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Theater of the Interdisciplinary: Filmmakers without Film

In his fifteen-year career, Mariano Pensotti has become a staple of contemporary Latin American theater, and he contradicts the persistent belief that it is an emerging art form. Now foremost a playwright and director of live theater, Pensotti received his formal education primarily in visual arts and cinema. Introduced to theater only later in his […]

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Mariano Pensotti, Cineastas. Photo: Carlos Furman

In his fifteen-year career, Mariano Pensotti has become a staple of contemporary Latin American theater, and he contradicts the persistent belief that it is an emerging art form. Now foremost a playwright and director of live theater, Pensotti received his formal education primarily in visual arts and cinema. Introduced to theater only later in his formative years through experimenting with acting, his many productions represent the breadth and depth of many influences. Working often simultaneously as playwright and director, Pensotti interchanges techniques, combines audio and visual elements, and often blends genres, melding dance, theater, literature, music, and above all cinema into his works. Cineastas is no exception. A tribute to film on stage, it follows the lives of four filmmakers in the process of creating their own films, and explores the passage of time, the influence of fiction on reality, the (fictional) portrayal of a city — in this case Buenos Aires — through (fictional) characters, and the contrasts between the ephemeral and the permanent. All of this is represented on a complex two-level set designed by Mariana Tirantte, one portraying the lives of the filmmakers and the other the films they are producing, allowing for interaction between the two. This literally and figuratively multilayered production debuted in 2013 and will be performed at the Walker this week as part of Out There 2015.

Likely a reflection of his multifaceted education, much of Pensotti’s approach to creating work is based on experimentation and combination. In an interview with Julia Elena Sagaseta in 2010, he explains the approach to creating some of his earlier works by “searching, trying, succeeding in some things and failing in others… a process of creation very much connected in actually doing. I come from a generation very influenced by the ‘punk’ and ‘do it yourself’ spirit, and my formal education rather fell to the wayside. For me, it was always very important to do many things” (translation mine). One need merely head to Pensotti’s website, where poetic descriptions outline the many productions on his resume, to see what he’s referring to: Night at the Waterfalls (2003) includes video projections on performers’ bodies so “the same body is used for two juxtaposed forms of the same character”; Dirty (2007/2009), a “strange musical about masculine anguish” blends dance, theater, literature and music; Interiors (2007) takes place within a real building set up with fictional situations in separate rooms, wherein the theater is “a film set in which the spectator is the camera”; and Disco (2007), set in a disco with transparent walls in which playwrights write short texts in live response to particular music being played, while video projections portray the playwrights and the actors within the disco.

Integrating film or video in theater is not a new concept — early 20th century playwrights including Bertolt Brecht were already experimenting with film on the stage — but what is unique is Pensotti’s combination of these forms. In an essay for the journal territorio teatral, Liliana B. López writes:

“The film on stage opens up ‘a space within the space.’ It functions as a metaimage that interacts with the scene in multiple ways. Though this may be the most common and direct way to incorporate the use of both mediums, it is not the only way. [The Past is a Grotesque Animal (2010/2011)] is unique because of the multiplicity of modes and perspectives with which it establishes the intersection between theater and cinema…it offers a provocative opportunity to explore the possible relationships between both languages [theater and film] in many ways, including quotes, the thematic relations, construction of imaginaries, visual content, and as a language whose grammar is appropriate for the scene.” (translation mine).

Pensotti’s last visit to the Walker was in 2012 with Grotesque Animal, which formed part of Out There 2012: Global Visionaries. Based on the song of the same name by Of Montreal, The Past is a Grotesque Animal focuses on the parallels between city and individual, and on the interplay between fictions and specific narratives. Voiceovers narrate the past, and as Pensotti notes on his website, these “could give sense to the scattered fragments of a film that is lost forever. The past is like a strange animal which should be invented and trapped following blurred traces.” The use of cinematic elements, while not always including the use of video outright, has become a signature of Pensotti’s craft.

