Wednesday, February 6, 2013

thoughts on elementally earthen

First, it started with wanting to create work to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and reminding myself of the Duke Ellington work created before the century turned ! (wow....that seems a long time ago now!)I thought I had the right cast for. 

Then, in trying to come up with a catchy title, Elemental also gave me license to reprise some works about the classical elements( water, fire, wind,spirit, earth)--- and as we are EARTHEN Vessels, there was the title of the show!

With a change of our rehearsal and office space out of Talento Bilingue this summer, we needed to alter our programmatic budget to accommodate the move. Thus we begin our 15th season with a shift, re-envisioning our annual Black History Month as the HERITAGE SERIES, so as to include other cultures, particularly "Si Se Puede" which was have developed over the years to celebrate a Latino American perspective. As this ballet that celebrates the legacy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm workers Movement---another earth reference--
key excerpts will be included. 

When I approached Steve Rooks(former Martha Graham Principal) to choreograph a new work, based on the elements, he surprised me with a work featuring 3 from the periodic table! So another elemental addition to the loosely gathered title, along with a silly ditty of the periodic table created by the dancers.

There will be a few more in the mix---

 "Fire" which Trey McIntrye choreographed for me in 1991 for a solo concert I was to dance in my hometown. 
 "Stream",a beautiful work  I had choreographed with UH AURA back in the 90s
"Secret Life of Plants" from "Songs of Wonder" 
AND  a surprise guest artist---finally after 15 years of badgering, I cornered Lauren Anderson into coming out of retirement to do a bit of dancing as well.
 As always we will have an audience participation moment, which may include a line dance of sorts to whom else? Earth, Wind and Fire! 

Come celebrate with us! 15 years is a long time, and but for the grace of God, it would not have occurred, believe me!!!! the name of the company has always been earthen vessels from this reference:
" But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels,  to show that the all surpassing power comes from God, not us" 2Cor 4:7
So there is much to celebrate and praise the Creator for, because, even when I haven't always been the best vessel, hopefully, His light shines throughthe imperfections, and some of those who have experienced our concerts, 
tasted a little beauty, learned something they never knew, came to appreciate their fellow American in a new way, or perhaps have been deeply moved. Numerous school children have seen things danced that they had yet to study, or seen something of this ballet world that they would never have been exposed to, had this company not been there...educating a whole new generation of dance goers. 
I am a bit weary, as it has been a hard journey, made the lighter by a supportive husband/collaborator, numerous Board members, dance community colleagues, resilient funders, and a faith family that has helped us all along the way. I like to think that our dances are meaningful, that they matter, no matter how fleeting the image---dance can sear our soul, raise our consciences, get our heart rate going! 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The 3 site marathon began at Christian Unity Church, with its performance in a two leveled worship center, being followed with a breakfast of grits, sausage, turkey bacon and biscuits---yum! On we went to ASHE, the cultural arts center in Central City, with its cavernous space, first focused on interactive lessons about health, diet and statistics. Then a community sing-in, and then a Teach-in---a multidirectional series of vignettes highlighting the facts of poverty with various stories and situations that highlighted the inequities. The daily tropical rainstorm came in just as this show ended, while we scrambled to eat and get loose before our departure. Finally we, Cohort 3, came to Tekrema, each group focused on a task list that ranged from last minute transformations to intermediary spaces with visual art, lighting and projection, as well as marking off parking on the street with plants hauled from the garden. Excitement built as the crowd assembled outside included curious neighbors, and the immediate sense of community and presence that our house inspires.
 “In this house is all you will need” was the opening mantra and reverberating lesson to all of us, as we presented our site specific dances. Downstairs was an offering space to the ancestors, with a libation installation and candles on the shelves, and surfaces, with its welcoming dances. The Library Room, as we call the one with all the shallow display cases, played out the minstrel show irony  recalling the Willie Lynch papers, outlining steps to divide and conquer black people. The “growing edge” room with its brown paper curtains, with trees, leaves and words that determined “What it is”, and the projections on the ceiling that local artist Ron Bechet had composed for the transition. Shimmery blue fabric introduced a staircase with words of empowerment on each step, and little windows above the bannister, asking questions determining economic level. And then our Bayou Ballet ensued in the magical surrealism of the cypress swamp room, with its hurricane survival and the role of water sounded out with stories told in the words of our dancers. Many people told me that room 's moving story was hard to leave, caught up in its other-worldliness, like a womb they didn't want to leave. Yet, after 6 loops of this, with the cued sounding of the drums, the whole house was emptied out in the street for concentric circles, singing and dancing. Thanks was given to Greer and others, and the work of the Center was highlighted in hopes of help in future repairs of the roof and advancing the vision for that space in the neighborhood. I think ours especially was more akin to a community service--- where we entered, built up and exited the space better than when we left it. I was proud of our collective efforts, and how we honored the space and its founder. We boarded the bus, soaked and exhausted, but after a shower and leftover potluck at the dorm, the party continued back in the studio, with DJ Erich and lots of gyrating hips, soul train lines, and spirits! Dancers know how to party!

