Thursday, March 21, 2013

Black Grace - a Journey Through Dance

We went to see Black Grace last night at the Ordway.   To describe the performance as amazing would be an understatement. Black Grace is New Zealand's leading contemporary dance company, fusing traditional Pacific cultural dance with modern dance styles.  Artistic Director and Choreographer Neil Ieremia started the company back in 1995, and his group has toured internationally in the U.S., Australia, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and Canada.

Athletic.  Rhythmic.  Mesmerizing.  Precise.  Energetic.  These were some of the words I wrote down as I watched the performance.

Pati Pati

The evening began with a short piece called Pati Pati - excerpts from the company's previously performed repertoire.  The first section began with the dancers seated on the floor.  The piece immediately drew me in with its rocking motions, sighs, and slaps, based on children's hand games and gestures from personal stories of child abuse.

The piece progressed and expanded as a trio of dancers were featured and then later, the entire group moved in unison in what I would call a "bowling-pin-formation."  Sometimes sharp and percussive, sometimes rounded and smooth, the choreography was quick and athletic, all the while driven by the music.  The dancers were bathed in a pale orange glow, and with the quick level changes—from a seated floor position, to the knees, to the feet, jumps, and then back to the floor again—at times it looked like the dancing flames from a crackling bonfire.

"I'm exhausted just watching them," said my spouse after the first piece ended. 

In a discussion after the show, Ieremia mentioned that he chose the simple costumes for this piece— ("Naked without being naked," he said) —because he wanted to showcase the dance and its traditions without the hindrance of flashy costumes. 

Amata Act 3 - (a new beginning)

The second piece, Amata Act 3, was part of longer work exploring the theme of change.  The costumes for this piece were red, symbolizing blood and forgiveness.  Ierenia mentioned that in the Pacific and Samoan cultures it's typical to give a ceremonial gift of a mat called 'ie tōga for not only weddings and funerals, but also to ask for forgiveness.  If someone wrongs another person, the family of the offender gives a mat to the other person's family to ask for forgiveness for the wrong inflicted.

What was interesting to me was that the program stated that the movements were inspired by the woven patterns in the mats as well as phrases from letters, conversations, arguments and apologies.  It reminded me of the African mudcloth patterns used as inspiration for tiles.  (See Visual Poetry - Hand-Painted Tiles by Lea-Way Designs.)

This piece emphasized lines of dancers crossing through each other, first leaning in—off balance, suspended on one leg—and then falling into pleasantly unorthodox drop rolls.  The movements alternated between sharp and smooth.  At times the dancers opened their arms and performed a series of jumps which made them look like they were soaring.  There was also some partnering as pairs of dancers performed sequences of running, turning, falling and pushing each other. One of my favorite repeating themes had clapping, and movements with the hand coming toward the ear.

photo courtesy from the Ordway

Vaka - (canoe)

The last piece, Vaka, was an hour-long piece with many parts.  Based on the concept of each person's journey, it was about what we carry as our beliefs, experiences and memories - both good and bad.

I noticed with this piece there seemed to be a lot more interaction among the dancers.  The first part began with a duet - two dancers interacting in silence and then slowly they were accompanied by sweet harp music.  A group would travel in a cluster using box-step-like patterns, and then the energy of the dance escalated with lifts - one person lifting another or several lifting one.  The lifts were non-linear as bodies were propelled into complete inversion, suspended at the highest point overhead and then placed back on their feet again.  Several times a dancer would lie on her back, heels parallel to the ceiling and another dancer was lifted by others to stand on the first dancer's feet. Something I had never seen before.

In one portion of this piece the stage was black and hazy shafts of light filtered down through the darkness.  Dancers moved in and out of the light as they leaped across the stage or dropped to the floor.  With the unique lighting and ambient soundtrack of water and birds, it established a rainforest or jungle-like atmosphere.

A special feature of the final piece was the large winding white sheet held up by several dancers that zig-zagged across the stage.  The two featured dancers would fall into the fabric and also allow themselves to be wrapped in it by the others.  Initially the colors on the sheet were in a blue and brown pattern.  Later, the fabric was stretched out into a long triangle, the narrow corner at stage left, expanding to the wide corner at stage right.  One of the dancers curled up in a state of rest at the narrow corner and images were projected onto the cloth - ocean waves, a dessert, mountains, a lake - so that she appeared to be part of the landscape - lying on a rock, undulated by ocean waves, or sleeping among the sands.  The end of that section gave me chills as the fabric was pulled slowly offstage and the dancer was pulled with it, still resting on the narrow edge.

