REVIEW: Paul Taylor: Celebrate the Dancemaker

Though it was not a traditional performance, UMS’s online presentation of Paul Taylor: Celebrate the Dancemaker was nonetheless something special. Near-equal parts dialogue and archival footage, it featured University of Michigan dance historian and educator Angela Kane and Paul Taylor Dance Company Artistic Director Michael Novak in conversation about the works of modern dance choreographer Paul Taylor, as well as the history of the dance company he founded. Because it was a presentation specifically for UMS audiences, Paul Taylor: Celebrate the Dancemaker was also able to provide a sense of local community, despite being an asynchronously viewed video.

One of the best parts of the event was the insight that it offered into Paul Taylor’s wide-ranging and ground-breaking career. Taylor’s experiences as a painter and a collegiate swimmer informed his understanding of depth and movement onstage. Expanding the boundaries of modern dance at the time, he was also one of the first artists to employ a year-round, full-time dance company.  After opening with a rapid-fire montage of selections from Paul Taylor’s 147 works, the video featured Novak and Kane discussing some of Taylor’s most monumental works, and then showing excerpts of them.

The first work explored during the presentation was Taylor’s 1962 work Aureole, which challenged the notion that modern dance was limited to “modern music and weighty meanings.” In fact, Aureole was a lyrical, flowing, light work that, in the grainy black-and-white original film of Paul Taylor and Liz Walton, appeared to be almost be a modern impression of a classical ballet.

Then, Kane and Novak introduced audiences to Aureole’s opposite, Scudorama (1963). Lyricism was replaced with sharp angles, jarring rhythms, and a weighty, almost apocalyptic feel. Given the immediately apparent contrast between these two works, it is no surprise that Michael Novak referred to Taylor as the “master of light and dark.”

If the previous two works illustrated Taylor’s artist range, the next work featured, Le Sacre du Printemps (the Rehearsal), illustrated his artistic genius. A hyper-stylization of Igor Stravinsky’s (notoriously controversial in 190) ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring, Taylor’s work challenges audiences to reexamine the original. Taylor’s work features a rehearsal for Stravinsky’s work inside of it, along with a plot line that closely mirrors that of the original ballet (which reminded me of the musical Kiss Me Kate, which does the same with Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew; also similar in its reimagination of an existing work is Max Richter’s work Vivaldi Recomposed).

After a short clip from the Academy Award-nominated documentary Dancemaker (1998), which offered a candid view of Taylor’s creative process, the presentation culminated in video of Taylor’s monumental work Promethean Fire (2002) in full. Like Aureole, the work juxtapositions modern dance with music that is decidedly not modern (In this case, it is Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement based on three of Bach’s keyboard pieces – the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the Prelude in E-flat minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and the chorale prelude “Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott.” Chances are, you may recognize the beginning from the Toccata and Fugue in D minor). However, unlike Aureole’s quiet lyricism, Promethean Fire makes a much bolder statement: it is tense, fiery-seeming, and almost overwhelming during parts. In fact, it was the first and last time that Paul Taylor would utilize all sixteen dancers in the company in one work, on one stage. UMS calls Promethean Fire  ”arguably one of his greatest artistic achievements created in the wake of 9/11, proclaiming that even after a cataclysmic event, the human spirit finds renewal and emerges triumphant.” For an audience in today’s landscape, however, the work felt timely, and was a fitting conclusion to an artistically informative presentation.

copper embossed zentangle in a black frame

REVIEW: Copper Embossing with the Ann Arbor Art Center

This weekend I took some time to create with the copper embossing ArtBox from the Ann Arbor Art Center (this ArtBox is free to all U of M students with a Passport to the Arts)! This was my first experience working with copper, and I had never done any sort of embossing before. My only exposure to copper embossing was an awareness that it existed from old copper embossing pieces that used to hang at my grandparents’ house. Back then it seemed fantastically complex and difficult, but this project turned out to be simple and fun to complete!