We regrouped for our last cultural sharings, for those who didn't get to offer their ancestral tales....fitting on what most consider the Sabbath. We then shared briefly what we learned about ourselves as leaders and relinquished our offerings from the altar table. I retrieved the copy of the poem my father had in his wallet for years, “Don't Quit” and shared this:
I came in as a general ; but a general commands only silence. I must learn to listen, ask questions, honor, validate and respect the assets of the artists around me, and bring them together.
What I didn't say, was
I--however reluctantly--- AM a gatekeeper, a role that draws a negative connotation of power and money, but really is an influencer, an opener of doors. And perhaps I too have absorbed the self loathing of internalized racism that systems put forward to bring me and others down. I also found my voice, literally having to dance and sing, and harmonize all at the same time.
After that self revelatory moment, present and past Urban Bush Women, paid homage to their founder, sister, mother, and role model, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, as they celebrate the 30th anniversary of the company. We then circled and sang, hugged and collected contact information as others drifted off to various destinations away from the space we had shared this long week. I got back to the Quarter, had a swim with Dr. Jaffe, a little shopping in the flea market, and a lovely dinner at a wine bar with them. Doing laundry, watching the Olympics, catching up on the this blog and email, helps me get ready for re-entry into the Bayou City. Here we come, yall-- unleashed to undo racism, and build up our community! Thank you for some tools and the methodology and the heart of compassion and humanity that will entail.

Tekrema Cultural Center in the lower 9th ward is where we will perform site specifically, and gathered for most of day, observing a persistent rainstorm, which ignited our imaginations. This building was purchased 2 months before Katrina, and was entirely immersed in water, and its disrepair is still evident. One hopes Urban Bush Women bringing folks to see this as one of three sites, inspires someone to help assist them in making it the space its owner, Mama Greer, envisioned. We cross pollinated some ideas in various spaces, and for most of the day, we intersected song (I have always wanted to be harmonizing in a singing group) with dance and spoken word. I went along with the visual artists to pick up supplies at Walmart before coming home for an early night of it. The day had started with the conditioning class that has almost become a meditation,( it moves so thankfully slow) and a community dance party, showing the overlap of African idioms that come forth from the young people in various areas reflecting the rage of whatever era--times of war, discontent, and civil rights movements. We also got the local flavor, with some history of Congo Square, as well as those moves we witnessed in the “Second Line” ----movement forms that are revisited, or were “brought by rivers” to our brothers and sisters, yearning to be free.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

DAY....? I've lost track! This recalls Wednesday.
It's like gumbo, this mixture that is simmering, needing to be stirred and the final ingredients dropped into the pot. In assembling our cohorts to "map our assets"--bring all your skills, strengths and personalities to the table---we got to know what a rich array we have together! After listing, quantifying and organizing, we formed 6 groups and worked on the resources we have already assembled through phrases of movement, duet work, facts and figures and stories we had collected. Taking into consideration the spatial limitations we are about to embark upon in the Cultural Center in which we are work tomorrow---without air conditioning in these 90 degree and 90% humid days.
The President was in town for the National  Urban League's convention, apparently, but we are ensconced in the world of possibilities and imagination birthing a happening that has yet to fully emrge in way, shape and form in addressing WHY ARE PEOPLE POOR?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


