REVIEW: Mission Improbable: Yotonix Spytacular

As the lights dimmed in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on Saturday night, a huge cheer went up from the crowd. As a senior, I knew why — we were back for an annual tradition that we hadn’t seen since our freshman year.

Yotonix is the annual show featuring a collaboration between two very talented student orgs on campus: Revolution and Photonix. Revolution is our Chinese Yo-Yo team. Photonix is known for their glowsticking and visual arts performances.

The 2020 Yotonix show was tragically scheduled for March 14, the day after things officially turned topsy turvy, and they had to cancel due to the pandemic. 2021 Yotonix was a brilliantly crafted virtual show . But nothing can replace a live, in-person arts performance. This year marked the return of the in-person version of the show, and everyone in attendance was ECSTATIC. It was a night full of amazing art and there wasn’t a dull moment.

The show was, as it promised, both “Spy-tacular” and spectacular. The performers made their craft look so easy, but that was just the mark of their talent and months of practice.

The Chinese Yo-Yo, or Diabolo, is not what most people picture when they think of a yoyo. It evolved completely independently of the Western yoyo in China and grew popular as a toy in Europe. It requires a lot of skill to do most Diabolo tricks because you need to constantly maintain a fast enough spin so it stays stable…while it’s being whipped around and jumped over and caught all over the place.

Glowsticking originates from poi, a performance art first practiced by the Maori people of New Zealand that involves swinging weighted tethers called poi in geometric patterns. Glowsticking evolved from this as a performance done in the dark while either swinging glowsticks attached to strings, twirling glowing batons, or “freehanding” it by tossing/spinning the glowsticks directly in each hand. Learning this also requires a great deal of skill because you need to swing the glowsticks at high speeds for them to trace continuous patterns in the dark and it’s easy for them to get tangled or smack you in the face in the process.

It makes sense why, in the weeks leading up to the show, I often saw both orgs practicing in Mason Hall late at night! They were not taking on easy routines. My photos really don’t do them justice.

I really liked the choreo both groups demonstrated this year. Most Yoyo shows I’ve seen tend to stick to the same high-energy EDM music that gets a little overused after a while. Revolution’s creativity really shined through in the routines they put together to all sorts of musical genres, both fast and slow. Photonix also came through, experimenting with innovative glow suits with lights sewn into them and adding hula hoops and music-synced lights into their performance. *applause*

I also want to write a little ode to an oft-underrecognized part of any performance: the audience. I love the energy of the crowds during these student shows. We’re not there to see a professional, polished thing – we’re there to cheer on our pals. When someone drops their Yo-Yo or tangles up their glowstick and has to dart offstage, we only cheer and clap even louder in support. Because everyone in that theater was there to celebrate the passion and creativity and camaraderie that these students poured into this show – for once, not for any resume or class assignment or final project – but simply to HAVE FUN and express themselves.

I give Yotonix 2021 five out of five stars 🙂

REVIEW: Enter the Haggis at the Ark

I love the Ark. I love its hallway lined with black-and-white frames of the performers that have graced its stage in years past. I love that it’s run by volunteers who will always help you find the best seat. I love how the stage isn’t roped off or even that tall – if you’re sitting close enough you can kick back and rest your feet on the edge, feeling the vibrations of the band’s sound.

I also love the Toronto band Enter the Haggis. I found them by accident when I was in the 6th grade. I had been going through a strange Irish/Celtic rock music phase and was jamming along to my The Corrs radio station on Pandora when I first heard their song “To the Quick”. There’s something about the Highland bagpipe that is so gorgeous to me. Each note rings clear, louder than anything else surrounding it, and without any vibrato or chance to cover up what the note is. You can’t lie on the bagpipe! And the combination with fiddle and rock guitar is so interesting.

My favorite Haggis songs are “Musicbox” and “To the Quick” — two tracks off of their oldest album from 2005, and two of the few that have no lyrics. Coming to hear them live was a pretty magical way to experience those songs, but was also a great introduction to their more recent work. I could notice a few changes. I love it when bands experiment with their sound – I don’t think any creator deserves to be put in a box where they can’t change.