Everything I needed to complete the project was included in the ArtBox, including the sheet of copper, a piece of foam to work on top of (to avoid embossing whatever is underneath :), the wooden embossing tool, sticky tape to attach the frame, and the frame itself (which I thought was a nice touch). There was also a piece of paper the same size as the copper square for a practice sketch, and a detailed set of instructions. I found the instructions to be very detailed, clear, and easy to follow. About half of the instructions were dedicated to the technical details of how to emboss copper, and the other half were dedicated to developing the “zentangle” art form suggested with the kit. The zentangle instructions are really nice if you’re also suffering a persistent case of artblock, or if you’re just not sure how to get started.

The first step was developing my paper sketch. Originally, I got pretty detailed on the paper version since I knew the paper was scaled exactly to the size of the copper sheet, and I assumed I could simply overlay it on top of the copper and trace along the pencil lines. I did this to trace my original long, winding, pattern divider lines but realized quickly it wasn’t going to work out well for the rest of the piece. Firstly, the instructions advise (and I concur) alternating the sides you’re embossing on to create different raised and recessed designs. However, to do this, you need to flip over the sheet of copper…and you won’t be able to see your paper that you taped to the other side. The second problem was that tracing over the paper made it harder to apply the force I needed to properly emboss the copper. You need to press harder than you think you do to get a good line (the foam allows you to apply some serious pressure without fear). The takeaway here is not to overdo your sketch. Sketching out the dividing lines and tracing those can be useful, but after that I started using my sketch as just a very loose guidelines for the types of patterns I wanted to put in different areas—and I ended up straying from the sketch a decent amount.

In the end, I had a lot of fun and I would definitely recommend it as a relaxing way to try a new art form. It’s something I haven’t seen opportunities to learn about very many times in my life, so I would take advantage of this one to try it out in a low stakes way! If you end up loving it, I did a bit of researching and found out that it’s not as expensive a hobby as I might have thought!

REVIEW: I Used to Go Here

I think everyone on campus can agree that life in our quintessential college town has changed drastically in the midst of this pandemic. The Big House is vacant, the diag is quiet, and the tailgate scene is virtually nonexistent; even house parties seem few and far between. If you miss that long ago feeling of Ann Arbor pre-pandemic- when the thought of being in a crowded basement with 40 strangers sounded like a fun Friday night instead of a sure way to catch Covid, then I have the movie for you. From wherever this pandemic has put you, be it off campus, on campus, or the North Campus quarantine dorms, stream  I Used to Go Here from director Kris Rey for a nostalgic reminder of life in a flourishing college town, and all the emotional turmoil that goes along with it. 

The film follows Kate, played by Gillian Jacobs, as she struggles to navigate this somewhat delayed coming of age story. Though once a star writing student at the fictional Illinois University, Kate is now in her mid thirties, alone, and picking up the pieces of a failed long-term relationship while her recently published book flounders in the press. Unlike her friends, who have moved on and begun families, it seems Kate cannot find a purpose, and longs for the days when her world was nothing more than the college town where she first fell in love with writing.  Though a bit slow at the start, the heart of the story comes once Kate’s former writing professor, David (Jemaine Clement), invites her back to that very town to do a reading of her new book. There, Kate is faced with the fact that her own college days are fifteen years behind her, and spends a wild week with a group of current students who remind her of both the invigorating rush and newfound accountability that is early adulthood. 

Though Jacobs gives a convincing performance, her college aged counterparts are the ones who steal the show. The characters Hugo (Josh Wiggins) and April (Hannah Marks) offer especially heart-wrenching performances that truly capture the confusion of young love, and its paradoxical combination of inexperience and unfamiliar responsibility. Even in their most tender moments, these characters come across so charmingly naive that they paint an accurate picture of college students, while still offering a hint of comic relief. Friends of this duo,  Emma (Khloe Janel), Animal (Forrest Goodluck), and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley), are also genuinely hilarious. This is where the writing truly shines. As a nineteen year old, I don’t often come across movies that accurately write the way teenagers really talk and behave; all in all, I think this film portrayed them pretty believably, not to mention hysterically- props to writer Kris Rey for that. 

