Ballet Hispanico Explores Immigrant Cultures and Female Empowerment

 

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo” image courtesy of Susan Bestul

Ballet Hispanico performs movement styles based in Latin culture like no other company. But, they should. Ballet Hispanico is the premier Hispanic dance company in the US. That said; Ballet Hispanico has gone beyond brilliantly executing dance styles steeped in Latin culture with all the nuance and sensitivity required, and with the program performed on opening night Ballet Hispanico has fully transitioned into a company that can now use body stillness, as well as movement to create architecturally sculptured plastique with emotional integrity. Only a dance company of Ballet Hispanico’s caliber can sculpt movement. Most dance companies only dance and/or strings steps together well; however, when a dance troupe can take stillness and movement and combine these two seeming disparate qualities and carve out movement, that is indeed a fait accompli.Ballet Hispanico’s mixed program for the spring dance season at the Joyce Theatre contained two world premieres, Edwaard Liang’s “El Viaje” and Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala,” and crowd favorite, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa “Sombrerisimo.” And though the three dance works in question were distinctly varied and demonstrated the company’s mastery of different movement styles, the cerebral nature of Liang’s and Royon’s choreography was not necessarily crowd pleasing.

Image of Edwaard Liang’s “El Viaje” courtesy of Paula Lobo

The two premieres were dance works that stretch Ballet Hispanico and what some balletomanes would deem a dancer’s choreography. Which is a good thing for the company. Still, the motivation and reference points in Liang’s and Royon’s work was lost on the audience. Perhaps, because the subtleties of the works were sometimes not well defined.Liang’s “El Viaje” drew reference from the Chinese Cuban diaspora, metaphorically reflecting Chinese immigrants leaving mainland China and melding into Cuba’s diasporic cultures. The is a dance work that employs carved, interwoven meanderings with dancers being singular at times and at other times being a part of a group. Liang expertly utilizes modern technique from the Graham lexicon of fall and release and contraction, displayed in variations of these two familiar movement principles of the Graham pedagogy. And though there was some beautiful partnering and exquisite, sustained sky-high extensions, the repetitive quality of this work caused a redundancy that half-way through made Liang’s choreography seem as though it was running out of steam.That said; Gabrielle Sprauve’s statuesque presence and intensity in “El Viaje” brought integrity and majesty to Liang’s choreography. This second season of Sprauve with Ballet Hispanico appears be a breakout season for Sprauve. She is finding her stride and standing out among the other excellent Ballet Hispanico dancers.

Image of Gabrielle Sprauve and Dandara Veiga in Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala” courtesy of Paula Lobo

Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala,” as detailed in the program notes, explores the intersection of Latino and Asian cultures through ideas including the spirit of communal unity (bayanihan), the resilience of women, overcoming hardship, and the quest for home. Again, Ballet Hispanico has selected a dance work that speaks to the immigrant experience.Cerebral in its own way, like Liang’s “El Viaje” Royon’s work did not have pyrotechnical feats to move the story forward. Using different colored boxes, Royon used this prop to conjure up images of Filipino community and home separation. And interesting work that centered more on female relationship, though there was interesting same-sex coupling, still fell flat in some places. The last rhythmic section of “Homebound/Alaala” did redeem this dance work.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Sombrerisimo” image courtesy of Susan Bestul

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa “Sombrerisimo” is always a crowd pleaser, and there are reasons for this!! “Somberismo” celebrates the Ballet Hispanico female dancers. With hats as a prop, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa found a way to inject sensuality, technical bravura without those elements overshadowing the choreography. The hats were the perfect unifying element that glued everything together. And the Ballet Hispanico women ruled this great work, as they always do!!Ballet Hispanico performs at the Joyce Theater from March 26 through March 31.

—William S. Gooch

George Lewis Finds the Beauty Within through Spiritual Illumination

Image courtesy of pma.org

As climates become more temperature and we began to shed all the layers of swaddling clothes that protect us from winter’s chill, we begin to take more notice of our bodies and our skin. Many of us will spend more time in the gym to get rid of the extra winter pounds, and some others will look to make visage more vibrant, and even more youthful. Most of us don’t consider or inner spiritual journey as we consider how to present ourselves to the world, particularly as the weather warms.  George Lewis is deeply aware of how our spiritual awareness can transport us to a place of peaceful maturity, or the lack thereof places us out of balance.George Lewis has found the balance and with great joy and sensitivity he uses his creative and spiritual gifts to bring out the best in his clients and artistic subjects. And those artistic subjects have included Valentino, Tea Leoni, the Queen Mother of Bhutan, and a long list of dignitaries and celebrities.

George Lewis lovingly spoke with Fashion Reverie about his art, his healing practice and how he integrates the two.

Image courtesy of findartinfo.com

Fashion Reverie: Have you always painted?

George Lewis: I have always painted; however, I like to look at that question through the lens of one who understands many past lives and has been creative in many past lives. I started painting very early on by the age of seven or eight, and I was very good at painting.

FR: Did you study art?

George Lewis: I started painting at the different boarding schools I attended. They always had art classes available as a part of the curriculum. That said; I never formally studied art. My focus of study was politics and philosophy. I always did art and I was always very good at it. I would win exhibitions. But I never studied it formally; isn’t that bazaar?

FR: But it’s good you had some training at boarding school.

