap dancing in movies and television for decades.

The Greats

Master Juba (ca. 1825 – ca. 1852) was one of the only early black tap dancers to tour with a white minstrel group and one of the first to perform for white audiences. Master Juba offered a fast and technically brilliant dance style blending European and African dance forms.

Dancer Jeni LeGon with dancer (and musician) Chester Whitmore in 2009. Joe Mabel/Century Ballroom

Dancer Jeni LeGon with dancer (and musician) Chester Whitmore in 2009. Joe Mabel/Century Ballroom

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878—1949) began dancing in minstrel shows and was one of the first African-American dancers to perform without blackface. He adapted to the changing tastes of the era, moving on to vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood Radio programs, and television. Robinson’s most popular routine involved dancing up and down a staircase with complex tap rhythms on each step.

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1907-98) continued to dance with after losing a leg in a cotton gin accident as a child. He danced in vaudeville, on film, and was a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. Bates also frequently performed for others with physical disabilities.

Jeni Le Gon (1916-2012) was one of the first black women to become a tap soloist in the first half of the 20th century. She wore pants rather than skirts when she performed and, as a result, she developed an athletic, acrobatic style, employing mule kicks and flying splits, more in the manner of the male dancers of the time.

The Nicholas Brothers Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000) Nicholas had a film and television tap career spanning more than 70 years. Impressed by their choreography, George Balanchine invited them to appear in his Broadway production of Babes in Arms. Their unique style of suppleness, strength, and fearlessness led many to believe that they were trained ballet dancers.

Gregory Hines (1946-2003) introduced a higher complexity of the improvisation of steps, sounds, rhythms. Hines’s dances were rhythmically involved and often strayed from traditional rhythmic meters. Savion

Glover (b. 1973) is best known for starring in the Broadway hit The Tap Dance Kid. Glover mixes classic moves like those of his teacher Gregory Hines with his own contemporary style. He has won several Tony awards for his Broadway choreography.

The Blues Project – Dorrance Dance Company with Toshi Reagan and BIGLovely


Dorrance Dance returns to Ann Arbor on February 21-22, 2020. Content created in collaboration by Jordan Miller and Terri Park.

“It’s Going to Get Personal”

Written by Doyle Armbrust

The truth is, you probably don’t need program notes for Berlioz’s ubiquitous Symphonie fantastique

You’ve likely read about his infatuation with the actress, and maybe even caught Leonard Bernstein dishing on “dope” in this context during one of his Young People’s Concerts. Even if this is your first encounter with this game-changing work, I’d wager that you could come up with a narrative pretty close to the intended one without having read a word about it. It’s that good.

What strikes me over and over about this piece is the sheer vulnerability of it. Granted, it is the grand gesture of all grand gestures — writing and re-writing a piece in the hopes of winning over its literal heroine — but to have written something so deliberately personal, and to be so publicly overwhelmed by desire…this is next-level. I hope you’ll forgive me for being emboldened to do so, but I took this opportunity to tell my own story of delusion and heartbreak.

It’s not easy, exposing oneself like this, but it is rather cathartic. To that end, if the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s performance stirs up a similar memory for you, and you’re inclined to share it, please contribute your story below. Whether you choose to share it or not, this music is likely to stoke some smoldering memories for you…

One: Dreams, Passions


What one needs to know about the Symphonie Fantastique is that it is autobiographical, and relates a very specific narrative. Berlioz fell hard for a Shakespearian actress by the name of Harriet Smithson, after seeing her in the role of Ophelia in Hamlet in 1827. As a Frenchman, he didn’t even speak her language…

I remember it as if it were last summer, despite the fact that this is some 15 years in the otherwise hazy past. I was seated at the back of a tent at the Coachella festival, back when it still claimed electronic music credibility. My shirt was damp from the oppressive, midday desert sun, and I was scribbling notes on the current act in a leather-bound notebook, oblivious to the revelries engulfing me and with no publication awaiting my submission. The music was rapturous, and as ink flowed onto page, I had my epiphany. With revelers swirling around me, I realized that I had made a mistake. I had let you go, but as my idée fixe — my preoccupation and my fascination — the 5,500 miles that separated us were but a minor hindrance to my love. I tore out my pages and began scribing a desperate letter to you.

Two: A Ball


The waltz you hear is a literal waltz. This is our hero, hysterically trying to catch the attention of his muse. Harriet could not be persuaded to attend the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, so Berlioz revised the work and scheduled a second, which the now less-famous and less-glamorous Harriet attended — in the composer’s own VIP seats — without any inkling that this magnificent piece was about her.

These bodies, writhing around me and heedless in their ecstasy, stirred latent feelings of longing in me. I was jealous of their proximity to each other, and my emptiness discovered new depths. I scrambled to remember snippets of Portuguese, your native language, with which I could draw you back near me. This was music without pause, and each new track escalated my desire to be with you. We had parted ways for earnest and logical reasons. These reasons escaped my brain in a capricious instant.

Three: Scene in the Country


Berlioz was mesmerized by the symphonies of Beethoven — the “Pastoral” symphony looms large here — and at the ripe old age of 27, he set out to put his demons to paper with this earth-shattering work. It can’t be understated just how ahead of its time was this piece, or just how dramatic an effect it had on classical music, and the Russians in particular. Listen for the conversation in this music — a conversation with but one conversant.