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Revolving set in The Past is a Grotesque Animal (photo: Matias Sendon); Cineastas’ split-screen set (photo: Carlos Furman)

In his most recent work, Pensotti makes similar use of these techniques, which become even more relevant given its title, Cineastas (“Filmmakers”). The piece uses no video, but the visual language and other elements of the production itself are reminiscent of cinematographic representation. Cineastas and The Past is a Grotesque Animal bear some resemblance to one another, and though Pensotti has produced a few works since The Past is a Grotesque Animal, it is rather fitting that these two productions will have visited the Walker consecutively. As in Grotesque Animal, the physical set in Cineastas is an important feature of the cinematic quality. The two-level Cineastas set creates the classic “split screen” used in cinema, while Grotesque’s rotating set offers glimpses into scenes of characters’ lives, and as Pensotti describes, presents “brief moments acted in real time and cinematographically.” Cineastas, like The Past is a Grotesque Animal, also uses voiceover to add yet another layer to the narrative, and its content deals with the passage of time and the relationship between the ephemeral and the long-lasting. However, unlike some of his other productions, in Cineastas Pensotti refrains from making reference to specific films or filmmakers, and though he interviewed several filmmakers while researching for this work, they remain anonymous and the final work remains completely fictional. Nonetheless, he manages to, as Under the Radar director Meiyin Wang puts it, “draw from the world of film and fill the stage with that combination of epic intimacy, using just his actors and his staging.”

Full of parallels (literal and figurative), Cineastas explores the contrast between the ephemeral (theater, life) and long-lasting (film, art); between fiction (the films being created by the filmmakers) and narrative (the filmmakers’ lives); and between the individual and society (Pensotti, deeply rooted in the culture of his home city of Buenos Aires is preoccupied with its portrayal and the relationship between city and individual and the fictions that arise from the mutual influence). As Jackie Fletcher writes in a review, Cineastas is “multi-layered, cleverly using theatrical devices in new combinations, but it remains deeply human, based on the work of actors who present us with people one could sit next to on the bus.” This emphasis on the sheer experience of being a human is what makes all of Pensotti’s work accessible. Interested in the passage of time and its representation, he leaves us asking questions like those posed on his website:

Are our lives actually the vehicles through which works of art become eternal, making us repeat the things that we’ve seen in them hundreds of times before? Do our fictions reflect the world, or is the world a distorted projection of our fictions? How do life and day-to-day experiences influence fiction, and above all, in which way has fiction then been the starting point from which our lives are constructed?

Perhaps, as Pensotti quotes Ingmar Bergman, “it is only the ephemeral that lasts.”

Cineastas will be performed at the Walker Thursday–Saturday, January 22–24, in Spanish with English surtitles.

Teatro de la interdisciplinariedad: Cineastas sin película

En los quince años que han transcurrido desde que Mariano Pensotti comenzó su carrera, este director y dramaturgo ha pasado a ser una figura prominente del teatro contemporáneo latinoamericano, lo que contradice la opinión generalizada de que se trata de un género emergente. Si bien hoy en día se desempeña fundamentalmente como dramaturgo y director […]

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Cineastas, Mariano Pensotti. Imagen: Carlos Furman

En los quince años que han transcurrido desde que Mariano Pensotti comenzó su carrera, este director y dramaturgo ha pasado a ser una figura prominente del teatro contemporáneo latinoamericano, lo que contradice la opinión generalizada de que se trata de un género emergente. Si bien hoy en día se desempeña fundamentalmente como dramaturgo y director de teatro, su formación se inició en las artes visuales y la cinematografía. Su introducción al teatro surgió a través de la experimentación con la actuación durante esos años formativos y sus numerosas obras representan una variedad de influencias. Con frecuencia se desempeña simultáneamente como dramaturgo y director y en sus obras intercambia técnicas, combina elementos auditorios y visuales, y a menudo mezcla géneros como la danza, el teatro, la literatura, la música y, sobre todo, el cine. En este sentido, Cineastas no constituye una excepción. Como homenaje al cine en forma de obra teatral, Cineastas trata de las vidas de cuatro cineastas, cada uno en el proceso de dirigir una película. Como obra, explora el tiempo, la influencia de la ficción en la realidad, la representación (ficticia) de una ciudad – en este caso, Buenos Aires – a través de personajes (ficticios), y el contraste entre lo efímero y lo permanente. Se presenta en un complejo dispositivo escenográfico de dos niveles, diseñado por Mariana Tirantte; en uno  se retrata las vidas de los cineastas, en el otro las obras que producen, y así se crea un espacio para la interacción entre ambos. Esta obra, con estratos y niveles de gran complejidad, tanto literal como figurada, se estrenó en 2013 y se presentará esta semana en el Walker dentro de la serie Out There 2015. (more…)

