Faculty Spotlight: “Written in Water” in U-M Classrooms
In October 2017, UMS presented Ragamala Dance Company’s Written in Water. University of Michigan students had the opportunity to experience the performance, many attending with a University of Michigan class that incorporated Written in Water into the curriculum.
Veronica Dittman Stanich interviewed faculty who shared their experience with the work and impact on students.
On October 20, 2017 UMS presented Ragamala Dance Company’s Written in Water at the Power Center. Ragamala’s work is grounded in the classical South Indian dance form Bharatanatyam, but its artistic directors, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, continue to push its traditional boundaries, working in contemporary choreographic contexts and collaborating with a range of musicians and visual designers. In Written in Water, they bring together themes of spiritual ascension from an ancient Sufi text, a Hindu myth, and Paramapadam—an Indian antecedent of the board game Snakes and Ladders. The dance unfolds against a backdrop of projected images by artist Keshav and is accompanied by Amir ElSaffar’s heady blend of Middle Eastern music and jazz, performed live by ElSaffar and a small ensemble of musicians. Faculty across the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts integrated the performance into their syllabi, bringing over 250 students to the performance. Here, some of these faculty explain how Written in Water functioned in their courses and how it impacted their students.
Yopie Prins brought all 125 students from Great Performances (Comparative Literature 141) to Written in Water. For this course—a First Year Writing Requirement similar to a “Great Books” course—students see performances from across genres, including music, dance, theatre, and opera. Prins explains, “I like to hold open a space for canonical works from non-western traditions. Ragamala brings together classical Indian dance and a more contemporary American aesthetic.” To prepare for this form that was unfamiliar to many students, they read about Bharatanatyam, participated in a movement workshop led by graduate students from the Dance Department, and attended a talk given by Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy. Prins comments, “UMS went out of their way to introduce the artistic directors to the class.” For their written response to the performance, Prins asked students to formulate an interpretation of the work by drawing on information from the preparatory readings and workshops as well as on their direct experiences in the theater. “It was an opportunity for some students to say, ‘I don’t know all I need to know to make sense of this,’ and to think critically about what they were missing,” explained Prins.
For Madhumita Lahiri’s Introduction to Indian Cinema: Bollywood (English 375), Written in Water extended the students’ investigation of a culture’s ideals around the body and movement. The performance allowed an additional perspective on Indian dance, augmenting students’ study of movement vocabularies in films. Lahiri’s students learned Bharatanatyam’s hand and foot movements and basic postures and she finds that, since the performance, students are noticing references to Bharatanatyam in the films they watch. Written in Water also became a lesson in looking. Lahiri notes, “Many of my students are on dance team, but the concert dance experience is new. Even students with a South Asian background, who know Bharatanatyam, don’t know the ‘codes’ of concert dance. There are choreographic layers, in addition to production layers like the projected artwork.” The class also found that unlike films, “There are no close-ups and no focus on the soloists. The camera isn’t there telling you what to watch. That was part of our classroom discussion—What did you notice? How did you know what to watch?”
Leslie Hempson’s Islam at Sea: The View from the Indian Ocean (History 195) examines how Islam spreads, asserting that it is an oceanic tradition, transported through commerce and navigation. Written in Water provided students the opportunity to consider some of the course’s themes through the medium of performance. For example, the course examines Sufism, a primary mechanism for the spread of Islam in South Asia, and especially its experiential elements; Sufism stresses an interactive relationship with God, often mediated through music and dance. The incorporation of Sufi text into the performance allowed students a different sort of inquiry into this theme. Their assigned responses to Written in Water focused on experiential elements—how it looked, how it sounded, how it made them feel. “Another major concern of the class is movement, movement of people and ideas,” says Hempson. “We can see how portable so many traditions are. Ragamala based in Minneapolis is an example; the tradition comes from South India. It helps us think about how art changes as it moves.”
In Sara McClelland’s Approaches to Feminist Scholarship in Humanities and the Social Sciences (Women’s Studies 601/602), first-year graduate students investigate feminist approaches to research practices that are used across the Humanities and Social Sciences. These include embodied methods along with more familiar ones like reading, listening, and counting. Written in Water provided an opportunity for McClelland’s students to consider ethnographic participant/observer practices, performance, and spectatorship as modes of research. She notes, “A lot of students aren’t accustomed to thinking about performance as inquiry. Most had never imagined performance’s potential as scholarship.” Now McClelland asks, “Where are your bodies in your research?” For their final projects, using methods from the course to investigate a research question, most of her students are planning to incorporate embodied practices. McClelland considers UMS performance an important part of her course, not only pedagogically—because it allows students to encounter sources other than text—but also socially. Most of her students had never heard of the Power Center and were excited to learn about UMS programming, especially the No Safety Net series.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our new guide How to Integrate a UMS Performance into Your Course.