In one of the last sections the dancers appeared in street clothes, reminiscent of West Side Story.  Males huddled in gang-like circles; themes of hierarchy and competition ensued.  Their movements manifested into manipulations of each others body parts, as though adjusting the limbs of an action figure.  Later, the women entered in with their own theme and then joined the jumping theme of the guys.  The group moved as a cluster in unison, then morphed into dancers advancing and receding, pushing to get to the front. Conflict arose where they'd scatter, and one-by-one they'd be eliminated as they pushed against each other, and a dancer would fall, as though rejected, and slowly roll offstage.   
Vaka ended with one of the repeating themes that portrayed the dancers walking slowly within a thin line of light - some just walking, some being carried like human backpacks. It reminded me of the story The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, begging the question - when you're in a survival situation, what are the important things you take with you?  Lyrics came from The Raft - Fat Freddy's Drop:

The industry - they'll never find me, here among the trees
My footsteps will be, will be all that I leave
Oh, lonely island, so rich, so fair, we leave your shores for reasons unclear
Looking for a better life, and you are all that I need (hey)
All that I need.

After the Show

I enjoyed talking with some of the dancers after the show.  Brydie was trained in classical ballet and Jullie has a background in cultural dances.  They mentioned several places they had performed on their current tour including Vancouver, Georgetown, and Portland, criss-crossing all over North America. They had 5 weeks of practice for this show - from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, 6-7 days a week.  Five weeks - to learn all that material?  Yes, they said, it was a grueling schedule, but they really loved it; this was what they had worked for; this was what they had dreamed about.

For me, Black Grace was amazing, but so much more.  It explored many universal themes, faith, and other forms of art, but most importantly, it took me on a journey to a place where I had never been before.

If you'd like to see any of the other World Music and Dance Performances check out or call 651-224-4222. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Visual Poetry: Handpainted Tiles by Lea-Way Designs

Leann Johnson
Artist Statement:

"I feel a person's home or space should be his or her sanctuary. It should be a physical and spiritual sanctuary, where you can go to re-energize away from the rest of the world. Why not surround yourself with things that create a place of calm and affirmation?"

 I met Leann Johnson at the Springboard Work of Art series.  Leann is both a Graphic Designer (L & J Graphics) and a Tile Artist (Lea-Way Designs).

When I saw her tiles, I was not only impressed with the beauty of her work but also the functionality of her pieces.  Her hand-painted tiles are inspired by mudcloth designs and Adinkra symbols.  One of Leann's more unique items is the Two-Way Tile Tray™ which can be used as a serving tray, and the tiles can also be taken out to use as individual coasters.  What a great gift idea!

Using Adinkra Symbols in Graphic Design
Example of a Two-Way Tile Tray™

Long before Leann worked with tiles, she discovered Adinkra symbols.  Adinkra symbols are used in West African pottery, advertising, and textiles.  They were originally created by the Akan ethnic group of Ghana and the Gyaman of Cote D'Ivoire to convey concepts, beliefs, expressions or proverbs of the African culture.  For example, the pronged symbol of the spider's web means wisdom and creativity, and the Wawa Aba pattern is the seed of the Wawa tree which means hardiness and perseverance.

While living in Rochester, MN, Leann answered a call for artists to design a stained glass window for a new library that would represent the four non-native cultures that had settled in the area.  (African American, Latin American, Native American, and Southeast Asian)  "I wanted to be thorough and respectful," she says.

She decided on a circle design to avoid any hierarchy issues and sought out artists from the other cultures to get their feedback.  "I knew I was on to something when I learned from a Native American artist how powerful the circle is across cultures," she says.

Unfortunately, the funding was cut for the window project, but all was not lost as Leann began applying the symbols to her other graphic design work.  When she started working with two public schools, Harvest Preparatory and Seed Academy in North Minneapolis, she decided to use Adinkra symbols in their advertising materials. "I wanted something that spoke about African American education without using a silhouette of the continent of Africa. The results really resonated with my audience."

Graphic Design Segues Into Tiles

"What got me into tiles," she says, "was a freelance design gig that went off-kilter.  No one's fault; it was just one of those situations where the company I was working for was acquired.  There was so much chaos and broken communication that I didn't know what to expect when I walked in each day.  I was so crispy around the edges from that gig, that I decided:  For however long I have, let me do something to feed my creative soul."

