Alvin Ailey Dance Review

r-Evolution, Dream Choreography: Hope Boykin
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Credit Photo: Paul Kolnik nyc 212-362-7778

It’s been a while since I’ve been to see dance, but the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s performance of three very different pieces – Deep, r-Evolution Dream and The Winter in Lisbon – showed me why I should go more often.   It’s modern dance, and very athletic, with a classical grounding underpinning it all.

The evening opened with Deep, a world premiere ensemble routine by Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti (newly appointed director of La Scalla Ballet), set to music by Ibeyi, French-Cuban twin sisters who sing in French, English and Yoruba.

This was followed by r-Evolution, Dream choreographed by Ailey dancer Hope Boykin, who was inspired by a visit to the Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta where she heard an excerpt from “The Drum Major Instinct”  sermon of Dr. Martin Luther King.  She also commissioned an original score by Ali Jackson of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra; throughout the performance you’ll hear historic and original text narrated by Leslie Odom Jr. (from Hamilton).

The last piece was my favorite, as it was set to music by Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Fishman.  The Winter in Lisbon was choreographed in 1992 by Billy Wilson, and restaged by Masazumi Chaya.  With its vibrant score, costumes and movement, you feel the teasing and romance of the dancers. We all left the theatre feeling uplifted.

To get a taste, check out the video’s on the Company’s website.   Then run to City Center –  you’ve only got until December 31st to catch these wonderful dancers.   Don’t delay! 

New York From 1609 to 2050

Native American Ceremonial Club 1600’s from Johan Printz, Governor of New Sweden

Have you ever wondered about the earliest days of New York City – before it was a city?  Or how it became a global capital?  The new exhibit New York at its Core  at the Museum of the City of New York aims not so much to answer those questions, as analyze how the Big Apple came to be, examining the City’s development through four foundational lenses:  money, diversity, density and creativity.

Divided into three parts, this $100 million dollar renovation of the first floor starts with the Port City, covering the years 1609 through 1898, from Henry Hudson’s arrival to the year when the city was consolidated into the metropolis we know today.    You’ll find bays with historic artifacts organized around individual topics, such as the Lenape Indians, the arrival of the Europeans, religious pluralism…  There are also interactive kiosks where you can find out about the people and important events and topics such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, slavery, oysters…  On the back wall images of the modern day streetscape fade into a view of the same scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries, allowing you to really appreciate how the City changed and grew.

Cover of Trumpet Battle album of 1957 and trumpet owned by Roy Eldridge

The second gallery, World City, covering 1898-2012, is about not only the development of the port, but also about the lively cultural scene that had developed, in part due to NYC’s diversity:  between 1880 and 1898, there were over 1 million foreign-born people living in Manhattan and Brooklyn, who were served by papers in 13 languages.  This era also witnessed the birth of the Bowery theatres and Coney Island, which were followed in the early 20th century by the rise of Broadway and the Harlem Renaissance.  Other bays examine the decline of New York between 1960 and 1970, with the pressing issues of that period such as war, civil rights and de-industrialization. I’m happy to report that there’s also a display New York Comes Back, which examines how the City became the global capital we know today. On the back wall of the gallery, clear silhouettes parade against a background of city scenes.  Each silhouette corresponds to one of 40 influential people; you can click on their image to learn their story. 

Mapping the City display with over 100 digital maps of various demographic data, i.e., where people live, where the jobs are, how they get around

The Future City Lab was the most amazing for me, as it allows you to imagine the city of the future through five challenges:  housing, ecology, transportation, work, and diversity.  You can explore each of these areas in detail at individual computer stations, and propose your own solutions – your chance to play urban planner!  It’s a lot of fun, but it also makes you realize how hard it is to design a city. The stations will show you different neighborhoods and the current strategies for their development; you can design a street, a park or a building, and you can see how your proposals rate on various metrics such as affordability and sustainability.  Your solution is then projected on a very large screen that you can step into.  There are also display tables with general information on New York such as our religious composition, the age of the population, origin of our immigrants – 38% of New Yorkers were born abroad, and you can see how we stack up against other cities.

