Random Acts of Art

News_Nancy_tripping over art_WITS students_Menil exhibit space

Reprinted from Culturemap.

What did you do this summer? I cleaned about 100 junk drawers in the process of selling my family home in Buffalo, NY., and found a gorgeous tabletop biography of Anna Pavlova. Just recently, I learned that my own ballet teacher, Kathleen Crofton, known as “Pavlova’s baby,” danced in her company during the 1920s. No way was I going to leave this treasure behind. My ballet roots run deep according to the contents of my junk drawers.

It’s no wonder that I’m called an arts evangelist; every other object I came across in my house seemed to have something to do with dance, music, theater, visual arts or literature. My life path left its mark in the remnants of my childhood home. From a reel-to-reel recording of Joan Sutherland singing Norma to a dusty collection of prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I literally grew up tripping over art.

All of this got me wondering, how do we attach to art?From a reel-to-reel recording of Joan Sutherland singing Norma to a dusty collection of prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I literally grew up tripping over art. All of this got me wondering, how do we attach to art?

Finnish choreographer Jorma Elocame to dance via ice hockey. Watching Houston Ballet perform his wild ride of a ballet ONE/end/ONE, I wondered what other movement practice inhabited his body. With Elo’s daredevil lifts, swooping contours and breathtakingly reckless partnering, hockey seems about right. I’m heading to see Elo’s piece again when Houston Ballet makes their big return to New York City at The Joyce on Oct. 11-14.

This weekend you can watch Houston Ballet principal Simon Ball dancing Jerome Robbins’ romantic classic, In the Night. Both Ball and Robbins came to dance by hanging around their sisters’ ballet classes. Aren’t you glad their mothers didn’t have anything else for them to do back then?

Robert Moody, a guest conductor for River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO), has a great story on becoming a musician. Moody is music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony in North Carolina. He did not grow up in a musical family at all, it was a prank that led him to the cello, when his 4rd grade girlfriend signed him up for a demonstration on string instruments as a joke.

“As a 9-year old, I had no idea how to explain any of that to a teacher, so instead, I just got up and went to the class. I started on the cello, and that is why I’m a musician today,” writes Moody in the ROCO program notes.

I attended the superb concert last season, and extend my personal thank you to his childhood girlfriend.

When Houston native Everette Harp performed at the Hobby Center as part of a Musiqa benefit, he mentioned growing up in a house with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Harp spoke honestly about what the impact of Davis’ seminal jazz album had on him.

Later in the evening, Ricky Polidore gave his now-famous speech on exposing kids to art. It’s a plea to keep arts in children’s lives as moving as Jane Weiner’s hilarious rant/dance called Salt, where she argues that art is as essential as salt for our subsistence. I have no trouble believing that some of Weiner and Polidore’s students will end up populating Houston’s future audience seats and stages.

Let’s hear it for the schools

Certainly schools play a huge role in the attachment process. Bravo to Todd Frazier and his cohorts over at Houston Arts Partners for making it easier for educators and arts organizations to connect. I’m looking forward to their conference next Tuesday at the MFAH, especially Musiqa chief Anthony Brandt’s talk, “Why Young Minds Need Art.”We can’t leave it all for the schools, arts organizations or even parents. Life unfolds more happenstance than that.

“I’m using brain science to put forth an argument that, I hope will be both clear and convincing,” says Brandt. “I’ve never worked harder to prepare a talk.”

Houston artists are making a difference in the city’s classrooms. It works best when, like Writers in the Schools (WITS), it’s not a passive experience. For example, this summer, young writers visited Houston Ballet to investigate everything from tutus to toe shoes. Writing is a form of attachment. WITS partners with numerous arts organizations, including The Menil, Art League Houston, Blaffer Art Museum, among others.

Yet, it’s too much of a burden to think that the school system is our sole exposure to the arts. We can’t leave it all for the schools, arts organizations or even parents. Life unfolds more happenstance than that.