At the show everyone played a little bit of everything, it seemed. There were vocals and keys and guitar and drums and sometimes, spontaneous battles between the fiddle and harmonica! I sat up close to Craig Downie, who seemed to know how to play basically every music-producing thing on this planet. I do not kid when I say that Craig had his own little *table* with a spread of instruments that he would swap between at will. It was marvelous to watch him go from swinging around a giant set of bagpipes to a tiny little harmonica or piccolo to a moon-shaped tambourine. The band joked that they needed to set up a special “Craig Cam” just to follow his movements.

Craig Downie playing the Great Highland Bagpipe

 

Just before starting the last song on their set, the frontman turned toward my part of the room and said “This song is dedicated to this pair right here. They’re a mother and daughter, this is their 5th concert of ours in a row that they’ve come to – and they were late to our show tonight because they were getting MATCHING Haggis Head tattoos.” At that the pair both rolled up their sleeves to show the audience proof. It was wild. Someone to their right yelled “That there is COMMITMENT” and we rolled into the final song. Everyone in the audience was clearly there to support the band and to share that excitement with each other, and by the end nobody was standing still.

I hope that more artists find ways to play their music in smaller venues again. Big stadiums have their own kind of magic, but they can’t replicate that feeling of intimacy that comes with being so up close and personal.

REVIEW: Belle

I REALLY wanted to like Belle.

I’ve loved many of Mamoru Hosoda’s other movies: Summer Wars, Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and of course the O.G.: Digimon Adventure 1999 (my childhood). My gut reaction after watching Belle was to go back and rewatch all of those instead.

Belle is an animated film adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that follows a high school student named Suzu who escapes the insecurity and loneliness of her real life through ‘U’, a dazzling virtual alternate universe where she can be someone completely different. Her virtual persona quickly rises to extreme popularity and she has to navigate these dual versions of herself while going through the trials and triumphs of high school, love, friendship, and grief.

Let’s start with the Good:
[1] The animation was BEAUTIFUL. I mean OH MY GOODNESS can we sit and appreciate how far animation has come in the last decade? The depictions of the alternate Digiverse ‘U’ were so effective at showing how vast it was, how many detailed moving parts there were within it. The characters truly came alive on screen as people with blood, sweat, and tears.
[2] The sound design was also incredible. Suzu’s singing features prominently throughout as a metaphor for her confidence in herself and her love for her mother. The songs were all super catchy and well written and lingered in my mind long after the movie ended.

Alas, now we must go onto the reasons this movie was not my cup of tea, despite the great art and sound:
[1] The story was a big bowl of confusion soup. In a sci-fi movie about the metaverse, I expect the plot to be a little out there, but some things in this movie just go beyond logical human behavior. After the umpteenth weird sideball I could no longer suspend my disbelief. The story felt weak and underdeveloped.

[2] This movie wanted so bad to be a character-driven film, and it almost got there! At the beginning, the writing was strong – the main character Suzu had a powerful backstory that set the audience up to understand her struggles and root for her. And listen, I admire an aspirational storyteller. But if stories are onions, this one had about 10 too many layers. There’s a random scene that’s supposed to nod at Beauty and the Beast but it doesn’t make sense given the characters and doesn’t mesh with the rest of the story. Near the end of the movie the tone suddenly goes from adventurous to extremely serious and then back to playful so quickly I got whiplash. Not even the most masterful chef could fold that many plotlines into one and tie them up with a neat little bow. But that is what this movie tried to do and the result was a cliche ending that didn’t seem resonant with the important questions posed at the beginning of the movie: How do we continue living with joy when we’ve lost the irreplaceable? How do we learn to love ourselves? How do we rediscover our love for the things we loved as children? I’ve heard Hosoda described as a “maximalist” storyteller and here I’d have to agree — there was too much, and as a result there wasn’t enough.

All in all, if you’re an anime connoisseur then I would say give this a watch for the dazzling animation. But life is short, and in my humble opinion Hosoda’s Summer Wars is much, much better — spend your two hours in that world instead.

REVIEW: Schwarze Adler (Black Eagles)

Last Friday the German Department hosted a free curated screening of the 2021 independent documentary film “Schwarze Adler” (translated from German: “Black Eagles”). The space they held it in at North Quad was great – it was huge, with floor-to-ceiling windows spanning the length of one wall, whiteboards and cushy chairs spanning the other, and a big blank wall up front to project the film onto. The physically-distanced chairs they’d set up in the room were fairly packed with people coming for the event.

