Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Moving Experience

Madison’s the type of place where events of international significance can happen without the local public even knowing about them. Don’t let that be the case with the 2009 World Dance Alliance–Americas General Assembly.

From May 28–31, the UW–Madison Dance Program hosts this special conference, themed “What Moves Us,” which brings together dancers, educators and students from around the world to discuss and experiment with diverse approaches to viewing and performing dance.

But the assembly isn’t just for dance professionals. A wide array of classes and concerts are offered during the conference. All are open to the public and most are free.

Ereck Jarvis, a project assistant at the UW Dance Program and coordinator of the assembly, recently answered some questions, specifically about the assembly and more generally about the state of dance today.

How did Madison become the host of the 2009 World Dance Alliance–Americas General Assembly?

The 2009 WDAA General Assembly builds on the success of the UW Dance Program’s 2007 and 2008 Intercontinental Summer Dance Festivals. In 2007, the program’s initial Intercontinental Summer Dance Festival involved roughly eighty-five dance artists, practitioners and students, including dancers and specialists from Germany, Liberia, Taiwan and Canada. Through a series of twelve daily classes and four concerts, festival participants developed knowledge and experience in a broad variety of dance styles—from contemporary, modern and ballet technique to Chinese opera dance, Appalachian flat-footing, African dance and Central Asian dance.

The 2008 festival, which brought together over 150 participants from Taiwan, Mexico and numerous locations within the U.S., presented five free public concerts of participants’ choreography to full-capacity crowds. In its second year, the festival expanded the diversity of its offerings, increasing participants’ opportunities to develop knowledge and experience in a broad variety of dance styles, traditions, techniques and pedagogies. New topics included “Violence Prevention through Movement and Creativity,” Egyptian and Middle Eastern performance, Bharata Natyam, Israeli folk dance and “Non-Traditional Ballet Curriculum in Taiwan.”

Both the 2007 and 2008 festivals received sponsorship from World Dance Alliance–Americas, a member-driven organization whose mission is to discuss and debate aspects of common interest in order to help all the dance professionals of the Western hemisphere. Its aim is to support and preserve dance by promoting movement-based art and practice, encouraging collaboration and facilitating international exchange and study of common problems. WDAA is itself a regional component of the global World Dance Alliance, which serves as a primary voice for dance and dancers throughout the world and encourages the exchange of ideas and the awareness of dance in all its many forms …

Jin-Wen Yu, the chair of the UW Dance Program and coordinator of both its 2007 and 2008 summer festivals, is actively involved in WDAA, serving as a board member and head of its Creation and Presentation Network. Yu was eager to share the intercultural educational opportunities and diverse aesthetic dialogues offered by UW–Madison’s summer festivals with the members of WDAA. Similarly, WDAA found the international scope and thoughtful approach of the UW–Madison’s 2007 and 2008 summer events to be in line with the alliance’s mission.

What are the current trends in dance and how will the conference address them?

The assembly embraces one recent trend in the discipline of dance: a shift away from exclusive focus on high art and toward the inclusion of more broadly defined movement-based practices and the cultivation of global accessibility. By movement-based practices, I mean such things as martial arts, Tai Chi, yoga, popular dance, folk dance. These forms have really begun to influence contemporary choreographic art. We generated the assembly’s theme, “What Moves Us,” from an interest in investigating what this sort of openness to influence and involvement means for contemporary dance. The theme emphasizes the simplest, most vital and critical component of dance—movement. To be alive is to move—blood must circulate, air must pass in and out of the lungs. So dance may be something we all can and do participate in. We include the word “us” in the theme because we want to question who is the “us” of dance; what do we look like. We’re particularly interested in how different forms of movement—art dance, folk dance, ethnic dance, popular and street dance—help create and define communities. Within the theme of What Moves Us, our primary focuses are issues of community dance, international exchange and disability in movement arts.

What will the conference and festival entail? What will the focus be this year?

