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Photo: Fred Hatt
Mana Hashimoto is a New York City–based contemporary dancer and choreographer who, despite losing her eyesight, is determined to keep dancing and making dance.

We all have obstacles that rise up in our lives, but for some of us, the obstacles are exceptionally daunting. That was true for the dancer in this story, who made up her mind that her career would not be lost when her eyesight was lost.

Victoria Dombroski interviewed her for Backstage.

“Mana Hashimoto is a New York City-based contemporary dancer and choreographer whose career has spanned from her native Tokyo to many stages worldwide. She also happens to be blind. After losing her eyesight due to optic nerve atrophy, she was determined to keep dancing despite the unexpected obstacle. Since then, she has dedicated her life to merging blindness and dance, and to create artistic works through the use of her remaining senses.

How did losing your eyesight change your trajectory as a dancer?
I trained as a classic ballet dancer and it’s very common that when you take class, you have to check in the mirror to see how you look. It becomes a sort of obsession and trap, consciously or unconsciously. I think it was a relief that I no longer had to see myself in the mirror, but instead be in the moment and be with myself and accept who I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Were there certain things you learned about yourself as a dancer after losing your sight?
“I learned how to accept who I am, [to] be free, and to observe myself internally. It changed my perspective of what beauty is. Visual information can be overwhelming and we are shown what beauty should be instead of who you should be. …

What advice do you have for blind dancers and dancers with disabilities?
“I’m still a work-in-progress as a human being, but if I could advise something: keep enjoying dance. If there are some challenges, you can take them as opportunities to make your dance original. Any challenge is a door we didn’t expect we could open. …

What would you like to see more of in the New York dance community?
“I think more accessibility and openness to have visually impaired participants for workshops and classes. Once we have the right access, dance is open to anybody’s needs. I would also like to see more verbal description for dance performances. Before my performances, I invite visually impaired audiences to feel the space; they can touch and feel the props and costumes. …

What advice do you have for dancers encountering major setbacks in their dance career?
Hold onto your hope. I think it’s very important to share your difficulties along with your dreams.”

More here.

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Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
In South Philadelphia, young Khmer women are earning to perform traditional Cambodian dance.

When one marginalized community taps into its roots and strengthens its identity, other ethnic groups may benefit, too. Consider this story about young Cambodian women in South Philadelphia and their how traditional dances are often performed for neighboring communities of color.

Bethany Ao reports at the Inquirer, “When Lanica Angpak started the organization Cambodian American Girls Empowering three years ago as a personal project, she visualized it as a safe space where young Cambodian women could talk about ‘taboo’ topics they didn’t feel comfortable discussing with their families.

“But when Angpak broached that idea with the women she was mentoring at the time, the group had an addendum: They wanted Angpak to teach them traditional Cambodian dance.

” ‘I was already teaching some of them,’ said Angpak, who learned how to dance from her mother. ‘But bringing it into this organization allowed us to build bridges through dance.’

“On a recent Sunday, the organization gathered at Bok Bar, a popular rooftop bar in South Philly with gorgeous views of the Philadelphia skyline, for a sunny afternoon workshop performance.

“The women slipped off their shoes and completed stretches that were harder than your average yoga pose. Eventually, they shifted into formation and performed a dance about a Cambodian celebration for young children. The dancers moved slowly, but their movements required just as much precision as ballet. Their mastery of balance was impressive, as was their flexibility. …

“Cambodian dance is a crucial part of storytelling in the country’s culture. It has existed for thousands of years and draws its roots from Indian mythology and religion. Every component of the dancer’s body is engaged during a performance, from their fingertips to their facial expressions. …

“The Philly area has the fourth largest Cambodian population in the United States — about 13,000, according to the most recent census — centered in South Philly. Angpak works closely with the Cambodian Association to help support the community here. Besides the performances, CAGE also holds dance workshops for females as young as 6 and as old as 72.

” ‘On average, we do about 14 performances a year, and we’ve already surpassed that number this year,’ Angpak said. ‘We prioritize public events.’ … The group particularly enjoys performing for organizations representing other communities of color.

“Angpak said dance is an alternative way of sharing between communities, an exchange of culture and art, of sorts. The organization charges on a sliding scale for performances. Workshops, including the one at Bok Bar next month, are free and open to the public.”