George Lewis: I wouldn’t call it training, per se. I just took art classes as a part of the school’s curriculum. I was very good at drawing and copying things and I am a very good observer. I would even attempt to copy the great masters. When you copy the masters, you begin to understand light and form. Additionally, I had very good mentors in school.

Image courtesy of pinterest.com

FR: There are a lot of portraitures in your work. How do you pick your subjects?

George Lewis: Sometimes I seek my subjects out and sometimes they seek me out. I remember one time when I painted the former president of Nigeria. I had previously met him at the United Nations. We immediately hit it off and honestly, I didn’t know who he was at first. Up to that point, I wasn’t painting a lot of portraits. When I first met him had on this beautiful bold-colored outfit and was enamored of what he was wearing and went up to him and struck up a conversation.  I told him I was a painter, and he invited me to paint him. I didn’t know who he was until much later.

I went to his hotel room and there he was with an entourage of about thirty people. He asked them to leave and I started exploring his archetypal astrology, something I do with all my subjects before I paint them. Anyway, I painted his portrait and he loved it so much, he asked me to present to him at the opening of his foundation in London in front an audience of 2000 people.

Many political leaders seek me out because they love my work. However, I usually seek out spiritual leaders to paint because I am inspired by their spiritual vision.

FR: Why merge your spiritual predilections with your art?

George Lewis: I feel there is no separation between art and spirituality. In the 20th Century we have tried to intellectually separate the two. The Cartesian view is the separation of mind and body. I don’t agree with that. I believe we are integrated human beings of mind, body, and spirit with the spirit being at the core of who we are.  We are traveling souls having a human experience.

We have many incarnations before this moment, and we will have many after this present time. The artist is the archetype of the mystic. The artist is here to shine light on the truth of the human condition.  The rebellion of the 20th Century was about the separation of the body, mind, and soul and ignoring the sacred. I don’t mean the sacredness of organized religion, but the sacredness of your soul.

FR: When you choose a subject for your art, what are you trying to capture?

George Lewis: I like to capture light which can emanate from outside of my subject or come from within. So, when I am painting, I am reveling in the beauty of the world and all of God’s creation. Light is about the beauty of the planet, especially when it hasn’t been abused my humankind. When I study light, I can get closer to beauty and the divine in all of humankind.

I believe that art is healing and can help with transformation. If we can heal what is within than we certainly heal what is on the outside.

FR: Where are your paintings currently showing and do you have any exhibitions coming up?

George Lewis: I have an exhibition in Tannersville, NY in about a month. There is a gallery there, Say What Gallery, that likes to exhibit my work. I also have an upstate studio and healing space up there in The Catskills. My water paintings can be seen at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor, NY.  I will be showing in London in the fall of 2019.

Image courtesy of George Lewis

FR: You are also a healer. Which healing modalities do you use?

George Lewis: I am an astrologer and I do natal charts and I tie that in with what is going on in global events and how that can affect someone based on their natal astrology. I also practice synergistic astrology which helps people working out some challenges, identifying where the pitfalls could be and what they should focus on.

Spirituality is at the epicenter of what I do as an artist. I am currently working on a new project where I am painting a work that expresses the 12 archetypes of the zodiac. I am putting the spiritual language properly into the art. I am trying to integrate the spiritual language while I am creating the work, not inserting it in later, as I normally do. This will be a real challenge for me.

FR: Could you talk about your healing work with Tibetan bowls?

George Lewis: I have been to Bhutan five or six times. Bhutan is in the southern part of Tibet, but it is a separate country. It is high up in the Himalayas. I learned from some of the Tibetan monks in Bhutan how to use Tibetan bowls as a healing art. I am qualified as a Tibetan bowl healer through a course I took in the US.

I have integrated this healing modality into my astrology readings. This whole process is about an hour and a half. I use the bowls to help stimulate the charkras. It is a great healing tool to bring equilibrium to the mind, body, and soul.  You can work on any part of the body with this healing modality. The sounds from the bowls create very sacred vibrations which integrate and heal.

Working within the collective can help the individual self-sovereign. The individual within the vibration of the collective generates well-being and joy.

Image courtesy of Grenning Gallery

FR: Where does this interest in the healing arts come from?

George Lewis: This is my reincarnation in this time period. I have been the healing arts in many, many past lives. It is my natural soul imprint and journey. This is my soul contract.

FR: You have an office on the Upper Westside where you integrate your healing arts with conventional medicine. Could you talk about that?

George Lewis: I collaborate with several doctors who are specialist in their field. I here to remind people that if you are going to get better who must do the spiritual work as well. You cannot just use medical technology to heal. At the end of the day, medical technology is only going to work best when you have a spiritual journey.

I am not doing what the doctors are doing. They are medical practitioners who have studied at medical schools. I am very respectful of Western medicine and it can treat disease states very well. However, Western medicine is driven by market forces. That said; when you are doing with healing, market forces should not be in control.

Doctors that are work with have the medical technology and they send patients to me before they apply the technology so that spiritual side is awakened, and the medical technology works better.

FR: What is next for you?

George Lewis: I really don’t know and that is fine with me because I am guided by the spirit.

William S. Gooch

Omar Wilson Is on his Way to Legendary Status in “Living Legend”

One thing that can be said of R&B artist Omar Wilson is that he is in love with life. And who wouldn’t be if you had been recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award and on tour with your highly acclaimed new album “Living Legend.”