The assembly received over 170 proposals for contributions to its program, including submissions from individuals or groups based in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Kenya, Latvia, Taiwan, Thailand, Trinidad and Venezuela. We’re currently working with potential contributors to set the program of events. The current draft of our master class schedule features over eight different techniques of modern dance, classes on blending martial arts and creative dance, and cultural dance classes such as Afro-Cuban, Israeli Folk, Manupuri (a form of Indian classical dance), Flamenco and Moroccan. 

Presentation topics include methods of using movement analysis to assist blind audiences in appreciating dance, a workshop in body-mind centering, discussions of work by celebrated community dance innovators such Liz Lerman and David Dorfman, and the use of dance practice in refugee resettlement and general community building. Several artists will conduct choreographic projects during the assembly: either they will set already choreographed pieces on assembly participants or they will collaborate with assembly dancers to create a new work. The results will be presented in our final concert. Other concert programs will present choreography and performance by locally, nationally and internationally renowned dance artists, including groups of disabled or integrated (mixing both disabled and non-disabled) artists.

With community dance and building community through dance as two of its primary concerns, the assembly is eager to include the local general public (non-dance-professionals, movers who do not identify themselves predominantly with dance art, or individuals without extensive training in dance art and technique) in its events. Daily concerts will be open to the public, and some of the pieces performed in the concerts will feature non-traditional performers. For instance, Jin-Wen Yu will present a work he created in collaboration with local tai chi teacher Blair Mathews. The piece features four trained ballet dancers and eight local tai chi practitioners. The assembly will include some performances out in public areas. Philadelphia-based artist Merián Soto is designing a performance of her “Branch” project to take place in the UW Arboretum.

But we’re also interested in getting the public to dance as well as to watch dance. In the current draft of the schedule, we will invite the local public to participate in two free daily classes/workshops. These classes should include introductions to and instruction in African dance, integration of disabled and non-disabled movers in creative dance choreography, Israeli folk dance, movement improvisation, Native American dance and Tai Chi.

What is the significance of this event coming to Madison?

It’s so incredibly unusual for an event of such international magnitude to take place outside one of the U.S.’s major metropolitan areas. The Madison community will have a truly unique opportunity to access performances from individuals and group from around the world. And, we’re excited to present local artist’s work alongside those by artists from elsewhere. We’re working very hard to make these performances as accessible and well attended as possible.

What is the future of dance?

Terry Teachout (drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, the chief culture critic of Commentary, and the author of “Sightings,” a column about the arts in America that appears biweekly in the Saturday Wall Street Journal)—who, mind you, is a huge fan of and advocate for ballet and dance art in general—has lamented that dance will be the first of the fine arts to die. Based on the exciting, innovative work that the assembly will include, I’m a little more optimistic. So many of the artists and experts contributing to the assembly demonstrate that the art is very vital and transforming in very constructive ways. I certainly hope Teachout is wrong: As the importance of virtual or computer-based worlds continue to grow in our society, I firmly believe that we will have more and more to learn from dance, which, for me, is the art that helps us understand what it means to have a body, to negotiate the world through our bodies which constantly radiate multiple levels of communication and meaning.

Photos are courtesy of the UW Dance Program.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

June Artists: Beyond the Strip

Whether the word “comics” brings to mind newspaper cartoons, collectible books or contemporary graphic novels, you’re likely to learn a lot at Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix 1963–1990, a new exhibition at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Showcasing original art, printed pages, comic book covers and other work by fifty-seven artists, the exhibition explores the underground comix movement that began in the 1960s in which cartoonists rebelled against mainstream society and mainstream publishing to create a new, uncensored era of comic art.

Recently, James Danky, a co-curator of Underground Classics with Denis Kitchen, answered a few questions about the intriguing exhibition.

How did this exhibition come about?

In the fall of 1977 I organized a conference on the UW campus on book publishing in Wisconsin and Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press attended it. We introduced ourselves and I have the distinct memory of casually saying how great it would be to see his and the other comix artists’ work in a museum. As we have remarked to each other since, you need to be careful with those casual statements given that was thirty-three years ago!

How did you personally become interested in comics and comix?

