Category Archives: Message from the Artist

Director’s Note: Carrie Mae Weems – Past Tense

 “The tears of the world are a constant quantity.” – Samuel Beckett

Any work begins with a vague notion, an angry itch, a throbbing at the edge of consciousness – something troubling that keeps you grasping, yearning, anxious. Day after day these feelings drive artists back into their studios, determined to hammer out nonsense on their keyboards until clarity of thought slowly takes shape. Past Tense began in just that way – with a deep desire to get at what was troubling me.

So, I began to write. I put to paper the simple words and phrases, images and elements, that moved around in my mind and yearned for a physical form to emerge and be shown to the world.

I am by no means a playwright. As a visual artist, working the last thirty-five years predominantly in photography and video, I approached this as I would any other project, starting with images and then building music, songs, and text around them. The outcome – Past Tense – is a performance that brings together some of the country’s most celebrated artists, poets, musicians and composers to explore the dynamic role of grace and its meaning in the pursuit of democracy.

There are only a handful of stories in the world; the difference often lies in the telling. After working on Past Tense for months it occurred to me that I was telling the story of Antigone, wherein an innocent man dies by unjustified means and his sister fights for the right to bury him honorably. But the wider community refuses her; her right to justice, and to peace, is denied.

Likewise, Past Tense examines the wider social implications of tensions at work in communities across America. These tensions are marked and defined by recent escalations in violence, the killings of young black men, the rise of nationalism and white supremacy, and the tragic events of the Emanuel Nine. These events and nationwide responses have been contextualized as a song cycle, and the piece incorporates music, song and spoken word interwoven with text, dance, photography and video projection to explore the dimensions of its theme.

In our context, grace functions as a sustaining metaphor and an overarching conceptual frame for a dynamic performance calling for new approaches to old questions. I prefer to work with artists who share a common language and have a visceral understanding of the collaborative process. So, from the beginning we started from a central place—a common but varied knowledge of the dark maze of life.

Past Tense includes works by poet Carl Hancock Rux and composer Craig Harris. They are joined by dancer David Parker and singers Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri and Eisa Davis, who bring a wealth of talent and nuance to the performance. What began as a gift to our first Black President quickly morphed into a series of profound reflections that critically engaged the tumultuous and remarkable time in which we now find ourselves—both tragic and liberating.

Message from the Artists: Jesmyn Ward & Mitchell Jackson

Jesmyn Ward & Mitchell Jackson in Conversation

It’s a privilege to share the stage with Mitch Jackson, who is the kind of person who can walk into a room and put the shyest, most socially awkward person at ease. Probably by making one laugh. That’s mostly what I do when we are in the same place: laugh.

I’ve known Mitch for seven or so years, and in that time, I’ve learned that not only is Mitch kind to wallflowers, he is also an insightful, brilliant writer and prose stylist, as evidenced in his latest, The Residue Years, which blesses the reader with revelation after revelation as Mitch explores everything from the prison industrial complex to addiction and the drug trade to sex work to emotional intimacy as he tells the story of what it was like to come of age in Portland.

Finally, he is also brave. Every time we meet, he says something that I perhaps thought but was never forthright enough to say aloud. In the end, I’m proud to be in his literary cohort, to work with him in this endeavor to write us into the public’s imagination, and I’m looking forward to laughing my way through this conversation, and perhaps stumbling across a revelation or two.

—JESMYN WARD

Gilles Deleuze asserts our identity is defined by difference, that we are able to conceive of who we are only as difference from who and what we are not. A writer’s voice is a means of communicating that difference, of proclaiming to the world (or at least a reader) there is but one of us—and we have something to say in a way only we can say it.

For historically subjugated groups especially, of which Jesmyn and I belong, a literary voice is often DuBoisian, a way of expressing, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals.” A writer’s voice is also a response to cultural or political pressures, and can become a means of expressing their values as well as making visible elements of themselves that those in power try to erase or invalidate.

The talk will in part cover voice, which is to say our literary identity—how it evolved, how it reflects our personal and cultural experiences, our political ideals, and the place we call home.

—MITCHELL S. JACKSON

Jesmyn Ward & Mitchell Jackson in Conversation, Thu, Feb 7 at 8PM, Royce Hall, UCLA

Message from the Artist: Jérôme Bel on Gala

Photo by Josefina Tommasi

About the cast

What has always interested me about amateurs is their fragility, the fact that unlike professionals who become masters of their respective art forms, amateurs are defenceless. Amateur practice is based on the principle of pleasure, of desire. Every amateur is in the process of becoming, and will never become as accomplished as a
professional.