More at the Inquirer, here. And click here for my 2017 post about how Princess Norodom Buppha Devi, half-sister of Cambodia’s King, is working to reenergize the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. Perhaps some of these Philadelphia women and girls will get a chance to audition for that.

Photo: Jose F. Moreno / Inquirer Staff Photographer
A mother and daughter learn traditional Cambodian dance at the Bok Bar in South Philadelphia. Cambodian American Girls Empowering (CASE) helps women and girls preserve their heritage through traditional Cambodian dance.

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Photo: Amitava Sarkar/Forklift
The cast of
Served performs a dance phrase based on the five key movements of mopping. Forklift Danceworks makes choreography from everyday life, revealing the beauty and majesty of what you thought was mundane.

From childhood, I was always one for fantasy and found it easy to relate to imaginary worlds in the arts. Lately, though, I find myself more interested in art that feels relevant, art that uncovers wonder in everyday life. So it’s not surprising that this Dance Magazine article about discovering the dancelike moves of ordinary occupations appealed to me.

Nancy Wozny writes, “Austin renegade Allison Orr doesn’t use traditional performers. With her Forklift Danceworks, she has created dances featuring everyone from sanitation workers (The Trash Project) to power linemen (PowerUP), urban forestry department members (The Trees of Govalle) and food service employees (Served).

“Orr has a BA in anthropology and calls her process ‘ethnographic choreography.’ Using the movements of everyday workers, she crafts large-scale extravaganzas that have included more than 75 performers (and sometimes trucks), audiences of 2,000, and a deep research process that may involve her learning how to scale a power-line distribution pole or riding with a sanitation worker at 4 am.

“She recently spoke to Dance Magazine about her unique creative process.

” ‘When I start a new piece, I listen for the story the workers want told. What do they want people to know about what they do? I usually do about 50 to 100 interviews. Then I watch people doing their expert movement, looking for that seed. ,,, Usually there’s an all-staff meeting where I am introduced. Then I start job shadowing, working alongside them when I can. …

” ‘We don’t actually get people to agree to perform until very late in the process. I usually don’t ask for what we want until that person is likely to say yes. We put out a question, like “How do you cook an omelet in three minutes or less?” and they start choreographing it. Then they want to be in it, because they are the ones who can do it.

” ‘For the actual piece we organize sequences based on their movements, expanding it in space and time. For Served I watched one gentleman mop the floor and observed five different movements he does, including this beautiful turn. …

” ‘Because participants are asked to collaborate across different work groups to make the dance together, they build trust with people they might have worked with for years but never had the chance to really get to know.

” ‘The act of performing changes how collaborators see themselves. Being witnessed in one’s everyday work, particularly doing what might be thought of as mundane or ordinary, is transformational.’ ”

More at Dance Magazine, here.

Photo: Jonica Moore/Forklift Danceworks
A worker from Austin’s Urban Forestry Division performs in the dance
The Trees of Govanelle.

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Photo: J. Urban/Smithsonian
Arev Armenian Dance Ensemble

Because I live in the Greater Boston area, where there is a large Armenian population, I was interested to read how how Armenian dance is helping to preserve the culture in the diaspora.

Roger Catlin writes at Smithsonian that Armenian dance has adapted in intriguing ways over time and place.

“Can dancing preserve culture?” he asks. “Those who circle up, link pinkies and swirl to the traditional village dances of Armenia believe they can.

“And as part of the 52nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer, scores of dancers from Armenia and across North America will perform, present master classes and share technique. [Note: This took pace in July.] …

“One of the oldest centers of civilization, Armenia once stretched from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea and between the Mediterranean Sea and Lake Urmia in present-day Iran. Its key location in the South Caucaus region of Eurasia made it a central place for commerce with other cultures, but also a site for constant invasion from neighboring empires, the Ottomans to the west and Iran to the south and Russia to the east.

