Category Archives: Youth

Collaboration: Canby HS Dance Team

Hi! It’s been awhile. But for great reasons! I’ve been working on lots of projects in the last few months. Here’s a little about one of them.

The Project

Canby High has a team of about 25 dancers who participate in large dance competitions around the region. The dances are performed on a large gymnasium floor, with some sort of scenery specific to the concept of the piece. They have been working with choreographer James Healey for the past few years, and have made some stunning work. This last October, we began a conversation about masks they could wear… on the backs of their heads.

The Process

The concept had to do with shifting perception and multiple ways of seeing. So my goal was to conceive of a design that would come alive on the performer with all of the limbs moving slightly differently to how we are accustomed.

James shared some images and we talked about the feeling the masks should have. I sculpted with these emotions in mind, and also tried to capture the faces in a series of planes, slightly abstracting them.

We knew the rest of the design would be in blacks, grays, and whites, in keeping the conceptual element of one way vs. many ways. It was decided that I would form the masks, and the arts students at Canby would paint them using my advice.

 

The Performances

The dancers came into my studio early in the process to determine how the masks would need to be arranged to carry out the choreography. They were so much fun! And they were very excited about the  masks… which I think you can see in some of the photos below.

 

State Champs
OSAA State Dance/Drill Champions

Here are some videos of the final performances!

View 1
View 2

A summer of puppetry & dance

I had an amazing summer of work, which has lead right into some great projects this fall. I have been so occupied with doing, I haven’t had much time to share.. so here are just a few quick highlights!

The Creation Story: Lincoln Center Education & Carmen DeLavallade

After taking part in a second summer of Lincoln Center Education’s Teaching Artist Training program this July, I had an excellent opportunity to put those new and exciting ideas directly in to practice. Working for LCE at the nearby Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, I lead experiential workshops to introduce a group of seniors and a group of youth to the immense body of work of the late renaissance man Geoffrey Holder.

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Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Using found materials to create costumes. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Looking one of Geoffrey Holder's pieces after making some art together. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Looking one of Geoffrey Holder’s pieces after making some art together.
Photo: Šara Stranovsky

Then we moved on to the next phase of our work, in collaboration with the wonderful and imaginative Chris Green.  Chris designed a number of puppet images (based on the work of Holder) to be used in a performance of The Creation Story by Holder’s wife and longtime collaborator, Carmen DeLavallade. Working with Chris, Carmen, and her team, I engaged the students in finding the movement to bring each of these images to life.

Building ensemble with the cast. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Building ensemble with the cast.
Photo: Šara Stranovsky
A bear mask I made from a sieve. Photo: Lucy Gram
A bear mask I made from a sieve.
Photo: Lucy Gram
Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Exploring the movement possibilities with the students. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Students did research to find the best way to bring the pinwheel paper cup bird puppets to life. They determined the criteria for success, and we used that information to coach them for the final performance. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
In rehearsal! Photo: Lucy Gram
In rehearsal!
Photo: Lucy Gram
What is the nature of a rainbow? How does it move? How does it feel? Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Researching the performative nature of a rainbow: How does it move? How does it feel?
Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Glittery fish puppets. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Taking a rest from flight. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Taking a rest from flight. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Photo: Lucy Gram
Carmen DeLavallade, surrounded by birds, flowers, and the sun at the Damrosch Park Amphitheatre. Photo: Lucy Gram
 Photo: Šara Stranovsky
In just one week, our ensemble did so much! Here’s a shot from the performance of The Creation Story. Photo: Šara Stranovsky
Chris and I with Carmen after the performance. Photo: Lucy Gram
Chris and I with the generous and legendary Carmen DeLavallade after the performance.
Photo: Lucy Gram
The youth perform a post show bird attack! Okay, I egged them on a little :)
The youth staging a post-show bird attack!
Okay, I egged them on a little 🙂

Hagoromo: Wendy Whelan at BAM

Right after that project, I was lucky enough to continue working with Chris as  a rehearsal puppeteer in the early stages of development of Hagoromo. The show, premiering at the BAM Next Wave Festival in November 2015, is a huge collaborative undertaking. It stars Wendy Whelan, former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and features musicians, puppets, a mezzo-soprano, tenor, and a large chorus. Check out the NY Times article!

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Discovering the way for three people to move as one being.
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The first steps are… literally that. We had to uncover the way to do a basic walk before we could learn to dance.

