Cecilia Whalen


Assistant dance professor organizes festival in India

Whoever is first to arrive in the Srjan dance studio in Odisha, East India has to sweep the floor. After waking up, eating breakfast and tying her sari, Assistant Professor of Dance Kaustavi Sarkar was often the one to do it. She would head to the studio, pick up the broom that rested by the door and clear the space before the first class of the day began.

“That ritual of sweeping the floor in the morning is so grounding,” Sarkar said. “It’s a meditative exercise. It’s also gratifying in the sense that you are making space for yourself as well as welcoming others.”

Sarkar would sweep to pay homage to herself, to the space, to the other dancers and to the ancestors of the East Indian classical dance form she practices, Odissi. She would remember, in particular, that where she was sweeping happened to be one of the same studios used by dance legend Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, the man who revived and popularized Odissi and founded Srjan.  

On Jan. 2, Sarkar helped produce a festival in celebration of what would have been Mohapatra’s 93rd birthday (he died in 2004). The festival, entitled “Antardrishti,” loosely translated as “Soul Vision,” was held in Calcutta, West Bengal, India at the Uttam Mancha (auditorium) and was a collaboration between Sarkar, Srjan and Odissi dancers throughout India. It featured Srjan’s professional ensemble, duets and soloists, including Sarkar herself.

“It’s a way of commemorating the history and artistry of the Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and the histories of the development of Odissi over time,” Sarkar said. “I’m more of a collaborator/producer of the event; I’m playing multiple roles.”

Before working at UNC Charlotte, Sarkar was a student and later a teacher at Srjan, as well as a dancer in their traveling professional ensemble. There she found an institution that would captivate her for the rest of her life.

“Srjan integrated my life into a way that everything was connected,” Sarkar said.

Photo Courtesy of Roopachitram Debojyoti Dhar Photography

Srjan is unique in the fact that students studying at the school, as well as professionals working in the ensemble, not only dance at the institution but live there as well.

“My work was upstairs in the studio, and my life was downstairs,” Sarkar said.

Sarkar slept in the room of Laxmipriya Mohapatra, one of the first female Odissi dancers who was Mohapatra’s artistic partner, wife and mother of his children.  

“They were so kind to open up their home and their kitchen and their lives to an outsider, a stranger like me who has no familial ties with them. But that is the practice of this apprenticeship, where you really embed yourself in a day to day, all the time learning exercise,” Sarkar said.   

Dancing at Srjan was much like an apprenticeship, an up-close shadowing of teachers and mentors.

“Learning is not restricted to the studio,” she said. “Learning happens when you’re driving with your teacher; learning happens when you’re cleaning the dishes in the morning; learning happens when you’re cleaning the studio right before everybody enters.

Of course, dancing at Srjan wasn’t always a fairy tale. The intensive and immersive environment sometimes lent to a strict hand in training.

“There are horror stories, where if you make a mistake the stick comes flying at you,” Sarkar said. “But conservatory training was never meant to be coddling.”

Now her life has changed. She earned a Ph.D. at The Ohio State University and is a full-time academic at UNC Charlotte, teaching courses in Foundations in Dance and Dance Appreciation. She also teaches technique courses in Odissi, making UNC Charlotte’s dance program the only one in the state to offer the classical Indian art form as part of its curriculum.

But much like how her cleaning and sweeping taught her about dancing then, her current work in academia has continued to influence her ideas about dancing. Through the festival, “Antardrishti,” Sarkar attempted to both celebrate historical and contemporary Odissi dance, presenting some of Mohapatra’s classic works as well as original works by current choreographers, and bring in some of her current research, which focuses on digital humanities, cultural studies, queer studies and religious studies.

Photo Courtesy of Roopachitram Debojyoti Dhar Photography

“Sometimes the conversation gets limited between scholars or just between artists,” Sarkar said. She wanted to merge the two.

Before and after the festival, Sarkar helped sponsor “queer cafes,” spaces in which artists and scholars could come together to discuss gender, sexuality, politics and whatever else they wanted.

Sarkar used the dances presented to spark some of these conversations. For example, one piece, a duet choreographed by Mohapatra’s son, Ratikant Mohapatra, the current artistic director of Srjan, featured him and another dancer, Rajiv Bhattacharya. The piece, entitled “Bali Badh” (The Slaying of the Evil), was danced by two men; Sarkar used these kinds of instances to ask: What are the relationships between two male bodies? How has it changed through time?

Along with social and political questions, Sarkar is also interested in architecture and its relationship with dance. Odissi originated in the 12th century and was shaped by Hindu temples. Now in the 21st century, how might Odissi be changing with current uses of architecture and space?

“Temple sculpture has such a deep conversation with Indian classical dance,” Sarkar said. “[In their aesthetics and shape] they keep borrowing from each other.”

Sarkar’s own solo addressed these topics as well. She is interested in deconstructing Odissi, investigating its origins, its connotations and its aesthetics by closely examining the details in movement in relation to their historical context. What parts of Odissi technique reflect a patriarchal society? How does Odissi treat different genders? What are the influences of the old temple dancers and their lives?

“Deconstruction is way of undoing but not ripping it apart,” Sarkar said. “The values are embedded.”

She hopes to further connect her current work at UNC Charlotte to her former work at Srjan, continuing and even extending the reach of Mohapatra’s lineage.

Sarkar hopes to involve her students, as well with a plan to create some sort of study abroad program between Srjan and UNC Charlotte in the future.

“What is really special in that institution is the effects of years of nurturing towards dance,” she said. “Dance is sort of a worshiping mechanism. Every class there is always a reminiscing of lineage, of past. My hope is to open up this experience to the students where it’s more of an exchange across culture.”

Sarkar conducts an event on campus discussing some of these topics with a visiting professor from Kingston University, Dr. Elena Catalano, on May 3 and 4 in Robinson Hall room 118.

Best Songs of 2018 as Selected by A&E Writers

Album art courtesy of Tessa Violet.

Elissa Miller

4. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” by the “Mary Poppins Returns” Cast: If there was a machine that you could throw your interests in to create a new product, the entirety of the movie “Mary Poppins Returns” would be my result. A sequel to one of my favorite movies? Check. Lin-Manuel Miranda as a character reminiscent of Bert the Chimney Sweep, my first childhood crush? Check. London as a backdrop for musical theater? You got it. While the movie is not a perfect film, “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a practically-perfect song and dance number. Clearly mirroring “Step In Time” from the first film, this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (and the movie’s) biggest number. It absolutely screams classic musical theater in both sound and design. Honestly, this felt extremely cathartic, because while I’ve loved the recent resurgence of musical films, they’ve generally failed to truly recapture that signature style. The dancing is absolutely breathtaking. The song is catchy and upbeat. Lin-Manuel Miranda looks like he is literally made of sunshine. I cried.