I had intended the flight to Oporto to offer me the opportunity to daydream about you, but my seat mate insisted on chattering for all seven hours of it. As she spoke, I nodded and mumbled agreements as I imagined dining on arroz de marisco and swilling vinho verde from crude glasses with you. I saw the fisherwomen at the roadside, cajoling us to spend the night in their homes. I smelled the brine of low tide, wishing for a moonlit promenade along the shore. I longed for the long, languid car rides, during which directions would be sought every hour or so along those unmarked, unpaved roads. As the plane skidded onto the runway, my head a blur of jet lag, my body awoke to the terrifying realization that this was our second go of it. Your family would be livid if I broke away from you again.

Four: March to the Scaffold


If Symphonie fantastique had been written in the era of the Billboard Top 100, this would have emphatically been the single. This is the number that upended classical music for decades. Berlioz claims to have penned it in a single evening, but that sounds a bit like Edward Albee’s assertion that all of his plays hit the typewriter fully edited. In any case, it is difficult to think of any piece of lyric-less music that paints a more vivid, or more riveting, scene than that of Berlioz’s opium-induced fever dream — one in which he kills his beloved and is marched to the gallows to meet his grisly fate.

What bliss, what intoxication, to hold you in my arms once again. Each day feels like its own enterprise, its own era even, and as we careen down the coast in your tiny hatchback, my mind reels at the possibility of transposing my life to this wondrous place. We stop to inhale the effluvium of a sticky hash, our minds dripping out our ears as we soak in the failing light of dusk. Erroneously believing our wits about us, we head inside a chapel decorated top to bottom with the bones of the long dead. Vacant eye sockets stare out at us from the walls as we explore this breathtaking memento mori. It would be poetic if this were the moment at which I realized that I was too young to commit to this existence, but it would be on our return north, surrounded by high-rises and the cacophony of car horns that I would leap to that calamitous understanding. Still, I look back to those desiccated bones and think that in that moment, something became clearer.

Five: Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath


The first rehearsal of Symphonie fantastique was a disaster. The theater was unprepared for Berlioz’s army of 130 musicians, and carpenters scrambled to build makeshift stands for them. Because of the fracas, only the Ball and the March were played, the latter of which drew enthusiastic applause from the performers. This final chapter of the symphony unfurls like a familiar fantasy for anyone who has ever been in reckless, fateful love. In the moment, everything seems imperative, and the slightest adversity feels cataclysmic. Berlioz, having been dismissed by Harriet in real life, imagines her throwing herself into an orgy with devils. Yep. That bad.

I can’t bear to envision the fury of your parents and friends when you divulge my departure. I imagine your father hurling his after-dinner coffee mug across the room as your mother curses my name with some ancient phrase. Knowing it is right does not preclude my brain from conjuring thoughts of your future beaus, and the exuberance with which you’ll dive into those relationships, after my failure of you. I can only guess that now, some 15 years hence, you’ve either forgotten me, or, when reminded of my existence, you snarl.

I don’t know which is worse.


Get tickets to hear Sir John Eliot Gardiner conduct Symphonie fantastique with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on Friday, October 12.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Applications Open: Wallace Blogging Fellows

UMS Wallace Blogging Fellowships

UMS is announcing a call for applications for our blogging fellowship program.

In an effort to elevate great arts & culture happenings in Southeast Michigan, we’re looking for blogging fellows to write monthly roundups of adventurous arts and cultural opportunities in our area.

Two fellows will be selected. Fellows will serve as curators who make monthly recommendations about events throughout Southeast Michigan, whether presented by UMS or by other organizations. Recommendations will be shared via UMS Lobby (this blog), email, and social media. In addition to blog content, fellows will be asked to participate in a week-long takeover of UMS Instagram, showcasing some of the recommendations.

Fellows will receive $1,000 and opportunities for special behind-the-scenes access to UMS and artists, based on fellow and artist availability and interest. The fellowship period takes place from November 2018 to May 2019.

Who should apply

Are you passionate and knowledgeable about arts and culture happenings in Southeast Michigan? Do you like to share that passion? If so, you’re on the right track. We’re looking for two fellows to participate in this program. Fellows can come from any background, but should be at least 21 years old and should be based in Southeast Michigan.

How to apply

Submit the following materials using the form below by Wednesday, October 31, 2018.

  • Short statement of intent. In 500 words, tell us why you’d make a good blogging fellow. What’s your experience with arts and culture in Southeast Michigan? Which events and performances have you attended in the past year? Which one was most memorable? Most surprising? How do you get people excited about attending events that may be outside their comfort zone?
  • CV highlighting experiences that you think are relevant to the position.
  • 2-3 Writing samples (links or clips). If your clips are not accessible online, send them to us via email attachment or link to Dropbox to ums-lobby@umich.edu. Please use subject line “Wallace Fellows Application: [Your Name].
  • Links to social media accounts. Part of the goal of this program is to build community around cultural happenings. To that end, please send us links your social media accounts as applicable (personal accounts or accounts related to arts & culture that you manage).

Apply

Questions? Ask them in the comments below or email ums-lobby@umich.edu. We welcome your feedback.

Announcing the 2018-19 21st Century Artist Interns

The 21st Century Artist Internship program was developed to help prepare students for the new demands that working artists face in the contemporary marketplace. This highly competitive program is open to University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance students for the summer after their sophomore or junior years. Launched in the summer of 2014, the 21st Century Artist Internship program was developed to help prepare students for the new demands that working artists face in the contemporary marketplace.

In addition to generating outstanding creative work, today’s artists are also tasked with reaching potential audiences in innovative ways. They must be able to speak dynamically about their work and creative processes, provide interactive experiences for novice audience members, and transmit themselves and their artistry across rapidly changing media platforms. The 21st Century Artist Internship program provides real-world work experience and professional connections to young artists-in-training at U-M and a chance to practice these skills within the context of UMS’s programming.

