Elissa Miller

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Elissa Miller is the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Niner Times. She is a junior at UNC Charlotte studying Communications and Political Science. When she isn't reviewing theater for Niner Times, she is working on bringing sex education to campus through Sex Week UNC Charlotte or forcing her friends to binge watch television with her. In the future, she would like to be an investigative journalist, a lawyer, or the second female President of the United States (because if there isn't one before the time she gets there, that's just sad).

Students Stun at Last Poet Standing Competition

I love words. Reading them, writing them, hearing them. I have a firm belief that they contain the power to heal wounds and bring people together. Never was that more apparent than this Thursday evening at the Last Poet Standing competition hosted by spoken word poet Jasmine Mans. Participants presented their poetry, raw and personal, to a large audience of students. There were winners and prizes, but it felt like much more than a competition. As Jasmine Mans put it, it was a safe space. A community of storytellers. People coming together to listen and support one another.

Photo by Austin Chaney.
Photo by Austin Chaney.

The event started at 7 p.m. at Norm’s in the Student Union. People surrounded the stage, far exceeding the number of chairs available. Mans, famed spoken word poet and author, began the evening by performing her poem “Footnotes for Kanye.” She then introduced herself and the other judges for the night, inviting attendees to loudly boo them. Mans explained that she asked this because they would be putting numbers on art to choose the winners.

Fifteen students participated in the competition, speaking about a wide range of topics. Howie, a senior sociology major, performed her poem “My Body Is” that spoke about struggling with body image. Student poet Sir Abstract dedicated his poem to those struggling with depression. Julia Moore, a freshman, performed a poem about her struggling relationship with her father called “No Name.” Often times, Mans would perform her own work between students. One of the most moving performances of the night was of her poem, “Michelle Obama,” which was about the inspiration Mrs. Obama has provided for young African American girls. In the wake of the newest presidential election’s results, the ending line “If I can’t, you will. She did.” seemed especially uplifting and resonant.   

Students were full of support for one another’s poetry. As each participant performed, the room went almost completely silent. It would then erupt in thunderous applause after each poem. The three winners of the night were eventually chosen. Freshman Hilda Kolawole took the first prize of $400 with her poem “For The Motherland.” Her quote, “We love Africa even though it seems like she’s still in chains,” sums up the piece, which was about having pride in and loving Africa even through its struggles. Senior Lala Specific claimed second prize with her poem “Travel.” She is both a musician and poet, which was clear in her stage presence. She could project her voice so well that she did not even need a microphone. In third place came Zach Timmons, a junior English major. His poem “Still I Rise” spoke about the struggles of the African American community.

At the end of the evening, Jasmine Mans posed for photos and sold various merchandise, from posters to t-shirts. The event was hosted by the Campus Activities Board and the student organization Souls’ Speaks. Souls’ Speaks aims to help poets improve their work as well as give them a chance to share their poetry. Their next event will be a Langston Hughes Poetry Night on Nov. 15 at 7:11 p.m. in After Hours.

Dancing into Fall

Photo by Jeff Cravotta.
Photo by Jeff Cravotta.

Every year, UNC Charlotte’s Dance Department works hard to put on their annual fall dance concert. The choreography comes from many esteemed choreographers in the dance world and features a variety of styles, from ballet to vintage jazz. It features performances from various students in the department.

The concert opened with a large group number entitled, “Triangle Circle Square.” Dancers in bright red and yellow costumes performed this upbeat dance that had a special focus on geometric patterns. This was seen clearly in the choreography by Delia Neil. The dancers often held their arms in straight lines and organized themselves in various formations such as circles and V shapes.