3. “Burn the House Down” by AJR: AJR crafted a perfect album with “The Click” in 2017. It was hard to imagine that adding anything could improve it, yet “The Click (Delux Edition)” somehow managed to do so when it included four new songs. While I’m a fan of generally every new addition, this the absolute best of them. It is a loud, angry anthem that reflects on Twitter and modern-day protest culture, while still being able to function as a dance track. The band allowed it to be used in conjunction with the March for Our Lives movement earlier this year. Everything about it, from the musical style (the horns in this are GREAT) to the lyrics, is compelling. More songs like this in 2019, please.

2. “Bad Ideas” by Tessa Violet: While Tessa Violet made waves with her other release, “Crush,” this year, I’m quite partial to this second song. One of many musicians to first find their audience on YouTube, Violet has continuously grown as an artist to create a signature style. This is incredibly clear with “Bad Ideas,” which stands out among indie-pop releases for its unique sound. Lyrically, it explores the concept of falling for someone you really don’t want to, while sounding upbeat and light as a musical piece. The music video for this is also a great time and uses color in one of the best ways I’ve ever seen. Violet will continue releasing her new album as singles in 2019; I’m incredibly excited to see how it evolves.

1. “Everybody’s Lonely” by Jukebox the Ghost: I definitely link songs to specific times and places in my life. “Everybody’s Lonely,” off Jukebox the Ghost’s fifth album, “Off To The Races,” was the distinct soundtrack of my study abroad trip in the spring. I listened to it during bus commutes, while stuck in airports and when typing papers at the very last minute. It is extremely fun to listen and sing along to, yet it is also complex musically. It uses a number of instruments and vocal layering; soundwise it is largely reminiscent of the band Queen. I cannot recommend it enough.

Photo courtesy of Sony Classical Records.

Noah Howell

4. “Spidey-Bells (A Hero’s Lament) by Chris Pine: “Into the Spider-Verse” was one of my favorite films of the year, and is easily the best animated feature of 2018. The whole ride is a spidey-bonanza, and waiting into the credits was worth the wait for this song alone. Chris Pine is hilarious here and he gives me the Spider-Man Christmas song I never knew I actually needed. This song, along with the album I discovered on Spotify after the movie, will be a staple in my Christmas playlist for years to come.

3. “Shockwave” by Elena Siegman: Easter egg songs are a staple within every zombies map in the “Call of Duty: Black Ops” series, and many of these, like “Shockwave,” are written by Kevin Sherwood and performed by Elena Siegman. There is a reason for this: simply because the duo is fantastic. Siegman’s vocal performance is always stellar, and while the lyrics take a bit to wrap your head around, her job on the song here is no different. I don’t usually find myself listening to much heavy rock/metal like this song, but perhaps it’s just a great backdrop to the actual gameplay of killing zombies that makes it work so well.

2. “That’s The Way it is” by Daniel Lanois: The score within “Red Dead Redemption 2” is already phenomenal, but the best moments of the game are the long, reflective horse rides which come after key story beats and feature songs from a variety of different artists. This song comes towards the game’s climax and is the perfect beat to go alongside the penultimate moment of the player’s journey. I can’t give away too much without risk of spoiling the game, but the song is right at home at this particular moment and is one that will stick with me for a while. 

1. “Kitster’s Song” by Trevor Moore: When a friend first suggested this song to me, I was on board right from hearing the title. A song about Anakin Skywalker’s somewhat obscure friend in “The Phantom Menace” who had only a handful of lines? Count me in. The song straddles the line of being outright hilarious and emotional all at once, with Moore singing from the point of view of Kitster years after his appearance on-screen, reminiscing on what his childhood friend — now Darth Vader — is doing these years later. I had never listened to Moore before this, but one thing is for certain, he knows his “Star Wars.” Parodies of “Star Wars” songs usually rely on simply changing up the lyrics of an already popular song, but Moore creates an entirely new song on his own for Kitster and it is a great one.

Album art for “EVERYTHING IS LOVE” courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment.

Breanna Herring

4. “Sauce All On Me” by CoCa Vango: Another song to contribute to my high self-esteem! This song raps about containing the sauce. “Sauce” is used to describe someone who has a style, confidence and attraction about them.

3. “Nice” by The Carters: Let’s be honest, The Carters are black royalty. This song serves as a confidence boost for me and motivates me to be successful. Some of the lyrics highlight how African Americans are told that they can do anything in America, but racism and inequality challenge the belief.

2. “Wasted Love Freestyle” by Jhené AikoThis song hit close to home for me. The song describes how sometimes our energy and love are not reciprocated back to us in a relationship. We find ourselves realizing that we wasted our time and energy on someone who was incapable of loving us the way we wanted to be loved.

1. “CPR” by Summer Walker: I adore Summer Walker and can completely relate to her and her music. The song “CPR” is a metaphor describing the artist’s lover. She characterizes his love as air bringing her back to life because she’s been misunderstood and alone for so long.

Album art for “Let’s Go Sunshine” courtesy of Lonely Cat Records.

Tyler Trudeau

4. “All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA: As Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’ erupted onto the screen as one of 2018’s biggest movies, the soundtrack, curated by hip-hop icon Kendrick Lamar, also made waves as it brought some of the top names in hip-hop together to showcase the massive influence of the superhero hit. Featuring the likes of The Weeknd, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Future, the song that comes to my mind first lies in the Lamar and SZA team-up “All the Stars.” With it kicking off the end credits for the blockbuster film, the rhythmic ballad of SZA mixed with Lamar’s rap inklings remains one of the top tracks from the soundtrack.

3. ”Holy” by King Princess: One of the most enigmatic new artists I uncovered this year was Brooklyn native Mikaela Strauss, or as her fans know her, King Princess. A multi-instrumentalist with soulful vocals to match the atmospheric synth melodies that run behind her, Strauss has already made a name for herself as the next bold revolutionary in the queer-pop genre. As a proud member of the LGBTQ community, the artist has expertly carved her way to the top as one of the most promising new artists out there. While her early hit “1950” might have won the hearts of fellow artists Harry Styles, Halsey and Mark Ronson, her somewhat haunting track “Holy” off her debut EP echoes with sonic nuance and cinematic flair.

2. “No Pressure” by The Kooks: After grappling onto other alternative rock groups like Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, the unique sound of English band The Kooks quickly drew me into a similar fascination into their more recent releases. While their hit 2006 track “Naive” made for a worthy song to lodge itself eternally within my brain, I didn’t initially pick up their later records until this year’s “Let’s Go Sunshine.” With the rest of the record offering a foot-tapping catalog of drunken nights and unrequited affections, the closing number of “No Pressure” perfectly captures the ease and joys of a new relationship.