Watching this documentary was a pretty emotional experience for me (which is why it took me so long to write this review!).

Steffi Jones, former defender for the national team

Seeing footage in 2021 of fans at a soccer game doing the Hitler salute will do something to your psyche. I’m privileged — some people don’t have the choice of whether to turn away from the screen, because they live through this every day. Imagine being a player on a professional sports team where the only difference between you and your teammates is that your skin is a shade darker. You’re trying to focus on the game you’ve trained for for most of your life when you suddenly hear 1000s of fans in the stands surrounding you, most of which are from your own country where you were born and raised, yelling at you to go back where you came from. That’s an experience that was recounted by every single German soccer player interviewed in this documentary.

The way fans treat athletes is something worth having a whole discussion on. Cheering for your favorite players and booing when the other team scores is all good fun. But when that morphs into jeering, chanting hateful racial slurs, and hurling insults at players, that’s when it becomes absolutely cruel. Michigan football games are not immune to this behavior. We put athletes on pedestals, but they are not made of titanium, they’re made of flesh and blood! They’re humans just like us and when fans dehumanize them, they deprive them of so much: joy from being on the field, joy from being with their teammates, and the focus they need to stay in the game.

Gerald Asamoah, former forward

Many of the players in the documentary talked about how hearing those shouts of “go back to your country” and “kick out the negro” would affect their playing, and they thought about it for the whole rest of the game. At one point one of the players, Gerald Asamoah said he had “never seen such hate anywhere else before.” One of his fellow teammates of color left Germany to play for Ghana because of the experience. Another player, after being subjected to it for half a game, picked up a small red crate on the sidelines and threw it down in a fit of anger. His teammates said nothing to him — the referee just handed him a yellow card. Another recounted how sad it made him when he saw that not only were the parents chanting slurs, but their small children were too.

Almost all of the players also made connections between the way they were treated to Germany’s dark history. “How can you show this behavior when we have seen exactly where it leads?” I think the same could be said of racism in our country. The U.S. has an equally dark history, it’s just that it’s usually glossed over in our history textbooks.

When the credits began to roll, I was feeling kind of hopeless and defeated. I know that’s not the right response to world issues, but I couldn’t help it. But then one of the professors from the German department got up to say a few words.
Here’s what she said, paraphrased:
“Don’t be disheartened. These thoughts of racism have accrued over centuries and it will take time to undo them. Martin Luther King Jr. was only assassinated 52 years ago so really we’re just at the beginning of the work to undo it. And don’t feel bad if you are not the one who goes out and marches and shows up in a big way. The small acts matter to. Every act of kindness, and every act that does something to acknowledge the humanity in others matters.”

So go out and show up in a small or in a big way this week, and know that we have a long way to go but every act matters.

PREVIEW: Schwarze Adler (Black Eagles)

Tomorrow afternoon, you could kick off the weekend as I usually do — plant yourself down at the library and glue your eyeballs to your laptop screen for two hours.

ALTERNATELY, you could plant yourself down in a comfy chair in the neat North Quad collaborative space and glue your eyeballs to a different screen to live and learn through the experiences of Black players on the German national soccer team.

UM’s German department is hosting a curated screening of the 2021 documentary film “Schwarze Adler” or “Black Eagles” tomorrow from 2-4PM in North Quad 2435. https://events.umich.edu/event/90023

“The documentary lets black players of the German national soccer team tell their personal stories for the first time. What road did they take and what obstacles did they have to overcome before they got to where we cheer for them?”

As we head into a weekend of events celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, I strongly encourage you to make time to reflect on the values that drove his and countless other lesser-mentioned civil rights leaders to fight inequities in their community, and how you are upholding those values.

I think we can all agree that working and living as an athlete is extremely challenging. There are a heap of pressures riding on these people’s backs: the internal drive to win, press and media attention, and the demands of your coach and teammates. It’s stressful at all levels, from high school to the NCAA to the pro leagues.

Those pressures are multiplied for athletes of color, who are often dehumanized. In the U.S. today, Black athletes are dogged by stereotypes that chalk their talent up to “inherent physical ability” rather than the actual years of hard training and practice they put into the game. They have to deal with antiquated competition restrictions that center the needs of their white counterparts (Exhibit A: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/14/style/olympics-soul-cap-ban-swimming.html), and then are shamed for using their platforms to protest their unjust treatment or prioritizing their mental health (ex: Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka). Here’s an interesting history of Black athletes at our very own university: https://heritage.umich.edu/stories/lonely-as-hell/.

