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Choreographers’ Evening 2014: Audition Announcement!

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Kenna-Camara Cottman are seeking choreographers to be presented as part of the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Choreographers’ Evening will premiere on Saturday, November 29th at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. All forms of dance are welcome! WHERE: The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403 WHEN: Wednesday, […]

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Photo: Gene Pittman

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Kenna-Camara Cottman are seeking choreographers to be presented as part of the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Choreographers’ Evening will premiere on Saturday, November 29th at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. All forms of dance are welcome!

WHERE: The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403

WHEN: Wednesday, August 20 from 6-10pm
Friday, August 22 from 2-6pm
Saturday, August 23 from noon – 4pm

– You will receive a call or email confirming your time slot

– Auditions are in 10 minute intervals

– Pieces are usually 3-6 minutes in length and may not exceed 7 minutes

– DVD and vimeo submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred

– Works in progress are accepted

– Schedule your audition soon, as slots fill up quickly

For more information and to schedule an audition, please email performingarts@walkerart.org or call the Walker at 612.375.7550

Additional questions may be directed to Anat Shinar at anat.shinar@walkerart.org

Rock the Garden 8-Ball: Lizzo

After the announcement that Lizzo has joined Rock the Garden 2014, she told The Current that she felt like a “gift-wrapped package with glitter coming out of the top.” Originally from Detroit and raised in Houston, Lizzo and her music have been giving steadily to the Twin Cities over the last few years, and the […]

Lizzo photographed in Minneapolis on February 8th 2014

Photo: Cameron Wittig

After the announcement that Lizzo has joined Rock the Garden 2014, she told The Current that she felt like a “gift-wrapped package with glitter coming out of the top.” Originally from Detroit and raised in Houston, Lizzo and her music have been giving steadily to the Twin Cities over the last few years, and the Twin Cities have been giving right back. She told DazedDigital.com, “Coming to Minneapolis I felt the most comfortable I have ever been . . . We all want to create art. I’m not saying it’s higher or lower, or better or worse. It’s just everyone can see eye to eye there.” Much of this local love for Lizzo came from her 2013 release of Lizzobangers, an album she made with Lazerbeak (Doomtree) and Ryan Olson (Gayngs, Marijuana Deathsquads). Her brazen verses are equally comical and combative, harkening back to some of the industry’s first female MCs, and her sound encompasses an array of influences. She told The 405 that “Beyoncé is a constant inspiration,” and that her dream collaboration would be with Bach. Lizzo’s videos are similarly wide-ranging: “Batches & Cookies” celebrates marriage equality and baked goods, while her new “Faded” video features cameos from Har Mar Superstar, Caroline Smith, and Macaulay Culkin.

Lizzo provides us with the third edition of Rock the Garden 8-Ball (following Dessa and Jeremy Messersmith) as she ponders her past life, career options, and other not-so-pressing questions.

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?

Vicki at Paula’s Nails in Uptown. She’s an amazing nail artist.

What are three of your tour necessities?

Shower, panties, FaceTime.

If you had to pick another career, what would it be and why?

I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, I loved writing epic fantasies when I was 6.

Do you have a favorite park/green space in the Twin Cities?

Theodore Wirth Park! Now I’m super close to it so I love walking around the quaking bog.

Write a haiku about your current location.

Soft billowing cloud

White noise rolling steadily

My bed (is the shit).

What is your favorite sound?

French horn fanfare.

Do you think you were anyone specific in a past life?

A male diplomat.

What’s the last (or favorite) book you read?

Just read Spiral Bound, by Dessa.

Rock the Garden 2014 takes place on Saturday, June 21, and Sunday, June 22. See the full lineup and buy tickets here.

Rock the Garden 8-Ball: Jeremy Messersmith

Singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith once told The Current that as a kid, he dreamed of growing up to be a biochemist, of creating vaccines and curing diseases. All grown up, that’s not exactly where he finds himself, but his music, including this year’s Heart Murmurs, may still provide a remedy to those titular afflictions of the heart. He […]

Jeremy Messersmith. Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford

Jeremy Messersmith. Photo: Kyle Dean Reinford

Singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith once told The Current that as a kid, he dreamed of growing up to be a biochemist, of creating vaccines and curing diseases. All grown up, that’s not exactly where he finds himself, but his music, including this year’s Heart Murmurs, may still provide a remedy to those titular afflictions of the heart. He assures on “Tourniquet,” the album’s first single: “When you feel like dying, think you won’t be missed / I will be there in an ambulance.” Messersmith’s music is highly personal; “songs are a way for me to process and understand things,” he told the Star Tribune. The songs of Heart Murmurs are buoyantly melodic and consistently catchy, whether depicting joyous love or aching heartbreak. He has been touring these songs across the country, including two sold-out shows at First Avenue this February, and on Saturday, June 21, he’ll stop by the Walker for the first day of Rock the Garden 2014.