1. “Superposition” by Young the Giant: Easily one of my most anticipated albums of the year, the latest record from indie rock outfit Young the Giant kicked off with a trio of sensational, cinematic and undeniably catchy tracks. Escorting us effortlessly into their newest collection of soul-searching tunes of lost love, adrift ambitions and super-sonic melodies, the best of the trio in ‘Superposition’ shows off the band’s talented and atmospheric instrumentals, as well as the dreamy vocal nuances of frontman Sameer Gadhia.   

Album art for “Joy As An Act Of Resistance” courtesy of Partisan Records.

Aaron Febre

4. “One Point Perspective” by Arctic Monkeys: It was pretty difficult to pick one track off the new Arctic Monkeys album as I was thoroughly impressed with the overall product. This song takes the cake due to the wonderful layering of instrumentation, Alex Turner’s witty and observable lyricism as well as one of his best vocal performances. Plus, this reminds me of the 1970s for inexplicable reasons.

3. “Baby I’m Bleeding” by JPEGMAFIA: Released in January, JPEGMAFIA’s “Veteran” is one of the most exciting and intense albums of the year. “Baby I’m Bleeding” shows JPEGMAFIA’s fierce flow that is backed-up with an abrasive production that will leave your jaws dropped. Go ahead and play this, you won’t find another hip-hop track (or album) of this year that as fierce as this one.

2. “Dilemma” by Death Grips: As if all of their music wasn’t crazy enough, Death Grips returned with an even crazier album that made their previous work look more accessible. Out of my favorites from “Year of the Snitch,” “Dilemma” is my favorite for various reasons. Spoken word by Andrew Adamson (the director of “Shrek”), MC Ride screaming “DILEMMA!”, the video-game synthesizer and too many things that are incomprehensible to digest even for a fan of Death Grips.

1. “I’m Scum” by Idles: English Punk band Idles returned with a new album (“Joy As An Act of Resistance”) that is catchier and angrier than their 2017 album, “Brutalism.” This track encompasses the overall sound of the new album: Joe Talbot’s gruff voice, the steady and danceable rhythm, dirty guitars, a chorus that drunk soccer (or football) fans can sing along to, and the theme of “say what you want, I don’t care” in the lyrics make this song a favorite.

Artwork for “TINTS” courtesy of Aftermath/12 Tone Music LLC.

Cecilia Whalen

4. “Bring Me Love” by John Legend: Yeah, it’s a Christmas song. I get it; Christmas is over. But I love John Legend, so I take what I can get. He definitely has one of the most beautiful voices of this generation, and this song is upbeat, well-arranged, and of course, well-sung.

3.“TINTS (feat. Kendrick Lamar)” by Anderson .Paak: I don’t think there’s anything smart I can say about this song, but it’s just fun to sing along and dance to, OK? Plus Kendrick Lamar is featured on it, so you know it’s gotta be a win.

2. “1985” by J. Cole: I love J. Cole’s voice and basically every song he’s done. This song is kind of a diss track to all those who have come out dissing him, but Cole doesn’t just cuss them out and be done with it. Cole warns them about the harm their attitudes and their lifestyles are causing themselves and others — and he doesn’t sound like a bully or a punk defending his own pride. Really, he sounds like a big brother looking out for the hip-hop community, while peppered with the occasional big brother boast.

1. “Brackets” by J. Cole: J. Cole knows how to use rhythm. While a lot of rappers tend to repeat a similar rhythmic pattern, triplet and sixteenth after triplet and sixteenth, Cole masters syncopation. This matched with his poetry creates a whole album of reflection and creativity, and “Brackets” is the climax of both of these musical attributes.

Album art for “Love” courtesy of Reprise Records.

Mayra Trujilo-Camacho

4. “Taki Taki” by Selena Gomez, Ozuna, Cardi B and DJ Snake: It’s a song I can dance to that has a mix of Spanish and English.

3. “Money” by Cardi B: I just think it’s a very catchy song and even a good workout song. It’s very hype.

2. “Scripted” by ZAYN: This song comes from his second album “Icarus Falls,” after leaving One Direction in 2015.  It is a love song with a creative melody and nice chill R&B background.

1. “Love You Anymore” by Michael Bublé: From his new album “Love,” which was released two years after his son was diagnosed with liver cancer. “Love You Anymore” is a very beautiful song. It’s more of a song to forget your ex, but it just has a very nice melody and aesthetic.

Album art for “CARE FOR ME” courtesy of Saba Pivot, LLC.

Arik Miguel

4. Shoota (feat. Lil Uzi Vert)” by Playboi Carti: When I listen to this song, I know that half of what I’m singing is my incorrect decipherings of Uzi and Carti’s mumble rapping. The other half of the lyrics have about as much depth as the line “money on the floor just like some shoes,” but maybe that’s not a bad thing. “Shoota” is fun just for the sake of being fun, and that’s really all we could have asked of these two besties in 2018.

3. “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra: This is one the most gleefully infectious songs I have heard in a long time. “Hunnybeehas the power to evoke the childhood joy that comes from somersaulting down a grassy hill.

2. “PROM / KING” by Saba: “CARE FOR ME” is Saba’s greatest album yet, and “PROM / KING” is its emotional peak. The seven and a half minute song builds up slowly until Saba is rapping at breakneck speed, describing his cousin’s untimely death. Saba has always had an incredible gift for storytelling, but he’s never told his story as breathtakingly as this.

1. “Noid” by Yves Tumor: Yves Tumor intertwines beauty and violence in an incredibly jarring and exciting way. “Noid” is unlike any song I have heard in my life. Almost as if you asked an alien to compose a song about police brutality.


Listen to the music featured in this article via the Spotify playlist below!

Free fallin’: A Profile With Student Aerial Dancer

Junior Krysta Rogden is only five-foot-three, but on Thanksgiving Day, she could have been dunking with Yao Ming. Rogden was a stilt-walker in the Novant Health Thanksgiving Day Parade, which made her about the height of the seven-foot-six basketball player. It’s not everyday one gets to stilt-walk, but as an apprentice with the aerial and contemporary dance company Caroline Calouche & Co., Rogden gets many opportunities to hang out above the ground.

“Aerial,” according to Rogden, refers to any “act or dance that is done off the ground.”

“So, we have aerial silks, trapeze, aerial rope, aerial hoop,” Rogden said. “At Caroline’s, we try to mix aerial and dance.”

Rogden is a dance major; her interest in aerial rooted in this love for dance.

“I was a part of a half recreational/half competition dance studio in high school, and as part of ‘broadening our horizons,’ we took a master class at Caroline’s,” Rogden said. “Caroline Calouche [the owner and founder] performed a solo to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ It was so beautiful…it was dance and aerial combined, not just a circus act, and, to me, it was just so moving. So I started to get involved more over the summer.”