For the first phase of their internship, the students will spend their summer working with a professional dance, theater, or music ensemble that UMS will present during the 2018-19 season. In phase two, the interns return to U-M to serve as a campus ambassador, educator, and marketer to support the ensemble during its visit. Each 21st Century Artist Intern earns a competitive stipend of $5,000 for their work, covering the costs of lodging, travel, and living expenses during the internship.

Meet the Students:

Bruna D’Avila, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazilis a Theatre Performance major (Class of 2019) with a focus on Directing. She has been placed with The Office in New York, NY. The Office is the independent arts production company producing multi-media artist Carrie Mae Weems’s provocative new theater piece called Past Tense. Past Tense will be performed in the Power Center on February 15 and 16 as part of UMS’s International Theater Series.

 


Johanna Kepler, from Brookline, MA, is a Dance and Latino Studies student (Class of 2020). Kepler will spend her summer in Chicago interning with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Hubbard Street will perform two unique programs on UMS’s Dance Series on October 19 and 20 in the Power Center, including a new evening-length collaboration with Third Coast Percussion.

 


Allison (Allie) Taylor, from West Palm Beach, FL, is a Violin Performance and Communications Studies student (Class of 2019). Allie will travel to London this summer to work with the Philharmonia Orchestra, which comes to UMS for an orchestral residency that culminates in two public performances at Hill Auditorium on March 12 and 13. While in London, Allie will also intern at Askonas Holt, one of the world’s leading artist management firms, which represents a number of artists that UMS presents.

 


Kandis Terry, from Miami, FL, is studying Dance and Community Action and Social Change (Class of 2019). Kandis will intern with Camille A. Brown & Dancers, a New York-based company that produces work with a focus on historical and contemporary cultural, personal, and social justice issues. Camille A. Brown & Dancers will perform ink at the Power Center on January 26 as part of UMS’s Dance Series.

 

Congratulations to the 2018-19 21st Century Artist Interns!

Celebrating the 2018 DTE Educators of the Year

Yeal Rothfeld receives her award.

The University Musical Society (UMS) and the DTE Energy Foundation are pleased to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. High School Teacher Denise Allen and Thurston Elementary School Teacher Yael Rothfeld as the 2018 DTE Energy Foundation Educators of the Year.

The award recognizes and celebrates excellence in arts education, lifting up the importance of the arts as a way of teaching 21st-century knowledge and skills, including creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and familiarity with local and global cultures. The recipients were nominated through a public nomination process. The DTE Energy Foundation is sponsoring the awards as part of its annual grant support for UMS Youth Education Programs.

View Full Press Release

A dance educator at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in Detroit, Denise Allen is a noted champion for the inclusion of the “A for Arts” in STEAM. Ms. Allen runs one of the few performing arts programs that has remained within Detroit Public Schools throughout its years of emergency management and one of just a handful of dance programs offered for credit at high schools throughout Southeast Michigan. She organizes after-school rehearsals, special evening and weekend performances, and master classes with guest artists, as well as student fundraisers that provide students with opportunities to develop leadership skills. Several of Ms. Allen’s students have gone on to study with professional dance companies, but the discipline, confidence, and focus instilled in learning the craft has also led her students to success in academics and other areas of life.

Ms. Allen’s commitment to inclusivity in her program is especially laudable. To allow any student who wishes to participate the opportunity to do so, she arranges transportation, provides healthy snacks, and purchases costumes and supplies for students who are in need. She also invites autistic students to her dance performances at no cost, encouraging the use of the movement, rhythm, and sound embedded in dance as both physical and communicative therapy. She has made a big difference in the lives of young male students, encouraging them to explore and enjoy their interest in dance and to enjoy it without fear of shame from their male peers.

Yael Rothfeld has been a vocal music educator at Thurston Elementary School in Ann Arbor for 15 years. Ms. Rothfeld works with students in Preschool through Fifth Grade, developing her curriculum in a way that demonstrates to her students the importance of music throughout the world, in her students’ own communities, and in the life of their school. She organizes regular performances for her students, giving them an opportunity to set and work toward specific goals, and to use music as a powerful tool to communicate around ideas and issues that are relevant to their everyday lives.

Ms. Rothfeld continuously develops new programs and ideas for her students so they can grow through hands-on experiences with different instruments and techniques. In 2015, she launched a successful fundraiser to purchase ukuleles — an instrument that lends itself particularly well to teaching melody, harmony, singing, improvising, and storytelling — for Thurston to add another layer of music to the school curriculum. She also leverages resources offered by regional arts organizations to further her own professional development, bringing new ideas and techniques back to her classroom and taking students out of the school to experience live performances by professional artists.

The DTE Energy Foundation is sponsoring the awards as part of its annual grant support to UMS Youth Education Programs.

View Full Press Release

Faculty Spotlight: Theatre and Incarceration

University of Michigan students in The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) had the opportunity to experience UMS performance, “Us/Them” in the Winter of 2018. Allison Taylor interviewed Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP and Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, to learn about the incorporation of “Us/Them” in the curriculum.

us them performers 

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) began in 1990 when Buzz Alexander, an English professor at the University of Michigan, had been doing work that incorporated theater and social change in his classes. He was approached by a student who wanted to do a theater workshop in a prison, and asked Alexander to accompany him. Alexander was so deeply moved and inspired by the experience in the prison that he began building a curriculum that essentially grew into what the Prison Creative Arts Project is today.