Future City display showing the results of a visitor’s building design

A little more “low tech” is the “What if” table, which contains blocks with questions and answers from knowledgeable New Yorkers; you can submit your own questions or solutions.

This has been a very, very brief overview of the wealth of information you’ll find in this exhibit, which is a permanent one – but don’t wait forever, get up and see it now;  you’ll want to go back!

Artists Equity Show

Leni Liftin and her painting School Bus

I got to the opening the the Members Invitational, a juried group show of work by Artists Equity members at their gallery on Broome Street.  

Artists Equity was founded in 1947 by over 160 leading American artists – including Will Barnet, Edward Hopper, Louise Nevelson – to promote opportunities for artists, and to educate their members on legal and business issues as well as advocating on their behalf, which the organization continues to do today.

While the show is small, about a dozen works, the quality is very high.  I’ll let the images speak for themselves;  the exhibit is up until January 14th!

What Happens Now by Ambre Kelly







Transformation by James Buxton









Ultra Lux by Kambui Olujimi



Philanthropy and Higher Education in Africa

(l-r) Naomi Moland, Teboho Moja, Fabrice Jaumont at the Albertine

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know and admire Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché at the French Cultural Services who’s done so much for dual-language French-English programs in NYC public schools.  Fabrice recently published Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa, and the Albertine book store hosted a discussion between Fabrice and South African educator and author Teboho Moja,    which was moderated by Naomi Moland.  Below are the highlights of that conversation.

Private philanthropy has helped fuel the growth of higher education in Africa – as of 2014, there were 1639 higher education institutions throughout the 54 countries of the continent (as compared to only 31 in 1944).  While many are state-run, private institutions are also springing up to meet growing demand – as in the rest of the world, higher education is seen as a driver of development and income growth.  Over 300 U.S. foundations are investing in Africa, with the big foundations – Carnegie, Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon – trying to transform education on the continent. Of the $4 billion that was invested between 2003 and 2013, most has been in English speaking countries, especially South Africa, with very little going to French or Portuguese speaking schools.  Funding from non-US sources tends to  come from governments, and follows the old colonial paths.  While funding for building both capacity and buildings has made higher education more accessible, there is often a mismatch between the priorities of foundations and the recipients – the people on the ground know what is needed, but the donors have the money and so determine priorities.  The speakers cited the example of a foundation that wanted to fund classes in women’s studies, but the university would have preferred to spend the money on upgrading Internet access; this clearly highlighted the need for the relationship between the donor and recipient to be negotiated, so the donors can be involved in setting agenda. Funding by private foundations raises several larger questions:  Who owns development? What is the African model of education? Should countries follow US model?  The speakers noted that the African Union takes a regional approach to higher education that cuts across colonial lines (in it’s Development Plan 2063, NEPAD has placed higher education in the center of its strategy).

They also mentioned initiatives that seek to address these issues, such as as the one by the Carnegie Foundation which sends diaspora members to Africa to work with schools. Carnegie is also working with a group of about eight universities to help them strategically transform themselves into more research-oriented institutions, to enable their students to better compete in the knowledge economy.

While the speakers concluded that philanthropy and foundation funding are necessary for the continued growth in higher education in Africa, they did ask the question  of what happens when the funding stops – will Africa be able to do it on its own, or will the continent look to another source, such as China, to grow its education sector?

All in all, a conversation that gave me a lot to chew on, and made me want to read Unequal Partners.  You can watch a video of the talk here.

Celebrating New Literature and Independent Presses

Salman Rushdie addressing the audience at the New Literature From Europe Festival

I hope you don’t think your intrepid blogger is all about exhibits and plays; from time-to-time she likes to read a good book!  Or at least hear their authors talk about them…  I’ve been lucky to hear some authors read from and speak about their work, or the works of other authors. 