That momentum, that attempt, is without doubt one of the things in common with my own approach. As an artist I’m not seeking mastery of my tool, which is theatre. On the contrary, I endorse an experimental idea of theatre where each one of my works should lead me to something I do not master, even though that is not always the case.

A project consists of trying, attempting and exploring, rather than controlling or mastering, even if it means failing. As a spectator I always prefer seeing a show that takes risks over a successful piece that teaches me nothing new. For me the amateur dancer incarnates a certain idea of art that I am fiercely attached to. As Samuel Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.

About the deconstruction of the institutional representation of dance

I must say that I’m starting to have a real problem with the representation of bodies in what is now called “contemporary dance”. I find it terribly standardized. In 99%of dance shows the dancers are between 20 and 35 years of age, are svelte, in great
shape and good-looking and even very beautiful. I find that extremely limiting for an art whose tool is the body.

There are all sorts of bodies, and I think all of them should be portrayed. It’s come to the point where contemporary dance produces an academicism to match that of classical dance. Judgement is of course another sinew of war that the status of the
amateur undermines, which delights me.

With judgement thus invalidated, what remains? What remains is the meaning of dance, what it signifies, what it expresses of the dancing individual (amateur or professional), what dance reveals of the individual that language cannot.

About body disparity and diversity

I’ve always thought that a dance company should reflect onstage a certain idea of the world. I mean the dance of modernity, the dance that began with Isadora Duncan, Nijinsky etc. It seems to me that major choreographers have continued in that vein, which is what I find interesting in the work of Pina Bausch, Maguy Marin, Yvonne
Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, William Forsythe, Xavier Le Roy, Trajal Harrell, Boris Charmatz and Anne Teresa de Keersmaker.

In the historical moment that is ours, the work of choreographers should take into account the diversity of their societies, for the related social issues are absolutely gigantic.

About the value of all forms of dancing

Most certainly all forms of dance have worth and value, just as no human being is worth less than another. Allow me to quote the last sentence of Sartre’s The Words: “A whole man, made of all men, worth all of them, and any one of them worth him.” The equality that I am trying to produce among the different dancers of Gala is a meta equality, if I may say so, for Gala is based on the greatest possible diversity of its performers, thus allowing for an equality that is due to the singularity of each member in that community. It is because each one of them is unique that they suddenly become equal, worthy of the same interest; they are equal by unicity. Each one becomes a source of richness, considering that any otherness is a promise of richness for everyone else.

Message from the Artist: Nadia Sirota

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘composer’? I imagine most of us picture some sort of be-wigged gentleman who may or may not be Bach, Beethoven and Mozart all kind of swirled-up together. Either way, it’s a dude, it’s a bust, and it is scowling.

Luckily, real-life composers are fascinating and often not-dead! It takes a special kind of person to summon sound from silence, and tonight, we’ll sit down with two of my favorite sound-summoning humans, Caroline Shaw and Andrew Norman.

Growing up, Andrew Norman was a confident kid-composer, writing orchestra pieces for his middle school friends and getting written up in the local paper. But when Andrew went to college and discovered capital-m Modernism and atonal compositions, his confidence crumbled; how do you write music if you don’t really understand what music IS?

Caroline Shaw grew up playing the violin and singing in choirs, and while she always wrote music, she never thought of herself as a ‘composer,’ until one day she wrote a really fantastic thing for her vocal ensemble and won a Pulitzer Prize. All of a sudden Caroline was thrust into the compositional spotlight. So how does someone who never really identified as a composer grapple with composition’s fanciest accolade?

While (or possibly because) Caroline and Andrew have struggled with what it means to be a composer, they have both gone on to become major players in the classical music world, writing for some of the most impressive folks out there. What really blows me away, though, is that they are also a couple of the loveliest individuals I have ever met.

So tonight, we’re in luck: we get to see what makes these guys tick. And with the help of the fabulous ensemble Wild Up and conductor Christopher Rountree, we’ll witness some of the most stunning, most original, and most moving music I have ever heard.

Here’s the thing, these works are not sacred relics. The scores are not unimpeachably perfect, to be blindly obeyed, but something else entirely: human, vital and moving.

This is Living Music.