“This is our 28th year,” said Ashley Lucas, the current director of PCAP, and an Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama at SMTD and the Residential College. “We are now a curricular program and a student organization at the University of Michigan, so I, along with three or four other people, teach PCAP classes which train our students to facilitate arts workshops in prisons.”

Lucas has spent the last five years traveling the world and visiting prisons to see how other people approach theater in prison. Currently, she is working on an academic text entitled Prison Theatre in a Global Context that delves into the “why” behind theater in prison — what makes it so powerful? From where does this phenomenon stem?

“I’m trying to discover why people go through so much trouble to do theater in prison, because they absolutely do — it is happening all over the world, and has been for hundreds of years,” Lucas said. “Why is it so important to people? Why do people go to such extraordinary lengths to make this happen? What is it that people in prison get out of doing this kind of work?”

This semester, Lucas is teaching a PCAP class, “Theatre and Incarceration,” that has teamed up with UMS to incorporate two UMS productions, Us/Them and Nederlands Dance Theater. The class, which includes weekly visits to a number of prisons within the Michigan Department of Corrections, used their experiences with Us/Them and NDT to enhance and inspire the workshops and activities that are brought in to the visited prisons.

us them performers

“When Us/Them came up, and the gracious folks at UMS were kind enough to offer us tickets [through a Course Development Grant], I got really excited because Us/Them is a play with a very small cast, making an incredibly complex world out of very little, scenically,” Lucas explained.

When Lucas and her students visit the prisons, it is often difficult to find materials to use for their workshops; they must find ways to get maximal use and results out of whatever supplies they may have.

“They did some really cool stuff [in Us/Them], with the string and chalk on stage. We often have to use the same kinds of techniques and ideas in order to make a whole world out of improv when we’re performing in the prisons with incarcerated folks. For the most part, we can’t have props or costumes. I think Us/Them helped the students to conceptualize how to use things to create sentiment that becomes profoundly real. That was really mind-blowing for a lot of the students, particularly those who were not theater people. And even those who were theater people, I think, took a lot from seeing how much of a world you could create with such few people.”

“When I started talking to the folks at UMS about how my class could interact with the work that they were doing, NDT came up because they are a dance-theater company and they really create a whole world out of their bodies. We make a whole lot out of very little, and we do that with people who aren’t professionals, people who might be trying theater for the very first time, people who might never have seen a formal play in their lives, people who are wrapping their heads around the fact that live theater is not the same thing as television performed outside of the box. So to be able to contrast the experience we have in prison with a really highly professional performance that is created by people whose whole job it is to make this art form, is a very interesting contrast for me as a professor, for my students, and for people who are learning what theater is and can be in the world. I think things like Underground Railroad Game, Us/Them, and the edgier works that UMS presents help us learn, as we do in the prison, that there are many different ways in which the arts can be political and can convey something about social change.”

In addition to the arts workshops in the prisons, PCAP hosts one of the largest annual exhibitions of prisoner art in the world. Every year in March or April, the exhibition takes place in the Duderstadt Gallery on north campus for two weeks. This year, it ran from March 21st through April 4th.

us them performers

“That’s part of how we came to have this engagement with UMS,” Lucas explained. “ Part of what’s happening with our connection with UMS is an exchange program. For the last 5 years, I have taken students from the PCAP programs who have done theater workshops in US prisons to Brazil. Our students go into the prisons in Brazil and do theater with folks in prisons, favelas, and hospitals, with patients and staff. That program runs for three weeks every summer, and as part of the exchange, we invite the Brazilians here as well. While you all are having this wonderful event with the NDT, we are hosting guests that are coming here to perform in connection with that art exhibition. We will have four faculty and 10 students from two universities in Brazil here as well for a week — March 20-27.”

This year’s show is the largest show PCAP has ever done. “We’re displaying something like 658 works of art by over 500 artists, and we saw upwards of 3,000 pieces of art. The quality of the work being created is extraordinary, and you will never see an exhibition with a broader range of artistic media, or subject matter. You very seldom see a show with 500 artists in it who are all thinking about the world from very different perspectives. Because when you lock up as many thousands and thousands of people as the state of Michigan does, you’re bound to have a huge diversity of opinions and of viewpoints on the world, and that’s very much reflected in the work that we have in the exhibition.”

“This year, my heart is very full because one of my favorite artists is a man named Martin Vargas, who is one of only 5 people to have been in the show for all 23 years that we’ve had the exhibition, and he just came home a few weeks ago. He did 45 years in prison. And was in our art show for 23 of those years, and he’s going to get to see the show for the first time. It’s really, really exciting, and I’m so grateful he’s able, finally, to see the thing that he helped to make for more than two decades. That’s a profound gift for those of us who work in PCAP.”

Are you a U-M faculty member who would be interested in bringing your students to a UMS performance? $15 Classroom Tickets are available for students and faculty in courses that require attendance at a UMS performance. To learn more about how to work with UMS, email Campus Engagement Specialist at skfitz@umich.edu or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.

Faculty Spotlight: “Hair and Other Stories” in U-M Classrooms

This post was written by UMS 21st Century Intern Grace Bydalek.

On January 12th, 2018, UMS rang in the new year with a performance of Urban Bush Women’s Hair and Other Stories in the Power Center for the Performing Arts. Urban Bush Women’s work focuses on text with the history, culture, and spiritual traditions of African Americans and the African diaspora. Artistic Director Jawole Zollar weaves together the boundary-pushing non-linear stories through dance, music, and spoken word.