Steve Paxton and the Walker: A 50-Year History

Steve Paxton is one of the most radical and influential  American artistic innovators alive. His impact on the field of dance, stretching more than 50 years, has been felt around the world: as a principle dancer for Merce Cunningham in the 60s, a founding member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater (’62-65) and of the […]

Video project with Steve Paxton

Video project with Steve Paxton at MCAD, October 6, 1975, during a residency at the Walker. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

Steve Paxton is one of the most radical and influential  American artistic innovators alive. His impact on the field of dance, stretching more than 50 years, has been felt around the world: as a principle dancer for Merce Cunningham in the 60s, a founding member of the legendary Judson Dance Theater (’62-65) and of the Grand Union collective (1970-76),  and as the inventor of Contact Improvisation (in 1972), a technique now practiced and taught globally. His influence on the current generation of dance and performance artists has been profound particularly in New York and across Europe.

–Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts

2014 marks 50 years since Steve Paxton’s first visit to the Walker Art Center. Over the course of the past five decades (and beyond), his influence on and contribution to the postmodern and contemporary dance movements as a dancer, choreographer, and movement innovator runs undeniably deep. Paxton was part of José Limón’s company in 1960, and from 1961 to 1964, he danced for Merce Cunningham. His involvement in both Grand Union and Judson established him as a major figurehead in the dance world. These groups were arguably the most critical influences on the development of postmodern and contemporary dance in the latter half of the twentieth century, relentlessly shattering and reshaping expectations of dance creation and performance. That impact remains prevalent today.

Through residencies and visits to universities with Grand Union, Paxton began developing a technique that emphasized uncensored flow with another body where, as he wrote in an article in 1975, “[e]ach party of the duet freely improvises with an aim to working along the easiest pathways available to their mutually moving masses. These pathways are best perceived when the muscular tone is lightly stretched to extend the limbs, although not to a degree that obscures the sensations of momentum and inertia. Within this flexible framework, the shape, speed, orientation, and personal details of the relationship are left to the dancers who, however, hold to the ideal of active, reflexive, harmonic, spontaneous, mutual forms.”1 He named this technique Contact Improvisation and introduced it to New York in 1972.

Since the 1980s, Paxton has rarely performed, devoting his time to writing, teaching,and leading workshops. For this reason, his visit and performances for Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton at the Walker over the next two weeks are a rare treat. To commemorate the momentous event of his return (after an absence of over sixteen years), I thought I’d share with you some Paxton-related material from the Walker’s archives (click on any image to get a closer look).

1964: Performance with Merce Cunningham Company

Paxton was first presented by the Walker on February 25th, 1964 when he performed with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC) at the Guthrie Theatre. This was  MCDC’s second time performing for the Walker, and only a year after the company’s first visit. Most of the dancers who went on to form Grand Union studied with Cunningham. Three had previously danced in his company, including Paxton. In the 1964 performance at the Guthrie, Paxton danced in Story and Antic Meet:

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1965: A Judson Residency that was not to be

On July 6th, 1962, Robert Dunn’s dance composition class (which included Yvonne Rainer and Paxton) performed a concert – it was out of this concert that Judson Dance Theater was born. Judson, which derived its name from the church in New York in which the collective performed, continued to produce work over the next two years that challenged the established modern dance tradition of the time. Plans were in place for Judson to complete a residency at the Walker in 1965 but the group dissolved in 1964, before the residency could happen.