After Dessa’s consideration of life’s questions both big and small, Messersmith gives us our next installment of Rock the Garden 8-Ball, describing some of his Twin Cities favorites and providing some wise words from Terminator 2.

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?

The Midtown Global Market. It’s funny how many of my friends in Minneapolis have still NEVER been there. It has The Salty Tart, The Rabbit Hole, Hot Indian, Holy Land, Sonora Grill, and so many other fantastic food options. It’s also a venue and community space. It doesn’t get much better than that!

What are three of your tour necessities?

A slanket, a jumprope and a giant bottle of hand sanitizer.

Do you have a favorite park/green space in the Twin Cities?

I’m not sure if this counts, but I’d pick the Greenway. It’s beautiful, functional and busy. It’s still one of the greatest urban bike paths I’ve seen.

What are you afraid of?

I’m not a particularly brave person, but most of my little fears about things (heights, public speaking) pale when compared to the big picture. My biggest fear is simply that we humans will not outlive our adolescence as a species and we may never get to travel the stars. We are rapidly making our own world uninhabitable through reckless and short sighted environmental destruction. That’s the fear that keeps me up at night. Okay, that and clowns.

What is your favorite sound?

I think my first impulse is to say silence, but that’s been done to death by John Cage already right?

Apparently, I’ve been conditioned by the advertising industry because I find the sound of a can of soda opening to be profoundly satisfying. The worst part of that is that I never drink soda!

If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?

My last meal would consist of a glass of Pinot Noir, a chocolate tart, and a mushroom crostini with amanita mushrooms. Of course, amanita mushrooms are fatal, but I’d much rather go out on my own terms than give satisfaction to whoever was trying to execute me!

What fictional character do you most relate to?

Any Haruki Murakami protagonist. I’m cheating a little, but I often find them to be fairly passive, introverted males in their mid-30s. They also seem to spend a lot of time cooking and eating while crazy things are happening all around them. Sometimes being a traveling musician feels an awful lot like that.

What advice do you have for young people?

I’m going to quote Terminator 2, the film I try to live my life by: “No fate but what we make.”

Rock the Garden 2014 takes place on Saturday, June 21, and Sunday, June 22. See the full lineup and buy tickets here.

Rock the Garden 8-Ball: Dessa

Bringing the Twin Cities music scene’s definitive earnestness to a national audience, Dessa’s solo work in alternative hip hop is long overdue for a slot at Rock the Garden, where local artists have maintained a crucial presence since its inception. Dessa, though, is no stranger to the festival, performing in 2012 as a part of […]

Dessa. Photo: Bill Phelps

Dessa. Photo: Bill Phelps

Bringing the Twin Cities music scene’s definitive earnestness to a national audience, Dessa’s solo work in alternative hip hop is long overdue for a slot at Rock the Garden, where local artists have maintained a crucial presence since its inception. Dessa, though, is no stranger to the festival, performing in 2012 as a part of Doomtree, their set of homegrown hip hop energizing the sold-out crowd like none other in Rock the Garden history. Lately, she has been taking her intensely personal music around the country as a part of her Parts of Speech tour, and on Sunday, June 22, she brings her verses and melodies to the Vineland Place stage. A lover of writing from Seneca to David Foster Wallace, Dessa is an expert wordsmith herself outside of her musical life. This fall saw the release of A Pound of Steam, a poetry chapbook published by Rain Taxi Review of Books, and a visit to the Walker to read her work. Like her poetry, Dessa’s music is both intelligent and viscerally emotive, often getting to the heart through the head. “And for the most part,” she told The Rumpus in an interview, “my songs are about true lived experiences, are true stories.” We sent her an 8-Ball questionnaire, and she took the time to answer some questions about lived experiences both big and small, from working her with fear to being forced to sit through The Deer Hunter

What is your current musical obsession?

Eastern European and Indian scales. I don’t have any foundation in music theory, so I’m sort of freestyling a study regimen, but I love the sounds–dark, melancholic, a little sinister. 

What’s your best kept Twin Cities secret you don’t mind sharing?

Maybe not quite a secret, but Sugar, Sugar on Grand Avenue definitely warrants a visit–custom made exotic candies and chocolates. The chocolate bar with lime tortilla chips doesn’t sound like much, but is damn good. 