I have always read comics. I am sure I began with the funnies in the newspaper back when the offerings were more numerous, though I quickly added reading comic books as well. I would sit on the floor of the supermarket while my mother shopped (this was the 1950s, after all) and would read several comics and then select one to buy for twelve cents. If the title was other than Disney I would hide the book inside Life or Look but markets tended to offer a pretty mild selection of books. In 1967 I discovered comix when a friend lent me his copy of Zap, which blew my mind as the saying goes. From then on my reading was almost exclusively comix, as the titles published by the major firms had lost my interest. Today I read comix and their successors, namely titles published by younger artists including Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Jason Lutes and Linda Barry. The creativity of their art and the stories they choose to tell make for compelling reading.

What is the difference between comics and comix?

Comics have been an integral part of art since people drew on caves in Europe, if not before. In the twentieth century comics have come to have a more limited definition that frequently depended upon their location within the media. Newspaper strips, whether dramatic or humorous, were aimed at a general, family audience. Likewise, many comic books from producers like Disney or Dell provided content that involved funny animals and the like and could safely, after the mid-1950s, be shared with even younger children. There were many important comics that were none of these things, comics that contained graphic views of war or horror, but the Comics Code movement during the McCarthy era drove them out of business. This left a landscape where comics artists and readers were constrained in their choices and this frustration led to comix. The “x” is there to distinguish the two approaches. Comix offered artists the freedom to use unfettered language, depict graphic sex or recreational drug use, and make use of extreme violence when the story called for it. This entirely new approach to the medium produced works that were completely different than any that had come before and that also reflected the tremendous social changes associated with the 1960s.

Has this topic been studied much in the past? Why is it gaining attention now?

There were perceptive critics and even a historian or two who appreciated the work done by comix artists right away. However, their efforts were fragmented and often little read. Over the last few years there have been some important books, including Pat Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions, which have put comix into a broader context. Denis and I believe our book, Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, represents the first serious examination of comix as art, but our work relies on the contribution of many others.

Comix have gained a new acceptance over the last few decades and here I could point to a number of indicators but perhaps it is useful to think of Art Spiegelman’s joining the New Yorker in 1992 and later when his wife, Francoise Mouly, became the magazine’s art director. As the premier venue for cartoonists, the changes at the New Yorker have opened its pages to cartoonists whose work would have never appeared before. It is a factor of age, as in those of us who grew up on comix are now of an age to want to see such images, read such stories that publications include them.

How well does the general public understand and appreciate comics and comix? Have there been misconceptions over the years?

Despite the changes noted above, comics and comix remain a demonized form of media. The historical demonization sent forth by Dr. Wertham in Seduction of the Innocent, which produced the Comics Code of the 1950s, established a frame in which stories told using drawings were deemed juvenile and of little value. How many parents declared that reading comics was a waste of time? The result has been to limit the audience of comics in ways that other literary forms are not. Comics and comix can both be extraordinary forms for authors and artists to employ in telling stories. Comix offer the added benefit of being able to tell a story without the usual constraints or responsibilities. When Will Eisner’s A Contract with God appeared in 1978 (published by Denis Kitchen), the world had its first graphic novel. It is hard to underestimate the effects of Eisner’s work and I would note the strong presence of graphic novels and graphic nonfiction in many school reading programs as well as college courses.

What did you learn or what surprised you in working on this show?

I am tempted to say that Denis and I learned how little we knew about how museums worked, but mostly we came to understand how best to tell the story of the fifty-seven artists in the exhibit so that it would make sense to the art museum-attending community. With the help of Russell Panczenko and his staff at the Chazen, I think we have succeeded.

What do you hope people get from seeing this exhibition?

I hope those of a certain age, one closer to my own, enjoy reliving a part of their past, a part that they may not have considered recently or shared with those who came later. For students today, I think the opportunity to see the work done by a generation of artists and to consider how these lines on paper changed everything. The legacy of the sixties is more than rock n’ roll, important as that was.

Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix, 1963–1990 runs through July 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 263.2068 or visit

Additionally, check out Underground Classics, a book written by Danky and Kitchen to accompany the exhibition, as well as a blog dedicated to the show.

