Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Flynn N.A.S.A. Grant Recipient Ellen Smith Ahern - Blog #5

Tuesday, May 18 - "Our work-in-progress showing is this weekend (Sunday, May 23 at 7 pm in FlynnSpace)! We’ve stopped exploring new material at this point so we can really focus on the work we’ve built thus far. It’s a little scary to make that shift, to really commit to what we’ve created and to focus on shaping and honing it. On the other hand, focusing on structure and detail and the quality of movement and voice is so much a part of the creative process that it feels right to reign in the new material and commit to crafting the dancing and text that are there now."

"Having had a work-in-progress showing last month, the guys don’t seem too nervous about Sunday evening. They’ve already had one experience with a live audience, and they’re eager to show how the material has progressed, how it has deepened and evolved (we hope!). As nerve-racking as it is to show work sometimes, I do love this part of the process, too—it is so helpful to step back and take stock of everything we’ve built, to struggle to pin down exactly where the work is, where it might be going, and how we should approach it in this moment, for this showing. Knowing that the piece is not finished and that this showing is informal and designed to help guide the work in the future is comforting and empowering, but I still want to be able to present material that has been carefully considered, that the guys are comfortable with, that they feel they can fully embody."

"One moment in the piece that is relatively new and that we’re still working to define is an awkward “club” scene. The club/dance music blasts in and the guys are initially caught off guard, paralyzed by the change of atmosphere. Gradually they begin moving to the music, eyeing each other and taking cues from one another. They slowly become less inhibited and more enthusiastic and full-bodied with their dancing until they’re just going nuts and dancing with abandon. This progression is really interesting to me because it’s happening constantly in public. We (all of us, not just the men) take our time assessing a situation, watching those around us for movement cues, gradually figuring out what posture or movement we want to commit to, whether it’s in a club or standing on the street corner in conversation. It’s been really fun to try to capture that kind of awkward transition within set, choreographed material, and we’ve settled on a largely improvised structure to keep it as fresh and authentic as possible."

"It feels like the piece is, for now, a bit of journey through many different settings, emotions, and memories that this group of men have and/or still do experience, whether as individuals or as a pack. We’ve got a whole range of movement qualities, of narratives, and of tones—sometimes it’s really very funny and often that humor gets twisted into something bittersweet, lonely, or sad. As choreographer and the outside eye on the work, I feel like I’m both trying to ride this wild range wherever it seems to lead and to shape it, to direct it. It’s an interesting balance to strive for."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Short and Sweet

A review of the African Children's Choir
By Mary S. Landon

Last Friday evening, May 7, a large crowd of many age groups witnessed the spectacular African Children’s Choir on the Flynn MainStage.

The concert, called Journey of Hope, featured three adult performers, 13 girl performers, and 10 boy performers. The choir is now in its 25th year of working with vulnerable, orphaned, or abandoned African children. The African Children’s Choir is a part of the Music of Life organization, a non-profit that helps these young people realize their potential. The choir serves as the voice of the good works that the organization is involved in: raising awareness and providing education and relief for the many disadvantaged children currently from seven African countries.

The show itself was a mix of singing, dancing, drumming, and the telling of stories. I’m sure I speak for most of the audience when I use the words energetic and smiley! The children were absolutely entertaining as they sang their hearts out, moving with such energy to choreographed moves. It was a colorful, musical spectacle that was fun to watch. I can’t say enough about these cheerful children, all of whom smiled throughout the performance, making numerous costume changes and not showing signs of slowing down. Songs performed were from the countries of Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, Southern Sudan, and South Africa, as well as several particular tribes.