Hair and Other Stories was crafted through interviews and other personal narratives, highlighting the struggles and complexities of our current world and times ahead. Original compositions by The Illustrious Blacks underscore dynamic movement and storytelling about gender identity, economic inequalities, body concept, race, freedom, liberation, and release in this extraordinary time.

Faculty across a variety of schools at the University of Michigan chose to integrate this engaging performance into their syllabi, exposing their students to the world of performance art and modern dance. Below, some of these faculty discuss the impact of Hair and Other Stories on their courses and students.

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

            Clare Croft brought the students in her course Dancing Women/Dancing Queer to the performance of Hair and Other Stories. The students had been prepared for the performance over the duration of the semester. Croft explains, “The students read portions of dance scholar Nadine George-Graves book on Urban Bush Women, did class exercises focused on movement description, and then attended the performance as their first step in their performance analysis paper. For the paper, students had to take notes on the physical, material details of the performance; and then write a paper in which they described a significant moment in the performance, contextualize that moment in the performance as a whole, and then discuss how that moment raised questions about gender and sexuality.”

Croft observed her students’ curiosity and increased engagement in the course after the performance. They were, as she describes it, “struck by the overt discussion of race and gender, which some thought was moving and some thought demonstrated a lack of trust in dance’s ability to make meaning.”

            Petra Kuppers exposed her undergraduate students in Health, Gender and Performance, a course run as a collaboration between LSA’s Women’s Studies and the Theatre Department. In the class following the performance, Kuppers and her students created their own movement material from their “body histories,” inspired by Urban Bush Women’s physical movements.
“We used the theme of ‘everyday rituals,’ and students wove performances of worship and communal meals together with moments of private movement, abstract patterns that held memories for them, and that they shared with and taught to their co-performers,” Kuppers explains.  She immediately observed a change in the way that her students, many of them pre-medical, engaged in the course material. “As it was early on in our course, this was the first time the students performed for each other, and it was a pleasure to see the energy and delight unlocked by seeing and then engaging dance work together,” Kuppers states.

urban bush women

Photo: Urban Bush Women. Courtesy of artist.

Joel Howell’s Medical Arts Program focuses on the benefit of the arts on medical practice, and is done in cooperation with the medical school Office for Health Equity and Inclusion. Given the nature of the program at hand, Howell did not do any specific preparation for the performance in his course, save for a lively discussion with Jawole Zollar. They discussed the piece at large, and about racial disparities in medical treatments and outcomes. “I think the conversation with Jawole Zollar before the show was the most valuable part of the evening,” a medical student stated. “Not only did it help contextualize the show and highlight some of the intent behind the pieces, but it also helped draw connections between art, especially dance, and how we as physicians move through the world.”

After each performance, he asks his students to provide him with feedback. The connections between Hair and Other Stories and the medical world abounded. “We talked a lot about being truly present in a moment when communicating with someone and ways to consent to and properly end a shared experience no matter how big or small,” one student observed. “We also discussed the concept of autonomy and asking for permission to enter a shared, intimate space with another person. Both of these things are essential components to a positive patient encounter.”

 

The Space Where You Used To Be

This essay is written in conjunction with Colin Stetson’s performance of Sorrow. UMS Presents Colin Stetson: Sorrow – A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony Saturday, April 14th at Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. 

“The Space Where You Used To Be” is written by Doyle Armbrust. Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

I don’t want to write these words. Or, conversely, when I knew I’d be covering Colin Stetson this season, I was over the moon. Forgive the caveat, but as a music journalist, my mailbox is jammed with dozens of albums every week…but Colin’s records remain at or near the top of the pile, ever since I laid hands on a copy of his New History of Warfare, Vol. 1 (2008).

So I finally get the opportunity to cover an artist whose creativity cuts glass — that continues to startle and inspire me.

And then Stoneman Douglas sends us all reeling.

At this point in our country’s history, UMS could have thrown a dart at the calendar when considering a piece about the loss of children and it would have coincided with a mass shooting. That’s not what prompted this concert, or this re-imagining of Górecki’s iconic Third Symphony, but I’ll bet that I’m not the only one reckoning with this excruciating reality as we encounter this exquisite piece.

Why, in 1992, did the Nonesuch Records release of this symphony miraculously sell a million copies? Maybe because pain is the one existential element we are all assured of sharing in this lifetime. Maybe because one thing we can all agree upon is that there is no analogue for the loss of a child. Those that have experienced it cannot possibly translate its depth, and yet those that have not have no trouble empathizing with it. Górecki just found the vein, and he opened it up.

Columbine was the defining school tragedy of my childhood. Ever since then, the voices of the victim’s parents have always haunted me well beyond the moment the story escapes the news cycle. Though the brave speeches and interviews with surviving students at Stoneman Douglas offer a glimmer of hope that maybe this time it will be different, and that change is peeking out from its dark cell, it’s the parents — those most acutely left behind — that level me. Tributes and policy change are vital…but there remain those that will live out the rest of their years with a blank space that a child was meant to fill.

Movement 1: “Lento — Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile”

 

“To be honest, it seems to be getting harder. I keep looking for him. I reach out for him. I keep thinking he’s here and can’t understand why he’s not.”

— mother of six-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School victim

 

Even if your religious beliefs trend elsewhere, or not at all, there is something universal uncovered in the story of the mother, Mary, and her fated son, Jesus, which provides the launch point for Górecki’s lament. The moment of intimacy between them, as he staggers under the burden of his crucifix, is so movingly captured in Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ, but here we enter more tenebrous emotional territory. Colin’s sooty reeds moan into view, ushering in low strings and woodwinds to this dirge. There is a solemnity evident here, and yet the steady progression of the assembling voices reveals that this is not the first time this song has been sung. The pain is singular — the tears unlike any that have ever flowed — but the tune is unfortunately a familiar one.