An arts version of Pay It Forward

Perhaps we should go the way of BookCrossing, a practice of leaving a book in public places. How could we use that concept to bring art more into the world? We could leave a Houston Met class schedule, a pack of colored pencils, the Glassell School course catalog, a magazine folded to a enticing story, Matthew Dirst’s Grammy nominated CD, or a pair of Miller Outdoor Theatre tickets.

The Trey McIntyre Project has a blast dancing in the streets, cafes and shops of whatever city they happened to be visiting. Or imagine the delight of pedestrians watching a shoot from Jordan Matter’s Dancers Among us. He literally sneaks dance into the urban landscape. I’m just dying to trip over some of those mini figures in The Little People Project: abandoning little people on the street since 2006. What wonder!

If random acts of kindness work, why not random acts of art? Although can we hold on the flash mobs? Once they are on commercials, they are done for me.

As I was scurrying about my Buffalo house for one last look, I found a grand illuminated volume of William Blake’s poems and prints. Just before I stuffed it in my suitcase, I thought to myself, no, don’t take it, leave it for the next set of dwellers.

Years from now, I picture a young poet talking about finding this book his grandmother’s house. It could happen.

Now go leave some art out there for people to trip over.

Image: WITS students from St. Michael Catholic School take an exclusive tour of the Menil exhibit space and write about what they see. Photo by David A. Brown

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Art Wakes You Up

Walter De Maria, Bel Air Trilogy, 2000–2011 (detail), stainless steel rod with 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air two-tone hardtop Photo by Robert McKeever Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery/© Walter de Maria


Reprinted from Culturemap

Sleepy? Lethargic? Listless? Having trouble focusing?  Don’t remember what you did yesterday? Walking around the house in daze, looking for your glasses while wearing them?

I have just the thing for you — art.

Yes, you heard it here first. Actually, I heard it elsewhere first, but I’m the one selling art as the wake-up cure. If all this art-making holds the potential to not only bring something of beauty into the world but also wakes us up, you have to admit it’s considerably more alluring than gulping an energy drink.

I’ve heard it all: art generates cash when we eat out, park and pay the babysitter. Art helps kids learn just about every subject, or at least make it more interesting. And then there’s my favorite rant, art has value, now just get over and on with it.

But when I heard Anthony Brandt utter, with a mischievous smile, “I protect consciousness, what do you do?” during his talk “Why Young Minds Need Art” to an eager crowd of educators and arts administrators at the first Houston Art Partners conference held at the MFAH last month, I thought, well now, that’s a new one. The premise of Brandt’s theory is that art has the power to wake us out of our coma though a process of bending, breaking and blending an idea.

Brandt is an associate professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and artistic director of Musiqa. He runs the popular Exploring the Mind through Music conferences and likes to hang out with neuroscientists. Later this season he teams up with celeb scientist/authorDavid Eagleman for Maternity – Women’s Voices Through the Ages, premiering with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra on April 21. The guy knows his way around gray matter.

But let’s let the brainy composer speak: “Human minds constantly make a choice — prune neural networks for efficiency and reliability, which removes options and makes the behavior unconscious; or allow redundancy to thrive and promote networking, which offers flexibility and allows the conscious mind to participate,” says Brandt. “Activities that involve drilling and rote learning lead down the path to streamlining; that’s why habits are so hard to break.  Activities that offer novelty, problem-solving and subjective reasoning keep the brain’s options open. That’s how the arts protect consciousness: They fight automation and keep us awake to our experiences.”

Here’s how the three B’s rouse us out of our automated trance: Bending involves a transformation to the original. Breaking happens when we smash up the pieces to make something new. Blending occurs when two sources merge.

It’s no wonder I could penetrate Stanton Welch’s angled offshoots from classical technique in Indigo, during Houston Ballet’s recent performances. In fact, much of Welch’s work bends classical forms to new contours, summoning many a “how did they do that?” sort of experience. Nice, Mr. Welch, keep that up. I wasn’t alone in my accolades; the audience went bananas. We like waking up when it comes to ballet.