At the New Literature From Europe Festival, noted author Salman Rushdie gave the keynote speech at the last panel, “In the Mother Tongue – A European Reading.”  Rushdie gave deserved recognition to the importance of works in translation – which he described as a trilogue among the author, the reader and the translator.  He noted that translations open up the world to us, and that it allowed him to discover Russian literature.  He made the point that a translator is the least recognized figure (and, I would add, seriously underpaid), yet so crucial, acting as a gate-keeper, allowing you to get through the (language) door to experience being in another culture.    Rushdie spoke about the need for good translations, citing Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote:  she understood that Cervantes used colloquial Spanish and that he did so to make fun of courtly literature, so she was able to give us a translation that brought the story to life.  On the other hand, he noted how Proust was often mistranslated, as when A la recherche du temps perdue was rendered as Remembrance of Things Past instead of In Search of Lost Time.   

As he concluded his remarks, Rushdie expressed his disappointment that only 2% of work sold in the US is translated.  I couldn’t agree more!

The readings that followed showed both the vibrancy of European literature, and the need for good translations.  The authors read an excerpt from one of their works in the original language, while the English-language version was shown on the screen.  Szczepan Twardoc (Poland) read from his soon-to-be published novel The King;   Immaneul Misfud (Malta) read from his novel Jutta Heim;  Susana Moriera Marques (Portugal) read from her first book, Now and at the Hour of Our Death; Mihkel Mutt (Estonia) read from his short story, Mein Floralein; Asle Skredderberget (Norway) read from his thriller The Oslo Conspiracy; Christian Crusat  (Spain) read from A Brief History of Travel & Desert; Yoko Towada (Japan & Germany) read from her novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear;  Tommy Wieringa (The Netherlands) read from his book These Are The Names; and Colin Barrett (Ireland) closed the session with his reading from his short story The Clancy Kid (which was written in English). 

All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and I can’t wait to read the works which were presented!

(l-r) Matthew Sharpe, Barry Gifford, Lee Stringer, Kia Corthon, Paul Auster, Phil Jackson (Annie Ernaux on screen) at Seven Stories Press reading

A few days earlier, I attended a wonderful literary event at the Brooklyn Public Library: There Is No Middle Ground Celebrating 20 Years of Seven Stories Press.    In that spirit, various writers read from the work of Seven Stories authors, each representing a particular theme. 

American masters: Paul Auster read an excerpt from A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut which is his almost biography.  I admit to having trouble understanding Vonnegut’s novels, but I was lucky enough to hear him speak a few times, and he was a brilliant lecturer – this book seems to be more like his talks than his prose, so I’m going to give it a try.

New voices of consequence: Matthew Sharpe  read Postcards from the End of America  by Linh Dinh which will be published in 2017.  The book chronicles Dinh’s trip around the US, where he visited cities and towns where people were living on the edge economically.

Literature makes lifeKia Corthron read science fiction writer Octavia Butlers essay Positive Obsession  about how Butler became a writer, and why, when you decide what you want in life, you should aim high; and from Butler’s novel Parable of the Sower which imagines the U.S. in 2025 ruled by a charismatic President, but where violence reigns all around.

Exquisite prose: Francine Prose read from two works by French writer Annie Ernaux about her father:  A Man’s Place, about his life and death, and Shame, about the time her father tried to kill her mother.

Hoop dreamersPhil Jackson read from baseball writer  Charley Rosen‘s  House of Moses All Stars which recounts the story of a Jewish baseball team as it plays around America during the Depression.

Dan Simon, the founder of Seven Stories Press, read from Grand Central Winter,   Lee Stringer’s account of being an alcoholic, then smoking crack cocaine, losing his apartment, then becoming homeless…   Simon discovered him when he picked up a copy of “Street News” which Stringer had been publishing.  Stringer gave a lovely tribute to Seven Stories Press, recounting how, after having been addicted and homeless for 12 years, when Simon asked him to write a book, he was really being shown a door to the rest of his life.