Omar Wilson’s love of life is infectious. And even more attractive and charming is his soul-stirring vocal style. Reminiscent of Otis Redding mixed in with a little James Brown and Wilson Pickett for good measure, Omar Wilson conjures up these R&B greats while infusing his distinct qualities into his stage performances and recordings.

“This project [“Living Legend”] was a year in the making and I wanted to make certain that this album embodied organic truisms of music from the greats of yesterday, while keeping it real for the listeners of today. I wanted this album to showcase the remarkable vocal prowess that Omar is quite unique in delivering. “Living Legend” will stand the test of time,” says Lou Humphrey, CEO of BSE Recordings.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Omar Wilson keeps his eyes on the prize, the prize being R&B mega stardom with a legacy that can inspire others. Fashion Reverie thinks he is going to do it!!

Fashion Reverie: How would you describe your vocal style?

Omar Wilson: My vocal style is emotional, and intense, precise and above all, it is honest.

FR: You have a raspy quality to your voice which harkens back to some of the old school R&B singers of the 1960s and 70s. Is that raspy quality natural or have you worked to achieve that effect in your voice?

Omar Wilson: The raspy quality in my voice is a gift from God. I have had that quality since I was 16 or 17 years of age. My father’s voice is even bigger than mine and has a similar quality.

FR: Who are your musical influences?

Omar Wilson: Initially, I was inspired by the many things I was experiencing in life. So, if I heard music that was about what I was experiencing at that time, I would be inspired by that. After I had the experience of winning the Apollo Amateur contest, my musical influences started to change and evolve. The tutelage I got from winning at the Apollo caused me to research great singers that had left a legacy.

From this research, I discovered that there were great R&B singers from the past that sang about the same things I was feeling and experiencing. Some of these experiences and feeling were embedded in love songs. Before I started doing my research, I wasn’t that interested in love songs. But I found that R&B greats like Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and Otis Redding were singing about the things I was feeling, and they also had great voices.

I realized that I could sing about love but still maintain the intensity and power of my vocal style. I describe myself as a lion in a tuxedo.

FR: You are a three-time Apollo winner. What was it like singing on that iconic stage?

Omar Wilson: It was one of the most intense moments of my life because you are in an arena where the audience can tell you what they think about in the first 20 seconds of your act. Also, performing at the Apollo inspired me to acquire the soul music education so that I could begin to understand what my purpose was and where I stood in the music industry.

I was inspired to work hard and aspired to achieve what the great R&B legends like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, James Brown and others had achieved. The Apollo helped create living legends. And that greatness was made and is still alive at the Apollo. And I am honored to have performed there.

FR: What are the essential qualities that’s needed to be successful as an R&B artist that goes beyond talent and working hard?

Omar Wilson: Talent and hard work is important; however, a lot of talented artists work hard and get no where fast. You also need a team around you, and you especially need good fortune, or what I call, God’s favor.

You must be willing to go on a journey to get to where you want to go even when it doesn’t seem to be working out. But even, when it doesn’t seem to be working out, it is because you are growing and evolving. And you must be prepared for every opportunity.

You must believe God gave you the talent for a reason, and with his help you will exceed expectation. I have been working for almost two decades to get to where I am, and I believe this is my harvest season. And my new album “Living Legends” and my NAACP Image Award nomination speaks to that.

FR: I love the song “The Sh*t,” one of my favorites, how did that song come about?

Omar Wilson: “The Sh*t” was written by Mike City and myself in 2001. The song is about a young bougie girl who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and ended up on the stroll. I recorded that song in LA with Mike City, and later I found out that Nate Dogg liked the song and did his own version of “The Sh*t.”

We are in the process of working out the legalities of “The Sh*t,” so that we can re-release it as a single.

FR: Let’s talk about your new album “Living Legend.” Why an album that conjures up some of the greatest soul singers of time?

Omar Wilson: This album has been a part of my journey. It is not something I just conjured up. The making of “Living Legend” was an organic evolution of everything I am becoming and paying homage to great R&B artists. I wanted to inject into this album the energy that is sometimes missing from R&B, and make goose bumps stand up on the neck of listeners. Right now, R&B is about moving audiences. It is more than singing well. Remember, the great R&B legends always moved folks.

FR: One of my favorites is the James Brown classic “It’s a Man’s World.” That said; we are living in the “Me Too Movement” generation, why did select that song as we are living in an era of women’s empowerment and calling out sexual aggression against women?

Omar Wilson: “It’s a Man’s World” was recorded almost fifty years before the “Me Too” Movement. When I was to perform the song on a few television shows, it was requested that I perform another track from the new album. I reminded the television networks that the lyrics of the song detailed that a man’s world would be nothing without a woman or a girl.

Anyway, I went through that storm with that song, but when I perform it and get to the line about women, the women in the audience go crazy. Women at my concerts understand that the song does not demean them, but that the song gives them equality and empowerment.

FR: How would you describe your personal fashion style?