Amy Ell, artistic director of Vault, challenged the norm of partnering inTorn as part of her DiverseWorks residency ConTornTion. Bending the rules of aerial dance, Ell twists the rules of gravity as the dancers lift each other through novel uses of rock climbing harnesses. Later in the piece, a trio hanging from the ceiling further skews our perspective by dancing perpendicular to a wall. The founder of “area” dance, the choreographer considers walls, ceilings and floors all reasonable places to dance. “Activities that offer novelty, problem-solving and subjective reasoning keep the brain’s options open. That’s how the arts protect consciousness: They fight automation and keep us awake to our experiences,” says Musiqa artistic director Anthony Brandt.

If Houston Ballet and Vault woke up my eyes, then theCatastrophic Theatre woke up my ears in their recent production of Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,running through Oct. 23 at their Sul Ross office. The entire play rolls off the tongue in rhyme. You don’t want to miss a word. Even the title represents a clever arrangement of words. The set-up of two William Blake scholars facing the aftermath of a night of public love-making on the yard of the their fledgling liberal arts college makes for a rich language feast. Blake liked to mess with the order of words, too. In fact, “I happy am” from Songs of Innocence factors into the drama big time. Maher bends language with a breathtaking originality. The terrific cast has a blast with Maher’s word wonk ways.

For breaking, head over to 3705 Lyons St. to see Dan Havel and Dean Ruck’s Fifth Ward Jam, made possible in part by a 2008 Houston Arts Alliance Artist and Neighborhood Project grant. The public art for the everyman team, who gave us the sucked in house called Inversion, sure know how to smash up a couple of bungalows to show us what breaking looks like.

I found blending in the most unusual place — the 18th Century — as part of MFAH’s Life and Luxury: The Art of Living in Eighteenth-Century Paris.French aristocrats’ savvy silversmiths merged their designs with the food underneath it. Who would imagine broccoli would blend so well with silver?

Bending, breaking and blending are harder to discern at The Menil inWalter De Maria’s Bel Air Trilogy, featuring three red shiny 1955 Bel Air Chevrolets, each speared by a 12-foot-long stainless steel rod, resulting is something new, bent, broken, blended and quite extraordinary.

See what I mean? Nothing refreshes our neural networks like art.

As we continue to quantify the value of art in our children’s lives, Brandt’s thesis may be the one with staying power. Too often, we speak about creativity as a vague, mysterious thing. Clearly defining the territory, as Brandt elegantly did, elevates the discussion. Musiqa will be doing their part in that mission on Oct. 25 through 28 with their NEA-funded school programs Around the World and Musiqa Remix on Dec. 6 and 7.

I’ve often gravitated toward art as a way to change my brain, my mood, or just to jar me into a new perspective. As I traipse the the city, eyes wide open, I see much to keep me awake.

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Art & Memory

Lorena Guillén Vaschetti, Untitled VI from the series Historia, memoria y silencios (History, Memory and Silences), 2009, giclée print

Reprinted from Culturemap.

I found the Lincoln Logs yesterday. What’s curious about such a find is that I bought them for my boys when they were little because it reminded me of my own childhood.

I exist in a cloud of memory these days, having recently dismantled my childhood home. A year ago, I called my two sons into a family meeting and told them, “We’re ditching the burbs boys, go upstairs and put your childhood in a box.” And so they did, while I walk around as some kind of zombie curator of family nostalgia.

Now, with the family photos packed up in storage and the house transformed into a neutral zone, I call “chez creamy and dreamy,” the house has lost its soul.