After Rogden’s studio disbanded, she looked for a new place to continue dancing and immediately thought of Caroline Calouche & Co. She danced there as a student from 2014 to 2015 and was part of their Youth Ensemble.

“After I graduated, I could no longer be in the Youth Ensemble, but Caroline was still interested in me as a dancer,” Rogden said. “She saw I was still sticking around in the Charlotte area, so she asked me if I wanted to take on a role in ‘Clara’s Trip’ [the company’s version of the Nutcracker ballet] that year.”

Calouche had also been speaking with Dance Department Chair Dr. Ann Dils about bringing aerial to UNC Charlotte and wanted to see if Rogden could participate in a test-run partnership. An apprenticeship with the company would work like an independent study at school.  

“She kind of needed me to be a guinea pig to see how that would work out,” Rogden said. “Last fall was when I did the first apprenticeship with her.”

Rogden began training over the summer while attending Caroline Calouche & Co.’s annual summer intensive. As the apprenticeship began, Rogden started attending rehearsals two to three times per week, sometimes as much as seven to 10 hours per week.  

“So the apprenticeship entails attending all the training. Also, I had to keep a journal of all the rehearsals, so after every rehearsal, I had to write a reflection — any notes and any corrections — which was a good device for my progress,” Rogden said. “I had a mid-semester meeting with Caroline and Ann to just talk about the progress, and then I had a final meeting where I turned in my journals and then a reflection at the end.”

Whether rehearsing or just training, Rogden does some sort of aerial and dance work every day. Especially for aerial, Rogden said, even a few days can set you behind.

“If I don’t do my pushups in three days, I can feel it,” Rogden said.

Aerial-style training includes yoga, cardio workouts such as running, and lots of abdominal workouts to start. After this warmup, the dancers then go into upper-body work.

“So then we go into climbing the silks,” Rogden said. “We can do climbing to the top — one hand then move your feet (basically like climbing a rope in gym class) — and then we progress and do inverting, where you start with your legs and hook them on the silks. It’s a lot of abs and little muscles that you wouldn’t think to use.”

Rogden will perform in this year’s performance of “Clara’s Trip,” which will take place at the Booth Playhouse Dec. 7 through 9. She will perform the role of lead monkey, leading some younger Youth Ensemble monkeys. The monkey role involves static trapeze work that is different from flying trapeze which is often seen in circus acts. UNCC alum Marcia Fresquez will also be performing in the role of the fish.

Next semester, Rogden will continue her apprenticeship and be in two more company pieces. She will continue the apprenticeship into next year. After graduation, she has been asked by Calouche to continue working as a full-company member, but as of yet, Rogden is not sure about her future plans.

“I definitely would love to continue performing, but I’m also thinking about graduate school as well,” Rogden said. “But I definitely want to continue in aerial.”

Rogden feels that aerial draws together audiences of all interests, working not only as a concert art form, but as a form of community engagement.

“People are looking to see things at the next level,” Rogden said. “And the next level is literally in the air.”

INTERVIEW: A Q&A with Rachel Secrest of Jessica Lang Dance

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a professional dancer? Blumenthal Performing Arts hosted the New York City-based contemporary dance company Jessica Lang Dance on Nov. 12. Here are some edited excerpts from an interview with JLD dancer Rachel Secrest, who discusses the role of the dancer, what it’s like dancing for Bessie Award-winning choreographer Jessica Lang and the time she and the company met singer Tony Bennett.

What is the everyday routine of a dance professional?

So basically, it’s a full-time job. We work 10 to six regular hours, usually Monday through Friday or Monday through Saturday, when we’re just rehearsing. When we’re touring, it gets a little more complicated. We’re spending 24 hours a day at work. We’re usually in a city for three or four days. When we have a show day, we’re in the theatre all day; we’re tech-ing from about noon to five, and then we have a dinner break, and then we get ready for the show and do the show, and then on to next city. And we do some outreach in the cities as well. For the most part, it’s just a regular full-time job.

What is unique about dancing for Jessica Lang’s company?

It is a very unique company. The first time that I stepped in the room with the company…the thing that got me was the atmosphere of the room. It was very small, but it was very warm and open and welcoming. There were a lot of dancers that had been dancing for her for a very long time. There was a maturity in the room that really drew me to it. These dancers here were really invested in Jessica’s work specifically, since she’s the one creating all the work for the company. It was just very tangible that everyone believed in the work, and once I got to be a part of the work, I kind of understood that. She’s done this amazing job of curating this atmosphere of maturity and growth. It’s just good vibes in the room, ya know? And that was what really set her apart, just the moment I walked in, the very second that I stepped in the room. So that was really cool, to know that immediately.

Could you talk about the creation process?

It’s one of the funnest [sic] parts of being a dancer. It’s really just a lot of playing. Sometimes I just walk out of the room after the creation process and I’m just so amazed that my job is just kind of this crazy, we-just-played-all-day kind of thing.

It starts from a place of improvisation…we play a lot of games. Jessica will create rules for a structured game and she’ll give us tasks to do and she’ll play music and we’ll just kind of go around and improvise for a long time — sometimes we’ll do it all day. She’ll have something in the back of her mind that she’s going for and we don’t exactly know what that goal is, and that kind of allows us to influence [the piece] in that way. She’ll see something and go ‘well, ya know, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of that, but now I see it and I like it.’ So it’s a lot of back and forth at the beginning between us and Jessica. We get a lot of influence in the piece, which is very cool, and once she starts to see things that she likes and things that make sense to her, she’ll start structuring it and somehow it just comes together. It’s almost out of nowhere. All of a sudden it comes together, and I see it and I’m like ‘Wow! She was building it all the time.’

Photo courtesy of Jessica Lang Dance.

What is your favorite piece to perform?

I don’t know…maybe the Tony Bennett piece (‘This Thing Called Love’). It’s just so fun to perform and it’s easy to get lost in the character…and it goes by so quickly that you kind of forget that you’re onstage and performing and you’re just kind of in the moment having a lot of fun.

We met [Tony Bennett]. It was very cool. We performed the piece for him in a private showing and he was just all smiles and loving it. His whole team and his wife was there as well. There were tears and laughter…it was just very, very cool.

What are some of your goals in performing and what are some of Jessica Lang’s? Are there specific themes that overlap?

Each piece is very individual. There’s not an overarching theme that she’s going for, besides just being true to her and her style. I think that every piece has the ability to stand alone; it’s strong enough to be on any program, which is cool. Like, “Thousand Yard Stare” is about war and veterans…and it has a powerful impact. And then there’s “Glow,” which is meant to really just be a fun, pick-me-up piece playing with lighting. So she just has all these ideas and each piece is true to its own idea, but the ideas are very different and that’s what makes the program so diverse and such a great program.