Photos are courtesy of the Chazen Museum of Art.

IN THE MAGAZINE: The June issue of Madison Magazine comes out tomorrow. Here’s some of the arts content you’ll find within the pages:
• Local booksellers’ picks for the hottest summer reads.
• Tips on scoring great tickets inexpensively in our special Luxe for Less issue.
• Also in our Luxe for Less cover story is my experience visiting twelve galleries and art museums in a single day.
• A look into what it’s like for two Mercury Players producers to put on the annual Blitz.
• The poem Beauty by Mick Joyce.
• Our monthly Overtones section with picks on the can’t-miss performances, concerts and exhibits taking place in May.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Joy of Dance

If you head out to Stoughton this weekend for its annual Syttende Mai celebration, make a point to catch a performance by the Stoughton Norwegian Dancers.

Made up of twenty-three Stoughton High School students, the group performs authentic Scandinavian dances throughout the year and concludes its season each year at Syttende Mai.

In fact, the history of the group is intertwined with that of the festival. Stoughton’s first Syttende Mai took place in 1952 and after the celebration, a school administrator approached the girls gym teacher at the time, Jeanne Reek, asking her to start a Norwegian dance group to perform at future festivals.

Reek rose to the challenge, creating the group and researching Scandinavian dance, music and costumes—going so far as to travel through Norway for seven weeks one summer to learn the customs firsthand.

The result is a group that shares authentic dances—circle, square and weaving dances that incorporate flips and other athletic moves—music and costumes with audiences in the Madison area as well as on tours around the country.

Being part of the group is a major commitment for these fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds, an experience that can’t help but shape their high school experience, says Polly Goepfert, who took over for Reek as director ten years ago.

Students try out in the spring and the new dancers are announced after Syttende Mai. Practice begins the first day of school in September and continues every morning through May. Their first performance is in October and they have roughly sixty more until Syttende Mai.

“They prepare all year for Syttende Mai,” Goepfert says. “The community expects them to be flawless.”

Despite all those practices, being completely prepared seems tough. The dancers know over forty dances—but they don’t know which they’ll be performing until Goepfert calls it out to them. She likes to be able to tailor performances to audiences’ reactions. “I change my mind in the middle of the program,” she says. 

The Stoughton Norwegian dancers have several performances planned for the weekend: a street dance at 2 p.m., big performance at 3:45 p.m. and an alumni dance at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, plus a final performance at 3:45 p.m. on Sunday.

That final dance is an emotional event for the teenagers, as well as their family and friends who come to show support.

“Because they’re seniors, they want to give that weekend their entirely best performance,” Goepfert says. “It’s very touching.”

But “touching” is how even first-time audiences often describe the experience of seeing the dancers, Goepfert says. People come up to her after performances to tell her how much they enjoyed the dancers or the memories the group evoked.

“They really do touch the hearts of people and inspire the young and old,” she says.

Syttende Mai runs Friday through Sunday in Stoughton. Find more information here.

Photos are courtesy of Wayne Krantz.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rocking On

Madison’s big night of music is fast approaching. The Madison Area Music Awards take place this Saturday at the Barrymore Theatre.

The awards show kicks off with a red carpet and goes on to bring together, feature and honor the best in local music, just as it’s done for the past five years. Over one hundred performers are scheduled for this year’s show, including Natty Nation, Clyde Stubblefield, Whore du Jour, Rising Gael with the Trinity Dancers, Jentri Collelo, Lucha Libre and the West High School Concert Choir.

Rick Tvedt, former publisher of local music newspaper Rick’s Café, started the MAMAs not only to celebrate local musicians, but also to support music education in Madison. He recently took some time out from planning this year’s most rocking music event—he calls it Madison’s version of the Grammys—to answer a few questions about the organization’s goals, role in Madison and state of the local music scene.

What did you envision the Madison Area Music Awards to be when you started it back in 2003? How has it changed since then?