This was an uplifting evening, full of the feeling of hope that the performers wanted to convey. Certainly it made our world feel a bit smaller.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

Flynn N.A.S.A. Grant Recipient Ellen Smith Ahern - Blog #4

Wednesday, May 12 - "We've worked this past week on developing and layering text about the woods. After exploring movement and writings about personal memories, thoughts, and truths that have often highlighted differences between the guys, I felt we should give time to a shared, common truth. A love of the woods and a need to spend time there is something all five of us share, and it's something that frequently brings us together outside of the studio. The woods also feel like a comforting, familiar place for each of us, in contrast to many of the embarrassing, fearful, and aggressive places we're already visiting in the piece."

"The guys’ writings varied greatly in tone and imagery, ranging from a simple list of colors and sounds associated with the woods to a detailed description of favorite wildflowers that thrive in the early spring understory. We've been experimenting with patterns and volume levels while layering the texts together, coming to stillness in a line, speaking at once in a shifting flow of imagery. There's something quite beautiful about the simple shape of a line, the openness of their faces and bodies in that moment, the way you can follow threads of text in and out of the layers."

"It seems to be about shifting as a group into another place where the sonic landscape of their words and the stillness of their bodies transforms the atmosphere of the space. Watching, I felt like I had slowed down, almost like I was standing in the woods with the wind moving leaves overhead, the rustling a language of its own, speaking with many different voices at the same time. I think it has the potential to be a transformative moment in the work, which then leaves the even greater challenges of how to get there and where to go afterwards. How do you frame something like that? How do you allow the momentum and energy of the material to shift without losing either?"

Monday, May 03, 2010

Flynn N.A.S.A. Grant Recipient Ellen Smith Ahern - Blog #3

Monday, May 3 - "In the last few rehearsals the guys have really become more comfortable with physical contact and improvisation as an ensemble. It has been fun and fruitful to spend a couple hours at a time exploring different challenges or puzzles, like giving one person the goal of crossing the entire space as quickly as possible while the rest of the group is responsible for hindering their progress in as many different shapes and forms as they can. These experiments usually begin with a ton of energy until they hit a wall of sorts, a point at which the movement and/or shapes have become too complicated to keep moving forward in the same direction. They get stuck."

"These sticking points, which I usually can't predict or plan, always seem to arise when things are getting too easy and moving too smoothly, and they force all of us to reconsider, to try another route. Sometimes the other route involves breaking down 'rehearsal' into an impromptu cricket or dodgeball match, or some slo-mo kung fu fighting to diffuse the tension. While the instances in which we stay focused and push through the sticking point are valuable in the choreographic process, I'm beginning to feel like the games and silly tension breakers are just as much a part of the structure and energy of our work together. So I'm thinking about how to make space for games and playing in the piece, how to build up other material to the point at which a game or some kind of loosely structured tension-breaker feels absolutely necessary, although not predictable."

"We're also coming to a point at which the narratives the performers wrote and have matched with solo movement are becoming quite clear in pace, voice, etc. The verbal, more literal parts are opening up like little windows here and there, exposing some of the history and emotion of the material through a different medium. Now we're working to develop the pacing and detail in the accompanying movement, so that there is just as much intention and clarity there as there is in the text."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau

Tuesday, April 28 on the MainStage
reviewed by David Beckett

Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman are both first class listeners, which was clear from the first note of last night’s well received concert, as they began with The Falcon Will Fly Again, a duet from Highway Rider, Brad Mehldau’s new recording.

For jazz musicians—even players as skilled as Mehldau and Redman—playing duets can be a bit unnerving. Without a bassist and drummer, a hundred years of precedent falls away along with the matrix of conventions about form and some of the swing that can make, say, a piano/bass/drums trio cohere and seem to move of its own accord. There’s no “walking” bass line for propulsion, and no drummer delineating the sections and bar lines, adding a sense of texture and color. Two musicians simply rely on their experience playing together, rely on the compositions . . . or listen like mad and trust each other.

And listen they surely did. Both men can create a narrative arc while improvising; no mean feat. Good improvisers are content to insert familiar riffs into a form, which can be very exciting, but superior players like Redman and Mehldau think like composers, seem to hear the whole song, and have more to offer than riffs.