By far, the most moving dance of the evening was “Broken Pärts,” choreographed by Rachel T. Tucker. It explores the experience of loss by examining the five stages of grief: denial, isolation, guilt, anger and acceptance. It begins with a sole dancer in front of a black curtain, clearly distraught. She begins to move through her loss and is then joined by three other dancers. I watched as the dancers moved ever closer to each other, almost touching, before they pulled themselves away in isolation. The performance sent chills up my spine. Each dancer truly showcased the emotions in the piece, one can even hear their distraught breaths over the sound of the music. In the end, the dancer comes through her loss to the other side and runs into the audience. It’s truly beautiful to watch.

Following this came “Flower Festival at Genzano Pas de Deux,” a ballet duet choreographed by August Bournonville. The dancers were playful with one another and had excellent chemistry. They allowed each to showcase their individual talents in solos and then join together for their duets. It leaves the viewer feeling excited and happy, a great contrast to “Broken Pärts.”

Opening the concert after intermission came a trio ballet number named “Sleeping Beauty Act III Jewels.” Similar to the previous dance, this piece allowed for many different arrangements of the performers. Not only did they perform in a trio, they also split into duets where each had individual solos. By doing this, choreographer Marius Petipa gave each dancer a moment to shine and showcase their abilities. The costumes for this dance were exceptionally gorgeous, covered in silver jewels and topped off with large sparkling crowns.

“I.I.W.I.I. Revisited” provided a strong contrast from the previous dances, adding a bit of almost musical theater style performance. The group of dancers performed an arrangement of vintage jazz dances while playing various characters with names like Saucin’ Susie and Jivin’ Joanie. The steps such as Rubber Legs and Scarecrow are authentic as are the floor patterns. The dancers exuded energy and the entire dance felt fun and unique. It was arranged by Karen W. Hubbard in collaboration with the Jazz Apple Dancers and the current cast of dancers. It was originally performed in the spring 2014 dance concert.

The final dance of the night was “Esplanade (Section 1)” choreographed by Paul Taylor. It is a group number performed to “Violin Concerto in E Major” and “Double Concerto for Two Violinists in D Minor” by Bach. The dance feels very fresh and modern, and much of it does not resemble traditional dance. The performers move lightly, almost seeming to float.

The evening was a truly entertaining experience. Watching it, one can see how much talent UNCC’s Dance Department contains. I’d highly recommend attending one of the department’s performances to any student. Performances were held Nov 3-5 in the Belk Theater in Robinson Hall.

“The Aliens” is Strangely Human

Photo by Daniel Coston.
Photo by Jay Morong.

The evening sun is beginning to set and an October chill fills the air. In the Robinson Hall courtyard, people sit in folding chairs in front of the newly constructed stage. It is the perfect setting for UNCC’s first theater production of the season, Annie Baker’s “The Aliens.” The show originally premiered Off-Broadway in 2010 and won the Obie Award for Best New Play. However, UNCC has chosen to take the production outside. The set showcases an alley behind a coffeeshop complete with a picnic table and dumpsters. By bringing the show outside, the creators throw the audience out of their comfort zone. It eliminates the barrier between audience and actor, we are up close and personal with the show.

For the record, “The Aliens” is not actually about aliens. Instead, the plot centers around two men, Jasper (Tykiique Cuthkelvin) and KJ (Chester Wolfaardt), who spend their time talking and sitting behind a coffee shop. Jasper never finished high school and is an aspiring novelist and KJ dropped out of college. They met years ago and started a band. One of it’s many names? The Aliens. We then meet Evan (Kobina Fon-Ndikum), a high school student working at the coffee shop. Awkward and inexperienced, he begins to form a friendship with the two men.

The plot centers completely and totally on the bonds between these three characters. The dialogue is slow, wandering and sometimes seemingly about nothing. A good portion of the show is spent in silence, in the pauses of conversations. But that’s the beauty in it. “The Aliens” takes what may seem mundane or uninteresting and draws the audience in. We want to see more, know more and hear more about the characters. The audience feels all the intense emotions as well; we laugh at the awkward pauses and odd songs. We listen intently to Jasper’s novel and we are heartbroken when the events of Act Two take a turn for the worse. It all feels overwhelmingly real.