Omar Wilson: I would describe my personal style as a kind of calm intensity. My call myself the ‘Black Sinatra.’ Back in the day Frank Sinatra had a great sense of style. He was smooth and moved like the Boss. Sinatra was buddy to the biggest gangsters of his day and to President John Kennedy. He was also was involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Now, I may not be in a suit every time I am out and about, but even when I am dressed down, there is a sophistication and gentility about the way I have put myself together. There are a lot of great R&B singers on the market; however, there is no one with a 007 or “Ocean’s Eleven” style. I really do attempt to bring back that kind of style to R&B.

FR: Who are some of your favorite designers?

Omar Wilson: I just wore Calvin Klein to the NAACP Image Awards’ Brunch. I love Tom Ford, Fendi, Prada; hey if it looks good on you, it probably feels good on you.

Images courtesy of 2R Entertainment PR

FR: On your albums, you always have on a great jacket. Could you talk about your love of jackets”?

Omar Wilson: I always feel that when I guy puts on a great blazer, he is transformed. A great jacket or blazer gives a man a certain kind of sophistication that deems respect. A great blazer is just a part of wardrobe and reflects my personal style.

FR: What’s next for you?

Omar Wilson: I am currently on tour with my new album “Living Legend” which comes out on March 22. I am currently nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding New Artist. The sky is limit!!

—William S. Gooch

Thomas Bradshaw Causes Fevers to Rise in “Southern Promises”

It’s a huge challenge to produce and mount plays that tackle the difficult subjects of slavery and/or race relations. There is always the problem of theatrical voice, sensitivity, and racial currency. Race relations and slavery are very sensitive subjects for the theatre to take on. And even though slavery in the US ended over 150 years ago, racial discrimination and inequity continues for African Americans.

Thomas Bradshaw in his 2008 play “Southern Promises” re-examines slavery and the residual effects of such a brutal social and economic system of oppression. In this production of “Southern Promises,” The Bats, the resident acting company at the Flea, boldly revisits slavery with an interracial cast that contains people color playing both the servants and the dominant class.

“Southern Promises” centers on a promise made by the dying plantation owner that his slaves be set free after his death. Though the plantation owner wills manumission of his slaves in his will, the patriarch’s wife goes against his will, literally, and keeps the slaves in bondage, contributing her dead husband’s desire for manumission to his fevered dementia at the end of his life.

There are many things in this production that serves this incendiary subject in a great way. Though the utilitarian set is almost stark with a plantation backdrop, it is surprisingly functional and serves the production adequately.

The Bats acting company takes on all the characters and though some of the black actors play white antebellum roles, the non-traditional casting does not detract from the incendiary nature and forcefulness of the script. One wonders if Bradshaw was inspired or drew reference from Jean Genet’s iconic play “The Blacks,” where the blacks actors took on the roles of the black and white characters. Whether Bradshaw borrowed from Genet’s “The Blacks,” the non-traditional castings works in this production.

If Bradshaw’s goal in “Southern Promises” was to demonstrate the historical legacy of slavery, Bradshaw skillfully proved that the remnants of slavery are still with us. Consider the white’s description of slaves as childlike, sexually immoral, and intellectually inferior. Black folks are still described as having these character flaws. Bradshaw also brilliantly inserted biblical scripture and references in the script, demonstrating how slave owners used the Bible to justify slavery and their white privilege. Hmm, doesn’t too far removed from what some white supremicists currently do.

Where this production of “Southern Promises” did have some challenges were in the southern, antebellum accents, which unfortunately most of the cast was not able to pull off. And some of the simulated, sexually explicit scenes didn’t really move the story forward and seemed gratuitous in nature.

Standouts in the cast was Brittany Zaken as Elizabeth, mistress of the plantation, who expertly distilled the chilly, cruel nature of plantation mistresses while being aware that their power was limited by their gender. Shakur Tolliver was very good as the docile slave Benjamin. And special acknowledgement goes to Marcus Jones as David, the brother preacher of Elizabeth. Jones really knows how to conjure up the spirit of evangelical, revivalist preachers of that day.

Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus/ Spin Cycle NYC

Though “Southern Promises” is an incendiary drama with racially sensitive language and scenes, Thomas Bradshaw should be congratulated for telling it like it was, causing us to understand that though many things have changed, the memory of and the toxic shrapnel of slavery lives on. Will we ever be delivered from this scourge on our history? Well, only if we tell the truth!! “Southern Promises” runs through April 14 at the Flea Theater. For more information, go to theflea.org.

—William S. Gooch

Ayodele Casel: A Joyous and Nuanced Tap Journey

When we think of dance, rarely is dance considered a masculine pursuit. Though progress has been made in that respect with great dancers like Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Hines, and great hip hop artists, dance is still mostly reserved for women.

Tap is the one dance form where the male presence reigns supreme. There have been some great female tappers—Mable Lee, Elvera Sanchez, Bunny Briggs, Brenda Buffalino, Michelle Torrance, and Dormeshia Sumdry-Edwards. And, of course the great female tap artists from the Golden Age of Hollywood—Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, and Vera-Allen have made their mark.

Still, female tap artists get far less recognition than their male peers and are often expected to look glamorous and refined while their feet are performing incredible feats. Ayodele Casel is changing all that.

As one of the few Latina tap artists with international recognition, Ayodele Casel is forging a new path for female tap artists. For Ayodele, tap is more than a syncopated expression of steps from the tap dance lexicon, but a way for an artist to express a range of emotions, told along a narrative arch.