Now move the map to Germany. The personal stories of these players will likely be entirely different, and yet…similar in some fundamental ways to what we see in our country. What I think will be invaluable about this film is that the soccer players will be telling their own stories directly to the camera — no filtering or watering down included. This will be a thought-provoking way to get out of the U.S-centric perspective bubble I live in.

I hope to see some of you there!

REVIEW: Prisons and Politics in America Exhibit

Tucked away in a corner of Hatcher North’s first floor is the Audubon room, named for the extremely rare volume of naturalist James Audubon’s “Birds of America” paintings that it houses. From now until March 24, it also houses the Prisons and Politics in America exhibition curated by Julie Herrada.

“Prisons and Politics in America: An Exhibit of Art, Poetry, Letters and Prison Resistance from 1890 to Today,” examines the political reasons for why people are imprisoned: for speaking out, for writing, for violating repressive laws, framed because of their color or politics, for stealing from the rich, for refusing the military draft, for whistleblowing, for attempting to overthrow the government, for standing up for a belief, or for walking over a forbidden line.

The items focus on maintaining one’s humanity behind bars, promoting political causes, and offering solidarity in support of prisoners.

 

 

The exhibit was pretty small, with a total of 39 items, but I thought it was a fitting size. The items on display were well-chosen and represented a variety of time periods, activist movements, and prison injustices. I learned a great deal by walking around and slowly taking each artifact in, reading the thoughtfully-written blurb about each.

“San Quentin Days: Poems of a Prison” by Anonymous

There were all sorts of artifacts: from protest pinback buttons to FBI Wanted posters to comics to a recipe for DIY prison ice cream. The most moving parts of the exhibit for me were the sections displaying prison writing: poetry, letters, memoirs, books. Writing is one of the most powerful tools of expression that a prisoner has, and also is one of the only ways they have to connect to the outside world. Some of the items in the collection were extremely rare and among only a few surviving copies around the world. Writing is hard enough in a comfortable space – can you imagine how difficult it must be to write from prison?

I had forgotten how far back the history of protest and activism goes. Every time a new movement starts , to me it can feel like a whole new isolated effort, which is a huge sign of my privilege. There are many who are not given the chance to forget the history to which movements are attached to because those issues affect them every single day. Rarely is there an injustice so new that there were no ancestors who had to fight it in their time too.

 

Free John Now! Poster, 1971

The exhibit sparked some thoughts for me on how activism has changed over the past century and how it has stayed the same. The language in some of the items in the exhibit was very similar to the language I see in protest posters printed today. Strong language, fueled by a sense of justice. Images of chains and bondage and upright fists underneath calls to action like “FREE [X]” and “STOP [Y].”

Attica. Poster, [197?]
The greatest difference I see is because of something that modern-day activists have that the past did not: digital technology. I am amazed at the materials people used in the past — postcards, buttons, flyers — that had to be distributed by hand and on foot. Imagine if the leaders of the 1919 labor strikes in Detroit had access to a computer at the library where they could open up a Microsoft Publisher document, put together a graphic and slap it on Facebook or Instagram for free. It has been said often in the Information Age, but I’ll say it again: our modern-day ability to disseminate information so quickly and widely is borderline magic.

Free Gary Tyler Poster, [197?]
I will say that I would have arranged the exhibit a little differently. The arrangement of artifacts seemed to maximize how much I had to walk. I also would have also liked it if items that were part of the same “movement” or at least from the same time period in history were placed close together to make the exhibit feel more cohesive. The decision to put this exhibit in the Audubon room strikes me as a bit strange, given that James Audubon was known to oppose the abolition of slavery and argued that black and indigenous people were inferior. Many of the incarcerated people mentioned in this exhibit were of black or indigenous origin and were jailed by blatantly racist judicial systems on little to no evidence, a term labeled “legal lynching”. A small acknowledgement of the fact that their stories are right now sharing the same space with the legacy of a proslavery individual would have been thoughtful.

If you’re ever studying in Hatcher, I highly recommend slipping away for a bit to check out this exhibit in the Audubon Room on the first floor. It is well worth the visit and I guarantee you’ll learn something new!