My body begins to be ever more thankful for the rides each day as my body wearies from the long days and ‘hoofin’ it up Bourbon Street and Audubon” between streetcar rides! Gentle foot massage in conditioning class was in keeping after the day’s journey in the second line yesterday.
After another rigorous professional practice and picking up what I missed the day before, we transitioned into a panel on Wealth Disparity and, after lunch,  another talk about the health effects of being poor from a New Orleans and national perspective. We finally gathered again in our cohort groups to brainstorm and share ideas, research and impressions of the space at which we are to dance site specifically. Liz Lerman led a wonderful opportunity to dig into movement together, via her “toolbox” methodology: composing dance with the every day person, as well as for purposes of this week. Observation methods, asking people what they saw, pairing, counting moves, and taking movement from text were familiar concepts to me from working on the Hallelujah Project and The Dance Exchange’s Institutes. Equivalence and movement metaphor were inspirational reminders of how deeply my work has been affected by Liz. I will get a picture with she and Jawole before I leave, as they are quickly becoming my dance heroines! The day ended early, with a return trip via ST Charles line, and a walk down Bourbon St at dusk….very different from morning! A pickup dinner, a swim in a small pool, and washing clothes was chosen when I might have gone out to hear some music…but an internet connection is dear here---so I use it when I have it.


So I got a ride today, due to the implosion of a local landmark. My host family wanted to be no where near the dust cloud due to asthma problems, so they left early to go take in a 10am movie in a suburb. I got to campus, did my yoga, and conditioning class, which readied me for the challenge of a professional rigor dance practice. The combination of Urban Bush Women teachers Amora, Chanon, and Jawole herself made for an interesting foray into an African-based movement, which I tamely attempted with my limited exposure and facility. Then came for the meat of the day, The People's Institute, a three person team that leads groups through anti-racism  training. With its rules of engagement covenant, we were to open our minds, hearts and break out of the boxes of institutions, systems and ideologies, explore a power analysis, and a discussion of gatekeepers, that gave me a few aha moments and one which surprised me to tears. How every race is dehumanized by these constructs, and how our language in how we speak about and think about the poor is so important in framing our stereotypes, expectations and vision for the least of these. The dinner break brought a quick trip to a middle eastern restaurant to-go and a surreal conversation with a Bay Area dancer, who ends up being married to a grade school dancing friend from Omaha! The dance world is a small world after all! Then we gathered to have a time called altar/ancestor, where a small item, story, dance or performance piece was shared, I was nervous to figure out what I wanted to share, as I didn't really know what the nature of this would be like. The 2 minute snippets of information gleaned and celebrated, recalled or recited, was at times hilarious, quixotic and tearful---but all artful. I still ponder what I will share on next installment. A late but full day.

Today's agenda was reconfigured so as to take in what is called a “Second Line” or jazz funeral procession of a local icon, Uncle Lionel, a drummer. I decided to sleep in, call my husband, and hoof it up Royal St to catch the St Charles line and take the bus back to a point from which we would join  the festivities. Hot and humid, I sweated thru my shirt easily in the first 15 minutes of my day, and probably walked, danced, skootched along for a mile or so with the crowd, fanning myself and others,  following the bad's drums, brass, tambourines, costumes, shenanigans and rituals in a loop following the casson (4 horses, a carriage hauling the casket), and various relatives  like a parade. It was awesome! And found a 12 inch shrimp poboy to bring home to feast upon with other dancers was a reward for the journey. It is a strangely wonderful dichotomy that grieves and rejoices so readily, as only New Orleanians know how to do. The rest of the day was spent in the intense climax and conclusions of The People's Institute, raising awareness and challenging definitions about race and ending with singing, (as is often the way utilized by UBW in assembling the group that things are about to start). A rousing Hollywood shuffle ensued, during the birthday song of Stevie Wonder, which was a powerfully joyous way to end so rich a day. Tomorrow the site specific gathering and dancemaking begins.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


So, here I am with 90 others, in New Orleans for Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute(SLI) “SOUL DEEP: Why are people poor?---demystifying the opportunity gap in the United States.” Urban Bushwomen’s Artistic Director, Jawole Zollar, is a woman whom I got to know as we served together on the Board of Dance USA. Liz Lerman, of the Dance Exchange, with whom I worked a decade ago through Hallelujah Project in Houston. I had just finished Liz’ book “Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes of a Choreographer” (which I hoped to have autographed, was left behind, due to fears of an overweight luggage!) and both women have developed admirable methodology and inspiring art, building communities and tackling tough issues. I was heartened to be remembered and embraced by them both! I am staying in the former slave quarters behind the home (on Bourbon Street!) of Dr. Bernie and Marlene Jaffe, gracious supporters of the arts and medicine in this community. Since most of the work will be done in the Dance studios of McWilliam Hall at Tulane University, most of the participants are staying in dorms, while I have an hour trek each morning, which gives me an opportunity to walk up Bourbon street to Canal, ride a bus and the famous St. Charles Streetcar, and walk another 5 blocks. Rides home at night have been arranged so far!