The story is adaptation of a Japanese Noh play. For this multidisciplinary opera, there are two life-size  puppets based on body casts of the incredibly talented Wendy Whelan. Our initial job was to work out the kinks.

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Both doing and watching are necessary to learn how to successfully bring a puppet to life.
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The dance of the puppeteers is a separate, but equally interesting, dance to that of the puppet itself.
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Wendy and Chris discussing the fine points of puppet capability. Many of our rehearsal discoveries lead to small tweaks in the design.
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And then we dance again!

Find out more about the Hagoromo performance and process through this excellent resource on the BAM website.

And watch a video of me with Catherine Gowl and Pepper Fajans as we puppeteer in a mirror exercise with Wendy Whelan.

It's a small puppet world! One of the other awesoem rehearsal puppeteers, Katie Melby, had previously performed with my talented sister-in-law, Katie Kaufmann, in the Twin Cities!
It’s a small puppet world! One of the other awesome rehearsal puppeteers, Katie Melby, had previously performed with my talented sister-in-law, Katie Kaufmann, in the Twin Cities!

Shots from the rehearsal room

I spent this last week in Pune, rehearsing with the cast at KCT.  We had more fittings and used the masks in rehearsal to discover any potential difficulties in comfort and sightlines.

Sunset Elephant!  I love it when I can conceal the eye-hole the actor looks through.
Sunset Elephant! I love it when I can conceal the eye-hole the actor looks through.
Mountain Monsters: Obsidian, Dacite and Copper. These characters hurl rocks (puppeteered by other cast members) down the mountain at Maya and her companions.
Mountain Monsters: Obsidian, Dacite and Copper. These characters hurl rocks (puppeteered by other cast members) down the mountain at Maya and her companions.
Hey Monkey Monkey!  I used close-fitting face masks for the monkeys, and you can see the actor's eyes move.
Hey Monkey Monkey! I used close-fitting face masks for the monkeys, and you can see the actor’s eyes move.

In the second act, there is a large dance featuring all sorts of animals, in a variety of masks styles that cover different amounts of the actors’ faces.

Queen Tiger leads a celebration dance
Queen Tiger leads a celebration dance. As we rehearsed, we only had to change minor details in spacing. Success!
Resting deer.
Deepak takes a rest in the dance rehearsal. Wearing a mask can be exhausting when you do the dance several times in a row!
Beast Feast!
Beast Feast! The Queen Tiger’s mask is based on a bicycle helmet. When dancing, it still rocked front to back too much, so we added a bamboo back harness (not pictured).

We also were finally able to try the full masks of the serpent Ska. There are some special tricks that these masks have to accomplish in the play, including the removal of three of the heads.

Priyanka surrounded by the sinful faces of the serpent Ska.
Priyanka surrounded by the sinful faces of the serpent Ska.

Making it work

As a child,  I would often hear my father say: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” The most pressing thing on my mind at the time was: Why would one want to skin a cat at all? 

I still haven’t answered that question. However, I do know there’s more than one way to get something done.  And I have been trying a good number of approaches as I work on the masks for the Maya project: different styles, different materials, different processes.

This (currently ear-less) cat was sculpted on top of a bucket on top of an old dabba of ghee on a pedestal, and skinned with papier mache.
Ska, the 9 headed serpent, nears completion!  The foam snake body was sculpted by Sunil, and I made  the vice-laden faces to attach.
Ska, the 9 headed serpent, nears completion! The foam snake body was sculpted by Sunil, and I made the vice-laden faces to attach.

There’s also more than one way to feel successful. I think some of the success of a mask is measured by its accessibility. It is a really satisfying feeling when a person can pick up a mask I’ve made and instantly feel that they know what they will do with it. There is a feeling that the mask is strongly and clearly communicating its nature to the performer.

This parrot mask, modeled perfectly by  Shahish,  was built on basket augmented by newspaper, cardboard, and cello tape.
This parrot mask, modeled perfectly by Shahish, was built on basket augmented by newspaper, cardboard, and cello tape.

I’m not trying to say that masks can’t or shouldn’t be mysterious. Many a mask can take some work to get to know and to perform well. However, when there is a sense of recognition in the actor’s eyes because they can intuit the nature of the character, or see the possibilities in the mask, I feel I’ve done a good job.

Avian Evolution

Materials, working conditions, and needs of the performance are often in flux, so I find that adaptability is key. I have my preferred methods of creation when on my home turf, but while in India there are a number of differences. For example, used cardboard boxes, brown bags, and newspaper are not easy obtainium in Mumbai as they are in the US.  Here they are commodities that can be purchased if you know where to look. The challenge can then become to use what you have in front of you to get the work done.