Write a haiku about your current location.

Nobody should watch

The Deer Hunter on a plane.

Window seat, crying.

What are you afraid of?

I’m afraid of falling short of my creative ambitions–afraid I might reach the limits of my talent, or become too discouraged to make brave, passionate material. Nothing to do but carry on, though. I think a career in the arts often asks a person to learn to coexist comfortably with fear and uncertainty. 

What is your favorite sound?

Human voices, in harmony. (A quarter’s worth of Reese’s pieces in a vending machine might be a close second.) 

Do you think you were anyone specific in a past life?

Nope. Hard enough trying to figure out who I am in this one. 

If you could choose your last meal, what would it be?

Half a dozen little courses: sushi; the melty, smashy sandwiches they serve in Brazil; cashews and avocados. Then a half dozen desserts: peanut butter cups, cake with buttercream frosting, maybe some marzipan. This game is making me both hungry and sad. 

What’s the last (or favorite) book you read?

Just finished Myra Breckenridge by Gore Vidal. 

Rock the Garden 2014 takes place on Saturday, June 21, and Sunday, June 22. See the full lineup and buy tickets here.

Talk Dance: Aparna Ramaswamy on Song of the Jasmine

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire […]

Song of the Jasmine

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire podcast here.

I’ve heard the saying, in one form or another, that you should never mix business with family, but that is exactly what Aparna, Ranee, and Ashwini Ramaswamy are doing.  When I sat down to interview Aparna Ramaswamy about her family’s dance company, Ragamala, and their upcoming premiere of Song of the Jasmine, I was particularly curious to hear about what its like to make art with family.  I’m married to an artist (a theater director), and we’ve collaborated a few times. Though we both survived the experience, we’ve learned that although we highly value the others feedback, we do our best work on our own.  There are many examples of partners making art together – even a handful in the Minneapolis dance community (BodyCartography Project and Chris Yon + Taryn Griggs to name two) but the examples that come to mind are couples who have chosen each other as life partners.  However, collaborating with someone you didn’t get to choose seemed unique to me.  When I asked Aparna about her choreographic partnership with her mother, Ranee, she was very direct: “we  create almost every movement together … our bond is so strong, it works for us, and we feel we create much better work together.”   I was also inspired by the family bonds within the company, which includes dancers Jessica Fiala and Tamara Nadel (everyone does more than dance, including grant writing and marketing work); as Aparna says, “to this day, when we tour, we eat every single meal together.  We really like hanging out together.”

A primary inspiration for Song of the Jasmine is the work of 8th century mystic poet, Andal, whose poetry casts the creator god, Krishna or Vishnu, as her lover to signify her deep desire to achieve a spiritual union with the infinite.  Aparna spoke of how Andal’s poetry is a guiding inspiration for this piece, “this idea of the human soul wanting to unite with the divine or the cosmic consciousness, we use that.  We use human love and sensuality as an allegory [...] so its a very contemporary feeling that all of us can understand, but really, its this feeling of transcendence and soaring and spiritual union.”

Aparna and Ranee create their work using the vocabulary of the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam.  “For us, tradition is something that we hold very closely.  We are very proud of the tradition we come from, and when we say tradition its a very specific thing.  We come from an ancient form that is codified but within that form we come from a certain school and within that school we come from a certain teacher who comes from a very specific lineage and we are the next part of that lineage.”

I was curious to hear Aparna speak about how, as a contemporary dance company working within this centuries-old tradition, Ragamala stays true to form while creating work that resonates with contemporary audiences.  She likened their years of study of the form to learning a language, “its like having a dictionary.  Its all this information that you have embodied because you have done it for so long […] poets use language very freely to create new work and we create work with many different dimensions and layers that use Bharata Natyam, but that will look very different and feel very different, because of the music and all of the different strategies we’re employing.”  It seems that their collaboration with avant jazz composer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is taking their explorations at the edges of  tradition to new places: “he’s so grounded in jazz and [jazz musicians] have all of these different structures and different ways that they approach music that’s very different from our experience. It just makes one push oneself so much more.”

Bharata Natyam is expressed in two ways, as a more abstract and rhythmic dance and, as a narrative form, through the use of facial expressions, costume, emotion, and word-like hand gestures, or mudras.   Aparna mentioned that audiences’ desire to understand the specifics of the story and the meaning of the mudras sometimes gets in the way of their enjoyment of the work.  Aparna’s response: “When I see contemporary dance I don’t understand all of the inspirations [...] but I find different entry points or different things to appreciate or to be challenged by.  It’s the same thing. Just because its rooted in another culture doesn’t mean you don’t understand.”

