Friday, November 10, 2017

Creative "Connections" - James Sewell Ballet and the Ahn Trio

Halfway up the mountain, Big Sky Mountain in Montana that is, James Sewell and Angella Ahn happened to meet while they were having lunch with others, and during their conversation they decided to collaborate and create a performance featuring both of their companies.  This past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Connections, the final outcome of their work together, at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul.

Photo Credit:  James Sewell
Lucia, Maria and Angella Ahn
James Sewell

Sewell, Co-Founder, Artistic Director and Choreographer of his namesake company, James Sewell Ballet is known for pushing the boundaries of classical ballet and mingling it with modern dance, jazz and innovative choreography.

The Ahn Trio is a musical ensemble of three sisters—Lucia on piano, Angella on violin and Maria on cello. They blend contemporary classical music and embrace different styles and art forms. Born in Seoul, Korea they moved to New York in 1981 where they trained at the Juillard School.

It was delightful to see how these two groups worked together.

The first piece, The Tango, was a duet with Sewell and Sabine Ibes, that Sewell describes as "how contact improv, tango, and ballet inform each other."  While they danced, the Ahn Trio played selections from David Bowie's This is Not America and Piazolla's Oblivion.  I would have called it a tango with surprises.  Not just tango (both Argentine and traditional) but at times, tango en pointe, weight sharing, lots of movements from the core outward to the flick of a foot or the extension of an arm while the Trio did their magic on keyboard and strings.  Later the two dancers were joined by the rest of the ballet company who danced in pairs.

The next set of pieces, featuring the Ahn Trio alone, were vigorous and energetic with some pleasantly unorthodox techniques.  During another piece by David Bowie, Lucia stood bent over the piano.  I'm not sure if she was plucking the strings or tapping the hammers, but she created a sound was deep and rhythmic that set the mood of the piece.  Meanwhile Angella's bow flashed lightning fast over the violin strings while Maria's hands made spider-like movements as they graced the neck of the cello.

The next piece, Romance, was Sewell's dedication to his parents in honor of their 60th wedding anniversary and was set to Romance for Violin and Orchestra by Antonin Dvořák.  Sewell first heard the piece when he was very young and his dad, a solo violinist, had played the piece with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at O'Shaughnessy.  The dance, performed by Andrew Lester, Laurie Nielsen and Austin Lam, mirrored the story of how Sewell's parents met.  You can read more about that story here.  Long story short, Fred Sewell was stationed in Washington DC and attended a church where Gloria, his future wife, was singing in the church choir.  The rest is history.

And of course, the main part of the show was a series entitled, Connections.  There were seven or so pieces that seemed to transition smoothly from one to the next even though they displayed a wide variety of styles and themes.  The first, a piece by Pat Metheny, reminded me of the inner workings clock, beginning with the dancers on the floor, rising into symmetrical formations and using sharp arm and leg movements and patterns that finally wound down at the close.

Another piece was jazzy and playful with interactions between the dancers and musicians—Austin Lam interacting with Maria Ahn who was on a moving platform with her cello; Angella on violin, walking through the middle of a circle of dancers; Andrew Lester interacting with Lucia as she played the piano, Laurie Nielsen with Angella.

Other pieces included a waltz with three female dancers by Eric Funk called Les Seours (The Sisters), a bluesy, whimsical piece, and Prince's Purple Rain as the finale which included echoes of movement from some of the other pieces.

Over all, a very exquisite evening.

Chloe Duryea and Andrew Lester
Photo Credit:  James Sewell

James Sewell Ballet was founded in New York City by James Sewell and Sally Rousse and brought to Minnesota in 1993. Their critically acclaimed work has been seen through the country and Sewell's work has won several commissions, fellowships and awards. 


The Ahn Trio

The award-winning Ahn Trio has performed in all 50 states and in over 30 countries and has recorded 6 albums.  They performed for President Obama in 2011 at the White House for a State Dinner Honoring South Korea. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Offleash Area Presents: Dancing on the Belly of the Beast


Photos by Paul Herwig

Next weekend I have the privilege of performing with 17 other dancers in Offleash Area's newest work Dancing on the Belly of the Beast.  Those of us who are in the show have experienced the grief and loss of one or both parents.  Director/Choreographer Jennifer Ilse (pronounced "iles") calls this Adult Orphanhood.

"Each performer's story is both specific and universal," she says. "It may be about the death of a person's birth parents or adoptive parents, or it could be that a parent left and is no longer in the picture.  It's that place where a person feels cast out into the world and on their own."

She recalls her own parents' passing and how she was faced with her own mortality.  "When my dad died, death felt like this presence in front of my face.  I could smell it.  And my mere existence (and the actual creation of this work) is a defiance of death itself."

The idea for Beast came a few years ago.  She had started working on the concept and then in 2016 she received a grant to study at Earth Dance in Massachusetts.  She worked for 10 days on the project and then was joined for another 10 days by dancers Christine Maginnis and Mariusz Olszewski.  Together they came up with about 40 minutes of raw material which became the bare bones of the show. When they presented it at the workshop one, of the viewers said it was like "watching angels dancing on the belly of the beast." And so, the title of the work was born.


