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Watching L-E-V and Chucho Valdés: Hypnotized

Editor’s note: Helena Mesa is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Helena saw LEV, the dance company led by former Batcheva dancer and choreographer Sharon Eyal, and Chucho Valdés, the legendary Cuban pianist. Below is her response to the performance.


October arrived with techno beats and L-E-V, the dancers like liquid as they pulsed across the Power Center stage. Dressed in black body suits resembling latex, the dancers slid through space, but before I knew it, Sara, the 13-minute dance, ended, the lights stunned the auditorium, and our voices rose in response—each murmuring to the next. I’d come to the performance as part of the UMS artist in residence program, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write in response to dance.

It was later, during Killer Pig, the longer second performance, the dancers dressed in earthy tones, that my mind shifted, and instead of thinking about how to think about what I watched, I gave myself over to the music, to the conversation between body and sound. The dancers were hypnotic, shifting from ballet to modern dance, the forms blending, so I couldn’t tell what was what—what was classical, what was modern, what was the beauty of a body, and what was the beauty of the choreography. Their movements felt raw, one body’s motions echoing another’s, at times coming together, at times breaking apart, until one of the dancers broke off into her own, and the music, too, broke, into sharp sounds that almost hurt in its emotional cacophony.


And then, November arrived, and on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I walked through downtown to the Michigan Theater. The streets bustled. Folks strolled, enjoying the unexpected mild fall. Entering the theater to see Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40, I was surrounded by Spanish, the Cuban kind, the accent familiar, the words turning my ear in ways that carry me home. I settled into my seat, chatted with the woman beside me, fingered my program, and when the show finally began, the piano and bass and drums cracked the crowd’s murmurs. The notes spoke to one another. And the horns talked back.

chucho valdes and afro cuban messengers

And with time, so did we. We raised our hands and clapped to the beat, we stood and swayed our hips at our seats, and when the singer asked us to sing, we sang back, pio pio pio, and later ella, and suddenly, I found myself again hypnotized, giving myself over to the performers, but also, giving myself over to a familiar story: My father sitting on the couch reading the paper, my mother pulling him up from the couch, and the two giving themselves over to the piano and bass and horns of a Cuban big band, and dancing the way Cubans dance—with a joy to be alive.

That evening, I walked out into the twilight and felt the eerie feeling of being pulled out of myself. The music was still with me, and I felt that familiar feeling we often experience when we’re young—the desire to stay with the crowd for as long as we can, to feel part of something larger, and a strange sadness to walk off alone, the music still lingering. A horn to the chill in the air. A beating drum to each step toward the parking garage. The step back and half-turn up the stairs. My own humming.


When I was first learning to write, I wrote thick lyric poems that never made sense, and instead of thinking about how to write a clear narrative that a reader might understand, I focused on the poems’ music. At the time, I’d never studied meter or rhyme; I’d never thought about the structure of the line, but I wanted my poems to mimic Arturo Sandoval, an early member of Irakere. I’d listen to “A Mis Abuelos” (“To My Grandparents”) again and again, and then I’d color-code my poems, trying to find a way to mimic not only the rhythm, but the shift in tone between a solitary trumpet that suddenly breaks into a congregation of big band sounds—horns, piano, guitars, and conga drums.

Thankfully, I’ve lost all those badly written poems, but now I realize that I was trying to find a way to break open a poem, to evoke an emotion I didn’t know how to express, to say something unexpected and meaningful, much like James Wright captures at the end of “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” I often, jokingly, tell my students that if I were ever to bear a needle long enough to get a tattoo, I’d print Wright’s lines along the inside of my forearm, as a reminder. Those transformative moments happen so rarely. You can’t force them—they just happen. Nonetheless, I want a poem to transform me as a reader, much like L-E-V and Chucho Valdés transformed me as a viewer.

I do not yet know how L-E-V and Chucho Valdés will shape my poetry. I can picture how the lines of a poem might begin to move through the white stage of a page, and I can imagine how I can play with both traditional rhythms and modern speech. And I know I want to find a way to layer different sounds and voices, like Chucho Valdés weaved tango, funk, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. But right now? I’m hung up on hypnotism, how the music compelled and enthralled me. How I couldn’t turn away from the elastic muscles and mirrored movements; I couldn’t turn away from instruments stretching and teasing until it seemed the song might break. In the dark, I leaned forward, wanting to memorize every movement and sound.

Photos are courtesy of the artists.

UMS Artists in Residence: Meet Helena Mesa

Editor’s note: UMS is in the second season of its Artists in “Residence” program. Five residents from across disciplines take residence at our performances throughout our season. We’ll profile each resident here on UMS Lobby. 

Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems have appeared in various literary journals, including Indiana Review, Pleiades, Third Coast, and Puerto del Sol. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and Writers in the Heartland. She lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at Albion College.

UMS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.

Mesa UMSHelena Mesa: When I was a senior in High School, I secretly wrote poems on my sister’s computer, but I didn’t know they were poems until I took my first creative writing class in college. One of the assignments was to go to the local bookstore, choose a poetry collection, and write a response. I read Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau and fell in love. Since then, I’ve been reading and writing poetry, thinking about the power of compressed language, a restrained narrative, and image. At first, my poetic study was unfocused, but eventually, I attended graduate school in Maryland and Texas, which focused my way of thinking about poetry.

UMS: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where can we find you working on your art?

HM: Most often, I begin with an image—I don’t always know what shape the image will take, or what significance the image possesses, but the image guides me toward the poem. Sometimes, the image comes from looking at art, listening to a podcast, talking with friends, or observing something in the world around me. Sometimes, the image comes from a writing prompt that a friend sends me. I do my best writing at home, in a quiet space, but wherever I am, I’m always taking notes, with the hope that the notes will help me find a new image, a new idea.