One detail of Colin’s records that draws me in is that his human-ness is left intact. His breath is a feature, rather than something to be deleted by an engineer, which brings the listener closer to live performance than albums typically allow. The vulnerability of this Third Symphony — what makes it so captivating — is honored by his ensemble’s interpretation, even enhanced with the dramatics of splashing cymbals and sublimated blast beats in the drums. Though illuminated through these interpretive filters, Górecki’s reverential economy of means is undisturbed. This writing, and this reinvention, move beyond the liturgical to something altogether more beautifully crude. More raw, and more riveting, and Colin’s coda is pure scorched earth.

 

Movement 2: “Lento e largo Tranquillissimo”

 

“I am broken as I write this trying to figure out how my family gets through this…hold your children tight.”

—father of 14-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas victim

 

The rising ‘E’ – ‘G-sharp’ descending to ‘F-sharp’…to my mind, this is the most memorable figure from Górecki’s Third, and perhaps the most heartbreaking. There is something so hopeful about an ascending major third, and something equally resigned about its settling back a step lower. Hope seems so dangerous in this realm, but also so necessary if we are to carry on. When they emerge, Colin’s sax and the synths embody an almost Angelo Badalamenti-esque aesthetic, magnifying the potency of this dire supplication to Mary. Rich vibrations in the guitar and strings provide the foil for the incremental rises and falls in the doleful vocal line before the music, and our thoughts return to the expectant ‘E’ – ‘G-sharp’ – ‘F-sharp,’ and with it, a propulsive beat from the percussion. Perhaps there is catharsis to be found amidst all this despair.

colin stetson

 

Movement 3: “Lento — Cantabile-semplice”

 

“One of the hardest things to accept, for me, is that this horrible way of feeling is the new normal.”

—mother of 31-year-old Pulse nightclub victim

 

It was understandably assumed that Górecki’s Third Symphony was instigated by the horrors of the Second World War. According to the composer it wasn’t, but neither was this project born out of our too-frequent mass slayings of students. It just fits, because loss of this magnitude is a possibility, or current reality, for us all.

This third movement is in some ways the most transformed of the three, in Colin’s interpretation. The drums again shift forward in the orchestration, building to a frenetic intensity before the arrival of the revelatory key of A Major that concludes the piece. “And you, God’s little flowers / May you blossom all around / So that my son / May sleep happily,” implores the soprano. This is real life. This is a winsome spring morning seen trickling through the sieve of rapacious grief. It is beauty, attenuated, but beauty nonetheless. It is the best we can hope for.


This essay is written in conjunction with Colin Stetson’s performance of Sorrow. UMS Presents Colin Stetson: Sorrow – A Reimagining of Górecki’s Third Symphony Saturday, April 14th at Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. 

“The Space Where You Used To Be” is written by Doyle Armbrust. Doyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 MusicCrain’s Chicago BusinessChicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

Artist? In Residence

This post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Artists come from various disciples and attend several UMS performances throughout the season as another source of inspiration for their work. UMS Artist in Residence Morgan Breon previously reflected on US/Them. In this post, she continues her exploration on being an “artist” and the meaning of “art.”

Morgan Breon is a performing and literary artist. She’s an ensemble member of Shakespeare in Detroit and the Detroit Repertory Theater. Morgan’s play “A Kiss of the Sun for Pardon,” which she wrote at the age of 13 and reprised 13 years later, received the award for “Audience Favorite” at the 2015 Two Muses Women’s Playwriting Festival and the “Jury Award” at the 2015 Detroit Fringe Festival. Morgan received a dual Bachelor of Arts and dual Masters from the University of Michigan, none of which are in theatre. Her degrees reflect her passion for youth, social justice, as well as individual and community healing. These principles influence Morgan’s work as an artist, and guide her use of the arts to impact community. Morgan credits Jesus Christ with her gift of anything creative.

I’m struggling. To write this blog. That might be because I don’t have anything to say. Or, that might be because I have too much to say…

I want to tell you who I am as an “artist-in-residence.” But I’m struggling, because part of me is still grappling with who I am as an “artist.” I know that in the eyes of many people, I am qualified to hold the title of “artist.” But as I step further and further into what drives me…I am wondering if I will hold the title much longer…even though my mode of communication will probably always be “art.” Confused yet? Great. Welcome.

Let’s break this down. And start from the present.

“At this point in my life, I am more interested in what art can “do,” than just “doing” art.”
 -Morgan Breon

I don’t know if this somehow disqualifies me from identifying as an “artist.” You know, since my intentions have shifted. But my love for entertaining, alone, doesn’t make me a full-on activist either. I have reconciled my “double-purpose” into one term, with many meanings: ARTivist. What is ARTivism exactly? Really, I just want to perform and get people talking — which happens to be the mission of my company.