In this Women’s History Month, Ayodele Casel compels us to re-examine this truly American artform through a more expansive lens, celebrating the women who have given so much to this artform. May Ayodele’s star continue to shine!!

Fashion Reverie: Lets first begin with your first name, Ayodele, what does it mean?

Ayodele Casel: My name is from the Yoruba culture and in that language, it means joy has arrived. I love my name.

FR: In reference to your name, there is nothing more joyful than tap dancing. How did you come to tap dancing?

Ayodele Casel: My interest in tap dancing peaked when I was about 18 years old, my senior year in high school. I was taking a course on the history of the movies. I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in film in this course. And that was the first time I had really paid attention to tap dancing.

I was so impressed with what Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire were doing on the screen that I started trying to teach myself how to tap, imitating what Fred and Ginger were doing. I had varying degrees of success and it brought me great joy to be trying to do what they were doing in movies.

While I was an acting major at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU), during my sophomore year, we had to take a movement class. I had the choice of taking Tai Chi or tap. Of course, I enrolled in the tap class and fell in love with the training immediately. Naturally, we were doing very basic things, but I still loved it.

By luck, one of my best friends was friend with Baakari Wilder who was a freshman at the time at NYU in the acting department. Baakari is an incredible tap dancer. And through that friend I was introduced to Baakari because we were both tap dancers.

Now, at that time, I was the best tap dancer in my class, which is not really saying much because I was in a beginner’s class. Baakari and me rented a studio to start working together and in that dance studio I realized that tap was an artform. Baakari was already a master tapper and he taught so much about the artform and the history of tap.

FR: How did realize you could turn tap dancing into a professional career?

Ayodele Casel: During the mid-90s diversity and inclusion were not buzz works in the performing arts. However, when I became interested in tap dancing, tap was having a resurgence. Savion Glover was one of the major forces behind this resurgence. Gregory Hines also used his celebrity to shine a light on tap dancing.

That said; Baakari invited to come see him in the show “Bring in the Noise, Bring the Funk” while that show was still at the Public Theatre. I still didn’t have a reference point for young people of color taking up any space in theatre. When I attended the show, I witnessed Savion Glover dancing so authentically and joyfully, I just knew I wanted to immerse myself in tap and be surrounded by the genre.

My professional career came out of joy of learning and performing the artform. I would practice incessantly. If Savion was doing a tap jam at the Nuyorican Café, I would go and participate. At the time, there were not a lot of women getting into the jam with men. But, I am from the Bronx, so I was not intimidated.

About two years into my deep immersion into the artform, Savion started a group called Not Your Ordinary Tappers (NOT), and he asked me to join. This was Savion’s first professional venture after he won the Tony Award for “Bring in the Noise, Bring the Funk.” I toured with NOT for about three years.

FR: When people think about tap dancing, they rarely think of women tap dancing and certainly not Latina women tap dancing. What challenges have you experienced around this misperception?

Ayodele Casel: In the mid-90s there were practically no roles for female tap dancers. Most of the tap-dancing jobs for women required you to be in high heels and fishnet stockings. I was not interested in that.

That said; I was the only woman in NOT and very few people had seen women tap dance with the intensity that I brought to NOT. I was told that I danced like a man, but I knew I wasn’t an anomaly. This prompted me to research and learn about women of color that were tap dancing along side men in the 1930s and 40s.

FR: You trained at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the William Esper Studio as an actor. How do you combine tap dancing with acting?

Ayodele Casel: Dance is a form of storytelling. You have a clear point of view and there must be an arch to your storytelling through your performance and your interpretation. I am really interested in making dance theatrical and accessible in ways that go beyond just dance audiences.

I performed a piece entitled “Diary of a Tap Dancer.” In that work, I wanted to reveal the people behind tap dancing. Tap is very joyous, but sometimes it is seen as a gimmicky element to a production; an energetic, virtuosic dance expression. With “Diary of a Tap Dancer,” I wanted to create a piece where the tap artists got to speak about who they are and how they arrived at where they were in the artform.

FR: How did “While I Have the Floor,” your one-woman show at the Spoleto Festival come about?

Ayodele Casel: That show was borne out of a seven-minute piece I did for Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center. That seven-minute work was me talking about my roots, my passion for tap dancing and my fear of having poured my life into this artform and no one even knowing I existed. Which was much like the female tap dancers I had researched who had worked so hard at the craft, but many died without being acknowledged for their art.

The work was very well received and when I did the work at Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center, I was asked if I had a longer version of the piece. Then, I was asked to perform the seven-minute piece at Broadway for Hillary Clinton. I began to flush out the seven-minute show into a longer more extensive work which I later became “While I Have the Floor” that I later performed at Spoleto.

FR: Could you talk about your best performing experience, and your worst? 

Ayodele Casel: My best performing experience is performing “While I Have the Floor” at the Spoleto Festival. I was so nervous leading up to performing at Spoleto. And writing this piece was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had to tap into a lot of personal and emotional stuff to be able to write this piece. I really exposed myself in this work.

I became ill with everything from sinus infections to the flu and loss of voice right before I performed at Spoleto. However, when I got to Spoleto magically all my illnesses disappeared and “While I Have the Floor” was well received. I performed six performances of the work and people came back several times to see it. I still get emails from people praising the work.

My worst experiences have been performing at events where people don’t really appreciate what you are doing and in the end all you get is a cold meal. Fortunately, I have had many of those.