Artists have better things to do than cling to a set of dusty Lincoln Logs. Examples of artists sourcing memory abound in Houston right now starting with the FotoFest International Discoveries III exhibit, through Dec. 22,  followed by Becky Beaullieu Valls and visual artist Babette Beaullieu’sMemoirs of a Sistahood- Chapter Three: Ava Maria at DiverseWorks, tonight through Saturday and finally, Brandy Holmes’ KriegieWartime Log, based on the POW Journal of Warren E. Arieux, at Divergence Music & Arts,  Saturday through Monday.

Left in the exact tight rubberbanded bundles, one of Vashetti’s photos lets us experience the treasure of memory, revealing its hidden quality instead of the image itself.

Photographer Kyu-Ho Kim knows about losing his home. The body of work now showing as part of International Discoveries III includes striking photos of his demolished residence.

Kim is from the Bukgajwa-dong section of South Korea, which recently embarked on an aggressive redevelopment plan called, “New Town.” Barbed wire and sharply angled concrete formations take on an eerie, bittersweet tone in Kim’s lens. These otherworldly landscapes suggest an inbetween space, between decay and rebuilding. There exists a whiff of sadness, tinged with an emotional distance. From rubble, an unseen beauty emerges. “Your work makes something beautiful out of destruction,” I told the artist. He nodded yes, smiling.

Hidden and invented

Lorena Guillen Vaschetti rescued what was left of her family photos from the trash. With her mother and herself being the only living members of a large Italian family living in Argentina, the discarded photos took on an added meaning.

Yet, it’s what she did with them that’s so stunning. Left in the exact tight rubberbanded bundles, one of Vashetti’s photos lets us experience the treasure of memory, revealing its hidden quality instead of the image itself. In another photo, she manipulates a family photo by bringing out more detail in the part that coincides with her own memory and blurs what is less clear. Memory is a murky thing, Vaschetti leaves the mystery intact. “Memory is not necessarily the truth, it’s our version,” says Babette Beaullieu.”Remembering the past changes you in the present.”

British photographer Marcia Michael was faced with a different problem when she considered her family history.

When she looked for historical representations of black people in the U.K. she found few, so she did what any resourceful artist would do, she created her own archive, appropriating the style of historical anthropometric photography.

Michael’s powerful portraits have created a second history that dwells in loss and reinvention of personal legacy. Chatting with Micheal proved illuminating. “Photography often speaks to how a culture values people,” the artist told me. How true, the lens can indeed judge us.

Our version of the truth

I ran into Valls walking in a dream state among the artifacts of her life and work on the DiverseWorks stage earlier this week. Tattered lace dresses hang from narrow white totems, while delicate wood canoes dangle from the ceiling.

“What’s that?” I ask Valls, looking at a macabre wire and wood sculpture of a woman, that is created during the course of the evening by her sister.

“It’s female,” she replies. “That’s all I know.”

The Beaullieu sisters revel in twisting family tales into compelling interdisciplinary dance/theater. Now on their third chapter, they hone in on their Catholic upbringing, specifically the Virgin Mary, a key denizen of their hometown Lafayette, La. “It’s so satisfying to create art around memories,” says Valls. “I find truth and honesty in my work.”

Yet the team doesn’t always remember everything the same way, which, in this case, makes the process all the richer.

“Memory is not necessarily the truth, it’s our version,” says Beaullieu.”Remembering the past changes you in the present.”

I’ll never forget their very first sistahood piece, which used family films, sculpture and dance to spin a tale of growing up in the 1950s. By the end, I felt like a sista. According to Valls, that’s the point.

“I find personal meaning in my own narrow stories,” she says. “I’m a daughter, sister, mother and wife, and use my place in the nuclear family to connect to a universal sisterhood.”

Holmes found something considerably more potent than an old toy in her grandfather’s POW journal. “My jaw dropped as I turned the pages,” she recalls.

The treasure trove revealed entries from numerous soldiers, and included poems, drawings, jokes and even recipes. Out of the these pages, Holmes has fashioned a devised theater piece with the assistance of aHouston Arts Alliance grant.