In order to pull this hard task off, the cast must be enormously talented. Put simply, they are. Cuthkelvin’s Jasper is brooding and angsty, struggling to understand his place in the world. Jasper believes himself a genius and the fact he doesn’t quite know what to do with that burdens shows. Wolfaardt as KJ is his polar opposite; he is over the top, loud, and often under the influence of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He’s mostly the comedic side of the duo, though Act 2 allows Wolfaardt’s dramatic side to really shine. The two actors play off each other extremely well and it’s easy for the audience to believe that they have been friends for years.

However, it’s Fon-Ndikum’s Evan that really speaks to the audience. His character, an outsider to the two friends, is the lens we ultimately view KJ and Jasper through. Awkward, confused, and a little lonely, he begins to accept the two as friends. As the audience watches, he begins to be changed by them, picking up their habits and interests. By Act Two, a conversation about windfarms between Evan and KJ directly mirrors the same conversation between Jasper and KJ from Act One. It’s a profound statement on how we are influenced and changed by our connections with others.

If you like plays, “The Aliens” is one I’d highly recommend. It’s simple, yet beautiful. It showcases the humanity in the characters and reflects back on the humanity in us. Overall, it’s an excellent way to spend an evening. The show continues next weekend with performances on the 20-22 at 6pm and the 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students, $10 for seniors, and $12 for faculty, staff and alumni. All others are $18. They are available at the door in the box office or online.

Step Back in Time with “1776”

John Adams (Eric Johnston) and John Dickinson (Tom Russell) get physical after debating independence
John Adams (Eric Johnston) and John Dickinson (Tom Russell) get physical after debating independence. Photo courtesy of Chris Record.

Long before the hit musical “Hamilton” reinvigorated America’s interest in our founding fathers, “1776″ was released unto the world. With music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, the musical went on to win three Tonys after its Broadway premiere in 1969. Now you can see it right here in the Queen City at Central Piedmont Community College.

The show centers on the story of John Adams (Eric Johnston) and his fight for the Declaration of Independence in Congress. He is portrayed as a loud mouthed agitator that is “obnoxious and disliked.” In fact, the delegates in Congress refuse to even listen to his resolution until someone else, Richard Henry Lee, proposes it.

The following events showcase the hard fight our founders went through to produce the Declaration of Independence with unanimous approval. Considering I already knew the ending, I shouldn’t have been so tense wondering if it would get approved or not. The musical, sometimes referred to as a musical play due to its large amount of dialogue, is extremely successful at casting the founding fathers as people. Just people, not demagogues. “1776″ also contains a fair amount of humor. Witty zingers are hurled across Congress, most given from Pennsylvania delegates John Dickinson and Dr. Benjamin Franklin, whose sense of humor has clearly been left out of our history textbooks.

Adams laments Congress' lack of action
Adams laments Congress’ lack of action. Photo courtesy of Chris Record.

Eric Johnston as John Adams does an excellent job of leading the show. Adams’ frustrations with Congress, with slavery and almost everything are plainly seen and felt. They explode in the final song in which he asks, “Is Anybody There?” However, he has his soft side too, seen through his duets with his long distance wife Abigail (Megan Postle). His partner in crime Benjamin Franklin (James K Flynn) is an excellent foil. Cool, collected and sometimes asleep, he keeps Adams under control while still exceptionally passionate towards the idea of Independence. Also featured is George DeMott as Thomas Jefferson, who originally is very against writing the Declaration as he wishes to return home to his wife. He plays the character as a younger man who would rather be a lover than a patriot, at least until Martha Jefferson (Emily Witte) is brought up to Philadelphia for a visit. Though friendly with each other, a number of witty remarks are thrown between Adams and Jefferson that may hint at their future final destinations in rival political parties.

