Cecilia Whalen


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.