Veronica Dittman Stanich writes about arts-integration in the university for UMS, and researches it for the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru). She also teaches writing about dance and performance, and holds a PhD in Dance Studies.
U-M Theater Community on Peter Brook’s The Suit
Director Peter Brook changed contemporary theater. His production of The Suit will be in Ann Arbor on February 19-22, 2014. We chat with University of Michigan faculty, as well as with former Royal Shakespeare Company director Michael Boyd, about why they’re excited to see the production and the importance of Brook’s work:
Interested in learning more? Check out our infographic of the highlights of Brook’s life and work.
Presenting: UMS Tweet Seats Pilot Project
TWEET SEATS EVENTS
Tweet Seats 1: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Find out what happened.
Tweet Seats 2: Théâtre de la Ville: Ionesco’s Rhinocéros. Find out what happened.
Tweet Seats 3: Mariinsky Orchestra of St. Petersburg. Find out what happened.
Tweet Seats 4: Find out what happened.
WHAT ARE TWEET SEATS?
This season, UMS is launching a new pilot project: an experiment at the cross-section of live performing arts and technology commonly known as “tweet seats.”
Tweet seats refer to seats in which tweeting is permitted during the performance.
UMS has invited 5-7 people to participate in our tweet seats pilot project at 4 select performances. Only these 5-7 tweet seats participants will be permitted to use devices to participate in this pilot project; for the rest of the audience, our standard device policy applies (“Turn off all cellphones and electronic devices”).
The tweet seats participants will silence their phones and dim back-light to lowest setting; we’ve also prepared individual phone containers which will almost completely minimize any light emitted from the devices so that the experience of other patrons is not affected by tweet seats. Ensuring a smooth performance experience for all is our top priority.
At each of the 4 designated performances, participants are required to tweet 3-5 times using the hashtag #umslobby. No specific instructions for content of tweets are given. We’ll follow up with participants after the performance and chat with them about their experience; interviews will appear here on UMS Lobby.
You can follow or join the conversation after the performance here.
WHY TWEET SEATS?
Studies show that for some, engaging with technology is the preferred method of processing a performance and of “being present” at a performance.
In one such study, (“Making Sense of Audience Engagement”) Alan Brown & Rebecca Ratzkin refer to this subset of audiences as “technology-based processors.” They “love all forms of online engagement, and appear to be growing in number, especially among younger audience segments. Technology-based processors search for information online before and after the event. They connect with others on Facebook and other social media, and are most likely to read and contribute to blogs and discussion forums on the arts organization’s website. Their motivations are both intellectual and social in nature.”
So, we thought, let’s get together a group of people with differing attitudes towards technology to learn more about the effects of using technology during a live performance experience for all.
Our question: what can experimenting with technology teach us about being “engaged” or “present” at a performance?
We’ve pre-interviewed some of our participants so that you can get to know the range of attitudes that are part of the project. We asked them questions like:
- In one sentence, how would you describe your relationship with technology?
- What kinds of arts experiences do you like or look forward to most?
- To you, what does it mean to “be present” during a performance or another arts experience?
- What are you looking forward to in this experiment of experiencing performing arts with technology? What questions, concerns, reservations, or anxieties do you have about this experiment?
Learn more about them & their thoughts about technology and this pilot project below :
- Leslie Stainton, U-M School of Public Health Findings magazine editor and umslobby.org contributor
- Michael Kondziolka, UMS Director of Programming
- Mariah Cherem, Production Librarian at Ann Arbor District Library
- Paul Kitti, writer for iSPY magazine
- Mark Clague, U-M Associate Professor of Musicology and UMS Board member
- Greg Baise, Detroit-based concert promoter, arts writer, and DJ
- Garrett Schumann, composer, U-M Master of Music in Composition student, and umslobby.org contributor
- Neutral Zone and the University of Michigan participants
UMS : Tell us about you. If you have an online presence you like to share publicly please tell us the relevant websites or user names/handles.
Leslie Stainton: I’m an editor at the UM School of Public Health and the author of a biography of Spanish playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca and a history/memoir of an American theater. My website is lesliestainton.com.