I officially founded Heal.Be.Live., LLC in September of 2017, and the mission on our website literally states that we:

“Use art to heal a variety of communities through guided discussion and connections to available resources. #ARTivism”
Heal.Be.Live., LLC Website

Although the company is technically less than five months old, the idea for it began brewing in 2015 with one play: “Waking Up Alive.”  For those who don’t know, the term: “waking up alive” is a phrase used within the mental health field for an incomplete suicide attempt.  “Waking Up Alive” the play is centered around a similar premise. After an incomplete suicide attempt, Tabitha Blue, a young Black minister, is released from Williams Psychiatric Institution and returns to work at Harmony Church. She is met with: controversy, judgment and the threat of losing her job–from fear that her “incident” may “taint” the ministry. While the plot is not an exact reenactment of my life, it was birthed out of my life experiences. At the onset of my depression at the age of 12, one of my biggest fears was that my “emotional state” was a sinful disappointment to God. My constant thoughts about “ending it all” and “wanting to leave this place” were always shushed, albeit not settled, by my fears that death by suicide would lead to an eternity in fire and brimstone. So I suppressed. Art, more specifically, poetry and acting became my safe haven. Somehow the “sinful” feelings that I was ashamed to express publically, were celebrated, if masked in a poem or a monologue. I learned that it was ok to be sad…on stage. Just not in real life. The only problem was that once I got off stage, the sadness was still inside of me. This. Was real life.

During college, I started learning the truth about God and His “supposed” wrath…which had been replaced by these little things called “grace” and “mercy.”  “Grace,” as many might know, is “getting more than you deserve,” while “mercy” is not getting the “bad” that you deserve. This growing revelation (that continues until this day), coupled with my passion for social work and theatre led me here. Exactly where I am today: “At this point in my life, I am more interested in what art can “do,” than just “doing” art.” I’ve never been one for boxes. And maybe the birth of “ARTivism” keeps me out of boxes, and instead, traveling down a squiggly line by which I am ever: evolving, learning, growing, and creating. Shifting. I guess the sum of it is, I am neither and both an artist and activist. Yet, something about saying either/ or doesn’t feel completely “right” either. Although I must confess that I am more partial to the title of “artist.”

Heal.Be.Live., LLC is the culmination of everything that I am passionate about.  At the beginning of my UMS residency, a reading had been held of “Waking Up Alive” along with a discussion. (A short video chronicling this event can be seen here.) By the end of my UMS residency, a collaboration with: the Library Fellows Sheila Garcia and Jesus Espinoza of UM Libraries, Emilio Rodriguez of UMS and Heal.Be.Live., LLC will be held in the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery on May 24, 2018 at 7 pm. This collaboration will preview my latest stage play and second official project of Heal.Be.Live., LLC entitled: “Telling Our Stories.” “Telling Our Stories” is a docu-play that strives to empower the voices of Black women in America by creating a space for them to tell their own, full stories. These full stories involve the stories of over 20 women and over 200 hours of conversation. (An example of the docu-play format can be seen here.) I am ready to start more conversations around more topics. “Telling Our Stories” is the next step. So, if you’re even just a little interested in what ARTivism is, this event will be a great introduction.

In sum, I’ll leave you with the ideology that gave Heal.Be.Live., LLC its name: “In order to live, you must first “be.” In order to “be,” you must first heal. Heal. Be. Live. For more information about my artistry, check out our website at: www.healbelive.com.

For a brief summary of what we do, watch the video below!

Follow this blog for more updates from Morgan throughout this season. Learn more about Renegade this season.

FRAME-ing Performance

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer one more open dialogue around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on  Monday, March 19 at 7 pm in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

Angela G. King

“FRAME-ing Performance” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

This is not an artistic undertaking for the faint of heart.

From the two-person cast that lay bare all inhibitions — literally as well as theatrically — to usher a fictitious middle school class along a graphic exploration of race, sex and power. To all the cultural deliberation that can surface amid witness of a black prima ballerina performing at the zenith of a historically Eurocentric dance form. Or a medley of classically superior vocalists belting out an operatic take on black life as interpreted nearly a century ago by those well outside that life.

The University Musical Society and University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities skirted no potential disquiet in culling their second slate of creative offerings for later discussion on how such offerings can test the limits of the status quo.

A discussion that, by her own words, left Amanda Krugliak in awe.

“It was a conversation so open and deeply generous in terms of what was being said by everyone on the panel as well as in the audience,” shared the curator of the U-M Institute for the Humanities. Krugliak conceived with Jim Leija, director of education and community engagement for UMS, the three open dialogues being called “FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity.” This most recent exchange continued into February after its January debut.

“Jim and I had talked for several years about wanting to create a gathering in the tradition of early salons in Paris and Berlin, first organized by women who had no space to express their thoughts and ideas,” explained Krugliak.

Their goal, she elaborated, was to create an intimate space not unlike a living room, one “where intelligent people could come and talk about the visual art, music or performance they had seen at UMS or the humanities institute.”

“We weren’t after lip service, or accolades, or a pat on the back for good intentions,” continued Krugliak. “But rather, a frank and informed conversation that would take us all somewhere else further.”

From that foundation ensued a discourse that may not have been quite as well attended as the first FRAME get-together of 30 or so guests. Convened once again in the atrium of the Thayer Building, it proved just as riveting, though. If not more so.

Photo: Underground Railroad Game. Courtesy of the artist.

“I didn’t think I could be made to feel uncomfortable again in my seat,” John Sloan III confessed from the outset of that second back-and-forth of Underground Railroad Game, one of two recent shows from the current UMS season that he attended. An actor and musician originally from Oak Park, Sloan capitalized on his U-M fine arts degree, spending more than a decade trekking around the country affecting others in their respective seats at regional theaters, concerts, and venues along the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King. He finally returned to this area for good this past August, bringing original theatrical works before audiences via his GhostLight Productions Inc.

Yet having appeared in everything from Julius X, a 1960s retelling of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar during the last days of Malcolm X, to Showboat, the racially provocative musical depicting life on a floating theater along the Mississippi River at the turn of the 19th century, he still found himself grappling with Underground Railroad Game.