Over the past several months she's held grief and loss workshops in conjunction with Health Partners  and started setting choreography for the show's core performers Karla Grotting, Christine Maginnis, Ray Terrill and herself.  Two other ensemble groups were added later for the larger group sections with performers Thern Anderson, Mike Cohn, Lisa Conlin, Sher Demeter, Erin Ditmarson, Delta Giordano, Katherine Griffis, Becky Heist, Pat McManus, Carla Murphy, Esther Ouray, Carol Oyanagi, Sally Rousse, and Kathleen Sullivan.  


Jennifer says that she used about 90% of the material from her Earth Dance residency in some capacity for the show. One of the big themes of the production has to do with Time - past, present and future which is represented by repeating circular movement patterns within the pieces.  Performers Paul Herwig (Jennifer's husband and Offleash co-director) and Jesse Neumann Peterson will also represent Time as they paint moving sets during the show.  Eight large flats on wheels will have different arrangements and for each performance Herwig and and Neumann Peterson will start from a blank slate.  Some of their motions will be choreographed in unison or with similar energy.  "They can embody emotional connections through the way they paint," says Jennifer.


Another theme, Naming Emotions, came from one of the grief workshops where participants chose words that conveyed their experiences - regret, guilt, loss, gratitude, freedom, nostalgia, release/relief.  These words were written on paper and laid out on the floor.  Each person "honored" a particular word and the "thickness" of it by using improvisational movement to explore their emotions and how the words were layered and inter-related.

Also included is the theme of Inheritance - what we inherit from our parents genetically or physically and behaviors or traits manifested that we hope to either mimic or discard.

"When Mom died," Jennifer recalls, "parts of me - my hands, feet, eyes - took on a whole extra meaning.  Mom had me later in life (age 44), and at my current age of 48, I have become extremely aware that I'm now the same age of my mother when I would have had my earliest memories of her.  I especially think of her hands wrapping around me and holding me."


Jennifer hopes that audience members will find both personal and universal concepts along with beauty that they can relate to in their own grief and loss experiences.



Show Details:


All shows are at 8 p.m.
The Ritz Theater is located at 
345 13th Ave. NE
Mpls., MN 55413

Reservations can be made at Eventbrite:  https://dancingbeast.eventbrite.comTickets can be picked up at will-call and paid at the door on the night of the show. ($10-$30 donation is suggested). Cash, check, or card is accepted.  

Or sign up for the VIP Opening Night Dinner on Friday, June 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ritz Theater - Studio.  This is a celebration and fundraiser for the show.  Cost is $75 for one person, $150 for two, or $500 for a table of eight.  If you register for dinner, you will be contacted for payment info.


If you hurry, you can also participate in the Kickstarter Campaign which includes all sorts of perks.  Entry to the dinner is included in Kickstarter contributions of $100 or more.

We hope to see you at the show!


Offleash Area is an interdisciplinary performance company led by co-artistic directors Paul Herwig, visual and theatre artist, and Jennifer Ilse, director and dance artist.  Established in 1999, their company has conducted numerous workshops and classes and have performed 25 original full-length productions.  They look forward to their next phase – taking more leadership in the community - which will include the construction of a new 80-seat performance and rehearsal space opening in South Minneapolis this September.  


For more information, contact Paul or Jennifer at offleash@offleasharea.org.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Living Large (Revise and Repost from 6/22/12)

I've been thinking a lot lately about my family members and the different things going on as we all get older. I wanted to repost an updated version of this just because it was one of my favorite Slices.

---
To most people a family gathering might be a weekly or monthly activity, but for me, a family get-together is an Event.

I come from a large family (12 of us kids plus Mom and Dad).  Since there are so many of us, it's hard to get everyone together at the same time. Our last big family Event was for our summer Christmas party.  Years ago, my mom used to host three Christmas dinners so that she had a chance to see everyone. In later years this took a toll on her health, so since then we've taken turns hosting Christmas. It's now been our family tradition for over twenty years. Usually there are 40-50 people which includes my immediate siblings, their spouses, their children, and a growing number of grandchildren.  If you don't have a large enough house, you rent a hall or a church basement for an evening.  The past couple of years we've held summer parties so that more family members can attend without the hassles of winter travel.

Getting together with my family reminds me of the rich support system I have that I often take for granted.  Our get togethers are more like touch-base times.  Everyone brings food, you eat, you talk, you make your rounds to catch up with people you don't see very often yet you're related to all of them.  Over grilled hamburgers, crock pot beans, 7-layer salad, roasted potatoes, and homemade desserts you have short, intense conversations about new babies, career ventures, ongoing struggles, health issues, and humorous anecdotes from day-to-day life.