Greg Baise: I am Detroit-based concert promoter, arts writer, and occasional DJ. Some of my playlists can be found at vivaradio.com/lavie
Paul Kitti: I am a writer for iSPY Magazine, a monthly entertainment publication. I’ve spent the past two years covering a wide range of local events, including concerts, festivals, and screenings. Music and writing consume most of my brainpower, and I’ve found Ann Arbor to be an ideal environment for discovering new artists. In addition to journalism, I’ve held positions within U of M’s Athletic Department and Career Center. Magazine: http://mispymag.com/ LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=91711849&trk=tab_pro
Mark Clague: I’m an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture, African American Studies, and Non-Profit Management (whew!) at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance as well as a member of the UMS board. I tweet as @usmusicscholar and have a couple of WordPress blogs, including one on the bicentennial of the U.S. National Anthem (osaycanyouhear).
Michael Kondziolka: My name is Michael Kondziolka and I am the Director of Programming at UMS. My online presence is limited to Facebook and a couple of blogs that I regularly comment on.
Mariah Cherem: My love of music started with singing as a toddler, and has followed me through years of violin, various bands, and the occasional DJ set. My interest in how communities articulate their values through policy led me to EMU’s Arts Management MA program. A few years later, curiosity about online communities and the interplay between on and off-line behavior led me to UM’s School of Information. I now count myself extraordinarily lucky to be bringing all of these interests together in my work as a Production Librarian at AADL.
Garrett Schumann: I am a composer pursuing my doctorate in Music Composition at the University. In addition to writing music, I host a music show on Washington Public Radio called We Are Not Beethoven where the ever-changing place music holds in the 21st-Century world is discussed. Learn more at garrettschumann.com and follow me on twitter @garrt.
UMS: In one sentence, how would you describe your relationship with technology? OK, you can elaborate beyond this first “thesis” sentence if you would like.
Greg Baise: If a new record comes on vinyl with a digital download, I always opt for the vinyl over the cd. If the vinyl doesn’t come with a digital download, I buy the vinyl anyways.
Leslie Stainton: Troubled! I’m dependent on it, like everyone, and annoyed by it. I want it to do what I need it to do, and that’s it—I’m not a gadget person, don’t like games, don’t find technology interesting for its own sake. While I see the utility of social media, it strikes me as a giant time suck, and so I seldom engage—though I do enjoy blogging for UMS. I enjoy the way it makes me think more deeply about what I’ve seen onstage. I’ve done some tweeting and Facebook posting for the School of Public Health, but not enough to feel confident or particularly comfortable in either area.
Mariah Cherem: Technology can be fun and fascinating and super-mind-blowingly-cool, but I’m most interested in how people use it to connect to each other, to information/resources that they need, and to things that they’re passionate about. Also, I think our definitions of what constitutes “technology” are constantly shifting. A pen or a typewriter doesn’t seem like technology now, but there was once a point when it did.
Michael Kondziolka: I have an enigmatic relationship with technology. I tend to be a late adopter….and, while I accept that technology is here to stay, I sometimes bemoan its impact on our culture. In my view, the irony of “connectivity” embedded in much of mythology/ideology of social media is one of the great farces of our time: users seem decidedly less connected. (This is in no way an insightful observation as much has been written on the topic.) This fundamental concern aside, I can be a fanatical user of technology from time to time and I don’t think I could give up my iPhone at this point. I have social media sites that I use on a semi-regular basis. At the end of the day, I have a very healthy skepticism and think it is important to push back on assumptions in all sectors of life.
Garrett Schumann: I believe the Internet Web-based media have created a new and unprecedented aesthetic experience in the 21st Century, and it is imperative for those involved in the performing arts and other parts of culture to interact with and embrace those technologies if their work is to remain relevant to society at large.
Paul Kitti: I’m an email addict, avid texter and internet junkie with a loyalty to Apple products. Despite growing fully accustomed to the constant technological buzz of my generation, I still prefer hard copies of books and magazines.
Mark Clague: I enjoy exploring technology for new views on our world and to grow my own creativity, skills, and perspectives.
UMS: This pilot includes a broad range of performing arts experiences: theater, dance, global music, orchestral performance. What sorts of performing arts experiences are you most familiar with? More broadly, what kinds of arts experiences do you like or look forward to most? What do you wish to have more experience with?
Leslie Stainton: I did my BA in drama and my MFA in dramaturgy, so I’m passionate about live theater and know a fair amount about it, or at least once did. I’ve studied dance off and on and am interested in the form, though don’t know as much about it as I probably should. Ditto music: I’m married to a musicologist, and we attend many concerts and talk about music and listen to it at home. But I’ve never taken a theory course so don’t understand it in the kind of depth I’d like. I’m far more drawn to classical music than to popular forms, jazz, country, or so-called global music. I adore museums—think of them as spiritual centers and seek them out almost every time I travel—and spent six years working for UMMA. I’m interested in arts experiences that provoke and challenge, that cross traditional genres and boundaries, that make me think more profoundly.