Created by and starring Jennifer Kidwell, who is black, and Scott R. Sheppard, who is not, this is the 90-minute farce that made its way to the Arthur Miller Theatre on the campus of Sloan’s alma mater in mid-January. Bringing with it the racially-charged adult language, sexual content, and nudity that inspired The New York Times to declare the off-Broadway show a “resounding testament to theater’s continuing power to shock” when hailing it as one of the best theater productions of 2016.

“The nudity itself wasn’t necessarily provocative for me,” Sloan opined of Kidwell and Sheppard’s portrayal of two fifth grade teachers at Hanover Middle School. This is the school in southeastern Pennsylvania that Sheppard actually attended as a child. And where he actually experienced the premise of his stage collaboration with Kidwell: being led in a role-playing game where Union soldiers try to smuggle slaves — represented by dolls — to freedom. All while Confederate soldiers try to recapture the dolls as they make their way north.

Recast in far more mature terms of late by Sheppard and Kidwell, at times calling upon the audience to become the fifth graders, it was an enactment replete with oral stimulation, domination, masturbation, and the “N” word that Sloan admitted to finding “difficult, in moments, for me to digest emotionally.”

“There was a sense that the nudity allowed for an exploration of status and power dynamics,” he elaborated.  “This became especially dangerous when considering the actors’ identities.  Not to mention the idea that the entire framing was of two teachers using this ‘game’ to instruct middle-school kids.”

Articulating her own discomfort, Billicia Hines, the director of Wayne State University’s black theater program who was also at the UMS presentation of Underground Railroad Game, buttressed that with how the other black women in the audience reacted.

“The black women were really vocal about the fact that they were unhappy with the situation,” according to Hines.

“I understand that the characters in the play were constantly switching roles in terms of power,” she voiced of her dismay, in particular. “However, this play only left me more frustrated. Do I want to see the black female body be objectified even if she chooses to be? No. There are definitely other ways for them to make their point.”

Misty Copeland as Juliet in Kenneth MacMIllan’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

What Underground Railroad Game did to shock sensibilities, even provoke the four arts mavens leading the second FRAME discussion to question if they could ever appear in such a project, American Ballet Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet did to confront notions of cultural identity. And the standard of success in correlation to what has been deemed mainstream.

“Does a European aesthetic have to be the parameter of success?” Hines wondered.

Yes, she maintained, her mother was beside herself merely to get the opportunity to witness Misty Copeland, the first African American to be promoted to a principal dancer within the renowned American Ballet Theatre, onstage. In town from Hines’ home state of North Carolina and all dressed up, she was excited, even perched in the top balcony of the sweeping 2,700-seat Detroit Opera House, to see Copeland perform. For three hours with her daughter among a full house of fellow onlookers who had braved a Michigan snow storm for ABT’s elaboration of Romeo and Juliet.

“She is good in her own right,” Hines granted of Copeland’s leading turn in this enduring romantic tragedy by Shakespeare.

“It wasn’t about Misty,” she disclosed of what ultimately nagged her about the overall experience. “It was about the [dance] company.”

“I kept asking myself, what kind of dynamic would that have presented if she had been dark-skinned and had a big afro?” challenged Willie Sullivan, development coordinator for UMS. “I don’t think that ABT would want that on the stage, quite frankly.”

Still, Sloan cautioned against a discourse on some sort of standard of blackness. More productive, he urged, is the examination of how the black experience has been played out through the lens of white artistic creators. From Ragtime to Once on This Island to, more recently at U-M’s Hill Auditorium thanks to UMS and the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Porgy and Bess.

Composed by George Gershwin with his lyricist brother, Ira, and author DuBose Heyward, this long-hallowed love story between a disabled beggar and comely but drug-addicted prostitute that premiered in 1935 debuted more recently at U-M in concert form. That is, with the more familiar theatrical presentation swapped out for an orchestra on stage that, for four hours, fronted the all-black cast of opera singers who were adorned in tuxedos and evening gowns and backed by a sizable multicultural choir.

Porgy and Bess is a wonderful opera,” insisted Hines. “I love history. However, consistently telling our story from a white person’s point of view is getting tiresome. Do they truly know how we are feeling? I say no. And constant images of weary black people sticks in our souls and unconsciously stains

Photo: Porgy and Bess. Courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

our hopes and dreams.”

Such candor is why Sharman Spieser was glad she didn’t go with her first inclination to skip this latest FRAME salon, an informal occasion again that, according to her, “created a sense of intimacy and spontaneity.”

“Listening made me feel part of the sharing, and this deepened my understanding and appreciation for the complexity, authenticity, and skill that artists offer our world,” raved the independent education consultant. With a ticket already to Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation, the multi-media concert that UMS will host on March 14, Spieser plans to be at the final FRAME discussion five days later as well.

“They bare their souls for us,” she noted of the creative professionals who lend their time and insight to facilitate these talks after such performances. “I have so much respect for them!”

This essay is published in conjunction with FRAME: A salon series on visual art, performance, and identity surrounding the No Safety Net Series theater festival performances. The U-M Institute for the Humanities and UMS will offer one more open dialogue around contemporary visual art, performance, and identity on  Monday, March 19 at 7 PM in the Atrium at 202 South Thayer Building in Ann Arbor.

“FRAME-ing Performance” is written by Angela G. King. King is a writer, filmmaker, and actress. Her most recent endeavors include “The Girl Who Wasn’t There,” a memoir of human trafficking that she’s helping one young West African woman to share.

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