Phase 1: A costume mock-up before I arrived
Phase 1: A costume mock-up before I arrived
Phase 2: Trying to improve the original
Phase 2: Adding detail and dimension to the original
Phase 3: Altering the position of the mask
Phase 3: Altering the position of the mask
Phase 4: Cutting it all up and putting it back together.
Phase 4: Cutting it all up and putting it back together.
Phase 5: Testing the altered mask on a new volunteer. Accessibility—and wearability—achieved!
Phase 5: Testing the altered mask on a new volunteer. Accessibility and wearability achieved!
Phase 6: Painted and rehearsal-ready!
Phase 6: Painted and rehearsal-ready!

Furthermore when working on a project as large as Maya, often previously approved ideas need to change slightly to serve the show. Sometimes the choreography, blocking, and the style of mask just don’t synch up and to be successful we find how we might change.In some cases, the choreography can be altered with minimal fussiness. In the case of our peacock character, Prasad was so amazing and alive in physical characterization that it was better to change the position of the mask to match what he was proposing.

Five Sprites, Please

IMG_4373Just a few days before all the basic structures and paint jobs were due, I was asked to make the antlers of the deer masks removable. This would permit easier shipping from venue to venue on the tour. I decided to use old bottles and their lids as the mechanism for this request. A 600 ml Sprite bottle had the perfect neck, but also a very short lid to which I could attach the wire and foam antlers. But it would have to do. I went out into the madness of the Dadar market to purchase five Sprites, trying to decide whether I would drink any or just pour it out. It was a hot day. But I couldn’t find a single one. Then I found a plastics shop (owned by Shahish, incidentally. See parrot pic) that carried long neck bottles with tall lids. Success!

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Thanks to my good friend Amy Jo, who shared this idea with me years ago.
Mama Tiger with ears and paint. atop a bike helmet, atop an actor.
Mama Tiger with ears and paint. atop a bike helmet, atop an actor.

The Maya Project

I’m traveling to India! I will be volunteering  the next two months for the Maya Project, a joint project of two great organizations, Teach for India and Artists Striving to End Poverty. It’s a wonderful project, aimed at the empowerment of children to creatively work for the change they would like to see.

I will be working in Mumbai and Pune for the Maya Project.
I will be working in Mumbai and Pune for the Maya Project.

A significant part of this program is the touring of an original musical titled “Maya.” I will be making about 60 masks and puppets for this fantastic story! Nine-headed snakes, a rhino, and soul-sucking shadows are just the tip of the iceberg. The plot involves the daughter of the Kingdom of Light and her quest to keep the world in light through the lifting of three curses on the kingdom. She can only fix these problems, as it turns out, by finding her inner strength, compassion and wisdom.

This show will be performed by about 90 kids from the lower and middle classes for thousands of other kids around India. Through this project, thirty of the performers have been investigating these themes and their real world applications for the last year.  Though the performers and audience may experience the themes of the show in slightly different ways, this project is a great way to inspire youth to share their voices and their light.

 

From Teach For India’s website:

“In India today, 4% of our children never start school. 58% don’t complete primary schools. And 90% don’t complete school. At Teach For India, the fact that only 10% of our children go on to college both saddens and angers us.

Teach For India exists because of a deep belief that every child can and must attain an excellent education. Teach For India exists to prove that no child’s demographics should determine his or her destiny. To us, the end of educational inequity is the freedom for all children to have the opportunity to reach their potential. And the day that all children reach their potential is the day that India reaches her potential.

Teach For India believes that that day will come in our lifetime.

Teach For India believes that it will take a movement of leaders with the idealism, belief, skills and commitment to actualize this vision. We are committed to finding, developing and supporting India’s brightest, most promising leaders for this to happen.”

Ganesha (depicted here in small finger puppet form) is a remover of obstacles and bringer of wisdom. He is also associated with new beginnings.
Ganesha (depicted here in small finger puppet form) is a remover of obstacles and bringer of wisdom. He is also associated with new beginnings.

This is a hugely significant project, and I’m honored to be a part of it. What could be a more fitting project for me than one that involves creating masks and puppets, working with you, and working to make the world better?

I will be flying to Mumbai this week to begin work. Many have already been so generous with their presence, advice, hospitality, funds, warm wishes and spirit. Thank you all. I can’t wait to pay it  all forward!

Stay Tuned!