Personally, as I perform, my goal is honesty, which is kind of one of the hardest things I’ve found. My ultimate goal is just to make sure that the work is reading the way Jessica wants it to be reading, stay true to the intention of the piece and make sure the piece as a whole is reading correctly. But beyond that, personally, I try to find my connection to the pieces as honestly as I can, and hopefully, the audience can connect to that…I think when a performer is honest, an audience can read that, so that’s what I strive for and I think that’s also what Jessica strives for and [what] we all strive for as artists. I think that’s the most powerful and compelling part of art.

What does it mean to be honest in your work?

It is hard to explain. I think in any art, it’s easy to go over the top…and go very far with it. So there’s a process of reeling back a little bit and finding the message within yourself…[in] all art, we can find a personal connection…you can find a story that connects you to a similar feeling, and that’s what I try to do, is find a personal connection that is true to me and also honors the work.

Dancers perform “Thousand Yard Stare.” Photo by Robert Torres.

Can you talk a little bit about some of the personal connections that have contributed to this work?

So, for example, “Thousand Yard Stare” is a piece we’re doing in Charlotte…it’s about war and those affected by war. Jessica talked to a lot of veterans through the process of making the piece. She did this project where she got in touch with a friend who was an active service member and got in touch with the unit. She had them do this exercise where they just listened to the music that we danced to and she had them draw…just draw black ink on white paper…she didn’t give them any other prompt but ‘what did they feel?’ And then our costume designer took those drawings and transferred them to textile and we wear those on the back of our shirts, so we each have an individual story that’s really real and tangible so we actually carry them through the piece.

What is special about dance?

[There’s] something about being in the moment. It’s not an artwork that will then be hanging in a museum. You have to be there; you have to be present. That makes it special as a performer and as an audience member…there’s something so different about being there in the moment. There’s so much that could go wrong; so many people going into it. It’s fleeting. It’s gone as soon as it happens.

Featured photo by Christopher Duggan.

UNC Charlotte Center City hosts renowned artist Refik Anadol

On Oct. 30, UNC Charlotte Center City hosted Turkish-born artist Refik Anadol for “The Poetics of Data,” a discussion of his newest work, “Interconnected,” sponsored by the Arts and Science Council. Anadol is a big deal; a renowned digital media artist, he’s been recognized many times by publications as prestigious as the LA and New York Times and has received numerous awards and fellowships. He credits his success to his collaborators, teachers, audiences and maybe most importantly, the movie “Blade Runner.”

Anadol recently created a 2,147 square-foot work for the Charlotte Douglas International Airport called “Interconnected.” The work is comprised of four digital-media art pieces displayed on huge LED boards. “Interconnected” not only occupies a large amount of space, but moves in the space as well. Some pieces appear rippling like waves, others almost like milkshakes; like a spoon moving a thick and creamy liquid.

The idea all started when Anadol was seven and saw the movie “Blade Runner.” Fascinated by the way walls and buildings displayed thought and the way technology made everything animated, Anadol was inspired to make this fictional universe a reality.

“[I wanted to] let the building dream,” Anadol said.

After studying at the University of California at Los Angeles, Anadol began to develop a method of art-making using data. Data is collected and compiled and then, using an algorithm, is transformed into moving shapes, colors and forms. With this method established, Anadol turned to his fantasy of catching the dreams of buildings. For example, in the case of the airport, Anadol and a team of about 12 other people set up six computers to collect all the data that ran through the airport: flight times and delays, number of people, baggage transport, etc. Next, the data was analyzed for patterns, algorithms were created and, with a little bit more work too complicated to explain in this article, moving art was made. Data from a building is like all the information that goes through our brains; Anadol uses it to express the emotions and reactions of the space like human beings do through action.  

“There is pulse in data,” Anadol said. “Each set of data has its own character.”

This data is frozen, so it is not reacting to the airport’s every movement, but it is recycled every 90 days and replaced by new data, keeping the artwork growing and adapting like a person. Anadol views the work as a work-in-process and hopes that, with developing technology, the piece will one day represent data even more frequently, live instead of frozen.

Refik Anadol. Photos courtesy of Refik Anadol and the Arts and Science Council.

Now, while travelers curse the airlines, they can ponder what the airport is thinking back. At its enormous size, “Interconnected” is hard to miss and now surely thousands of travelers have seen it, wondering if the airport is sympathizing with them or laughing at them. But Anadol hopes that instead of this, travelers will just look.

“I hope they don’t worry about what it means,” Anadol said.

Anadol figures upon first glance, viewers probably try to analyze the art.

“But then they go ‘ahhh,’” Anadol said, and give up on trying to understand a meaning. They instead experience the piece and notice how cool it is. One of Anadol’s main points about his works is that they are meant to make the invisible visible. Walls often go unnoticed, and the data inside them certainly does. Anadol and his team bring these invisible aspects to the forefront of a space, giving life to it and inspiring audiences to search for the unnoticed details in life.

If you find these investigations interesting, a similarly themed work, the exhibit currently in the Storrs gallery, “SEE-ING,” is available through Nov. 16. Like “Interconnected,” the exhibit explores notions of the unnoticed, the influence of technology on today’s world and architecture that speaks.  

“Interconnected” was commissioned by the city, led by the Public Art Commission of the Arts and Science Council. Public art brings people together, Anadol says, people of all sorts, coming and going and in between. The role of the artist, according to Anadol, is to bring people together and to get them to use their imaginations. So then, when you go see the newest addition to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, what should you think? Well, first, don’t think anything. Just look at it. But then, appreciate the space, think about those things or people that go unseen and use your imagination. Think about the possibilities of art and technology. Think about your seven-year-old thoughts, like those of the seven-year-old Anadol watching “Blade Runner” in awe and imagining his future.

Songs of Mourning and of Light

The University Chorale presented “‘The Sweet By & By:’ Choral Reflections on Death” Oct. 15 in Robinson Hall. In a moving and intimate performance, they showed the power of music in times of trial and its ability to bring people together.

Before the concert began, the stage lights were up on a single piano, center stage with no player. Whether purposeful or not, it was a powerful image that recognized the loss of former UNC Charlotte accompanist, Gregory Underwood, who passed away last December. In the program notes, the University Chorale remembered Underwood as a “long-time collaborator and friend.”  

The concert consisted of three stages dealing with death, each continuing into the next with no pause or applause between.

The first stage was “Loss & Grief,” beginning with two pieces by Bach. An accompanist on piano, Erin Palmer, began the first piece but soon dropped out, leaving the choir (directed by Randy Haldeman) singing “Come sweet death, come blessed rest!” a cappella. Before listening, the audience had the opportunity to read in the back of the program the names of the lost ones that Chorale members wanted to remember. Some of the names were probably grandparents or aunts or uncles; a striking number were children. In the first stage, the concert hall resonated with mourning, that of the performers, the audience and Bach himself. Everyone in that room, like everyone in the world, had experienced death. Although we may not have ever spoken about it to one other, strangers as we were, in those moments, we all knew the same thing. There was song, and we were one.