FR: How do sustain yourself financially from your tap dancing?

Ayodele Casel: Like a lot of dancers I maintain myself financially by teaching. I acquire work as a dance educator and teach tap at dance conventions and workshops. I have been fortunate in the last three years mainly performing and choreographing which has kept be very busy.

Choreography by Ayodele Casel

FR: You have been a frequent collaborator with New York City Center. Could you talk about that?Ayodele Casel: They have really adopted me. I first started performing at City Center as an artist in their Encore! Series. In 2016, I was a member of their artists’ board for Encores!. I also choreographed “Really Rosie” for City Center Encores! in 2017.

I was involved in a dance festival with them recently and I am now participating in City Center on the Move. I just love them. And they are champions of tap dancing!!

FR: With the advance of the marley floor, tap dancing is taking a beating. Could you talk about that?

Ayodele Casel: One of things I have done to deal with the absence of wood floors in some dance studios is open my own studio with wood floors. The Original Tap House is in a brownstone in the Bronx. The space is a full floor where I practice and is open to other tap dancers to come and practice and hold rehearsals.

FR: Is tap dancing growing in the US? 

Ayodele Casel: Yes, it is. The resurgence is due to being included more in musical theatre. Tap dancing is magic. You can have a show that has nothing to do with tap dancing and you can insert a tap routine in the show and that routine will bring the house down every single time. Remember, tap is joyous and not limited by age and size. Everybody wants to be a tap dancer. People are just curious about it.

All Photos courtesy of Ayodele Casel/Michael Higgins

FR: What’s next for you?Ayodele Casel: I am excited about creating work for other tap artists. I am so excited about the young people that are doing tap right now and they are bringing a richness and depth that is amazing.

I have the privilege of working and creating work for so many of them. The artform is going to do well in their hands.

—William S. Gooch

Houston Ballet Puts a Unique Stamp on a Ballet Classic

Most ballet stories are quite simple in structure and tone. Complicated story lines don’t often lend themselves well to an art form where movement progresses the story. Consider Sleeping Beauty where a young princess plucks her finger, goes into a deep sleep and awakened by a kiss from a handsome prince. Or Raymonda where a Hungarian princess’ love is coveted by a dark Saracen, who is eventually defeated by the knight Jean de Brienne, leading to a marriage between the Hungarian princess and the heroic knight.

Of all ballet storylines, Sylvia has perhaps the most simplistic narrative. In huntress in Greek goddess Diana’s retinue falls in love with a handsome shepherd, Aminta. There love is slightly thwarted by evil hunter Orion; however, in the end Aminta and Sylvia marry in nuptials that are attended by the gods.

That simplicity of story worked very well when most of these classic ballets premiered, the mid-1860s–1890s; an era of refinement, feminine modesty, and a rigid class structure. Consider that all most classical ballets include the aristocracy, a chaste heroine, and for the most part, a grand and/or royal wedding.

Mask from “Sylvia”

But, we don’t currently live our lives in the shadows of the aristocracy and age-old social mores. Women are far more self-assured and independent, and many of us establish our own rules and morays.In the wake of this modern self-actualization, Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director Stanton Welch AM is taking a different approach to Sylvia. Scheduled to premier in Houston’s on February 21— New York audiences were given a sneak peak at the Guggenheim’s Works in Progress— Welch’s Sylvia goes beyond the traditional story narrative. Welch looks at three couples in the ballet instead of just the dynamic between Sylvia and the Shepherd. In his version of Sylvia, Welch brilliantly weaves the relationships between three couples, Sylvia and the Shepherd, Artemis and Orion, and Psyche and Eros. Welch even substitutes the Greek names for the well-known Roman names.

Houston Ballet’s “Sylvia” cast: Karina Gonzalez, Connor Walsh, and Jessica Collado. Images courtesy of Houston Ballet

There is a big diversion from the original Sylvia in Welch’s version. Beyond the addition of two principal couples, Greek names in place of Roman names, Welch approaches his version as an attempt to empower the principal women in the cast. Gone are the traditional approaches to pas de deux that ballet audiences may be familiar with. There is a lot of women partnering their male counterparts, ladies lifting the men, and in general a much more aggressive approach to the choreography for Sylvia, Artemis, and Psyche. Though there are some lovely, gentle steps for the three heroines—that aptly expresses the Leo Delibes’ score—for the most part, Welch goes beyond delicate pizzicato movement. And instead of the corps de ballet being used as merely stage decoration or the reflection of the lead ballerina, Welch employs the corps de ballet dancers to help advance the narrative.

In Welch’s Sylvia, audiences will find more fully fleshed out characters. With Sylvia having to choose between her commitment to Artemis or her love of the Shepherd. Hmm, a woman choosing between love and work; sound familiar, of course, it does!!

—William S. Gooch

 

 

 

Ballet Hispánico Gets it So Right in its First Women of Color in the Arts Panel

Are we in a post-racial era? Of course we are not. When Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States, many hoped and some cultural pundits projected that a post-racial society had arrived.

Well, we all know that was not true. Documented police killings are up, racially motivated hate crimes have escalated, and the wealth gap between whites and people of color, with African Americans disproportionately in the bottom half, has widened. And when you take a glance at the arts, though more diversity has been noted in recent years, there is still much to be done.