Jazz + Mine: Sally Rousse on Song of the Jasmine

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and […]

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Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance. Art and photo: Ed Bock

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Song of the Jasmine. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Five dancers in a line on the right facing five musicians to the left; several bells hang at various lengths above the dancers while subtle smoke and lights begin to warm the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center.  I like the lines, the minimalism. I like the small cast, the parity, the program notes that promise “feverish urgency” and “the inverted.”  A teenage female mystic poet. I might like this show more than any other Ragamala Dance performance I’ve ever seen over the past 20 years.

Song of the Jasmine – a collaboration between Minneapolis’s Ragamala Dance and New York-based jazz saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa – cites the writings of 8th century Tamil mystic poet Andal as inspiration. Legend has it that Andal was a sort of foster child, found and raised from birth by Vishnuchitta, a Krishna-focused poet. Brought up with these poems, songs, devotional texts, it’s only natural that the girl would refuse to marry any mortal. Instead, she had a spiritual marriage with a deity of the lord Vishsnu and was consumed into light. Her Nachiyar Tirumozhi, the composition guiding Song of the Jasmine, was Andal’s second and final work, regarded as sacred text on par with the Sanskrit Vedas. She was only fifteen.

One stunning scene has the three beautiful Ramaswamy women in an extended trio that, in variations, seems to tell the story of a girl longing with all her heart to be united with her Loved One, the Divine: He makes her heart beat; He’s like a bee finding nectar in her flowering youth; there is no aroma to compare to that of the Divine; love has invaded her veins.  I think there are snakes, too. And there is compelling floor work, drawing in the sand, writing it all down.  I saw Ranee “loosening the braids of reason” and Aparna dancing the line “my vow to him courses through my body.”  Then, it turns sad, there are tears of unrequited love: “while I pine and sigh for his love, He looks on indifferent.” Teen angst.

But Andal keeps her eye on the prize. Hindu religious aspirations are intense and they do not shy away from seeing their God as Friend, Mother, Child, Self or in this case Lover. Writer Priya Sarrukai Chabbria says in The Autobiography of a Goddess “Andal sings of her individual need for spiritual and sexual congress with her chosen god and of an abundant female desire explicitly sited in the body which, too, is holy.”

The performance had the traditional Bharatanatyam costuming (jewel-colored pleated fabric, bells, red painted hands and toes), and postures (bent knees, arched lower back, slight smile, expressive roving eyes) as well as the percussive marching backwards, articulate mime, and what I like to call “Indian waltzing” in ¾ time. But Ragamala is committed to dynamically weaving their classical South Indian dance form into their American existence. And so much more. I saw some interesting extensions into contemporary movement that includes supple arms and backs and a softness that took Aparna to the floor and somehow back up again like no one else but Hijack’s Arwen Wilder can do. Whoa.

Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy’s choreography and Mahanthrappa’s jazz-Indian music drove each other powerfully and was surprisingly sensual.  The drumming anchors the movements while the sax often leads the narrative. There are star turns by everyone: the guitarist, Rez Abassi, playing really weird stuff; solos for the always joyful Tamara Nadel and incredible lunges and balances from Jessica Fiala. The Carnatic Violinist, Anjna Swaminathan who has been working with Ragamala in recent years, makes it look easy.  (If you’re wondering, like me, whether “carnatic” has anything to do with “carnal” or “carnivorous”, it doesn’t. But Swaminathan does play the violin like she’s hungry).

When the flutist Raman Kalya takes over for a bit it’s amazing how his positions match Ashwini Ramaswamy’s arms and torso, as though she, too is holding and playing the music.

Ashwini is a gorgeous dancer, so strong and exacting with a really satisfyingly flexible, playful neck. Rock solid balance and delightful, every single moment. Aparna — what more can be said about her as a performer? She’s confident, brave, intelligent, and in her prime, yet she shares the stage generously, with a new maturity that is alluring. Ranee, who just won a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award, is stunning: the most present and hip, just oozing natural experience and knowing. Andal should have lived such a life.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa perform Song of the Jasmine in the Walker’s McGuire Theater May 15-18.

Choreographing Music, Composing Dance: Rehearsing Song of the Jasmine

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa […]

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa and Ragamala’s artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (a mother-daughter team), brings together music and dance, tradition and innovation, jazz and Carnatic music, India and America, and the spaces between.

I visited Ragamala’s studio in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood a few weeks ago to observe a rehearsal of the piece with Mahanthappa and the musicians, many of whom had flown in from the east coast. I came away in awe of the talent, creativity, and collaboration I observed that morning—not to mention the incredible work they were creating.