It was always conceived of as the charity it is—to fund music programs for kids and to buy instruments. It is also intended to publicize our local artists. It really hasn’t changed much but our approach has been modified and adapted over the last five years. We see the organization becoming an association that works to better things for working musicians as well as benefiting the next generation of musicians.

The MAMAs mission statement is “to put musical instruments in kids’ hands and further their musical education.” Why is that the organization’s mission and how do you carry it out?

This is our mission because there are needs and because we want to foster the arts and music in future generations. Study after study shows the cognitive advantages to music education. There are many other factors that affect a person’s outlook on the world, their ability to enjoy life, etc. It is also a major force in keeping kids positive and out of other less desirable activities.

We are currently setting up several programs to educate kids and we are constantly getting requests for instruments and other technical items for music programs. Many of these requests come from schools—the teachers, the parent groups, the parents themselves.

How would you describe the music scene in Madison today?

Madison is difficult because it functions like two different cities on and off the isthmus. Getting more people to come into the circle of the population that frequents local music has proven especially difficult. One of the big reasons in my mind is lack of attention by the media, which is why I started Rick’s Cafe in 2003. It has gotten marginally better as of late but I think having a source that is all local music and arts content is missing.

Musicians everywhere are hurting from two major factors: the current economy and the fact that fewer people want to pay for music. The latter is more easily solvable and I believe it will be soon. When the economy goes south the entertainment budget is the first thing to go. After that follows the clubs and lack of ability to advertise, and a whole cycle clicks in. I recently read a passage to the effect of, “musicians are the first to suffer when the economy gets bad and the last to recover when it turns around.” The price of gas has also been a key factor in musicians’ ability to tour and that’s a double-whammy when you’re also selling fewer CDs because of the proliferation of downloading and the mentality that breeds.

So many people will complain about a $5 cover charge but when you think about it, it will break down to 50 cents per band member for two five-member bands to entertain you for several hours. Doesn’t even begin to address the sticks, strings, reeds, sound people, batteries, gas and so forth that it took to get these players to the gig, let alone the lifetime of dedication and practice.

What role do you see the MAMAs serving in Madison’s music scene in the future?

Like I said, I see us serving the professionals as well as carrying out the charitable goals. We’d like to offer benefits to membership. I have some really fantastic ideas in this realm but we are not there yet. We have a grant writer now and are going down that avenue. Sponsorships have been difficult and nearly impossible of late. The foremost goal is getting the organization into financial stability. It’s been a nail-biter every year and this year we had to make some painful cuts in our budget. The MAMAs is all volunteer with a six-member board that only recently expanded to eight. Having a staff and a paid director is a dream we have. That said, we’ve been in the black since the second year and that is no small feat for an organization without a benefactor or strong sponsorship. But every year gets better and we’re confident that the MAMAs will survive because it is pure of heart and the people involved are totally dedicated.

What’s new in this year’s awards show? What should audiences expect?

The MAMAs is Madison’s Grammys. Red carpet and all. We will have over one hundred performers at this year’s show. The percentage of musical performance has gone up significantly. Many of these performers are young people and that serves to underscore our mission besides being very entertaining. Performers are from many different genres. There are always a few surprises as well and there’s always one moment that’s sure to wet a few eyes. We have local celebrities who help present the awards and we use a lot of video in the presentations.

This year our recipient of the Michael St. John Lifetime Achievement Award is Marvin Rabin, founding conductor of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. The man is a legend and so gracious and sweet. We are so honored to have him be there to accept our award. He joins our past winners Clyde Stubblefield, Jan Wheaton, Ben Sidran, Jonathan Little and Richard Davis. The show is a total blast, I love producing it, and I’m confident it will become a signature event for the city.

The Madison Area Music Awards take place May 9 at the Barrymore Theatre. Doors open and a happy hour is held at 5:30 p.m., the red carpet begins at 6 p.m. and the awards show runs 7–10 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Following the MAMAs, seven after-parties are held in clubs across Madison. Find details here.

Photos are courtesy of Dave Newton. (Find more of his MAMAs photography here.)