Rather than accompany other players in the way jazz pianists typically do, Mehldau uses both hands, showing his love of romantic composers but sounding like nobody else. This is his way, and it’s surely helped him find a place in the jazz world in recent years. Redman played the theme of this first piece as Mehldau limned the changes this way. Then, rather than play a melodic solo with the right hand while dropping chords in with the left, Mehldau played his solo as he might have playing a piano concerto with an orchestra. Finally, they restated the theme to finish the piece.

They played one of Redman’s next, called Note To Self, and followed it with a Jeff Buckley song called Dream Brother. At this point Redman made remarks from the stage, thanking the audience and joking about the April snow storm. Charlie Parker’s Cheryl, a blues, followed: a return to a particular jazz vernacular, a fascinating contrast with the first three numbers.

Brad Mehldau’s first five recordings as a leader featured a trio of bass, drums and piano—making the case for his place in jazz history. Redman’s recordings as a leader have been varied, featuring different sorts of ensembles and a lot of marquee players from the jazz, rock, and classical worlds. They’ve played and recorded together often before, but playing duets live seems a particularly brave choice, particularly as the evening continued.

One of Joshua Redman’s followed—Disco Ears—a three pager, sounding more like these two men in particular, rather than any other school or sound. Mehldau took a moment to speak, and mentioned that both he and Redman often listened to music their jazz musician colleagues found puzzling. A gorgeous example followed: Interstate Love Song, by Stone Temple Pilots, played so neatly I might have guessed it to be some lovely little-known mid-century popular song.

Then, one more jazz standard, and finally an encore: My Old Flame, with Mehldau playing very quiet “stride” style piano and Redman whispering the melody. Even when playing something everybody’s heard before, Mehldau and Redman sounded like nobody else, alone together, as it were.

David Beckett is a realtor and a jazz director at WWPV FM. He’s been involved with the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival since 1983.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rokia Traoré

with Mamah Diabate, Naba Traore, Christophe Minck, Laurent Robin, and Eric Lohrer
April 18, 2010, MainStage
Reviewed by Mary S. Landon

Sunday night’s concert featuring Rokia and her band almost defies description. Or rather, it involves multiple adjectives.

With her African roots and cultured European upbringing, Rokia’s style has a refined edge that brings it quite far into the modern and pop modes, while respecting her heritage as a griot, a storyteller.

Rokia is a slight African woman with short-cropped hair and a lovely, grainy voice. The audience is able to hear the nuances in her voice because she takes brief opportunities to sing some lines a capella. At times her voice is piercingly clear, at times more muted and soft. Rokia’s first few songs were quiet, mellow ballads featuring her expressive voice and her electric guitar and not much else. Gradually, through the evening, she and the band heated things up for a spirited two-hour show.

Initially, I was put off by the fog machine and the choreographed light show. I thought the special effects detracted from the essence of the music and Rokia’s message. But I did get used to these stage effects and began to see them as part of the mood and energy that Rokia wanted to convey.

Her songs can be described as a multicultural mélange, a seamless blending of pop, blues, rock, and Malian rhythms with a touch of a meditative quality in the slower songs. However she does it, it works. As she has said herself, “I think I am modern and traditional at the same time. I’m not pop, not jazz, not classical but something contemporary with traditional instruments.”

Rokia was joined onstage by two guitar players, a ngoni player, a drummer, and a back-up singer (who turned out to be a lovely dancer, as well, showcasing her flexibility toward the end of the show). Rokia was able to laugh, smile, sing, dance, and deliver her energy during some surprisingly long songs. All the while, she was, we assume, telling a story in her native language or in French.

Between the band members, the dancing lights, the rich colors, and the eerie fog, there was much to look at while taking in the sounds and beats of the ensemble. I realized how, when I don’t know the words being sung, I focus more on the environment I’m looking at.