UMS: What inspires your art? Can you tell us about something you came across lately (writing, video, article, piece of art) that we should check out too?

HM: My poetry arises from so many places—books, a painting, a trip to Cuba, something a student says, something I hear on the radio….I tend to write personal, lyrical poems, so I’m always looking for metaphors and allusions that will allow me to address the personal indirectly. When I recently read Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, I was blown away, by his humanity, sorrow, jubilance, and sincerity—the poems left me feeling a range of emotions without irony or melodrama. I highly recommend it!

UMS: Are you engaged with the local arts community? Tell us about groups or events that we should know about.

HM: I’m always looking for new ways to engage with our local arts community. Both Literati Bookstore and Nicola’s Books schedule fantastic readings. The University of Michigan graduate students perform throughout the fall and spring as part of their graduation requirements. It’s a great way to listen to young and upcoming composers and musicians!

UMS: Which performances are you most excited about this season and why?

HM: I’m looking forward to so many of the UMS performances! I’m excited for Tenebrae and Chucho Valdés. I’m curious to see how layered choral voices and Afro-Cuban jazz might influence my poems, especially because I’m interested in pushing my poems’ musicality. I’m also excited to see L-E-V and Camille A. Brown & Dancers, and to consider how modern dance might challenge the movements and turns within my poems.

UMS: Anything else you’d like to say?

HM: I’m excited for the opportunity to see the performances, and to discover how they will inform my writing. I’m grateful for a chance to step away from my ordinary, busy life, and look at the arts in a new way. Thank you!

Interested in more? Watch for more artist profiles on UMS Lobby throughout this week.


Announcing 2015-2016 UMS Artists in Residence!

UMS has something to inspire everyone, from classical music, jazz, global, and indie music, to dance and theater. From left to right, artists on our 2015-2016 season: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, to perform works of dance pioneer William Forsythe; My Brightest Diamond, who opens our season with the Detroit Party Marching Band; theater and cabaret artist Taylor Mac; violinist Gil Shaham, whose performance of Bach’s violin partitas collides with the iconic film world of David Michalek, and Antigone by Sophokles, in a new translation by Ann Arbor’s Award-winning poet Anne Carson. Photos courtesy of artists.

UMS is pleased to announce the second installment of our artists in “residence” program. Why “residence” in quotes? Because instead of a traditional artist residence, during which artists quite literally live at the place where the artist residency is located, we’re asking area artists to take residence at our performances.

We received many wonderful applications. Thanks to all who applied for the chance to experience your work.

Five artists (including visual, literary, and performing artists) have been selected to take “residence” at UMS performances, using these experiences as a resource to support the creation of new work or to fuel an artistic journey. Residents will receive complimentary tickets to select UMS performances; a $500 stipend; gatherings with fellow residents; and behind-the-scenes access to UMS staff and artists, when available. In return, UMS asks that artists share their artistic journeys via residency entrance and exit interviews and on the blog; participate in select UMS Education & Community Engagement events; and share artistic work generated during the residency when possible. Rights to all artistic work produced as a result of the residency will remain entirely with the artists.

Introducing our 2015-2016 artists in residence

Russell Brakefield received his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor where he teaches writing at the University of Michigan and works as a bookseller and as the managing editor for Canarium Books. His most recent work appears in The Southern Indiana Review, Hobart, and Language Lessons: An Anthology by Third Man Records.

Siobhan McBride was born in Seoul, South Korea and currently lives in Ann Arbor. She received her MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. She was an artist in residence at Yaddo, Jentel, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Program, Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been exhibited at NURTUREart, the Pelham Art Center, Eight Modern, and this past winter at Miami Project with DC Moore.

Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems have appeared in various literary journals, including Indiana Review, Pleiades, Third Coast, and Puerto del Sol. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and Writers in the Heartland. She lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at Albion College.

Andrew Morton’s plays include Bloom (a winner at the 2013 Write Now Festival and winner of the 2013 Aurand Harris Memorial Playwriting Award), which received its world premiere at Flint Youth Theatre in May 2014 and was subsequently published by Dramatic Publishing, Inc. Other works include: February (shortlisted for the 2007 Royal Court Young Writers Festival), Drive-Thru Nativity, and the collaborative projects State of Emergency, EMBERS: The Flint Fires Verbatim Theatre Project, and the upcoming The Most [Blank] City in America, premiering at Flint Youth Theatre in April 2016. As a community artist and educator, Morton has worked with a range of organizations across the globe, including working alongside Salvation Army community counselors in Kenya to incorporate participatory theatre into their work with people living with HIV/AIDS. While based in the UK, he worked with several educational theatre companies and was the Education Officer at the Blue Elephant Theatre where he ran the Young People’s Theatre and the Speak Out! Forum Theatre projects. Morton is currently based in Flint, Michigan where he teaches at the University of Michigan-Flint and is Playwright-in-Residence at Flint Youth Theatre.

Ben Willis is a bassist, improviser, and composer whose affinities lie in collaborative projects, new music, improvisation, and the merging of cross-disciplinary elements. He released an album of solo double bass compositions, Egret/Flatlander, in summer of 2015. His jazz-rock band, Lovely Socialite, will be releasing their second album, Toxic Consonance, in fall of 2015. He lives in Ypsilanti, MI, and performs often throughout the midwest.

You’ll be able to follow the artists’ journeys throughout the UMS season right here on UMS Lobby.

In this video, 2014-2015 residents chat about what they loved about the program.

Interested in learning more? See this season’s application requirements.

Members of the media interested in more information about the program should contact Anna Prushinskaya, manager of digital media, at Download press release