University Chorale. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

Stage two was a surprise. It started quietly but quickly moved to forte on the word “Blow!” of Kirke Mecham’s “Blow Ye the Trumpet.” The Chorale performed excellently here and throughout, always on pitch and with great power in the soft as well as the strong sections. The only thing that would add to this wonderful group would be just a few more men (who were significantly outnumbered). At times, there could have been just a little more bass.

Suddenly, we were all moving into acceptance. Things became brighter, and in an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” (one of the best songs ever written), we started to see some light. While in stage one, the audience mainly sat in meditative silence while the second (“Acceptance”) and third (“Peace”) stages practically invited the audience to sing along and dance.

Soloist Ivey Cherry lit up the stage with the spiritual “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin.” Suddenly, the light was there before us; there was something we all knew and all felt. It was a shared experience that only music could bring, because it can’t be explained just in words. If someone got up and recited even those same lyrics, it would not have had the same effect as Cherry singing out with a choir behind him.

University Chorale. Photo by Pooja Pasupula.

Especially after this piece, you could feel the audience struggling to hold its applause, but there was still one more song left. Soloist Chrystle Mactal, supported by the Chorale, serenaded “In The Sweet By and By” as the performance ended back in peaceful meditation.

There’s nothing like a group of people bound together in song. Something about it is so honest and true. There’s a trust in the group. When singing, you must trust that everyone around you will keep singing just as you are and will end when you end. The audience picks up on this trust and so we trust the singers too. And we are so thankful to them for singing to us because we can’t always sing ourselves, but we can always listen. So we are brought together, in hard times and in good, through music, and somehow, while singing or listening to feelings that we can’t explain anyway else, we are lifted up out of our grief and one step closer to peace.


Why We Still Watch “Fancy Free”

Charlotte Ballet presented “Fall Works” Oct. 11-13. Three pieces made up the program, two by contemporary choreographers and one, the classic “Fancy Free,” by Jerome Robbins.

Resident choreographer Sasha Janes presented “Facsimile,” a narrative piece that took place in a carnival to music of the same name by Leonard Bernstein (whose centennial is being celebrated this year throughout the world). The Charlotte Symphony provided live accompaniment for this as well as for “Fancy Free.” The story consisted of an outcast and a dreamer who were swept up into the magic of a circus. Once the protagonists entered the circus, the piece picked up. The movement was interesting and each character had his/her own personality matched with a unique, colorful costume. In fact, after the circus scene was revealed, the narrative (which already was a little unclear) seemed unnecessary. While Bernstein’s melodies often evoke a story, this particular music was not as melodic and thus didn’t require one. Without narrative, the piece could have certainly existed on its own.

Visiting French choreographer Mehdi Walerski created “Petite Ceremonie,” a complex, multi-layered piece that investigated “life in a box.” The piece messed with unison and sporadicity; at moments, the dancers all did the same thing in a single file line or in a clump and then abruptly they would all move differently. Some movement was very technical and intricate, while some movement was like dancing in the club (they did the Nae Nae). Sometimes, the dancers were in earnest, while at others, they talked amongst themselves like at a party. Even once, they pointed at the audience and laughed uproariously. The piece explored different planes of space and time, even at one point having a dancer, while juggling, speak to the audience about the differences between the wirings of the male and female brains.

Dancers perform “Facsimile.” Photo courtesy of Jeff Cravotta.

Finally, but actually first on the program, Charlotte Ballet produced Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” in celebration of both Robbins’ and Bernstein’s centennial (both were 26 at the time of the premiere). The piece is about three sailors who are on leave for one night only in New York City. Their main pursuit? Women.

The piece premiered in 1944 and it’s easy to see that it is an aged piece. The sailors harass and catcall the women who eventually are flattered and head back to a bar with the sailors. With only two women to divide among the men, the sailors each try to win one of their hearts by performing his own characteristic solo. Kipling Houston, a former dancer of Robbins at the New York City Ballet and who staged the piece for Charlotte Ballet, declared the piece “now, a complete period piece.” But even now that its narrative has aged, more than 70 years later, the piece continues to be performed all over the world and is considered a classic ballet. Parts of it have not stood the test of time, yet as a whole, it remains. Why?

Undoubtedly, it has to do with the music. Bernstein’s score can be upbeat but also touching and Robbins’ choreography plays with every single accent. The two worked closely together in the creation of the piece, meeting many times in person and, when Robbins was on tour with the New York City Ballet, exchanging witty and thoughtful letters to continue the process. Within the silly narrative of boys chasing girls are wonderful melodies that Robbins translates into movement. Bernstein’s tunes are ones easy to relate to; the audience latches onto the music and we are left humming it hours after it is over. And Robbins, mixing jazz, tap, ballet, mime and social dance (groundbreaking for its time), reflects this accessibility. We recognize moves in the dance like handshakes, hugs and dances that we do at parties. The whole piece is familiar, and not just for its goofy (and now unacceptable) male behavior. The choreography and the music are very complicated and difficult to reproduce, and at moments, both the dancers and the orchestra struggled to express the energy and emotion, although the piece should appear simple.

It’s easy to write off “Fancy Free” as outdated, sexist or simplistic. “Fancy Free” certainly hasn’t survived for its deep, inspirational or political plot, for it is none of those things, at least in this particular interpretation. But “Fancy Free” wasn’t meant to be all of those things. It was meant to be light and comic, if at times bittersweet. The music is like singing and the dancing is like, well, just dancing. “Fancy Free” has lived on because of its art; its melodies and moves that the audience can remember. The art part does not include the dumb human behavior because it is art that lasts, not human behavior. Behavior changes (and hopefully improves) generation by generation, but art remains, patiently humming the truth that always has been and always will be. The closest we can get to this truth is by mimicking it, but when we mimic it — the beauty, the compassion — it isn’t anything mortal at all. It is a mystery that, like “Fancy Free,” will outlive us all.


Talking Walls Produces Murals Across Charlotte

Usually we don’t notice walls; we notice the rooms that they divide, the rain that they keep out, the picture frames that hang upon them. But walls usually remain invisible, disappearing into the background, easily forgotten. Oct. 10 through Oct. 13, the public art and mural festival “Talking Walls” made a statement about the invisible. Producing over 20 murals throughout Charlotte, the festival exclaimed that the people of Charlotte need to come together to notice the unnoticed and start having conversations about how to make our city more equal and more beautiful.

