Go With the Flow

Florida-born National Water Dance Day connects dancers to the life source

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Water Dance Day participants in Miami, FL.

Earth is mostly water, a chemical compound that covers about 71% of the surface of our extraordinary, life-rich planet. The infant human body, by comparison, starts at about 75% water (so, very similar), though we drop in wetness as we age. The human fruit, we see every day, starts quite grape-like and ends quite raisin-like.

Water, a simple molecule of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom (H20), serves a complex, vital, fascinating function in the creation and perpetuation of life on earth. We drink it in liquid form, eat it in solid form, use it to cool down, use it to heat up. Water feeds our food and cooks our food, cleans us and supplies a lifetime of happiness in the forms of swimming, fishing, diving, paddling, snorkeling, boating . . . the list goes on.

Most importantly, water keeps us alive.

Water inspires every single artistic discipline: painting, sculpting, pottery, textiles, music, theater, filmmaking, photography.

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Inspired by travels and deep water dives, Shayna Leib, a Madison, Wisconsin-based artist, created a stunning glass artwork series, Wind and Water.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), The Wave, 1879.

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Alberta Ferretti presented an ocean-inspired FW16 collection at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, 2016. (Getty Images/Francois Durand)

Water, in particular, inspires dance. Most ancient and indigenous cultures celebrated the deities of water or bodies of water themselves in specific dances. America’s wild woman modern dance matron, Isadora Duncan, gained acclaim performing to Strauss’s The Blue Danube and rose to fame with her meditation on water, Water Study, in the early 1900s. Her style of dance became synonymous with the free-spirit of modern dance and dance’s obvious connection to nature—a “body” of water, a “body” of dance work, so to speak.

Florida, a former coral reef with some of the greatest biodiversity in its water systems in North America, has its own peculiar history with water. With most of the state covered in swampland when America hustled and bustled into the mid-20th century as a major industrialized nation, the biggest obstacle to growth and development was the pesky problem of how to literally drain the Florida swamp. In his comprehensive Everglades history, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, historian Michael Grunwald recounts the Army Corps of Engineers’ steps to tame by force Florida’s mighty waterways. The Army Corps issued Waters of Destiny, a propaganda film pitting humankind against its worst nightmare, water, a “villain” that was “the scourge of mankind, burying life and land under its relentless and merciless depths.” This attitude was rather well-received at the time and ushered in several decades of the worst environmental degradation on human record. Clean water in Florida a generation later, like water in an alarming number of states and countries, inched towards crisis. From then ‘til now, news reports flow in detailing pollution, droughts, falling water tables, the collapse of the natural springs and the yearly algae blooms from the Lake Okechobee discharges, the need for citizens to respond to Florida’s predicament pushed Miami choreographer and dancer Dale Andree to create National Water Dance.

“National Water Dance is a catalyst for empowering and informing students, dance artists and the community. For us, it is an ongoing question of what are we achieving and what do we hope to achieve? Our goal is action through inspiration,” Andree says. The organization exchanges research, articles, and video clips of other dancers and choreographers who have a water ethic and are creating outdoor works.

National Water Dance, a non-profit dedicated to fostering this new water ethic of personal responsibility, organizes members on the internet. Every two years, members create a “movement choir” around the country and live stream the event. Participants spend the months prior to Water Dance Day collaborating on shared movements and phrases and choosing their site-specific locations. Some dancers perform in parks or near public city fountains, some dance in rivers or on beaches. All participants are guided through the process of securing permits if necessary and for using the shared movements in their choreography.

“Connecting to the environment through performance has a visceral effect on the performers as well as those witnessing,” says Andree. “It creates an opportunity for the participants to use their physical voice to bring attention to these water issues and to do it in community with concerned dancers all across the state and the country. Our hope is that the energy, beauty and commitment of these student and professional dancers offers another lens by which the audience can be touched and moved to action.”

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Dancers from Grinnell College in Iowa participate in Water Dance Day.