 Ballet Hispánico in Vicente Nebrada’s Batucada Fantastica

Ballet Hispánico, founded in 1970 by Tina Ramirez, is much more than a dance company that promotes and distills Latin culture through a variety of dance forms, Ballet Hispánico is taking on new challenges. Diálogos is Ballet Hispánico’s conversation series that explores the interconnections of the arts, social justice, and Latino cultures. Since 2016, Diálogos has given voice to issues that directly affect the Hispanic community, finding the intersectionality between the arts, culture, and politics.On January 10, Diálogos hosted the first panel discussion in its series, Women of Color in the Arts, giving voice to Afro-Latino women in the performing and curative arts experiences and struggles as women of color, available resources, and ways to bring more women of color into arts leadership positions. Hosted by Tamia Santana, founder of Brooklyn Dance Festival, and featuring panelists New York State Senator Marisol Alcantara; Ayodele Casel, Actress, Tap Dancer, Choreographer; Maria Torres, Director, Choreographer, Producer; Lauren Argentina Zelaya, Assistant Curator, Public Programs–Brooklyn Museum, the panel in the tradition of Ballet Hispanico’s passion for truth telling, bravely tackled issues of racial discrimination, sexism, funding, colorism, career stagnation, and isolation.Still, the panel discussion was not limited to the struggles of being an Afro Latina artist. The discussion also included the joys and exhilarations of celebrating the Latin experience through their work. The panelists also detailed about the importance of demonstrating that the Latin voice is not a monolithic voice, but voices that encompass many cultures and expressions. And in this ‘Year of the Woman,’ the feminine voice is an essential, nuanced voice that is primed to expand and distill Hispanic culture.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Tabnick PR

Ballet Hispánico Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro should be commended for assembling these great artists and political leaders. And for launching the series, Women of Color in the Arts. Ballet Hispánico, a role model in and for the Latino community, is inspiring creativity and social awareness in our neighborhoods and across the country by providing access to arts education.—William S. Gooch

“Mary Queen of Scots”: A Tale of Two Queens

Image courtesy of pinterest.com

“A woman is like a tea bag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” –Eleanor RooseveltAnd like former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, both Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I exhibit unbelievable strength and fortitude during difficult political times. In Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” challenging political conflicts bring out the best and the worst in both female rulers.

Images courtesy of tomandlorenzo.com

“Mary Queen of Scots” explores the turbulent life of the charismatic Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan). Queen of France at 16 and widowed at 18, Mary defies pressure to remarry. Instead, she returns to her native Scotland to reclaim her rightful throne. But Scotland and England fall under the rule of the compelling Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Each young Queen beholds her “sister” in fear and fascination. Rivals in power and in love, and female regents in a masculine world, the two must decide how to play the game of marriage juxtaposed against female independence. Determined to rule as much more than a figurehead, Mary asserts her claim to the English throne, threatening Elizabeth’s sovereignty. Betrayal, rebellion, and conspiracies within each court imperil both thrones—and change the course of history.This film of two strong, independent royals interestingly coincides with 2018 being deemed ‘The Year of the Woman’ and a surge of female empowerment evidenced in the US 2018 Mid-Term elections where an unprecedented amount of female candidate ran and won federal and local offices. Though female empowerment during the Elizabethan era rested almost solely in the province of male sovereigns with women mostly being benign consorts who helped bring wealth and power to the throne, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, respectively Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, were decidedly different, having inherited their thrones because of a lack of male heirs. (At that time, England and Scotland were two separate kingdoms.)

Image courtesy of rollingstone.com

Related through their ancestor Henry VII, though divided by religious affiliations—Mary being a devoted Catholic and Elizabeth a confirmed Protestant—both Mary and Elizabeth wore their respective crowns in a man’s world. And Josie Rourke highlighted this struggle—whether factually or fictionally—brilliantly in this film.

Image imbd.com

Rourke also managed to take the well-known historical fact of Mary Queen of Scots’ struggles with her throne and with Elizabeth I and inject a modern sensibility into a film that could have been just another dusty journey down a historical path. Rourke’s infusion of modern elements includes diverse, multiracial casts with black ambassadors and aristocrats, as well as Asian and Latin courtiers. Initially this mélange of diversity was a bit offsetting, but after a short time, due to the incredible script and acting chops of the cast, the cast diversity began to actually add to the film.You cannot talk about historical dramas without looking at the costumes. Oscar-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne was historically accurate and revelatory with her costume choices in this film. Understanding that bold color was a luxury that even most royals didn’t have access to, Byrne attired the cast, for the most part, in the neutral colors of black, grey, white, with some occasional blue tones in for good measure. Only Queen Elizabeth I’s costumes exhibited a small injection of bold color. Byrne also did a great job with Queen Elizabeth I’s headdresses and Mary’s battle attire was both powerful and feminine at the same time.

Images courtesy of nytimes.com

Costumes and multiracial casting aside, this movie would have had a powerful impact with the well-skill abilities of the two main characters. Audience members will readily sympathize with Mary’s (Ronan) almost insurmountable task of ruling a divided Scotland, and the many obstacles to her sovereignty. And Robbie skillfully demonstrated Elizabeth’s transition from a young female ruler to a woman who had no choice but to defeminize herself in order to rule the throne.“Mary Queen of Scots” displayed the inordinate sacrifices that both rulers made in order to be sovereigns. And in the end, neither Mary nor Elizabeth won. Mary lost her life, and Elizabeth gave up her right to womanhood.