Although all the activities of the play come from the journal and her research about the Stalag Luft 1 camp, Holmes has created fictional characters,who each deal with the stress of confinement in their own ways. She even brought in actors Philip Hayes, John Dunn, Alex Randall and Chris Viles into the research process.

“Hopefully, the play does justice to my grandfather’s journey,” she adds.

Memories transformed, invented and transcended, leave it to artists to make more of a memento.

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Ditta Miranda Jasjfi in Vollmond in Wim Wenders' Pina Photo by Donata Wenders/©Neue Road Movies GmbH. A Sundance Selects release

Update:  Wenders’ Pina was sold out at Cinema Arts Festival Houston (CAFH).  I got to introduce the film too. CAFH’s artistic director introduced me mentioning my frequent emails to him about bringing this film.  I have been thanked numerous times for my pestitude. 

Reprinted from Culturemap. 

Walking down a dark street on a balmy Austin October night, a truck driver stopped to ask me if he knew where he was supposed to pick up some redwood trees. Normally, I would think that was an odd request, but still under the deep spell of Pina Bausch’s Nur Du (Only You), I replied calmly, “Right here.”

Redwood trees, mountains of carnations, a pile of dirt or a carpet of velvet green turf, Bausch’s theatrically charged dances spilled out on otherworldly surfaces during the course of her unparalleled career. This November, Bausch’s dances will be projected in 3D in Wim Wender’sextraordinary tribute to the seminal German choreographer, Pina, one of the many arts-focused films headlining the 2011 Cinema Arts Festival, that runs Nov. 9-13 in Houston.

Pina is also part of the Festival’s international thrust, which includes films by Patricio Guzman (Chile), Zhu Wen (China) and Mahmoud Kaabour (Lebanon).

There hasn’t been this much excitement in the dance film world since Natalie Portman flapped her bloody feathered wings in Black Swan,screened at last year’s Cinema Arts Festival. In fact, Festival curator Richard Herskowitz  has quite a track record for including significant dance films; in 2010, Frederick Wiseman’s, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, proved a Festival favorite.There hasn’t been this much excitement in the dance film world since Natalie Portman flapped her bloody feathered wings in Black Swan, screened at last year’s Festival. In fact, curator Richard Herskowitz  has quite a track record for including significant dance films.

The year was 1996 when Tanztheater Wuppertal performed Nur Du at University of Texas as part of a larger project examining Bausch’s work and contribution to dance theater history. I had the extraordinary privilege, courtesy of the Goethe Institute and UT, to spend two weeks in Austin, taking daily class with the veteran Tanztheater dancer Lutz Förster, and attending lectures on the development of dance theater. Förster not only taught us a section from Bausch’s 1980, my favorite piece of hers, but even shared some of Bausch’s psychologically rigorous creative process. Dancers coming of age during the 1980s straddled the post-modern aesthetic and the emotionally brutal edge of Bausch’s brand of depth truth telling.

Although she had a distinct dance signature, Bausch embodied a fusion of influences. She studied with German modern dance pioneer Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang School in Essen. She also spent a year at Juilliard School, where her teachers included Antony Tudor, José Limón, Alfredo Corvino and Margret Craske. As a dancer, she worked with Paul Taylor, Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer. After she returned to Germany in the late 1960s, she eventually took over Wuppertal Ballet (renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal) in 1973.

Born in 1940, Bausch lived through war, violence, epic changes in Europe, all of which played out in her work. Yet, it’s the personal nature of the dancers’ interactions that she is most remembered for. Whatever story unfolded in front of us, it was danced by real people, who delved deeply into their own lives to make something authentic happen on stage. Through athletic movement, a keen eye for set design elements, an uncanny musicality and shreds of a fractured narrative, Bausch let us in on a pre-verbal and unconscious layer of expression. Her name and the work she created while directing Tanztheater Wuppertal defined the dance/theater genre from 1970s until her sudden death on June 30, 2009, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer.