Throughout the film, comedy is actually pretty consistent. David, Kate’s washed-up professor, is comically self absorbed, a trait which is only bolstered by praise from Kate and his other female students. With his God-complex on full display, David is a very familiar, and yet still believable, depiction of a self-important male professor who thrives off of validation from his inferiors. Additionally,  I do appreciate that even the lesser characters, like tour guide grad student Elliot (Rammel Chan) are fleshed out and funny. Elliot’s people pleasing responses to even the most ridiculous requests are delightful to witness, as is Kate’s disastrous reunion with her creepy former classmate, Bradley, played by Jorma Taccone. The side characters are pretty entertaining, and as a comedy, this movie functions well. 

The one area where I have a problem is the more emotional side. I think Kate fell a little flat, as did her side of the story in terms of her book. Until the very end of the movie, it is unclear why her book failed and how it relates to her own character development. At times, the movie felt very choppy as a result of this disconnect.  I think the comedy needed to be more carefully interwoven with the heavier elements. Kate lives in her own world as a character, but I feel that the audience was not brought deeply enough into it with her. I felt more of a connection with others who had significantly less screen time, just because their motivations and emotions were a lot more developed on screen. 

That being said, I did really enjoy this film, and found it touching nonetheless. The comedic elements were stronger than the emotional ones, but it still did make me sit and reflect on my own college experience, and where I want to be fifteen years from now.   If you do watch it, be warned, you may feel more than a little nostalgic for the way our town used to be. You can currently stream I Used to Go Here at the Michigan Theater website (https://www.michtheater.org/screenings/i-used-to-go-here/), and I urge you to do so, as both an escape from this pandemic and a reminder of the experiences still on the horizon once we can take our masks off again.

REVIEW: Copper Plate Embossing – Ann Arbor Art Center ArtBox

The Ann Arbor Art Center is a nonprofit arts center that hosts rotating exhibits in its gallery, various classes for children and adults, as well as an art shop. Located on W Liberty Street, the art center is one of the oldest community arts organizations in Michigan as it was established in 1909. Upcoming classes include sketching, comics, calligraphy, and perspective drawing. However, this weekend, my friend and I stopped by the art center to pick up some ArtBoxes.

 

The art center’s ArtBoxes are effectively art supplies in a box for the purpose of at-home art projects. The box this time around was designed for at-home copper plate embossing. An embossed pattern is raised against the background of the plate, whereas a debossed pattern is sunken into the surface. This project encouraged both methods. This was a perfect socially-distanced activity for me and my friend, who has a balcony. The box comes with a copper plate, a frame, stickers to stick the plate to the frame, a wooden stick for embossing, a piece of paper for you to sketch your design on, protective packaging, and instructions.

 

The process is very straightforward. You sketch a design on the piece of paper provided (it fits to the size of the copper plate) and trace it onto the plate with the wooden stick provided. My friend very carefully traced out the symbols for the four nations from Avatar: The Last Airbender onto hers, complete with very straight lines to divide the square into four. I started tracing a celestial design, but just ended up freehanding it directly onto the plate. I thought it was cool that by both embossing and debossing, you can end up with really interesting textures, from small Braille-like dots to angular spirals. Another enticing aspect is that due to the nature of embossing and debossing, if you flip your plate over, the design is still there, but the raised surfaces are now sunken and vice versa. So, if you don’t like one side, just flip it over. Furthermore, what’s nice is that any mistakes can be incorporated into the design or they can create new textures.

 

 

The overall process is very quick – my friend took more care with her design whereas I was just improvising as I went along, but neither of us took more than an hour. That being said, you can take as much time as you want, but being less meticulous doesn’t detract from the quality of the final product at all.