“Mary Queen of Scots” opens in limited release on December 7.

—William S. Gooch

Gather NYC Brings New Yorkers Together

We are living in very in challenging times. Times that are dividing us because of disparate political sentiment and life challenges that are causing us to tune out because there are just too many tragedies to digest. Everything seems to be collapsing around us with many of cultural and social institutions failing to give the support and stability we need.

In these very difficult times, we need to find a way to come together, and its possible!! And if you live in New York City the possibilities expand exponentially with Gather NYC. Founded by Laura Metcalf and Rupert Boyd, Gather NYC meets most Sunday mornings at SubCulture on 45 Bleeker Street. “Gather NYC was started in the spring of 2018 as an all-exclusive way for people to get together on Sunday mornings and enjoy classical music, spoken word, and a brief celebration of silence and find a sense of a community in a way that is a non-religious equivalent of church. Every week we have brought in different musicians and storytellers. We serve coffee and pastries and before and after the performances, people strike up conversations and friendships,” explains Rupert Boyd.

GATHERNYC Founders Laura Metcalf & Rupert Boyd

Past performers at Gather NYC have been Attaca Quartet, Joshua Roman, Russian Renaissance, Banda Magda, Rupert Boyd and Friends, and Bridget Kibbey. Upcoming performers include Rachel Barton Pine on December 2 and the Claremont Trio on December 9. “We chose artists for this gathering from artists that we already know and for the most part these musicians are from New York City and they are the best of the best. And we have had 21 shows so far,” Rupert Boyd detailed.On November 18, the Grammy-nominated IMANI WINDS performed at Gather NYC, performing five works from a 20th Century repertoire. The musical choices for the November 18 were eclectic, particularly the Indian composer Reena Esmail’s work “Delight Is the Same,” Jeffrey Scott’s “Starting Something,” which is a take on a jazz shuffle, a work by Astor Piazzolla, Lalo Schrifin’s “La Nouvelle N’Orleans,” and a traditional take on the Negro spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

Photos courtesy of Terry Doe

“IMANI WINDS started 21 years ago with African American and Latino musicians with a different take on how they would interpret classical music. We were put together as experimental fun and we morphed into a stable music ensemble that now has management, touring and residencies and many awards which was not envisioned 21 years ago when we formed the ensemble,” explains IMANI WINDS’ Jeffrey Scott. “We are all of based in New York City and for 17 years now, we have been a full-time recording and touring ensemble.”Gather NYC is giving New Yorkers the much-welcomed opportunity to come together on a Sunday morning experience some great music and enjoy each other’s company. Hopefully, this will spread to other major US cities.

Why not? If we can distance ourselves over things that divide us, why not come together and celebrate great music, conversation, and libations. And hey, the coffee and breakfast snacks are free!!

—William S. Gooch

The Most Authentic Callas: “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words”

What is to be said about opera legend Maria Callas that hasn’t always been said? Not much. There have been several documentaries and movies her life—“Callas Forever,” “Maria Callas: La Divina: A Portrait,” Callas Assoluta,” “Maria Callas: Life & Art,” and “Maria Callas: Living and Dying for.” So, is another documentary or movie about La Callas necessary?

Perhaps, Tom Volf’s documentary “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” will give Callas’s diehard fans a reason for another film about the great diva. “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” is the first documentary where Maria Callas tells her life story in her own words. The entire documentary is told through performances, TV interviews, home movies, family photographs, private letters and unpublished memoirs—nearly all of which have never been shown to the public—the film reveals the essence of an extraordinary woman who rose from humble beginnings in New York City to become a glamorous international superstar and one of the greatest artists of all time. This documentary is a loving portrait of one of history’s most extraordinarily talented women, told in a way that is revelatory, unprecedented, and authoritative.

Interestingly, “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” is perhaps the most authentic reflection on Callas’ life and there is no doubt that Callas’ life was a life that great dramas are made from. From her up from the almost bottom in the Bronx—most people don’t know that Callas is actually a New York native—to the beginning of her operatic career in Greece to her dramatic weight loss, to her becoming a style icon in the manner of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren to her reputation as a difficult diva, to her affair with Aristotle Onassis everything is documented through interviews and photographs in the diva’s own words.

What is most evident in this documentary is that though Callas was a very complicated woman whose life and career was just as complicated as the woman herself is that Callas was totally invested in the complications in her life and her passions. “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” is perhaps the first documentary that records in an artist own words the angst and frustrations of a great artist torn between career, family life and personal obligations.

Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

And though there is some sadness and regret in this film due to Callas’ tragic life and untimely death at the age of 59, there are some great footage of her performing great operatic roles—Norma, Tosca, Lucia di Lammermoor—as well as great interviews with Dick Cavett, particularly after her breakup with Onassis. There is also great footage of Callas’ fans queued outside of the old Metropolitan House in New York City.

For those Callas diehards this is a must-see film. In “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” still lives and lives, through her own words.

Photos by REX/Shutterstock (25089c) MARIA CALLAS WITH PHOTOGRAPHERS
VARIOUS – 1968

“Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” is directed by Tom Volf and opens in limited release nationwide on November 2.

—William S. Gooch

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