After an event like this my spouse and I go home and compare notes.  "Did you hear about so-and-so's new job?"  "Did you know that your niece is pregnant?" and "I didn't know so-and-so had surgery a few weeks ago, did you?"  And then if you want to have a deeper conversation with someone, you write an e-mail, pick up the phone, or get together at another time for coffee or dinner.  (Or you go hunting for them on Facebook and make comments on their wall.)

People often ask me what it was like to grow up in a large family.  I guess I never thought much about it because it was just the way we did things. I also imagine my experiences as the youngest child were different from my oldest siblings or the ones in the middle.

So, what was it like?

I remember when I was young, there were always people around.  We had bunk beds and shared bedrooms, dressers and closets.  Privacy became a valued thing.  If you got your own room, it was a very big deal.  (Being the last one to leave home, I had the whole upstairs to myself!)

Being in large family is like a living in a small town.  If you tell something to one person, it usually gets spread through the sibling-vine and everyone ends up knowing about it.  So, be careful what you share!

There were major illnesses like the flu, whooping cough, mumps, measles and chickenpox.  When one person got sick, it became a household epidemic.

I always had lots of hand-me-downs, and once in a while I received hand-me-ups from some of my oldest nieces.

There was always something happening.  I wouldn't exactly call it "drama" but there was usually some major event—a car accident, a difference of opinion, a broken dish washer, or a violated curfew—that took priority over small everyday activities.

Sometimes people ask - were you one big happy family?  No, we were more like about four different families that overlapped.  And yes, we were dysfunctional even before the word became popular.

In a large family you learn how to listen to five conversations at the same time, and there are at least two that you're directly involved with.  I became very much aware of this after I got married.  My spouse comes from a small family, and for holidays we would to go lunch at his parents' house and go to my parents' house later for dinner.  At my spouse's family gathering, only one person talked at a time.  There were very few interruptions, and when you went to the bathroom, everyone knew about it.  At my parents' house everyone talked in pairs or little groups or announced things across the room.  You listened to one person but also kept your ears open to the sound bytes across the table.  People would come and go.  If you disappeared for an hour and came back, you might not be missed.  The speed of talking is fast because time is limited, and there are a lot of people to talk to.

Being in a large family you learned creative survival tactics.  If you skinned your knee, you found your own bandage, or you asked someone bigger than you for help.  You learned, on your own or by observation, how to deal with leaky winter boots, neighborhood bullies, puberty, bad relationships and stray cats.  You learned how to be thrifty, knew where to find the best bargains in town and did much of your shopping at rummage sales, estate sales and consignment shops. Or if you couldn't afford something, you learned to either wait until it went on sale or lived without it.

You learned to think outside the box and to never take things at face value.

You learned that God and Jesus were important, but you didn't find out why until later when no one else was around to listen.

In a large family you're expected to be independent, but you also know that if you need anything, all you have to do is ask.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Writing, Dance and Politics

May I please have your attention?

It's not that I don't care about what's going on in the world, but my hope has never been in whoever is running the country for the moment, because, ultimately, I believe that each of us has to answer to the God of the Universe for his or her actions.  The daily news:  I'm appalled, but I'm not surprised.  I think it's going to get worse so I'm saving my energy.

For my part I will continue doing what I do:

Attempt to listen more than speak.
Be grateful.
Avoid swearing while driving.  (That's a hard one!)
Keep writing for sanity and clarity but also to provide glimpses of things larger than ourselves.
Keep dancing to inspire others and give glory to my Creator.
Keep doing my humble projects and believe that somewhere along the line they are making a difference.
As a one-on-one tutor, continue to teach others to understand our language and culture.
Focus on unity rather than division.
Always have hope.

I've experienced plenty of losses, rejection, poverty, grief and humiliation in my relatively short existence on earth. I've been bullied and made to feel inferior by many. Maybe not in the extreme and tangible ways that my fellow human beings from other cultures have experienced them, but my tangled and rugged paths can not be dismissed.

But I think the saddest and hardest thing to forgive is when my beliefs and what I love get misrepresented. Daily.  If I say that I love Jesus, I get put into a box and it's assumed that I'm old fashioned, don't touch alcohol, never swear, that I voted a certain way, belong to a designated political party, am expected to do everything right, should have been a nun.  (Not dissing any specific lifestyle choices here.)

Believe me, I understand why some say they don't like Christians and what they represent.  I don't like it, but I understand.

I don't like being the monkey in the middle, but here I am. I'm grateful for my friends who accept me for what I believe even if they don't follow it.  I'm also grateful for my friends who share my faith, prayers and common worship. And all those in between. It would be nice if all of my friends and acquaintances could someday be in the same room together, share stories, laugh, and listen to each other.  That's my hope.

That said, the slice I can offer you today is to focus on what you still have and what you hold dear. Hang onto it, be grateful for it, but be willing to let go of it if you need to because, really, nothing belongs to us in the first place.  Take nothing for granted - your relationships, your time, resources, the air you breathe, privacy, safety, the health you have that earns your living - because one day, it may no longer be available to you.

But these will always remain - faith, hope, love.  Love being the greatest.

Thanks for your time.