1975: Grand Union Residency

The Grand Union collective existed and produced work from 1970 to 1976 and was comprised of experimental and improvisational dance artists. Grand Union evolved in part from Yvonne Rainer’s work Continuous Project-Altered Daily and included many of the dancers and performers who had worked together in the Judson days. Grand Union visited the Walker for a residency in 1971, but Paxton was unable to join because of prior commitments. However, from October 5-10, 1975, Grand Union returned with Paxton to complete another residency which included workshops, solo performances, and group performances at the Guthrie Theater and in the museum lobby. In addition to performances, Paxton led a video workshop with students from Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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Below are some notes on possible residency activities with Paxton, also from the 1975 residency with Grand Union (the photo at the beginning of this blog post is from his video project with MCAD students):

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Here’s Paxton performing at the Walker, also in 1975:

Steve Paxton with Grand Union, 1975

Steve Paxton during a performance with Grand Union, Walker Art Center Auditorium, October 6, 1975. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

After the residency, Paxton wrote a letter to Sue Weil, the Performing Arts Coordinator at the time. Below is Paxton’s hand-written letter, along with Weil’s response:

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 1980: Jeff Slayton, Lisa Nelson, & Steve Paxton

On June 20, 1980, Paxton, Jeff Slayton, and Lisa Nelson performed works choreographed by Slayton and Viola Farber. Farber was originally supposed to perform but was unable due to an injury. Lisa Nelson has long been an improvisational dancer and she and Paxton have been artistic collaborators since the 1970s. Though they come from different backgrounds in dance, their work together comes naturally. As Brian Seibert wrote in 2013 following the premiere of  Night Stand at Dia:Chelsea Gallery, “Their attunement was so fine that you felt it more when they avoided each other than when they joined in an awkward ballroom dance. A hand proffered and accepted might lead anywhere or nowhere.”

 

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1998: Improvisation Project: Chris Aiken, Steve Paxton, and Friends

In October 1998, then-local Contact Improvisation artist Chris Aiken was joined by other artists in the field: Kirstie Simson (London/Boston), Ka Rustler (Berlin), and Ray Chung (Berkeley, California) for a series of performances at the Southern. This was Paxton’s last visit to the Walker, before his return this week.

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And a photo of Paxton during his 1998 performance:

Improvisation Project, October 24, 1998 with Chris Aiken and Steve Paxton

Steve Paxton in The Improvisation Project, Southern Theater, October 24, 1998. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives.

2001: White Oak Dance Project

On September 27th, 2001, Paxton’s pieces Satisfyin Lover and Flat were performed as part of PASTforward, a project directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and written by David Gordon that celebrated the work of some of the Judson Theater artists of the 1960s. Paxton didn’t make an appearance for this performance but Satisfyin Lover was performed by local dancers, and Flat was performed by Baryshnikov himself, making the project “counter-intuitive, even joyously subversive”, as Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither described it in the program notes.

White Oaks 2001

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton, a mini-festival celebrating the work of Paxton, begins Thursday, November 13, 2014 with Talking Dance with Steve Paxton, which will also include a performance of his piece Smiling (1967) by Kristin Van Loon and Lisa Nelson. Bound (1982) will be performed by Jurij Konjar on Friday, November 14, 2014 and Night Stand (2004) will be performed by Paxton and Nelson on Friday and Saturday, November 21 and 22, 2014. In addition, Paxton and Nelson will each teach a workshop at the Walker on Sunday, November 16, 2014.

Footnotes

1Paxton, Steve. “Contact Improvisation.” The Drama Review 19.1 (1975): 40-42. Print.

Dance and Community: Faustin Linyekula and Panaibra Gabriel Canda

In anticipation of this weekend’s performance by dancer/choreographers Panaibra Gabriel Canda (Mozambique) and Faustin Linyekula (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I tagged along to the artists’ residency activities this week. Each dancer’s work—Linyekula performs the solo piece Le Cargo tonight and Canda performs Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos on Saturday, both as part of Tales of […]

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo and Panaibra Gabriel Canda performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photos by Agathe Poupaney and Arthur Fink.