Photo taken by Patrick Magoon

The festival featured the work of 18 local, national and international artists displayed in 19 different locations throughout the city, including two murals in the UNC-Charlotte Center City building. A diverse array of artists, they ranged from the self-taught to those holding Masters degrees in the Fine Arts. Each artist, regardless of background or credentials, was given a location and a wall. “Talking Walls” treated all artists equally, something not often done in the realm of art, where graffiti and street art often is considered mediocre and even illegal. The first lesson “Talking Walls” teaches Charlotte is to level the playing field — we should value all people equally, regardless of appearance or background.

Several artists decided to directly address social and political issues through their murals. One artist, Charlotte-local Dammit Wesley, spelled out the words “Strange Fruit” in both of his uptown murals, referencing Abel Meeropol’s 1939 song made famous by Billie Holiday about the lynching of African-Americans. In one of these murals, below the words “Strange Fruit,” is eerily painted “Exciting Times,” comparing the time in which “Strange Fruit” was written to the social and political issues of today. Another uptown mural, painted by another local, Nick Napoletano, depicts a woman painting. The mural features the excerpts of conversations that Napoletano has had with homeless people while painting. Napoletano stresses the importance of using the walls for starting conversations about the socio-economic status of Charlotteans and the gaps therein between.

“Talking Walls” created voices for the voiceless, not just the walls but people too, and did so in a way that you can’t miss. While walking through uptown searching for these walls, I would notice many people stop what they were doing just to look for a moment at the murals. The walls immediately grab the attention of the passersby, thus forcing the viewer to stop and think about things.

Photo taken by Patrick Magoon

“Talking Walls” can be found in uptown near The Plaza and along Central Avenue as well as in a few other spots around the city. The walls spark conversation about the current state of affairs, drawing attention to the unseen, and lastly, they beautify the Charlotte community. Art makes everything more vibrant, more interesting and more exciting. Why haven’t we done this sooner and in more places such as East and West Charlotte?

President Trump and his administration love to think of walls as barriers. It seems like the perfect thing to keep people out, to divide the fortunate from the less fortunate, the wanted from the unwanted. In the poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost addresses the notion of walls as barriers, the folly of having walls between neighbors and the idea that there is something in the universe, a conscience perhaps, that doesn’t like these barriers: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.” “Talking Walls” acknowledges the walls that exist, repudiates the idea that they should be barriers and instead opens them up for many to paint on and for all to see. The festival beautified Charlotte, helped it acknowledge its flaws, and most importantly, invited all people to come together to pay attention. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it painted.  

Faculty Dance Concert: A Review

Assistant Professor Kaustavi Sarkar and visiting artist Monali NandyMazumdar perform “Vibhatsya: Deconstructing the Smile.” Photo by Jeff Cravotta.

What does it mean to be human? On Sept. 28 and 29, the Department of Dance asked and offered answers to this question through its Faculty Dance Concert, presenting five diverse pieces of choreography that addressed the political as well as the existential.

The concert began with the haunting “Vibhatsya: Deconstructing the Smile” in the style of Odissi, a classical East-Indian dance form. The piece addressed the expression of grief and trauma and how the smile plays a role, specifically in reference to school shootings and the proposed solution of arming school teachers.

The piece was choreographed by Assistant Professor Kaustavi Sarkar and performed by Sarkar as well as visiting artist Monali NandyMazumdar. When the audience first witnessed both dancers on stage, only one was visible. They danced in unison, but for NandyMazumdar, we could only see her shadow. The movement was distorted; we could see what it was supposed to be like as it was displayed on Sarkar, but as a shadow, it was twisted and stretched.

In Odissi, the head and face play a huge role. Sometimes the head is isolated and nimbly shakes back and forth; sometimes the eyes are isolated from the head. Sarkar used the importance of the face to quickly display emotion, abruptly switching from what seemed like a pleasant smile to horrifying grief. Several times when she broke this smile, she slowly cradled a baby, signifying the loss of students in shootings. Included in this piece was a repeated phrase: “The silence of the damned; the body count is on your hands.” Sarkar showed us what it’s like to be human through her expression of emotion and the conclusion she pulls from it in the context of today’s political realm is that we cannot be bystanders.

This call to action was echoed in two other pieces: “!,” choreographed and performed by Assistant Professor Tamara Williams, and “Picaro, pedazos de un camino (Pieces of a Journey)” by Assistant Professor of Physical Theater CarlosAlexis Cruz.

“!” was a contemporary-modern and African-inspired piece “dedicated to the lives lost to the senseless violence of racism, misogyny and homophobia.” It specifically referenced Draymen Mason (a double-bass-playing college student killed in the Austin bombings) and Marielle Franco (a Brazilian activist and councilwoman who was assassinated) whose lives were both taken this year. The piece included four short parts, each to a different piece of music. Each piece had multiple layers and could really each be lengthened into its own piece.

Williams looked beautiful, wearing a long white skirt and her hair down. At some moments, she celebrated with quick, upbeat movement; at others, she despaired with slow, longing movement. At the beginning and the end, she stood in a single spotlight and slowly reached upwards. She was asking for something or someone; she was calling us all forth.

Carlos AlexisCruz performs “Picaro, pedazos de un camino (Pieces of a Journey)”. Photo by Jeff Cravotta.

Cruz’s piece allowed for comic relief even for a topic that isn’t at all funny. Through masks, spoken word and physical theater, Cruz started the story of a 13-year old Guatemalan boy who is forced to leave his home and travels to “The Land of the Free” for a better life (it is only an excerpt). He was accompanied by musician Shamou, who at many times provided the comedy, especially when sporting a skull mask and chasing Cruz around the stage.

Cruz told us the story of the boy and then, by calling forth a member of the audience onstage as well as asking for other audience participation, literally brought us into the story, thus inviting us to get involved in the issue of migration.

While the first three pieces asked us what it means to be human today, the last two broadened to ask what this meaning is everyday.

Associate Professor E.E. Balcos danced and presented spoken word in the structured improvisation “Reunion of Kindred Souls.” He was accompanied by Shamou, who sat onstage to make a soundscape using a series of metal cups and bowls which he clinked together, rubbed and sang into. The effect was hypnotizing. Balcos recited some translations of poems by Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, which addressed “the secret inside of us,” meditation and inner reflection. Balcos moved throughout the stage gracefully and then would occasionally sit with Shamou to make sound.

Associate Professor Gretchen Alterowitz, Alison Bory and Amanda Hamp (AGA Collaborative) started their piece “It’s five o’clock somewhere (selections)” by bringing out lawn flamingos and setting them onstage. The three danced to Madonna, The Go-Go’s and to a female dance competition judge who urged the dancers to fly and suspend in the air (at which point AGA Collaborative slothed across the stage). As the piece moved on, more flamingos were added, ending with one giant flamingo floaty on which all three dancers lay and contemplated what it means to be present, among other things.

Both final pieces, whether in earnest or in humor, sought to question more of an inner human experience. What does it mean to be present and how can we be present?