Although access to water, especially as the environmental toll on clean water spikes, has come under scrutiny as a modern-day battleground, Andree remains hopeful that each person’s efforts—each drop in the bucket—will eventually add up to a solution that works, especially for Florida and the United States.

“In creating National Water Dance, I wanted to focus on the United States because I felt we so often see the problems outside of ourselves and miss the ones facing us,” she says. “As I developed the project, I realized what a bridge it presented for our communities in such a divided time. One of the most satisfying experiences for me is the sense of belonging and of creating a movement that addresses real issues in every community. We are building that movement and belonging with dance. We share the knowledge of our bodies and the expression that results to address the issues around the most basic need of survival, water, by connecting to our diverse environments. Our internet community has formed bridges of understanding and experience beyond politics.”

The next National Water Dance Day will be April 14, 2018. Here is the video of Water Dance Day 2016:

For more details about National Water Dance, visit here.

Helping Y’all People Notice

How Music Wrote the Lives of the Men of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

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Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (aka The Bad Boys of Jazz) are seven brothers from the south side of Chicago.

Ask a member of the seven-piece band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble how they got their name, and you may get a surprise answer.

It started as an acronym for the band’s mission: Helping Young People Notice . . . hypnotic. Notice what, though?

Music. Jazz. Funk. Themselves. The power of young black men channeling the cosmos the way their father taught them.

The band, all sons of famed Chicago jazz musician Phil Cohran (Sun Ra Arkestra, Chaka Khan, The Pharaohs, among others), began their apprenticeships with their dad early in life. Some started as young as four years old, but all had instruments in hand by their sixth birthdays. Cohran, who grounded himself in elevating the arts scene in Chicago and working with community youth, had a sweeping and macro view of humanity’s relationship to music. Cohran wanted to know his place in the cosmos, and he knew music held the answer. He studied all over the world to integrate a sound and teaching technique that connected musicians (and, by extension, their audiences) to the harmonies of the universe.

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Jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran. The honorific “Kelan,” which means “holy scripture,” was given to him by Chinese Muslims while he was visiting China.

He implemented this view in his teaching, and his sons, masters as they are of Afrobeat, R&B, funk, soul, traditional jazz and hip hop, always weave their music back to the over-picture: that their sometimes strange improv instrumental tangents construct a tone link to the nonstop harmonies emerging from planetary electromagnetic fields. They have, as they say, some harmonies that can only be heard in space.

… Now imagine Jupiter speeded up with a funky James Brown drum and horn section:

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble took to the streets of Chicago early in their career where they grew a grassroots fan base and earned a dope reputation purely by word-of-mouth. In time, “helping young people notice” outgrew their neighborhood radius, and HBE realized they were destined for bigger things. Thus, “helping young people notice” became “helping y’all people notice” as HBE began its interplanetary mission as “superheroes of jazz sent to rescue those in distress—and that is the entire musical community of planet Earth,” as they say in the British documentary about HBE and their work with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen.

These men, these brothers, these direct descendants of musical spiritual master Phil Cohran and veterans of the mean streets of southside Chicago, do not merely play music. They are made of it. They are acutely aware of the role jazz, hip hop, soul, funk, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and the intricate musicality of Asia and Africa contribute to their organic make up. This acute awareness transmits through their musical compositions and has the ability to reach into the soul of the listener.

Such is the way of HBE.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble performs at The Straz this February, and we are thrilled that they will be holding two school outreach workshops, one at Dunbar Elementary and the other to be determined. It is our privilege and mission to give local young people access to artists like HBE and do our part to “help young people notice” the world is large, diverse and full of incredibly cool people and opportunities to connect themselves to the bigger picture.