Rokia Traoré and her band were greatly enjoyed by the audience, who clapped along in time with the long repetitive pieces. It was hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of the faster pieces, as they built to their crescendo. The later it got in the evening, the longer the songs became; some even took on the feel of a long jam by a rock group. Rokia eventually invited the audience to dance in the aisles, which was met with great enthusiasm by a large crowd.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

Friday, April 09, 2010

"Malian Magic"

A review of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
by Mary S. Landon

Imagine: a darkened room, an intimate stage waiting in anticipation; then, clear, bluesy notes piercing the air, African clothing in hues of purple and gold, and expressive musicians with an infectious passion for their craft.

This is Bassekou Kouyate and his band, Ngoni Ba. This group of six men and one woman had the entire FlynnSpace moving on Wednesday evening, March 31. An enthusiastic full house appreciated the music, the humor, and the showmanship of this fun group.

This group plays a unique blend of musical styles that contains elements of folk, rock, jazz, and roots music, but is overwhelmingly based in blues traditions. Bassekou comes from a long history of griots, or traditional historians and praise musicians. Four of the men, including Bassekou, play the ngoni, a “spike lute” and an ancestor of the banjo. It has a taut-skinned drum body, with a neck that is round and fretless. Strings are stroked, plucked, and picked in similar fashion to a guitar or banjo. The finger work was truly amazing. These four instruments, of varying sizes, were amplified and most of them seemed to have some duct tape helping to hold wires in place. Joining the four ngoni players were two percussionists. I’ve always felt that drummers are the unsung heroes of a band, until they have their chance to solo. These two were no exception, as they kept up an incredibly fast beat to back up the forceful vocals of Amy, Bassekou’s wife, and the jamming of the four ngonis. Likewise, they could deliver a mere suggestion of beat and rhythm during a quieter blues ballad.

Bassekou, who speaks his native Malian language as well as French, communicated fairly well in English, enough to express his joy of music and his appreciation for the audience support. Occasionally, he and Amy fell into French conversation, which was understood by some of the audience. He and the other musicians took turns swaying in rhythmic steps and circles on stage. It seemed challenging enough to simply play the ngonis, and play them fast. Then they added body movement and soulful singing! At times, Bassekou’s eyes rolled back in his head as he entered the completely focused state of an artist. Such energy! One of the percussionists had the incredibly challenging, hot, focused job of shaking, in repetitive rhythms, a round object (gourd?) covered with beads or shells. This instrument made a shuffling, rapping noise and he kept it going in what seemed to be perfect time. And he kept smiling! During long songs!

Amy Sacko’s deep, smoky voice flowed in and out of the voices of the instruments. She hit the sensual lows and she hit the brilliant highs with clarity, telling a story with each song. One song in particular was a back-and-forth conversation between an impassioned Amy and a more subdued Bassekou.

This was a show not to be missed. I was in awe of this group, not just for their technical abilities, but for their sheer happiness at doing what they obviously love to do. Their energy absolutely spread throughout the crowd, creating many wide smiles.

Mary S. Landon is a native Vermonter and UVM grad who has moved back to the Burlington community after many years in southern Vermont. She works as a freelance writer, fine artist, graphic designer, and landscape gardener. Her two daughters live in Portland, Oregon. Mary is also an avid cyclist and cook.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Flynn N.A.S.A. Grant Recipient Ellen Smith Ahern - Blog #2

Tuesday, April 6 - "We’ve spent the last few rehearsals working with the relationship of text to movement. For one, it’s fascinating to explore the range of possibilities that arise when you simply layer text over movement you’ve already built. Play-boxing and salsa steps become lonely when layered with text about middle school recess. Pacing the room while reading an ad for yourself as if you are a used car feels sweet, funny and earnest. Twisting on the ground like a pretzel for minutes at a time takes on new poignancy when accompanied by a monologue about fear and paranoia."