—Nadia Sirota

Message from the Artists: Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed

I spend a lot of my time trying to encourage people to live more creative lives — to take risks, to make something out of nothing, and to expand their sense of wonder. I can get really passionate about this. (Another word would be “pushy.”) Sometimes I wonder why I care so much. What does it matter to me if people are making art or not? Who cares whether anyone out there is writing novels, or learning new languages, or dancing or singing or growing or transforming? Well, in the end, I think it comes down to this: We appear to be living in a universe that is constantly creating and recreating itself. The evidence for this is literally everywhere. Nature is always changing from one form to another. All you need to do is look in a telescope and you can see galaxies being born. Look in a microscope and you’ll see bacteria evolving and adapting right before your eyes. The whole thing reeks of a giant cosmic arts-and-crafts project — an infinite, ever-unfolding experiment in constant creative response. It appears to me that energy only wants one thing: to create. And you, of course, are made of energy. So start creating! Because once you start creating, you will step into alignment with the direction that the entire universe is heading. You will be in the flow of life itself. And that will you make you happy. That will make you healthy. That will make you belong. That’s why creativity matters so much to me — because I want a sense of healthy belonging for myself, and I want it for you, too.

— ELIZABETH GILBERT

Writers don’t have job descriptions, but if we did the first line on mine would be this: tell the truest story you can about what it means to be human. That’s the thing I’m always digging for, and by digging I mean that rather actually. On the page and in my life, I attempt to uncover to the truth that lives beneath the easier truths that sit on the surface of our lives. I seek to understand and convey not who we are, but who we are really. This kind of emotional excavation has been an obsession of mine since I was a child. I always wanted to know why. Not why the sky is blue or why birds have feathers (though these are certainly worthy questions!), but rather why does she love him, why did you leave, why are you ashamed, why did you go down this path instead of that one, why did this sorrow lead to that beauty, why can’t you, why will you, why are you going keep loving or walk away or change your mind? My deepest curiosity is the inner workings of what gets called the human heart, but it’s really something far grittier than that. It’s the dark core of who we are, which I have found endlessly, shimmeringly beautiful.

— CHERYL STRAYED

Message from the Artist: Luciana Souza

In her excellent book Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield says that a good poem begins in the body and mind of concentration. She goes on to explain that by concentration she means a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.

I had fallen in love with Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing many years ago. Everything about that book is important and interesting to me. The poems, the drawings, and his way of illuminating the truth of a moment, of revealing things, his clarity.

As I started setting these poems I wanted the words to be heard, but not necessarily defined. To me, the string instruments offer the best canvas for these songs. Like the voice, the sound of plucked strings decay and brings on silence and more possibility for listening. Also, the idea of counterpoint between the voice and strings was essential to me. The music would have to be simple and unadorned.

I am often asked if I conceive projects based on themes, and if I return to poetry from time to time. To me, a project shapes itself and is generated by what is occupying more space in musical and artistic mind for a certain period. But I never leave my other interests completely. I am always navigating between poetry, Brazilian, and a
more wordless and instrumental context. To me, these things are interchangeable and they are one. I can always find the stories in wordless melodies, and I can always find the silence in poetry.

The other day I taught a class and caught myself describing the process of setting a poem to music as falling in love. Falling in love with a poem. Locking myself in a room and reading the poem ten, twenty times. Walking around with the poem looping in my head. Driving in my car and feeling possessed by the poem and thinking — You are mine! I do think the process is a bit obsessive and all-consuming, but deeply rewarding… when you are granted permission by the publisher.

When you play with musicians such as Chico Pinheiro and Scott Colley, you are treated to such a generosity of possibilities. Questions get answered without having to be asked because the trust and intuition are so generously displayed. Questions are also left unanswered, which is a necessity in music (and life) — to have things open and possible.

On the liner notes of the record I say that making music with Chico and Scott is a thing of wonder. And I mean that in the sense of what is mysterious, miraculous, and beautiful about making music and lifting poetry from the page.

— Luciana Souza

Message from the Artist: Sweet Honey In The Rock

On behalf of Sweet Honey In The Rock®, welcome to our 45th Anniversary Celebration at UCLA Royce Hall.

Can you believe it’s been 45 years since our first performance at the WC Handy Blues Festival at Howard University on November 17, 1973? Although the original group of men and women was created at the request of Le Tari, an actor at the DC Black Repertory Theatre, there was a fall rehearsal where four women showed up—Louise Robinson, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carol Maillard and Mie Fredericks. Bernice was disappointed but Louise said let’s keep going.

We can sing.

Since that time, 27 women have graced the Sweet Honey stage.