Old Soul Storytelling Hour

The Art of the Cabaret Singer

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A poster advertising a tour of the Le Chat Noir’s troupe of cabaret entertainers. (Théophile Steinlen, 1896)

In Parisian cafes after the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, discontent grew. People were sick of social repression, war and constraints to expression. Artists, writers and other interesting people gathered to speak freely, often sharing their art with each other in small cafés. Eventually, these small gatherings became formal clubs. France, the first European country to give voting rights to all males, buzzed with a sense of equality, and perhaps the most alive with this bohemian restlessness was the city of Montmartre. Creative types flocked to its streets, and artists began to dismantle the notion of art as inaccessible fancies for aristocrats. They sought to create some art form crashing high-brow and low-brow together into something new.

From these efforts, Montmartre produced the most famous cabaret of all time – Le Chat Noir, “The Black Cat,” in 1881, named after the eponymous short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. In this small space, singing met spoofs met skits met shadow play in a low-cost hotbed of provocative entertainment. Cabaret was unpredictable, it was immediate, and, most importantly, it was fun.

Cabaret spread to Germany quickly, and by the 1900s, Germans managed to incorporate the traditional, unobjectionable variety show with experimental, avant-garde work, although they eschewed the risqué aesthetic of the Parisian cabarets with its nudity and casual profanity. World War I brought American jazz and African-Americans to German cabarets with legendary trailblazer Josephine Baker performing her cabaret revue in Germany in 1926.

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Josephine Baker performing at the Folies-Bergère, Paris. (Walery, 1926)

This cultural blending across European borders eventually traversed the Atlantic to the United States where cabaret began to take hold in the Prohibition speakeasies where anything goes and everything went. Chicago and New York boasted the most vibrant cabaret scenes, with an electrifying racial mixing of dancers, musicians, Mafiosos, working class, poets, writers and the socially adventurous who sought to defy (or at least taunt) the strict separation of races, classes and mores of the day. In this liminal space, Billie Holiday debuted her haunting, classic exposé of white supremacy, Strange Fruit, at Café Society, a cabaret in Greenwich Village. This moment, a raw, unflinching, terrifying expression of honesty not just for Billie Holiday but for the audience, captures the great essence of the cabaret singer: a public performance of a private moment, the sense of a shared experience with a trusted friend, a story told in song. Often these rough emotional moments were followed by a rollicking number, and this structure of ups and downs, sentimentality balanced with humor, remains the winning combination for a solid cabaret show.

According to Katherine Anne Yachinich’s thesis The Culture and Music of American Cabaret, “The word ‘cabaret’ stems from the French cambret, cameret, or camberete, for wine cellar, tavern, or small room, but ultimately comes from the Latin camera, for chamber.” Today, 134 years after Le Chat Noir opened its doors in Montmartre, cabaret remains largely defined by the fact that it happens in a small space though what happens in that small space may be rather loosely interpreted by the artists performing within it.

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The 2016 National Touring cast of Roundabout Theatre Company’s CABARET, which comes to Tampa Jan. 24-29. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For the cabaret singer, opposed to song-and-dance numbers, puppetry or burlesque shows, which often also fall into the cabaret category, the art form relies on the intimacy of the chamber, his or her ability to make a performance space feel as comfortable as a living room. Cabaret coach Anita Hall said in an interview with writer Rita Kohn that “people [who] are drawn to cabaret are old souls. I’ve shared my stage with children who can phrase and swing better than entertainers that have been at it for decades. You either have it or you don’t.”

The cabaret singer’s challenge is one of balance: the subtle interplay of patter (talking or storytelling between numbers) and song choice, the correct push-and-pull of tension between him or herself and the audience, of measuring honesty and anecdote, of dancing around instead of delivering a theme.

Cabaret, unlike many performing arts, refuses to construct the fourth wall – the accepted, invisible barrier between the stage action and the audience – which means that the audience has access to the singer’s vulnerabilities. By its nature, since it was created to build community and expression, cabaret demands the flow of intimacy between the performer and the audience. Any good cabaret act knows how to take an audience to its edge and back again.

A great act convinces everyone to jump off the edge with them. In fact, they make it sound like fun.