The Dance

As the musicians practiced at the beginning of the rehearsal, the five dancers trickled in, sitting quietly at the side of the studio and listening. Often, their arms and hands would move as if of their own accord, feeling the music and channeling the movements of the dance. Aparna and Ranee listened closely, consulting each other and their notes, approximating the intricate motions of the dance with their upper bodies as they followed along with the music. Soon, they were up and dancing: slapping the ground with the soles of their feet, spinning in unison, telling intricate stories through their whole bodies—from the sharp movements of their fingertips to the expressive brightness of their eyes. I could feel their excitement at having the piece coming together, the performance approaching… during a break, dancer Ashwini rushed over to show me pictures of the set they were working on at the Walker: hundreds of bells suspended majestically over the McGuire Theater stage.

Founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992, Ragamala Dance performs Bharatanatyam, a type of traditional south Indian classical dance historically performed in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Based in Minneapolis, Ragamala has an extensive history with the Walker. In 1998, Ranee Ramaswamy performed a solo, Where The Hands Go, The Eyes Follow. Presented in one of the Walker galleries, it was four performances of a collaboration with Minnesotan poet Robert Bly, Jim Moore, Janet Holmes, Mary Easter, Coleman Barks, Janet Hirshfield, and jazz musician and harmonica player Howard Levy. In 2004, Ragamala performed Sethu (Bridge) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Balinese gamelan ensemble Çudamani, and collaborated again with Çudamani in 2009 to perform Dhvee (Duality). Aparna Ramaswamy has additionally performed with Penelope Freeh as part of the Walker’s Momentum: New Dance Works series in 2004, and curated Choreographer’s Evening 2012 with Patrick Scully.

Another Walker-Ragamala connection is Jessica Fiala, a Walker guest blogger and tour guide who has been dancing with the company since 2006. In a short phone interview, Fiala elaborated on the style of Bharatanatyam: based on structured positions and movements, the foundation of the dance is a grounded stance with the knees bent and the feet turned out. Some of the poses and figures in Bharatanatyam are even likened to sculptures, echoing the positions of statues of Hindu gods. But beneath all of the structure, Fiala, explained, there is an emotional basis that informs the movement and expression of the dance, involving every part of the body from the feet to the eyes.

Ragamala artistic directors Ranee and Aparna studied Bharatanatyam with dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli, considered a master of the dance in India. But while they are committed to the style of Bharatanatyam, their art reflects the space in which it is created—as traditional Indian dance in contemporary America. In a Star Tribune article celebrating Ranee and Aparna as Artists of the Year in 2011, Aparna addressed the importance of “[preserving] custom, but with a contemporary twist,” explaining how Ragamala aims to stay true to the tradition of Bharatanatyam, while not being bound by the tradition. Similarly, Ragamala describes itself as “[exploring] the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the contemporary… [making] dance landscapes that dwell in opposition.”

Dance

Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy (both in orange) discuss choreography with dancers Tamara Nadel, Ashwini Ramaswamy, and Jessica Fiala. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

The Music

As I entered the studio, the musicians were running through the piece, stopping and starting to discuss certain phrases or make notes on their parts. Led by Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, the band includes Rez Abassi on electric guitar, V. K. Raman on South Indian flute, Anjna Swaminathan on violin, and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam, a type of south Indian drum. On occasion, the instrumentation was rounded out by a smartphone, which produced a drone mimicking a traditional instrument called a tanpura. The tone of the rehearsal was focused, but lighthearted; at one point when the musicians slowed down, Mahanthappa joked, “We all need to hit Dunn Bros early and often.”

The music of Song of the Jasmine is based in the Carnatic tradition, a style of classical music from south India (its counterpart being Hindustani music in northern India). The foundations of this style of music are talas, beat cycles that determine the rhythm, and ragas, musical modes that determine the melodic line (though with notable differences from Western musical modes). The mridangam drum brings everything together: the ragas, the talas, and the rhythms created by the dancers’ feet, which often beat in counterpoint to the music.

So what does an alto saxophonist with an MFA in jazz composition have to do with Carnatic music? For Mahanthappa, born in Italy to Indian parents and raised in Boulder, Colorado, both Indian music and jazz are integral to his art. A defining moment, he explained in an interview with NPR, came after a recital at Berklee College of Music, when his brother gave him a copy of Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Gopalnath. Through alternative fingerings and modifications to his embouchure, Gopalnath had created an innovative way of playing the tonal modulations present in Carnatic music on an instrument that was not designed for that musical style. The CD, initially intended as a joke, provided a way for Mahanthappa to conceptualize bringing together his background in jazz saxophone with his interest in Indian music.