Chicago’s bestBarry Gifford read Nelson Algren’s short story “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” a  very funny tale about a barroom drunk and a possible miracle, from The Neon Wilderness Collection Gifford also paid homage to Seven Stories Press’ founder Dan Simon, who became a publisher to publish Algren’s work, which had enjoyed fame in the 1930’s and ’40’s then was blacklisted in the ’50’s.  Eventually, Algren’s stories went out of print until Simon brought them back.   His best known works are The Man With the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side.   

Seven Stories Press whose tagline is “Works of Radical Imagination” describes itself as  “fiercely independent,” publishing fiction, political non-fiction, literature, and works in translation.  It also has the Triangle Square imprint, which publishes young adult (YA) literature on topics like ecology, sex and social justice, as well as the Spanish language imprint, Siete Cuentos Editorial, to introduce important English-language texts to Spanish-language readers.

I was blown away by the readings, and I encourage you to take a look at these and other works published by Seven Stories .

Earlier in the year, at the Goethe Institute,  I attended a reading of  the English language version (translated by Steph Morris) of The Last Weynfeldt, Martin Suter’s novel about a Zurich art expert and his involvement in an art forgery scheme.  I enjoyed the reading immensely, and picked up the book, which I hope to read over the holidays. 

The novel is published by New Vessel Press, an independent publisher  which specializes in the translation of foreign literature, bringing voices from around the world not often heard in the US to new audiences. 

The work of these and other small, independent presses is very important, so the next time you’re looking for a book for yourself or someone else, think about these publishers.

Diplomacy in the Midst of Civil War

Dante Paradiso

Earlier this Fall, at the Half King pub, I got to hear Dante Paradiso, a US Foreign Service Officer read from and speak about The Embassy, his just-published an account of the Liberian civil war of the early 2000’s. (You can watch his talk here) The book focuses on events that took place between June and August of 2003, a period of complete chaos –   the warlord Charles Taylor, who had supported rebel movements in Sierra Leone and other places, was  fighting two rebel armies in Liberia, where he was nominally in control.   At the same time, he was attending peace talks with them in Ghana, when, unexpectedly,  an international court indicted Taylor for war crimes.  Almost every country closed their embassy in Monrovia – no place in the country was safe.  The US was preoccupied with Iraq, and  many in Washington wanted the US to also leave Liberia, as the ragtag militias and child soldiers fighting Taylor advanced on the capital.  The book recounts how US Ambassador John W. Blaney made the courageous decision to keep the US Embassy open and go personally to the front lines to broker a cease fire. 

Paradiso wrote the book because he felt it is important for people to know what happened in Liberia, and because he was inspired by the bravery of Ambassador Blaney and his team.

During his remarks, Paradiso noted how, to be effective in a combat zone, diplomatic personnel need to be on the ground to work on problems so they don’t get worse – there is a risk to staying, but things could get worse if they leave.  Good information is vital, so diplomats need to talk to people on all sides and all around to get a full picture.  It’s only in this way that they can assess the risks to peoples’ lives, and devise a plan to get to a better place.  Not surprisingly, there’s often a wide gulf between perceptions on the ground and the ones in Washington, DC (substitute the capital of your choice), which makes the situation precarious, because in a conflict zone, it’s vital for the Embassy to have the backing of the policy makers and politicians back home.

He offered up three key elements needed to solve a complex international crisis:

  • international consensus on the way forward
  • credible partners on the ground
  • communication with people on the ground to know what all the different factions want

I’ve only started the book, and I think it would be a delight if you want to know about the nuts and bolts of diplomacy.  Because there are so many actors, from so many different agencies, and the story moves between Liberia and the US, sometimes you have to go a bit slow to keep the characters straight, but the book keeps the story going while conveying the confusion of the situation and demonstrating the courage of the Ambassador and his staff who stayed in Monrovia. 