 

The ArtBox is available for free with a Passport to the Arts voucher, which can be found at the Union, the League, or Pierpont Commons!

REVIEW: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 100th Birthday Celebration

Perhaps it is fitting that an orchestra that came into being during the “unprecedented times” of “a city recovering from war and pandemic” is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. That said, while the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (of Birmingham, England) celebrated its birthday in a – yes – unprecedented way, it was also an innovative and forward-thinking commemoration.

Given the current restrictions on large gatherings like concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been thinking quite a bit about the ways in which performers are continuing to engage with audiences across time and space. I firmly believe that art conducted online is just as much art as any live, in-person performance, just through a new medium, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) illustrated this beautifully. While I would have loved to hear them perform in the immaculate acoustic environment of Hill Auditorium as they were scheduled to prior to the pandemic, and headphones undeniably will never match that experience, the new artistic medium of the internet in turn allows for greater accessibility, flexibility, and learning.

For me, the online format meant that through interviews, videos, and historical photos included in the presentation, I was able to learn far more about the CBSO as an organization than I ever would have at a live performance, and I have to say that I was impressed by what I learned. Through outreach, commitment to its community, and investment in younger generations, the CBSO seems to be paving the way for orchestras of the 21st century. Their youth ambassador program, which was highlighted during the celebration, quite literally puts the orchestra in the hands of the younger generation by giving a group of young adults age 16-21 the opportunity to program and present their own concert with the full CBSO. The CBSO is also not limited to the “classics” of composers from previous centuries, and though there is always room for improvement, it was delightful to see new music, old music, and music from pop culture all on the same program (according to their website, the CBSO performs “music that ranges from classics to contemporary, film music and even symphonic disco”). As a student studying music performance myself, it is heartening to see an orchestra so committed to creating a vibrant, relevant artistic community.

One of my favorite pieces was cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A Minor. Even through the medium of the internet, the expressivity of his playing was evident, which has made me even more excited for his upcoming UMS digital recital with his sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, in October! Roopa Panesar’s sitar playing for A R Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire Suite was also superb, and the excellent camera work for that piece added to the experience. Under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, the orchestra also performed works by Sir Edward Elgar (the first conductor of the CBSO), Igor Stravinsky, and Hannah Kendall.

Overall, although I missed the experience of seeing the CBSO perform live with Sheku Kanneh-Mason at Hill Auditorium, their online centenary celebration offered a window into the orchestra that I never would have gotten from a live concert. Though it may be different than what we are used to, arts engagement during the pandemic can offer entirely new perspectives on artists and their work.

The CBSO’s 100th Birthday Celebration is no longer available for streaming through the UMS website, but it can still be viewed on YouTube.

PREVIEW: Paul Taylor: Celebrate the Dancemaker (UMS Digital Presentation)

If you were looking forward to Paul Taylor Dance Company’s 2020/21 UMS season performance before it was cancelled, join in for the digital presentation of Paul Taylor: Celebrate the Dancemaker!

This special presentation will feature University of Michigan dance historian and educator Angela Kane and Paul Taylor Dance Company Artistic Director Michael Novak, as well as footage of Paul Taylor repertoire including Aureole (1962), Scudorama (1963), the documentary film Dancemaker (1998), and a full viewing of Taylor’s 2002 work Promethean Fire. Promethean Fire is “arguably one of his greatest artistic achievements created in the wake of 9/11, proclaiming that even after a cataclysmic event, the human spirit finds renewal and emerges triumphant.”

The event will stream free on demand beginning Friday, September 11 at 7:30 pm, and will be available until September 21 at 7:30 pm. A live chat with Angela Kane and Michael Novak will also take place on September 21 at 7:30 pm on Facebook.

Visit https://ums.org/performance/paul-taylor-celebrate-the-dancemaker-digital-presentation/ to stream the event!