Mariah Cherem: I am most interested in (and luckily can attend) the orchestral performance and the performance by Gilberto Gil. In general, at some point I’d love to do UMS “Night School” related to a dance performance, as that’s an area I feel that might help my enjoyment even more.
Greg Baise: In music, I’m mostly familiar with rock, world music, contemporary classical music and modern dance. I’m very interested in art history in general, and modern art in particular, especially stuff that’s too current for the latest art history surveys. I’d love to get deeper into experimental theater and more modern dance.
Paul Kitti: I’ve played a couple instruments and attended several classical concerts. The most memorable performance I’ve witnessed was “Einstein on the Beach” as presented by UMS earlier this year. My knowledge about theatre and dance is limited, although I’ve grown more and more interested in these types of productions over the past year. The art-related experiences I look forward to most are the ones involving music and/or acting.
Garrett Schumann: Because I am a composer I am most familiar with music and musical performances. However, I love all kinds of performing arts and cultural experiences from dance shows to theatrical performances and, particularly, contemporary arts exhibits.
Michael Kondziolka: Relatively speaking, I have a lot of experience with most forms of the performing arts and a passing familiarity with the others. I am least familiar with some forms of contemporary popular music and culture. I look forward to a broad range of experiences from the very traditional to the very experimental.
Mark Clague: My primary arts experience is as an orchestral musicians (bassoonist), but I also masquerade as a photographer, saxophonist, and singer. Inspired by John Cage, I like to challenge myself to explore new kinds of art and to open myself up to new ideas and experiences. Thus I’ve increasingly attended UMS dance, theater, and world music events to stretch beyond my orchestra and jazz comfort zone.
UMS: Why did you decide to participate in this project?
Michael Kondziolka: As a way of testing my own, sometimes staunch, assumptions.
Greg Baise: UMS’s programming plays a huge part in my cultural activities. HUGE. I’m still astounded that within the past year I’ve seen the Gate Theatre, Einstein on the Beach, and Jessye Norman perform John Cage, all thanks to UMS. I hope I can contribute through these tweet seats and raise awareness of UMS’s presence and programming. And I’m honored to be asked to participate.
Mariah Cherem: In general, I think very highly of UMS’s programming. I’m not often able to attend that many performances, however, due to time and budget constraints. I’ve been interested in how various technologies can help or hinder enjoyment or engagement in experiences (in this case, it’d be performances). I’m not sure that I think that Tweeting about performances is really quite right for me, but I’m willing to give it a shot and try it in the name of experimentation. This idea pushes me a little bit out of my comfort zone of “things I tweet about” or talk about online, and I think that nudging around one’s boundaries now and then is important.
Garrett Schumann: I use twitter a lot in my life both for fun and for professional purposes, so I feel like I am experienced enough with the technology to contribute a meaningful opinion to this project’s discussion. Also, I think the tweet-seat question is emblematic of performing arts organizations’ struggle to maintain relevance in the 21st-century.
Paul Kitti: I appreciate what UMS brings to Ann Arbor, and I’ve immensely enjoyed my past experiences with their productions. Honestly, the opportunity to witness and participate in these events is something I knew I couldn’t pass up.
Mark Clague: I’ve heard a lot of buzz about Tweet Seats and enjoyed the few times I’ve surreptitiously tweeted at an arts event and thus wanted to try it out for myself when it was “legal.”
Leslie Stainton: Because I’m addicted to working with UMS?!
UMS: To you, what does it mean to “be present” during a performance or another arts experience?
Garrett Schumann: Obviously, attending an event is step one to ‘being present’, but I think the phrase involves incorporating the experience you’ve had at a concert/performance into your life at large. By this, I mean talking to people you know about what you’ve seen/heard, breaking down your experience in conversations and sharing it with others either online or in person.
Greg Baise: Hmm. Present? Paying attention. Learning. Enjoying. Not distracted. Taking it in in the present, and remembering it for later, too.
Paul Kitti: Art requires the beholder to suspend all preconceptions and unrelated thoughts; to be present during an arts experience is to lend your mind as best as you are able to what is before you, constantly trying to identify the message, meaning, uniqueness or beauty of what you’re seeing and hearing.
Leslie Stainton: To shut out the workaday world and become utterly absorbed in the experience at hand; to come away with some new understanding.