Big Plans for the Museum of the American Indian

(l-r) Lenape rattles, Hawaian gourd drum, Chilean mapuché drum, Andean armadillo charango (guitar)

Recently I attended a press conference and ceremony to kick off the addition of a new space at the National Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green.  If you’re not familiar with it, this museum – the George Gustave Haye Center – is one of three facilities (one on the Mall in Washington DC and the other in Suitland, Maryland) that comprise the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. (I’ve reviewed their exhibits on Navajo jewelry and ledger art)  The event featured short speeches by museum and elected officials, as well as an Iroquois blessing ceremony.   

The Center, which opened 100 years ago on 155th Street & Broadway by George Gustave Haye, is reconfiguring the space with the goal of showing a more complete history of Native peoples, so their contributions are not erased.  As one of the speakers noted, in its present location, the Center is opposite Ellis Island, symbolically creating a dialogue between the Native peoples and the people who came to the Americas after them.

The Center will be modernizing its youth learning center, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center (iAC) by repurposing 4,500 sq. ft. of office space into exhibition, educational and administrative space, so the Center can expand its educational offerings to students, educators and visitors, while allowing for school partnerships and cross-cultural collaborations.   

The iAC will demonstrate the influence and impact of Native innovations and technologies and the Native American approach to innovation, critical thinking, creative problem solving and sustainability – all of which are clearly relevant to 21st century STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering,art, math) education.

Snow Goggles of walrus ivory by Tom Akeya, St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik, Alaska

There will be exhibits on Native foods, medicines, engineering, architecture and mathematics, showcasing the skills of the early Native peoples in both North and South America in agriculture, health care, bridge building, iglu and pueblo design, as well as the Mayan invention of the concept of zero!

The construction is slated to be completed in late 2017 and open to the public in April 2018.   I can’t wait!  In addition to its permanent and temporary exhibits, the museum offers a range of public programs, including music and dance performances, films, and symposia.  You can find more information on the museum’s website.   BTW, admission is FREE!

Mary Sue Daniels – Anaconda in the Big Apple

Mary Sue Daniels

Mary Sue Daniels

This week, I got to interview my long-time friend and former colleague, Mary Sue Daniels, who’s living her dream of being a cabaret performer in the Big Apple. She’ll be bringing her show, Straight Outta ‘Conda to Don’t Tell Momma  on West 46th Street December 14th, at 7:00pm. It’s a great way to unwind after work!  I’ve seen her show twice, so it was a lot of fun to talk with Mary Sue about her childhood in Anaconda, Montana, her musical influences, and her show.  Give a listen – then go see the show!

Poison – Theatre Review

poison-playbillPoison, by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, opens slowly, almost listlessly… The stage is bare, but for a white bench and a large soda machine.  There’s a man, standing still, looking at his phone, taking a few steps, stopping… But if you stay with it, you’ll be rewarded when the action kicks in.  Not that there’s momentous physical movement or vocal fireworks.  Rather it’s through the tension between the torrent of words and the silences, and the thrust and parry of the dialogue, that the play exerts its hold on us.

Poison revolves around a couple who lost a child ten years ago, and haven’t seen each other in the intervening years. They’re meeting to ostensibly talk with the cemetery manager about the need to move their son’s grave, due to soil contamination.  Over the course of the play, the characters (only known as She and He) try to reconnect, reestablish a relationship, and remember why they fell in love in the first place, as well as understand why they were torn apart.  The dialogue captures ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation, and their attempts to use language to clarify and heal, or wield it as a weapon. The silences reinforce both the inadequacy of language to express feelings and the hesitancy people sometimes have to speak for fear of offending the other person.  We see the characters’ defenses break down as they say things they’ve previously been unable to and slowly realize they can’t go back to the way they were…  The play clearly shows us that only by reconciling with the past can we move forward.

The sparse setting is perfect for this production – you won’t find any excess (which would be so easy given the subject) – and there’s nothing to stop the characters from saying what they need to say or what they’ve wanted to say to each other.

This production by Origin Theatre, directed by Erwin Maas, features fine acting by Birgit Huppuch and Michael Laurence, as well as lovely vocals by Jordan Rutter (who sings Richard Strauss’s Morgen).

Poison is at the Becket Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. See it before it closes on December 11th.