Each day will start up with a conditioning and dance class geared to professional and pedestrian movers and workshops given in methods, values and practices as we gather data in 3 different venues for site specific work in Hurricane Katrina affected communities. We danced together today instead of the broken up groups therein. We visited our site- Tekrema Cultural Center- in the lower 9th ward, a former hardware store, whose two stories seem to hold many secrets in its long history. The upstairs ballet studio, with its lovely wood floors, had no mirrors, but a mural of cypress swamps painted on its walls. Me wonders how different first ballet lessons would have been in such an environment at this. While exploring their back yard hydroponic classroom and spying some chickens in a corner, I made a surprise discovery---a fire ant hill! This Houston gal should have known better than to stick her foot in it! Talk about dance with ants in your pants! I was rescued with a good hosing down from my colleagues, and luckily had a change of clothes, socks and shoes. Was grateful to another native New Orleans participant for a ride home to shower, before our luscious dinner and drum/dance experience at the Golden Feather on Rampart street…an amazing display of Louisiana hospitality and culture!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sacred Dances

So I always feel like when I get interviewed I wax all poetic about the work for someone else to write it up, and then remember....oh, yeah, I can write a blog about it, too, just in case it's not as lovingly recalled by the free lance writer hired to report on it ( who will probably do a better job from an objectivity standpoint).

However, with dances meant for worship, there always seems to be misunderstanding or mixed expectations. I find it hard to categorize these dances: they are sacred when I am dancing them. Modest costuming, along with craft and artistry, are what might be a little different from the “liturgical dance” some experience in teams across our city's vast array of church services Within the context of a sanctuary, there is a power and beauty that can often change the way you see a dance, or even how it transforms you! But now I am passing these dances onto another generation of dancers, who may or may not hold to the faith I have.... Interesting how making these dances grew my faith, and maybe of use to encourage others to grow and experience their own in deeper ways? That's the hope and the risk I take in utilizing dance in yet another way... Earthen Vessels likes to explore dance as a tool to educate, inspire beauty or celebrate life's experiences---but also as an instrument of worship!

Not unlike an icon, at which one gazes to be observant to stillness, subtle shifts in perspective, becoming one with an image, seared into your soul with unflinching depth. Dance has a way with your soul like that. I have often taken the familiar hymns and texts into churches where dance is foreign or considered with some suspicion as worldly, and tried to illuminate the lyrics, the theology, incarnate it with my body as the vessel. Ahh, the earthen vessel, (again!) that I hope doesn't distract from the essence, but reflects the power of God to do something with my frame, my art, my skill--- to show you a bit of Him.

The liturgical practice is part of my faith journey as I grew up a midwestern Catholic, learned my guitar from St. Louis Jesuits, and sang in and planned masses, and later offered dances for feast days in high school (Duchesne Academy, Omaha NE). This Lenten meditation in dance, is certainly steeped in much of that Catholic tradition, with the Nicene Creed, The Misa Criolla ( a mass sung in Spanish with candles and gloria, credo, sanctus, kyrie), a prayer penned by Cesar Chavez for the Farm Worker, and a St Louis Jesuits song. “Song of Mary” is a narrated dance to a collection of poems by Lucille Clifton, that together weave and foreshadow and offer retrospection by the Mother of Jesus, at different points in her life, that adds context to the picture.

Interspersed there will also be songs danced about the way of the cross, reflecting on its weight and intention(O Sacred Head), the wood (Behold the Wood of the Cross)and the shroud (Were You There?) with music ranging from the medieval to the hymnal to the negro spiritual. There will be the Passion on display in the solos, and bemoanings of ”Agony and Ecstasy” where dancer embodies stories leading to the crucifixion—Christ withholding judgement of the adulterous woman, healing of the lame and blind, the last supper and pain of the via de la rosa, to His rising from the tomb. There will be the glorious anticipation of resurrection with Judy Collins Amazing Grace. My hope is that “Sacred Dances” would assist your reflections on the traditions of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Mauday Thursday to the desolation of Good Friday, from anticipation to heightened joy of Easter ----all wrapped into one evening of dance.