We are humbled and deeply appreciative of everyone who made and makes it possible for us to be here today. We do not take our longevity for granted. Gratitude to you all—family, friends, and fans. We could not be on this journey without you.

Have a good time party hearty sing-along raise your voices in wishing Sweet Honey In The Rock® a glorious 45th anniversary and blessings for many years to come.

Always giving thanks all ways,
Carol Maillard

Message from the Artist: UnCabaret

We are filled with hope every time UnCabaret convenes. We are curious about each other’s stories, and our own. What do they mean? How are we changing? What’s funny about that? We rejoice in the right to assemble, to meet friends of friends and the person at the next table reading that book you love.

We commit to the courage of making the uncomfortable funny. We love our adventurous audience. We intend to uplift. We work to be a safe space for women and the LGBTQA community without excluding CIS men. We look for people who make the most beautiful mistakes, original thinkers and open hearted lovers. Those who are self knowing without being self-obsessed. And of course who love to laugh.

We enter into partnerships and community. We seek to be a full chakra experience. We have an attention span. We understand silence. We try to respect our own history while staying in the now. We have a sense of urgency. We have never written an artist’s statement before but are always up for the new. Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for being part of UnCabaret.

—Beth Lapides

Message from the Artist: Bill T. Jones on Analogy Trilogy

MEMORY & UCLA – A MESSAGE FROM BILL T. JONES

“Memory often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” – W.G. Sebald

While the eloquence of W.G Sebald fails me, in this return visit to UCLA I am overcome with a particular emotion and a recall of the first time a young Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane were invited to perform at Schoenberg Hall in 1983; our first national tour as a duet company. The vastness of the city, the endless highways, its glamorous history and presence made us feel as real players in the modern world, and children in the deep end of the pool finally. UCLA stood out as an essential beach head in the question of the new. To be invited to show one’s work was a nod of approval and something more.

Bringing this three-part work, a result of 5 years of making and doing, I am overcome with a sense of gratitude to Kristy Edmunds and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and also to you the adventurous patrons, for upholding this belief in the transformative power of live performance.

—Bill T. Jones

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company
Analogy Trilogy

Message From The Artists: Vijay Iyer and Teju Cole on Blind Spot

I’m fortunate to have called Teju a friend since long before he became the household name he is today. Our collaborations have emerged slowly and organically from a camaraderie established in the early 2000s. This particular one was born in 2016 as a kind of stunt, using Teju’s photographs and writings as our stimulus. Faced with a run of six performances, I thought, “What if we actually create the piece live from scratch each time, using Teju’s riveting text and images as our score? What if the music had no permanence, but rather consisted of a set of guiding principles, orienting forces, and emotional stimuli?” If the project’s music used the vulnerability and fragility of real-time creation and dispensed with any presumption of fixity, what’s left instead of a “piece” is an aggregate of very careful listeners — a band — with a compact network of social relations: ways of listening, sounding, building, and coexisting. As Ornette Coleman summarized once when rehearsing with his band: “If you cut loose the method, what’s left is stone presence.” Teju’s collection of texts and images gives us a way to be collectively present with some unadorned, harsh truths about the world at this moment; our ritual patterns and emergent unisons offer a slowly evolving emotional correlate to his work.

We’re excited to share this project with CAP UCLA audiences. We’ve performed this project more than a dozen times, but this will be a special version of Blind Spot with guest artist Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpet superstar and another longtime collaborator of mine who will be no stranger to listeners.

—Vijay Iyer

I know of no artist more alert to improvisation’s inextricability from composition than Vijay Iyer. I was an avid listener of his for many years, and during that time I became a friend. Then a collaborative phase began a few years ago, and that has been such a joy. We first did the Open City suite, composed for a big band in which all the members were virtuosi. A kind of super band. And now there’s Blind Spot which brings together images, words, and music in a more elusive way. Blind Spot is different each time we do it. When the lights go down, I don’t know what the opening notes are going to be, and when we get to the end of the piece, I don’t know whether we are going to end with a feeling of peace or sorrow. What I do know is that there are a five of us on stage, listening intently to each other, using a sequence of photographs I’ve taken around the world as a kind of score. A multipartite co-creation happens. The audience is part of that too: the intensity of the audience’s listening amplifies the emotional precision of the musicians.

This is the magic of live performance. Questions of scenography and sound quality aside, sitting at home watching something on your computer couldn’t begin to capture the high wire emotion that results from seeing something unfold in real time and in actual space. Of the many different ways I present my work, doing Blind Spot with this band is for me the most moving and most satisfying.

—Teju Cole