Mahanthappa’s compositions and performances likewise reflect the influences of jazz and Indian music on his work. In an interview with CapitalBop, Mahanthappa elaborated: “The core of my journey stems not only from musical interest but more from defining and describing my hybrid identity as an Indian-American. It’s always been important for me to treat both Indian music and jazz with the utmost integrity, as selling either short would be equivalent to selling my soul cheaply.”

Music

Rajna Swaminathan, Rez Abassi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, V. K. Raman, and Anjna Swaminathan in rehearsal for Song of the Jasmine with Ragamala Dance. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

“See the Music, Hear the Dance:” Bringing It All Together

The creative union of music and dance in the studio was evident in the steady back-and-forth between dancers and musicians as they composed, choreographed, and rehearsed. Bars of music were deleted and repeated, footwork clarified, and tempos adjusted—in one instance, Mahanthappa even revised a part of the composition to be played twice as fast, to match the feeling of the choreography. Throughout the rehearsal, Aparna maintained close communication with mridangam player Rajna, whose steady drumming united the rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dancer’s feet.

“See the music, hear the dance” is a philosophy fundamental to the work of Bharatanatyam master and the Ramaswamy’s teacher Alarmél Valli (it is also the name of a show by Valli). Indeed, the raga in Ragamala’s name is no coincidence: literally translated, Ragamala means “garland of ragas”—i.e. Carnatic melodic modes. Music has always been an inextricable facet of Bharatanatyam, in which footwork and melodies, rhythm and danced shapes are closely connected, whether in concordance or opposition. Additionally, the term Ragamala describes a type of medieval Indian paintings, each of which is associated with a raga, as well as a specific poetic verse—an early example of art drawing from multiple disciplines. In its first performance as a dance company, Ragamala took inspiration from these paintings and their corresponding verses and melodies, bringing them to life through dance.

Song of the Jasmine carries on the tradition of interdisciplinary work by uniting music and dance in a productive meeting of minds and creativity. The piece, and the process through which it has been created, is exemplary of the immense creative potential of the 21st century and beyond: collaboration across disciplines, states, and countries; hybridity of genres and identities; and the symbiosis of tradition and innovation.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa will perform Song of the Jasmine Thursday-Saturday, May 15–17 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 18 at 2 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Structure, Improvisation, Space, Noise: Kevin Beasley’s Sound Horizon

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on last night’s Sound Horizon performance by Kevin Beasley. Agree or […]

Kevin Beasley 2

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View Series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on last night’s Sound Horizon performance by Kevin Beasley. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

For the final Sound Horizon performance in the exhibition Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take, sculptor and sound artist Kevin Beasley gave three half-hour performances at the intersection of structure and improvisation. Kneeling on the floor in front of Jim Hodges’ breathtaking Untitled (one day it all comes true), Beasley used three turntables, a sampler, and a laptop to create immense, dynamic soundscapes.

The performance began with simple feedback drones, but eventually morphed into a dense array of arrhythmic beats, idiosyncratic melodies, and small bursts of static. These sounds then grew sparse: soft synth tones, distant vocal samples, bells and chimes were heard. For every few minutes of gentle, meditative euphoria, there was a collapse back into sheer dissonance, feedback, and static.

Though each set followed the same rough structure, improvisation played a clear role. At some points, the high and low frequency drones grew so loud that they created a binaural effect. Many people left as the volume in the Perlman Gallery became overwhelming.

Beasley did have moments of hesitance, but he is keenly aware of his use of space. Focused entirely on his equipment and the sounds being generated, he maintained intimate control of the soundscapes. In one of my favorite moments, he established a seriously head-nodding rhythm of static, and then added a vocal sample on top of it. The phrase “how can you take him too serious” looped over and over as he manipulated the turntable by hand – eliciting a few uncertain laughs from the audience.

Throughout the galleries, the sounds of the performance paired well with the artwork on display. It drew me even closer to Hodges’ intimate work. Beasley balances on the borders of analog and digital, high and low frequencies, euphoria and aggression. In a similar manner, Hodges tends to juxtapose the real and the artificial, color and monochrome, life and death. Both weave a fine line between density and sparsity. Merged together, the work of these two artists became a single visceral experience.