She began by painting already glazed tiles, but the "ah-ha" moment for her came when someone asked, "Can you put these on a backsplash?" Realizing she didn't know much about tiles at the time, she began experimenting at Doin' the Dishes, a pottery and tile studio (no longer open), where she glazed her own tiles and had them fired at the studio.  She gleaned all that she could there, and also became a sort of "ad hoc" artist, answering questions for other customers.  Later, she joined the Handmade Tile Association and learned even more about the process.
L to R:  Rust Mudcloth, Sage Mudcloth,
Wawa Aba (seed of Wawa tree), Ananse Ntontan (spider's web)


Along with Adinkra symbols Leann uses mudcloth patterns to inspire the designs on her tiles. Mudcloth is created by sewing strips of hand-woven fabric together, adding mud as a resist, letting it dry, and then dying it. 

"The reactions to my work have been varied," she says.  "Some people gravitate toward it, and other folks back away because they don't understand the Adinkra symbols and think they're satanic."  Leann often displays a chart with her artwork to explain the meaning of each symbol and answers questions when people ask.  "Most people react well to the mudcloth designs," she says, "because there are no assigned meanings to the work."

Tile jewelry with Adinkra symbols

More recently, Leann has been creating jewelry from her tiles.

"I don't wear much jewelry, because it gets in the way when I work," she says, "but then a friend asked me for the Adinkra symbols and then, one day, she came over to my house with six rubber molds she had made, a template, 2 settings, and a hunk of clay, and said, 'We're going to do this!'" The results were successful - wearable art that's flexible, light-weight, and sturdy.

For my last question, I had to ask Leann how her background informed her artwork.  Growing up on a dairy farm in Ohio, she learned the value of hard work, good food, and teamwork regardless of gender.  "The cows had to be milked; we had to get the harvest in.  If you were able-bodied, vertical, and cogent, guess what?  You're part of the team!"

Leann appreciates the foundation her parents gave her because the dinner table was the forum or the "conference room" where everyone in the family could exchange their ideas.  "I've been trying to re-create that as an adult - that you can leave your armor at the door, relax and be yourself."

Leann's home was also the place where space and resources were limited.  Her father was creative in how to keep people with "get rich quick" schemes away from his family, and her mother knew how to take what was available and make something nice looking and useful.

"For me, to have something that is pretty but also functional is the key," she says.  "That's the beauty of the environment I grew up in."

In 2011 Leann was awarded "Best Use of Detail" in the Minnesota Tile Festival.  To see more of her work visit Lea-Way Designs.

Leann's next show:

2210 Bryant Ave. N., Minneapolis. 

She'll be displaying her work alongside of 11 other artists and hosting demos where visitors can create their own mudcloth using miniature tiles. 

Fri., May 17    5:00-10:00 p.m.
Sat., May 18        Noon-8:00 p.m.   (with a neighborhood BBQ)
Sun., May 19       Noon-5:00 p.m.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Texture of Journaling

Decisions, decisions...

It took me three tries before I finally settled on a journal to use for this year.  I also had to come to terms with the fact that I've become a journal snob.  As a writer I can be very picky about pens and paper, keyboards, word processing programs, etc., and, like a connoisseur of fine wine, my tastes and preferences have become fine-tuned and distinguished.  (So, I keep telling myself.)

My first attempt at a journal for this year—a thin paperback with a circular rainbow design that I found at a gift shop near my house in late December.  I don't like lines in my journals, but I thought I'd make an exception, since the outside design and the pages within seemed to inspire me at the time. 

As I started writing on January 1, the lines, which weren't very dark, felt like prison bars.  I was trapped into making my words a certain size, forcing my sentences to march across the page in a straight line, no curling or dipping allowed,  Forget any doodling or drawing pictures in the margins!

A small subset of my journal collection.
My latest is the green one in front.
After less than a day I gave up and located a blank book with a cover of textured yellow paper that I'd found at a bookstore years ago.  But the binding was cracked!  One weekend trip in a suitcase would break it in two and I'd have to cobble it together with string, mailing tape, and fat rubber bands. 

I was a little desperate when the second day of January came and I was not satisfied. I made a special trip to the Barnes and Noble where they have a whole wall of journals.  Of course, most of them had lines, but there were some sketchbooks as well.

Finally, I found a handmade journal from Nepal with thirsty textured pages.  With the right gel pen, (such as a Uniball or Pilot), writing becomes like wielding a chisel, each stroke cutting through the paper, making words and letters more permanent on the page. 

So, far this last choice has been the best, but it won't last long.  It's a smallish book, good for travel, but I'm almost half way through it.  I expect to have at least one more journal by the time late spring comes around.  Who knows?  Maybe, now that I'm on a roll, I'll go back to the first journal and be able to deal with the confinement of the ruled lines.  Then again, maybe not.