“Already the dance traditions of individual villages, separated by mountainous topography had been unique to each town. But with the Armenian diaspora, the dancing, which continued as a way to keep connected to the old country, became even more individualistic, [says Carolyn Rapkievian, who is serving as an Armenian dance advisor for this year’s Folklife Festival], noting that the dances were further influenced by the host countries. …

“Gary and Susan Lind-Sinanian, dance historians at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, Massachusetts, say traditional western Armenian music and dance remained an important cultural touchstone for the immigrating community.

“ ‘As the Armenian language fell into disuse among many American-born Armenians, the music and dance gained even more importance, as one of the remaining avenues of cultural identity maintenance,’ they have written. ‘Today, this music and dance have developed into a characteristic form unique to the United States, and one of the principal means that today’s Armenian-American youth assert their Armenian identity.’

“ ‘The two means of expression, outside of being a member of the church, to mark you as an Armenian are dance and food,’ Gary Lind-Sinanian says. ‘Those are the two every Armenian family practices to some degree.’ Still, every village seemed to have its own style, he said. ‘When people make their pilgrimages to some monastery for a festival, they could see, when various groups danced to a melody, by the way they danced, you could tell where they came from.’

More at the Smithsonian, here. If you are ever in Watertown, try to get some Armenian food. It’s delicious — a little bit like Middle Eastern cuisines you already know, a little bit not. And you can get an interesting angle on the Ottoman Empire’s relationship with the Armenians from this wonderful book, Destiny Disrupted, by Tamin Ansary.

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Photo: Jorge de la Quintana
A ballerina admired impoverished acrobats performing at Lima, Peru, traffic lights and decided to offer them a better opportunity. In the photo, members of her D1 Dance Company rehearse.

Once upon a time, a privileged young lady, a ballerina with an international reputation, saw the face of aspirational poverty on acrobats performing in traffic and decided to offer them an opportunity.

Dan Collyns writes at the Guardian, “Vania Masías vividly remembers the first time she saw acrobats somersaulting at a traffic light on a visit to her home city in 2004. She was at the peak of an illustrious career as a ballet dancer in Europe – but before long, she would leave it all behind it to nurture the raw talent she found in the streets of the Peruvian capital. …

“She was so inspired by the abilities of the teenage acrobats she encountered in Lima she set up a pilot project to teach them to dance – not ballet, but hip-hop. …

“It began on the self-taught gymnasts’ home turf in Ventanilla, a tough neighbourhood near the city’s port. Masías arranged to meet them on the shanty’s sand dunes where they practised their flips. The response was overwhelming.

“ ‘I thought I was going to meet with three kids,’ she said. ‘When I arrived, there were more than a hundred kids.’ …

“In 2005 Masías formed the D1 Cultural Association: part dance school, part non-profit organisation seeking to create young leaders and promote positive social change through the arts.

“D1’s social arm, which is 85% self-sufficient thanks to the school’s private classes, works with 7,000 children and young people in the capital and has schools in the Peruvian cities of Ica and Trujillo. More than 100,000 children have passed through the programme over the years, says Masías.

“Among them is Eddy Revilla, who at 13 became his family’s breadwinner somersaulting at traffics lights in downtown Lima.

“ ‘I was earning 300 soles a week [£66/$92] and here in Peru – that’s money! I could help my family and they started to thank me,’ says Revilla, now 25.

“But after blacking out in mid-air doing a somersault, Revilla auditioned for D1, and is now a member of the group’s professional dance company.

“ ‘When we started nobody thought that you could make a living from dance. Now it’s an amazing opportunity for young people,’ says Revilla, who also teaches hip-hop to paying students at D1’s dance studio. …

“Masías acknowledges that only a few of the young students will eventually follow a career in dance, but she says that the act of dancing itself gives them the confidence to transform their circumstances. …

“Masías has encouraged her dancers to embrace their provincial roots through fusing traditional Peruvian and urban styles.

“ ‘It’s in their blood, in their veins,’ she says. Dancers who had been ashamed of their origins ‘now fight to say where they come from,’ she says.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Hartford Courant
Former US Marine Roman Baca
develops ballets that help veterans heal and help audiences gain empathy. For his Fulbright Fellowship, he’s creating a new version of Igor Stravinsky’s
Rite of Spring tied to WW I.

Not long ago, Suzanne’s friend Liz found a piece of antique weaponry and asked instagram friends how it might be used in an art project or something else positive.