Roughing Up Steely Dan

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, creative leader/activist/artist Reggie Prim shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Burnt Sugar–The Arkestra Chamber.  […]

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Photo: Petra Richterova

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, creative leader/activist/artist Reggie Prim shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performance by Burnt Sugar–The Arkestra Chamber.  Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Burnt Sugar, a 17-member Afrocentric jazz/funk collective, electrified the standing-room-only crowd at the Walker Saturday night. Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions was an assertive and funky re-do of the music of this American band that borrowed heavily from jazz, rock, funk, R&B, and pop. At the end of a nearly two-hour performance the audience was on its feet demanding more. I found myself running down the aisle of the staid McGuire Theater and dancing for nearly half an hour onstage with my friends.

A focused and energetic funk “Arkestra” taking on Walter Becker and Donald Fagan’s complex and beloved repertoire produced a delightful tension between recognition and discovery. The band mined the collection for a variety of emotional effects, veering from reverential to parody. All of it was expertly performed. The rhythm section was expertly coordinated throughout the complex songs. Many of the performances were so saucy and knowing that I couldn’t help laughing out loud.

I caught sight of Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior performing arts curator, looking like he was having the time of his life. And frankly, I think he was. I was definitely experiencing one of the most memorable concerts in an age. My friend and I were enjoying ourselves loudly from the first moments. A number of eyebrows in the rows ahead of us seemed raised. I know that loud clapping, neck bobbing, and doing the Funky Sit-Down are not expected behavior at a Walker show. All I can say is that I wasn’t the only person bustin’ a move.

The band was in a word: hot. It was as if seventeen attractive people that I instantly wanted to be my friends all came out on stage together. I was forced to focus. First on Mazz Swift, the violinist and vocalist—a tall, arresting-looking woman dressed in all black with braids down to her hips playing a black electric V-shaped violin. And later, on drummer LaFrae Sci, whose intensity and metronomic precision never wavered over nearly two hours. The band is stocked with attractive and unique-looking characters who are all masters of their instruments. Of particular note for me was the vocal work of Karma Mayet and Lewis “Flip” Barnes on trumpet.

Vernon Reid conducted the band with intensity and laser focus. He also playfully pulled the audience in, encouraging singing and clapping. The party atmosphere belied a more serious artistic mission which was to, according to Reid, “Call Steely Dan out.”

“Calling a person out” is slang for surfacing someone’s hidden intentions, or challenging them to an artistic duel such as in street dancing, beat boxing, and Hip Hop. Throughout the show there was a clear sense that Vernon Reid and Co. were saying “Gimme that!” to Becker and Fagan and clearly intent on surfacing the signifiers of race and Black culture that were perhaps not so obvious in the original recordings.

The songs were accompanied by slides that showed images of cultural figures and artists from the late ’70’s and ’80’s that were “obliquely referential” to the songs. The slides also served as lighthearted interrogators of the often-coded racial signifiers in the lyrics. However, the effect was never heavy handed and only enhanced the intense pleasure of witnessing Burnt Sugar muscle in on a great American songbook.

Conduction, Community, and Good Shoes: An Interview with Burnt Sugar

“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing […]

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Vernon Reid conducts Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. Photo: Petra Richterova

“Spontaneous combustion being an occupational hazard in Gotham, Burnt Sugar is how we keep it real, surreal, arboreal, aquatic, incendiary.” —Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber

Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber is a force of nature. The band creates music in which jazz, improvisation, social critique, poetry, melody, culture, and life stories intertwine, fusing quirk and sincerity, history and innovation, improvisation and structure—creating a distinctive hybrid groove that is both highly entertaining and remarkably profound.

Burnt Sugar has been grooving in various colorful and unique iterations since its formation in 1999, when bassist Jared Michael Nickerson and writer/instrumentalist/conductor Greg Tate got together to create “a forum for the New York area impro­vi­sa­tional musi­cian to com­pose, record and per­form mate­r­ial which reflects the breadth and depth of Amer­i­can dias­poran music in the 21st cen­tury.”

On display at Burnt Sugar’s April 26 Walker performance, the group’s musical trademark is the use of “conduction,” a style of conducted improvisation developed by renowned jazz musician and composer Butch Morris. Defined by Morris as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor,” conduction involves a system of gestures and signals that act as directives for the improvising musicians—for example, creating a “U” shape with the thumb and pointer finger indicates a repeat, and moving an outstretched palm up and down controls the volume of the players.

Taking on the conduction of Burnt Sugar’s Steely Dan performance at the Walker is Vernon Reid, renowned guitarist and founder of the Grammy award–winning group Living Colour. The collaboration between Reid and Greg Tate is not new—the two have been working together at least since 1985, when they co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization that aims to create “an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music” (from the group’s manifesto).