Faustin Linyekula performing Le Cargo and Panaibra Gabriel Canda performing Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos. Photos: Agathe Poupaney and Arthur Fink

In anticipation of this weekend’s performance by dancer/choreographers Panaibra Gabriel Canda (Mozambique) and Faustin Linyekula (Democratic Republic of the Congo), I tagged along to the artists’ residency activities this week. Each dancer’s work—Linyekula performs the solo piece Le Cargo tonight and Canda performs Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos on Saturday, both as part of Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique—deal with home, loss, and the difficult narratives of the violence and tragedy that have wrecked their home countries (Joan Frosch does a great job of describing their work and the connections to their histories here). Both are trailblazers in contemporary dance and have been key to bringing African artists to the forefront of contemporary dance.

Linyekula and Canda arrived a week in advance of their performances and joined us for a series of residency activities including an artist talk with a University of Minnesota dance composition class, a Meet & Greet at Juxtaposition Arts, and a staff lunch discussion at the Walker, as well as a master class led by each artist. In speaking with them and attending these activities, I gained insight on their processes and motivations and got an in-depth view of their perspectives as artists, educators, and collaborators. Taking their master classes allowed me to weave my understanding of what the artists spoke about earlier in the week into their tangible practice as dancers and choreographers.

During his master class, Linyekula, lithe and wiry but with an unwavering groundedness, shared with us his toolbox of movement and allowed us as dancers to utilize and interpret the movement individually. In his own work, his dancers are vital and irreplaceable: “In my pieces, if someone gets injured, we do the piece without them or we cancel the show. We do not replace them.” This same philosophy translates to his teaching.

Canda, a tranquil and solid presence, also shared with us a toolbox; in an intense 45 minutes we learned a set phrase of his choreography and then were given freedom to interpret it in an open improvisation. It quickly became apparent that the importance of trust in one another was vital for success, as in any improvisation. After several tries we got the hang of it, but not without some effort and acknowledgment of the importance of relationships, awareness of space, and awareness of each other—many of the same common elements that I discovered in learning about their work, both as artists and as leaders.

Dance as negotiator of relationships/dance as negotiator of the self

During a visit with a U of M dance composition class taught by Scott Rink, Linyekula and Panaibra talked about everything from childhood memories and corrupt national histories to French négritude literature. And, of course, dance.

Linyekula, shoes and socks off, sat on one knee atop his chair and spoke of relationships. He explained that he has expanded upon Merce Cuningham’s notion that “dance is the motion in time and space.” He sees it as his responsibility as a performer to build and rebuild these relationships (with time, space, and the audience), taking into consideration that they are not a given, and that they will inevitably collapse, continuously.

At one point, he shifted and asked Canda and Rink to move off the stage, leaping up to illustrate the circular relationship with an audience and the ways this relationship is broken in a forward-facing proscenium setup (in an interview with Brenda Dixon Gottschild when he visited the Walker in 2007, Linyekula illustrated the proscenium stage’s connection to colonialism: “There’s never been any reflection on just the stages that we show those dances on. Space is what defines the type of relationships. The proscenium theater is a clear extension of Europe—a colonial stage.”)

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Faustin Linyekula talking to University of Minnesota students on Monday. Photo: Gabby Coll

Linyekula considers performance an act of responsibility and looks to storytellers as a model. The magic happens in a moment, in the present, and must occur in collaboration with the audience. Without the audience the story would not exist: “You’re choreographing the relationship, in this moment that we spend together … so how do I work with the body to negotiate this relationship?”

These relationships are vital to Linyekula; he spoke of props (rejecting the word “prop” itself as “gross”) as partners, as well as the dynamic between dance and music—two autonomous entities coming together and becoming something entirely different, possible only because they are together in that particular space and time.

Canda also articulated the significance of these relationships, but he sees them from a slightly different angle. Through performance, he stated, “I can begin to understand myself; you can be honest with yourself when you’re projecting yourself. How people perceive you doesn’t matter, but you begin to know yourself. Even if an audience rejects me, you’re helping me understand myself. The viewer becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine).

As Joan Frosch writes, “Panaibra is engaged in a theater of transformation, not reiteration.” Through his work and his movement, his aim is to break from the constraints of traditional dance technique. He utilizes dance to deconstruct history and to more fully understand his own body and self.