Mariah Cherem: The ideas of presence and focus are those that I struggle with most when thinking about how this experience might go. For me, I often don’t want to be the lens – don’t want to be capturing pieces of something, as then I become detached. Even at rock shows, I get a little annoyed when the guy in the front feels the need to film everything instead of just getting into it and being “in the moment.” However, at the same time, I think that there may be potential for people to raise awareness of their experience of a particular musician, play, etc. via social media channels. I don’t want the arts to get lost in our larger conversations because we “shouldn’t” be talking about them in some way or another – using some tech or another.
Mark Clague: It’s more than just physically attending; To be present is to connect with the art and engage with it, allowing the motivations, messages, and even the spiritual dimension of the art to converse with you. For me Twitter is one way to honor that conversation by translating my nebulous experience into 140-character thoughts, documenting and sharing these, and potentially chatting with others about these reactions.
Michael Kondziolka: This, for me, is the nub of the issue. I do not tend to believe that a mediating device can truly help in this regard. Of course, there are tools that can help mediate the experience and enhance it — infra-red listening devices, subtitles, etc. But, at the end of the day, those are mediating tools which are necessary to aid the user in accessing some aspect of the presentation that they otherwise could not. Critique, the intellectual processing and analysis of what has happened, starts during the performance but is codified through words after the performance. (“How can I put this experience into words….?”) Even a non-critique, a purely emotion-based exclamation – “I loved that!” — to be tweeted, takes one out of the experience. I have yet to understand what/why/how the dimension of time plays into all this. I can’t wrap my head around why something tweeted in real time — at the moment it is felt or realized during a performance — is more valuable than something tweeted during a natural break in a performance — at intermission or after the show. (“Wow…impressive return to the tonic key!”) That is how we have always tended to process our collective experiences pre-technology…and I don’t understand why we frame the real-time possibilities offered by tweeting to be somehow better…or an improvement. (It may be, as umsLobby’s Musiclover would call it, a “disimprovement.”) I view the communication that takes place between a performer and an audience member — whether it be lyric, declaimed or movement based – to be sacred. Therefore, anything that breaks that bond is anathema to the notion of being “being present.” I also subscribe to basic norms, rightly or wrongly, of what I was taught to believe are civil manners — if someone is speaking (or performing) they deserve your full attention.
When I really drill down on this topic, I realize that I actually believe that the use of technology in new and possibly intrusive ways — in this instance, as part of the performance experience — is most probably an ideological metaphor of independence: a classic moment of generational division.. (“Look Ma, we have our own ways of doing things.”) And that ideological position probably exists outside the forum that is being created to address this question.
UMS: What are you looking forward to in this experiment of merging performing arts with technology? What anxieties, concerns, reservations, or questions do you have about this experiment?
Paul Kitti: I’m looking forward to simply experiencing these productions, and the chance to offer input and be engaged through technology is kind of an added bonus.
Greg Baise: I’m looking forward to new cultural experiences, and sharing my impressions and observations. And also getting feedback – I hope I say stuff that’s of interest to both my friends and to total strangers. I might be a little reserved about thinking about (or over-thinking) what I tweet, maybe to a point where I’m concentrating more on the tweet than the performance. Also, I’m concerned about interfering with the enjoyment of others through use of technology and wonder how isolated we will be from the general audience.
Michael Kondziolka: I am looking forward to the basic act of testing one’s strongly held views. I am most concerned about breaking the scared bond and I take solace in the fact that I can go again and have the same experience in a completely unmediated, truly present, way on a subsequent evening. Anxiety would come in the form of worrying that, through my actions, I am interfering in someone else’s sacred moment.
Leslie Stainton: I’m honestly not sure about my ability to tweet—haven’t quite gotten the hang of 140 characters and don’t really understand hashtags. I’m also frankly worried about the ADD element of all this—trying to multitask while watching a performance. I’m not at all sure I’ll enjoy the experience or want to repeat it, but I’m sufficiently curious I’m willing to try it once.
Mariah Cherem: I think that my answers to the two questions above actually already hit on these points! : )
Garrett Schumann: I’m most interested in the arguments against allowing twitter into the concert hall. Because I am unabashedly in favor of the ‘tweet seat’ idea, my bias tends to inhibit my ability to relate to the dissent that is out there, and I look forward to an opportunity to learn more about viewpoints that oppose mine.
Mark Clague: I’m looking forward to the real-time conversation with other Tweet-seaters; my only worry is in getting criticism from other patrons who either think we’re doing something wrong or who just personally object to social media in an arts event.
Stay tuned for more interviews with our participants about their experiences over the course of the pilot project.