However, I’d be doing the world a disservice if I didn’t acknowledge some side characters that steal the show. The first, Alan Morgan as Richard Henry Lee. His character presents some much needed comedic relief in a show that could easily become stale and lost in politics. He shines brilliantly in “The Lees of Old Virginia” which features some seriously amazing wordplay on his name and will probably be stuck in your head for hours after the show ends. I was sad to see his role disappear soon after.

John Adams, Benjamin Franklin (James K Flynn), and Richard Henry Lee (Alan Morgan) discuss proposing The Declaration of Independence
John Adams, Benjamin Franklin (James K Flynn), and Richard Henry Lee (Alan Morgan) discuss proposing The Declaration of Independence. Photo courtesy of Chris Record.

The second is Josh Logsdon as Mr. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. While off to the sidelines for most of the show, he delivers one of the most memorable songs in the whole production in “Molasses to Rum.” Demanding that a passage promoting the abolishment of slavery be taken out of the Declaration of Independence, Rutledge argues that the North is just as guilty as the South in participating in the Triangle Trade. The theater becomes silent, chilled and uncomfortable. It reminds us that as much as we glorify them, our founding fathers were still flawed people.

While the production may come across as a little long (the musical holds the record for the most time between two songs), it still provides a highly entertaining and enjoyable evening. The production continues next weekend with performances Oct 1 at 7:30 and Oct 2 at 2:30. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for children and $5 for students. Come out and learn some history.

UNCC Faculty Shine In Annual Faculty Dance Concert

Associate Professor of Dance E. E. Balcos (Photo by Chris Record)
Associate Professor of Dance E. E. Balcos (Photo by Chris Record)

I come from a dance background, having danced various styles since I was a little girl. Still, I had no idea what I was getting into when I volunteered to cover the Faculty Dance Concert for Niner Times. What I got was a truly phenomenal theater experience, a wide range of topics and emotions told through dance and music.

The concert was presented in Robinson Hall’s Belk Theater at 7:30 p.m. on the 16 and 17 of Sept. It contained five different pieces, all told in their own different ways.

It began with a work titled Ancestral Tides: A Contact & Music Improvisation performed by EE Balcos, Anthony Oliva and Shamou. EE Balcos is an associate professor here at UNC Charlotte while Shamou is the new Music Director for Dance. The performers not only improvised their dance, they also created their own music through vocals and various instruments.

The second performance was “Of the Past,” a section of a much longer work titled Morning Honeysuckle, Sundays Greed. It tied the current injustices against African American people to their past through breathtaking dance by Tamara Williams. Using the song “Echo” by Sweet Honey in the Rock, the piece truly made a statement that today’s events are “nothing but an echo of the past.” Williams is Assistant Professor of Dance at UNCC.

Shamou made his return appearance in From East to West Through The Middle, a three part musical performance connecting East and West Africa through song. It utilized the instruments shekere, kalimba and conga drums. Different lighting concepts also helped tell the story of this journey through Africa.

After a short pause, the concert continued with the 30 minute work Welcome choreographed by Rachel Barker, Assistant Professor and Dance Education Coordinator, in collaboration with the performers and Breanne Horne. The piece was performed by Juliana Tilbury-Carson and two UNCC alumni, Audrey Baran and Caitlyn Swett. It was funded by a Faculty Research Grant and comes from a process focused on improvisation and performance. The work included trio dance as well various solos and spoken asides.

To end the evening, Kaddish Revisted swept through the theater. A screen was lowered above the stage and showcased the video documentary “Dance or die: Syrian dancer fights the war in his own way” by Roozbeh Kaboly. Below it, students presented lights and danced. After the video, music was performed on violin (Andrea Giovanni Lucchi) and piano (Ludovico Tassani). Kim Jones, Associate Professor of Dance, shined in a beautiful solo. The work is inspired by Anna Sokolow’s 1945 Kaddish, based on Jewish prayers of mourning and Jones’ response to both 9/11 and events in Syria.

Let there be no doubt in one’s mind about how talented and skilled UNCC’s dance faculty is. One only needs to look at the Faculty Dance Concert for proof of that fact.