Alongside these, are some reprisals of dances choreographed to the renderings of local Episcopal priest, composer and rock star, Kemper Crabb (St John the Divine Contemporary Service)--one a wedding duet( which was danced at mine!), and another “Be Thou My Vision” which I have choreographed at least three versions in my life! These are danced in tribute to the churches past and present, and its people, singles, couple, small groups---- that have supported and watched the journey of the dance from sunday school classes to concert stages that is my vocation. I happen to be a founding member of Christ Evangelical Church, whose Christ in the Arts Festival has opened its door to the arts in amazing generosity as a venue! Thanks BJ! It is with great joy, we bring this expression of dance to their sanctuary. I will have singers and many in the audience from City of Refuge, a multicultural Presbyterian church at which I serve as a deacon...I am grateful to them for their unswerving support as well.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Insider Info on "Mothers of the Movement"

I met Maya Angelou once at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert at Zellerbach in Berkeley, and when she stood up to shake my hand---wow, she was tall--a giant in life for me. Having read Maya Angelou's series of autobiographies, starting with "I know why the caged bird sings" I was inspired to see this woman doing so many things with her life---a dancer, a singer, a writer, an ambassadorr,a poet an...d a sage. Maybe I could do all those things too, (doesn't this dance company allow me to do many of those things?) and not just let ballet and dance be all that defines me. "Phenomenal Woman" was one of her defining works, and is one of ours, too, and each woman puts her stamp on it by speaking the poetry aloud, while dancing---no easy feat---with a finale featuring a rap that makes a statement with Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Harriet Tubman and Sojourner represent pivotal roles black woman provide a way out, and be a voice speaking up for all women... each overcame obstacles and weren't afraid to challenge the injustice and do something tangible about it too---both which took tremendous courage. Harriet's journey made all the more amazing, in that she had sleeping sickness that would overtake her at any time, as she traversed the underground railroad with her passengers in tow. Sojourner Truth standing alongside suffragettes and an impressive communicator. Rosa Parks” quiet dignity is dealt with in a very (Liz Lerman-ish) gestural way in its conception with an interview playing that was recorded around the time of her death, that tells the story 3rd person with a conversational perspective. ( I am reading Liz Lerman's Hiking the Horizontal right now). That work is called Seated for Justice and juxtaposes images of that time and moment in history (as assembled by my partner in life)behind the dancer of Rosa.

Am also bringing back Yolanda Gibbs to recreate her roles in so many of these works-- surely a mother of many of these movements in her own right!

Nina Simone, will be two totally different male female interactions, one fluffy and light, the other brutal (that we did at CAM last year). Her voice comprises so much pain and humor, doesn't it? As does Roberta Flack, whose music inspired my first piece of choreography in 8th grade. I'm sure those nuns didn't know what to make of "Jesse"--nor did i know what that song was about too much then---but when that was the first song that made me cry, and I just had to dance to it!
And the Lucille Clifton poems about Mary, Mother of Jesus, are combined to create a lovely series of tableau to a haunting piece of music by Keith of the more sublime inspirations that I often bring out. Now, the nuns would be really touched by that one...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

AMAHL and the NIGHT VISITORS special addition

James Sewell, the choreographer of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" always said I could do something different with the village this year, with some American Sign Language (ASL)classes under my belt, I launch out! One of the villagers will be a little drummer girl who will be accompanied by Amahl's pipe, the hidden drum of the page, who ministers to the kings, and Amahl's widowed mother, who needs a little cheer in her life. The kings even get in on the act and give Amahl a lift when (s)he cannot manage the moves with cane. Hope you enjoy this little augmentation of the storyline and the only true dance segment without lyrics...but it will have its own little tale.... those who are deaf in the audience and understand ASL will know that part if I have "glossed" the sentencing correctly. Do you know what glossing is? It is restructuring the sentence structure for simplicity and the limitations of sign vocabulary...full sentences might be abbreviated to a shorter phrase with main ideas. In a culture of text-ers and internet, ( think how awesome those technologies are for deaf people?!) sign languages have always been their own code, perhaps the first shorthand, literally! (pun intended). I posted on article on AMAHL for the Houston Deaf Network, and have tried to inform that community, and those churches that serve such populations, to bring their congregants for a wonderful show.... a great outing for families, groups, troupes, Mentoring programs and senior citizens....a great intro to ballet and opera for our youngest, for it is under an hour!!!!made for tv, right?

I have also been haunted by the comments of a young lad, who in our post performance Q&A, "when's the sequel?" I thought that prospect delightful and can imagine many little rivulets of narrative that come bubbling up...who knows? I might attempt it, or at the very least a prologue or epilogue in years to come. What do you think happened before or after? If you haven't seen it, you will have to come first, and let me know how you envision the context or bookends of this sweet homespun tale.