"Sometimes the text boxes you in. Putting a verbal story to movement inevitably limits (or at least challenges) what is being communicated non-verbally. It has been fun and thought-provoking to explore these lines with the guys. As they are new to generating dance, the words seem to give them an access point to the abstract movement, making it all a little more comfortable and familiar—the trick is to not rely too much on this, which is also, to be fair, a huge challenge for me."

"We’re also playing with the text and movement from the another angle, isolating movement cues and/or movement-evocative language from writings, taking them right out of their contexts, and stringing them together with other cues to form sequences of choreography. It’s great to give four people the same list of cues (jump, wait, back-of-the-hand, circle, etc.) and see what contrasts arise. Thus far, this has been a good way to cultivate a creative atmosphere in the group, in which everyone feels comfortable sharing their own work and commenting on others’ work."

"We’ve got a work-in-progress showing of our material this weekend, and it will be exciting to see what new life the guys and their work take on with a live audience and two other dances as bookends. Come check it out at Designhaus Art Gallery, 22 Church Street, 2nd floor. April 9 at 8 pm, April 10 at 4 pm and 8 pm. Reserve tickets at 207.240.7288 ($12/10 students)."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Burlington’s Ellen Smith Ahern Awarded the Flynn’s Spring N.A.S.A. Grant

Ellen Smith Ahern, an Illinois native and graduate of the Middlebury College dance program, is the newest recipient of the Flynn’s N.A.S.A. Grant Award. A recent performer at the Flynn with Tiffany Rhynard’s Big APE dance ensemble, Ellen plans to collaborate with five newcomers to performance art—Chris Ahern, Charlie Bettigole, Alex Fuller, and Spencer Taylor—in an examination of the fear, anger, and exuberance that accompany physicality. Ahern plans to hone the resulting work-in-progress into a finished piece to be included in an evening length performance she is self-producing in Burlington later this year.

Ellen is writing weekly blog entries to give an inside look at the creative process behind her work-in-progress. Here is the first of several entries to come:

Monday, March 15 - "I spent my first hours alone in the Flynn studio last night, moving through ideas, cranking up the stereo, and just plain old enjoying the luxury of space."

"Eager to start playing with ideas together, Chris, Charlie, Alex, Spencer, and I began this creative process before knowing whether we’d received the Flynn grant. We’ve been meeting in my kitchen, in the train station, and once, in a particularly inspired evening, in club Lift to build and explore material. I think that initial energy and motivation has given us a great foundation for the work—we’re invested in it regardless of where we’ve been meeting to create the dance. Now, with the grant’s support, our energy for the project feels grounded in a very healthy, exciting way. Knowing that we have 10 weeks of studio space ahead of us is thrilling! It feels like our fledgling writings and movement now have room to grow (although I wouldn’t knock any of our previous dance spaces)."

"We began our process with some writing assignments. I felt that exploring personal experiences, memories, and feelings first through text might offer us imagery and movement evocative language through which ‘dancing’ might be more accessible later. I’ve also found it helpful in the past to give myself, as dancer and choreographer, a collection of words and images from which to start building movement. As much as dance communicates non-verbally, I have to be open to the information that verbal language can bring to the process of making dance. And, working with four men who had little to no experience as performing artists, it seemed like we should try to access abstract movement from as many points as possible."

"Our first writings were about memories of short fights on the playground, fantasies of ‘teaching someone a lesson’, instances in which we’d unknowingly taken play too far and accidentally hurt someone, and lists of what we did and didn’t fear. From these words came a series of movement cues, and the cues, interpreted differently by each man, have given us four phrases of movement to play with. "

"As we continue exploring and shaping this movement, allowing it to take on different qualities, I’d like to work in solos, duets, trios, and as a quartet—my hope is for everyone to try dancing with each other in as many arrangements as possible. And who knows if or how the texts will work themselves back into the material. Can’t wait to see what this first week in the Flynn brings us . . ."