I had the chance to learn more about Burnt Sugar through an e-mail interview with band members Ben Tyree (guitar), LaFrae Sci (drums), Karma Mayet Johnson (vocals), and Leon Gruenbaum (keyboards), facilitated by the group’s co-founder and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson. Here’s what they had to say about performing with the innovative and unparalleled Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber.

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Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber. Photo: Petra Richterova

Part of Burnt Sugar’s trademark style is using Butch Morris’ conduction system “to make every performance a fresh interpretation of its constituent parts.” What is it like rehearsing, performing, and recording “conductions”?

Ben Tyree: It’s spontaneous and engaging and can really bring things out of the musicians and into the room that nobody could have imagined.

LaFrae Sci: We don’t necessarily rehearse conductions because that’s what keeps it fresh. We rehearse songs, and the conduction happens on the fly. It’s super fun and requires one keeping their eye on the ball (conductor) at all times.

Karma Mayet Johnson: Well, playing Steely Dan or James Brown or… we’ll run a form then bust out into conduction, sometimes pass the baton. Full-on Burnt Sugar conductions, where the music is conceived and built simultaneously onstage, happen(ed) more outside the context of a “set” and go more like intergalactic transmolecularization.

Leon Gruenbaum: Jazz used to be the place where one would be spontaneous—but that field of music has become rigid. Conduction allows us to embody that spirit of not knowing what is coming next—I believe when the performers are excited on stage with that feeling of discovery, it comes across to the audience in a big way.

So what happens when Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber takes on the Steely Dan songbook?

Tyree: We have fun with it and dirty it up a bit. Most of the [original Steely Dan] records were very polished and produced so it’s exciting to take the material into a live setting where we can really do our own thing with it.

Sci: I love how Burnt Sugar is so big [17 members], and when everyone brings their flavor, the collective result often casts the material in a new and compelling light for the listener, whether they are familiar with the song or what. Also, my definition of soul is to “put ones whole self into something.” Everyone in Burnt Sugar is so soulful, and the music we make becomes exponentially soulful.

There is a lot of hybrid, genre-defying, boundary-busting, creativity going on in your music. What’s it like to create something that’s uncategorizable?

Johnson: It’s indescribable.

Tyree: Well, the question can go right back to you: what’s it like listening to something that’s uncategorizable? You’re talking about a group of people who are individually uncategorizable overtly challenging personal and creative categorization from every approachable angle in a society that imposes category. The sound is only the result of a state of mind and lifestyle that we wish to convey is available to all.

Sci: Duke Ellington used to call his music “beyond category” because he was in every way. Every member of Burnt Sugar is beyond category and exceptional in some way, hence when we come together the music is too.  We don’t set out to do this, it is what happens because we know how to surf up and down the musical tree from the spirituals into the future. If the blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruits, we are the whole damn ecosystem.

According to your website, Burnt Sugar is “a territory band, a neo-tribal thang, a community hang, a society music guild aspiring to the condition of all that is molten, glacial, racial, spacial, oceanic, mythic, antiphonal and telepathic.” It seems to me that Burnt Sugar is all about music, but not only music—what else is it about?

Tyree: It’s about a state of mind and lifestyle which the music is a result of. It’s also all about the LOVE.

Sci: Not only is Burnt Sugar about music, it’s […] a family, a tribe.  We all enjoy each other, and we can have fun anywhere, on stage, back stage, in the airport, in the van… Everywhere.

Johnson: Paramount, a democratization of vibe, a predilection for Cosmic Funk as an ontology, and good shoes.

How has Burnt Sugar changed since 1999? Where is it going in the future?

Tyree: Who knows? Why not join us for the duration of this journey and we’ll all find out together?

It seems like the members of Burnt Sugar all have some other cool projects going on. What else should I check out?

Tyree: I would recommend Googling all of our names. We all have awesome projects. Personally, I have a group called BT3 which you’d probably love.

Sci: Every member of the band is a unique artist with a project. My own band is called the 13th Amendment. We do my arrangements of Negro Spirituals, and originals (here is a link of us live in Paris). Currently I’m in Siberia rehearsing for this.

Gruenbaum: You should check out Genes and Machines, which features my “samchillian” keyboard invention. Some of our music is based on players having repeating parts which are brought in and out in a spontaneous way with conducting cues, so each performance of a piece is an improvisation, structurally.

Johnson: #ROOTWOMAN Karma Mayet Johnson.  I describe it as Burnt Sugar vocal member dropping 21st century Roots music.

Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber performs Any World That I’m Welcome To: The Steely Dan Conductions on Saturday, April 26, at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

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