I said to “beat it into plowshares.”

In their own way of beating weapons into plowshares, war veterans may continue to serve the country after their time in the military. They may run for Congress like Seth Moulton of Massachusetts or establish a nonprofit like Soldier On, which treats veterans suffering from addictions.

And then there’s the Marine who became a choreographer to tell stories that enlighten and heal.

Candice Thompson writes at Dance Magazine, “When Roman Baca returned home from active duty in Iraq in 2007, he found himself having a tough time transitioning to civilian life.

” ‘I remember a couple of instances where I was mean and angry and depressed,’ says Baca. [His wife] suggested Baca return to his roots in dance. ‘She asked me, “If you could do anything in the world, what would you do?” ‘…

“Baca had to broker his transition back into dance. Earlier, he had trained at The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory in Connecticut and spent a few years as a freelance dancer before feeling compelled, like his grandfather had, to serve his country. ‘I walked into the recruiter’s office and said, “I want to help people who can’t help themselves.” ‘ Baca reveled in the rigor of the Marine Corps, which seemed like a perfect analog to classical ballet. …

“Baca served as a machine gunner and fire team leader [in Fallujah]. And while his job was one of looking for insurgents and intelligence, Baca also ended up doing humanitarian work, bringing water and school supplies to those in need. The transition from violence to aid helped him meet his original desire to defend the vulnerable.

“In 2008 … he reached out to his mentor Sharon Dante from The Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory. He had dabbled in choreography before joining the Marines and had begun to write while overseas. Dante suggested [that he] focus his writing and choreography on his experiences in Iraq. The exploration led Baca to form Exit12 Dance Company, a small troupe with a goal of inspiring conversations about the lasting effects of violence and conflict. …

“When a theater in the UK reached out to him in 2016 about creating a new Rite of Spring — one that would explore the connections between the creation of this famous ballet and the outbreak of World War I, in commemoration of the war’s centennial, as well as touch on today’s veterans and current events — he knew immediately it was a project for [him].

” ‘One percent of our population serves in the military, and an even smaller number serves in war,’ explains Baca of one of the central questions motivating this new commission. ‘How do we take all of this remote and little understood experience and inspire the audience to positive action?’ ”

More at Dance Magazine, here.

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Photo: Elizabeth Hafalia, The Chronicle
Facing a need for affordable housing and arts space, San Francisco’s Mission Economic Development Agency is joining with Dance Mission Theater and the Mission Neighborhood Centers to repurpose this neglected 1919 building.

Have you ever visited San Francisco’s Mission District? A poor, immigrant neighborhood, it is nevertheless a vibrant experiment in people-oriented housing and support for food entrepreneurs and the arts. The creative energy there is tangible.

Moreover, the neighborhood’s community-development folks never stop turning dreams into reality. J.K. Dineen has an update at the San Francisco Chronicle.

“A historic but long-neglected commercial building at Mission and 18th streets in San Francisco is poised to be rejuvenated with a mix of affordable housing, child care and dance.

“The dilapidated 1919 structure, a former furniture store that was remodeled with an Art Deco flair in the late 1930s, has been on and off the market for more than a decade. …

“Finally the Mission Economic Development Agency, a politically powerful group that often opposes market-rate housing, reached a deal to buy it by collaborating with Dance Mission Theater and the Mission Neighborhood Centers, which will open a child care facility there.

“ ‘We are all going in together to do a new model of cooperative living and dancing and taking care of our children,’ said Krissy Keefer, executive director of Dance Mission Theater. ‘It’s going to be very communal.’ …

“Brokers with the San Francisco office of the realty firm Marcus & Millichap … said market-rate developers were scared off by the Mission’s anti-gentrification political environment and that ‘MEDA was very good to work with.’ …

“The building will be the group’s first home ownership project — the others are rentals — and the first targeting middle-income families rather than low-income folks. Mission Neighborhood Centers is providing some of the project funding, along with two nonprofits: Low Income Investment Fund, a financial intermediary that provides capital for community developments, and the Neighbor to Neighbor fund.”

I’m sure everyone has read about the housing crunch in San Francisco, with tech employees pushing prices up. It’s good to hear of anything designed to ease the shortage. More here.

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