All art seeks to investigate humanity, but dance in particular uses the most human canvas of all, the body. Watching movement is a very intimate and engaging experience; the audience has the same instrument as the performer. All five pieces used this platform to ask what humanity is, offering the conclusions that you must be active and you must be awake.  


‘The Lion King:’ All That is Good and Beautiful

©Disney. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Disney’s “The Lion King” starts with a surprise. Rafiki, the wise, narrating baboon bursts into that opening line of “The Circle of Life” that everyone knows but to which nobody knows the real words. A bright orange sun gently rises from the horizon. Suddenly, elephants, birds, gazelles, cheetahs and more walk through the audience to meet her and the break of day. Each animal is life size in an intricate costume that is a work of art. All those lucky enough to witness this opening scene when “The Lion King” was presented by Blumenthal Performing Arts from Aug. 22 to Sept. 9, marveled in exuberance and beauty.

There is a lot to discuss in terms of “The Lion King.” I could write a book about each individual aspect–the choreography, the music, the plot or the costumes. But I think the main attribute to recognize about this production is its awareness of the world. “The Lion King” recognizes grief and horror, but more importantly, it takes everything that is beautiful in the world and, using the context of the often under and misrepresented continent of Africa, puts it onstage.

The first burst of beauty comes from the sets and costumes. Each individual animal–be it a lion, a warthog, a hyena or a wild buffalo–is so perfectly crafted with every detail taken care of. The plants and water are too. At one point, about 24 performers are dressed in long, tan hoop skirts with a flat rectangle that holds grass on their heads; they are the scenery that depict the African Savanna through which Simba travels. At the point where Mufasa appears in the sky to give Simba strength, seven or eight large pieces of what appears to be wood come together in the star-lit sky to create Mufasa’s huge face. Each aspect of the sets and costumes recognize and celebrate the diversity of nature and the earth and the uniqueness of each species. When you witness it, you marvel at the craftsmanship and then you wonder about what it’s really like to see these animals and see these areas of the world that you may not have ever thought of as beautiful.

©Disney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Immediately, along with the costumes, we hear the score (a majority of which is credited to Elton John, Tim Rice, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M), all of which is influenced by multiple African cultures. Most people can sing along to at least one song, be it the upbeat and goofy “Hakuna Matata” or the serenade of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” At one particularly outstanding point, lights come up on the whole stage and a large chorus dressed in all different colors sings to Simba that Mufasa’s spirit is alive in him. At this moment, when harmonies fit so perfectly together, like clasped hands held up in prayer, the audience is lifted up.

Later in the musical is when you really start to notice the movement. “The Lion King’s” choreography, directed by Garth Fagan, again recognizes the value of each individual creature. Fagan makes each character move like it should: the cheetah moves in an almost-sexy stalk, Pumbaa (the warthog) moves thumpily across the stage, gazelles leap from side to side. The movement celebrates the individuality of all living things, which draws a newfound respect for them.

Finally, supported by all the beautiful artistic details, we have the story. Simba, the protagonist, struggles with romance, friendship and family. We realize that, like with his uncle Scar, relationships are not always good and can be really dangerous. But in general, the good relationships (his true love Nala, his mother and father and his two best friends Timon and Pumbaa) outweigh the bad. We see the beauty relationships can have, like the fact that Timon and Pumbaa stick by Simba even though he’s just some lost kid (and a carnivore, at that!). Their natural instincts, to be afraid or to eat one another, are overridden by kindness; the lion lies down with the warthog. Once again, “The Lion King” celebrates what is good and beautiful and lets an audience witness it, so that we too might look out for the beauty that is around us.

There are many lessons that “The Lion King” teaches us. We learn about love, about staying true to yourself and about betrayal and fear. But I think the most important lesson that we should learn is just to pay attention. “The Lion King” is not naive; it does not forget to confront the evils of the world. But the main point is just to look around. The first step to kindness and respect is just to notice things. We should notice other people and build relationships; we should listen to music and watch people dance and we should sing and dance too; we should look for plants and animals and nature and everything that the world has to offer.

Much like the opening of the show, often what is beautiful comes in a surprise. Once you start to really look around and pay attention, you are brilliantly surprised to find that beauty has always been around you.  

Zuzu African Acrobats Amaze and Astound

Promotional photo courtesy of Capitol International Productions Inc.

On Sept. 7, in the Student Union, a gymnast did handstands. As if it were too easy, he began to try something a little more daring–balancing on top of chairs. One chair after another, the gymnast would lift, then push himself up, and balance, feet in the air. At three chairs, the acrobat started to wobble. When he got to four, he almost fell: the other four acrobats present quickly jolted as if to catch him. For a moment he looked at the audience and shook his head. “No more,” his face told us. But his fellow members insisted he try again–it only took a few seconds for the chair to be sent back up his way for a second chance. This time, he succeeded, balancing completely upside down on the edge of his fourth chair. His feet grazed the ceiling; he wobbled slightly but held for a good minute and gently lowered himself down, smiling.

OK–so this was most definitely a gimmick made by the Kenyan-native Zuzu African Acrobats, the night’s performers, in order to captivate and even slightly frighten their audience for the night. But hey, gimmick or not, it worked, and the captivation lasted.

The Zuzu African Acrobats are a family business, which allowed them to get started captivating audiences and defying gravity early: The troupe is an all-male ensemble made up of five brothers and cousins, each of whom has been training in acrobatics since he was seven or eight years old. While originally from Mombasa, Kenya, the family now lives in the United States and performs all over the world. Some of the troupe’s most notable performances include shows for “America’s Got Talent,” the “Late Show with David Letterman,” the Super Bowl, several NBA shows and the Ringling Brothers Circus.

This show consisted of about 5 different acts, including the handstands, the limbo and jump rope. The jump rope portion featured members backflipping, front-flipping and doing push-ups, all within the rhythm of the rope.

Whether it was holding four acrobats using just hands, backflipping and handspringing throughout the stage or shuffling under a limbo pole, the Zuzu African Acrobats mesmerized their audience with strength, agility and a little bit of humor. It’s hard to believe that, considering all this technique, the troupe only prepares for about 30 minutes before each show.

After each act, members of the audience were coaxed into jumping onstage to see how high they could jump and how low they could go. Some audience members were lifted way up into the air by the acrobats, bending their bodies in ways they thought impossible, according to their faces. Some audience members, including one about 7-foot man, were invited to limbo under a pole 1-foot off the ground. Amazingly, he made it under (with a little help, of course).

By the end of the night, we may have accustomed ourselves to their gimmicks, but it didn’t stop us from laughing, gasping, cheering and dancing. Smiling throughout and accompanied by upbeat, percussive music, the Zuzu African Acrobats provided a show that radiated athleticism, risk and above all, joy.