As he says, the Marrabenta Solos are a “way of understanding who I am today….[as a] journey through history to understand my own body… There is a potential to reinvent aesthetically and shape my own body.” The piece arose as a means for him to reconcile the history of Mozambique through connections with and translated through the body. “This work is a process of rehealing; to deal with this pain. How do you work from the inside until [you] can still find the energy to recover? It is a question of what is behind the movement. There is an invisible body that is ourself; something that you feel is motivating you. So how do you translate this to movement, this body that is living inside?”

Left to right: University of Minnesota Professor Scott Rink, Panaibra Gabriel Canda, and Faustin Linyekula. Photo by Gabby Coll.

Left to right: University of Minnesota Professor Scott Rink, Panaibra Gabriel Canda, and Faustin Linyekula. Photo: Gabby Coll.

Relationships as tools

Apart from their work as artists, Canda and Linyekula have embarked on important projects in their home countries through Studios Kabako in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and CulturArte in Mozambique, respectively. Studios Kabako provides training to artists, supports and produces several projects each year (as well as Linyekula’s own work), hosts workshops with dance artists from around the world, and operates the first recording studio in the country. CulturArte was established out of Canda’s need for a space to produce his own work and now serves as a training center, an art production center, and  a dance company, as well as an organization that lobbies for governmental support for the arts.

The successes they have accomplished in their work and in their respective organizations would not be possible without the relationships that Linyekula and Canda have fostered, both with each other and with other artists in their communities and across Africa. Speaking to a group of 30 artists, community leaders, and people of all ages at Juxtaposition Arts this week, Panaibra and Linyekula noticed the parallels between the work they are doing in their home countries and the work JXTA does. Similar to the organizations in Mozambique and Democratic Republic of the Congo, JXTA provides training and support for young artists and prepares them for success by teaching concrete creative skills with a strong emphasis on collaboration—through mentoring and sharing space and skills, and in partnerships with other organizations. Both Linyekula and Canda were excited by the work JXTA is doing; Linyekula repeatedly called their organizations “kindred spirits.”

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Faustin Linyekula and DeAnna Cummings, executive director of Juxtaposition Arts. Photo: Gabby Coll

About the importance of collaboration, Linyekula mused: “It’s easier to meet other African artists in Paris than on the actual continent; this is why Panaibra and I need to collaborate and spend time together and think about the work we are doing.” Their institutions in Kisangani and Maputo have collaborated, and they created Pamoja (which translates to “together” in Swahili) in order to connect artists on the African continent to host workshops and to produce, tour, and show their work.

This year, Studios Kabako was awarded the CurryStone Design Prize for its work in Kisangani as well as a project completed in Lubunga whose aim was to map water distribution along the Congo River. Through the mapping of the connections between people and water (lack of drinking water is a major problem in Lubunga), Linyekula realized that “we may not build a physical bridge on the Congo River between the two banks. [But] perhaps if we start building bridges in our heads, start connecting with other people, that may already be a first bridge.”

Canda has also succeeded in creating sustainable change through his work. In 2007 he established (In)Dependence, a project dedicated to training and integrating dancers with disabilities. At JXTA, he spoke of asking questions, including, “What does it mean for a body to be marginalized?” He has managed to find a way to integrate social practice into his art, without becoming a social worker, emphasizing that he “will not take you to the stage just because you are disabled; you need to show me you have artistic quality that can be a part of my own practice. I don’t want to be a social worker. I want to challenge the way people understand [differences].”

When thinking about dance or any performance-based art, creating and nurturing any kind of relationship can appear to be an obvious need. But it isn’t easy. During the Meet-and-Greet, Linyekula noted, “We speak in mother tongues, but we write in foreign ones [in our work]; everyone who is not you is a foreigner to your work.” These artists have managed to take this concept and stretch it so that these relationships gain vitality to accomplish so much more. The infrastructure for art production and sustainability did not exist in either the Congo or Mozambique; yet it is through the building of these connections that Canda and Linyekula are beginning to establish one. The only certainty is that the future is an uncertain one, but, undoubtedly, there is much in store for these artists and for the next generation of artists in their communities.

Faustin Linyekula will perform Le Cargo tonight, Friday, November 7 at 8pm, and Panaibra Gabriel Canda will perform Time and Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos tomorrow night, Saturday, November 8 at 8pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

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