When I first heard that a Bausch film was in the works, I was excited. When I found out that it would be directed by Wenders, I was ecstatic. When I learned that Pina would be coming to Houston, well, simply starry eyed. The legendary director of Paris, TexasThe Buena Vista Social Club and numerous other films, seemed a perfect fit for the choreographer’s enigmatic world. (Wender’s wistful Wings of Desire, selected by SWAMP’s Mary Lampe as part of MFAH’s Movies Houstonians Love, screens on Nov. 7.)

I’m not surprised that Wender’s film is 3D because Bausch’s work operated on numerous dimensions, drawing from dreams, personal memory and psychological investigations of human behavior. The 3D medium may be the best way to capture her raw physicality. It was Wenders’ use of the 3D technology that originally drew Herskowitz to the film.

“His use of 3D is innovative and appropriate. The viewer is drawn into her dances.” says Herskowitz. “I’ve admired Wenders’ work for a long time, yet it’s interesting to note that his arts documentaries are among his finest works. Buena Vista Social Club was a knock out. It makes sense to include a favorite director working at full tilt.”

Herskowitz is also a Bausch fan. “I saw many of her pieces at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and have always revered her work,” he adds.

Pina includes excerpts of such ground breaking works as Cafe MullerLe Sacre du Printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof, along with archival footage of the choreographer at work and short solo performances by her one-of-a-kind dancers. Wenders enlisted Bausch’s methodology of using questions to drive the action. The solo sections, filmed in and around Wuppertal, derive from Wenders’ inquiry into the dancers’ memories.

For years, I thought nothing of driving four hours to see her work at BAM. I’ll never forget sneezing through 1980, which sprawled out on a bed of real green grass. The film’s tag line “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost” cuts to the core of Bausch’s transcendent work. We lost a dance giant when Bausch died. One can only imagine the dances she never got to create.

Wenders’ film draws us back into Bausch’s visceral terrain, honoring her legacy in the process, and letting us take one last spin on the lawn.

Wim Wenders’ Pina

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Puppets among us

Peter Chu of Kidd Pivot in a dress rehearsal of "Dark Matters" Photo by Christopher Duggan

Update: BooTown presents a whole evening of puppet shows, including new work by BooTown and Camela Clements on Oct 29, Nov. 4 & 5 at Caroline Collective. And, get this, there’s a Wozny in the show.   Check out their indiegogo campaign too.

Bobbindoctrin presents My Cold Dead Fingers by Joel Orr, with puppets by Katie Jackson on Nov. 11, 12, 14, 18 and 19 at 14 Pews, which has become puppet central.

Divergence Vocal Theater’s Autumn Soiree on October 14 & 15 included the puppetry of Kelly Switzer along with  singers Misha Penton and Alison Greene; composer, George Hearthco; actor, Jon Harvey; dancer, Meg Brooker;  pianist, Jeremy Wood; and Mini Timmaraju, tabla.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

She could tap dance, effortlessly land in a perfect split, then buoyantly spring some seven feet in the air for a little breast stroke, as if made of nothing more than thread. Did I mention her sky-high extensions?

So, the dancer in question is in fact made of cloth, designed by legendary puppeteer Basil Twist, and deftly manipulated by the astute dancers of Jane Comfort and Company in her Bessie Award-winning piece Underground River, recently performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The dance explores the life force of a young girl in a coma. Somehow, this tiny surrogate gives us a glimpse into the unknowable territory of the unconscious. It’s eerie and uplifting, qualities not usually found on the same stage. Puppets are like that. They are both of and not of this world, connected to and separate from those who bestow them life.

Somehow, this tiny surrogate gives us a glimpse into the unknowable territory of the unconscious. It’s eerie and uplifting, qualities not usually found on the same stage. Puppets are like that. They are both of and not of this world, connected to and separate from those who bestow them life.

A little closer to home, Paedarchy Puppets and Camella Clementspresent Fantasies of Stabbing Edison in the Neck: A Nikola Tesla Puppet Show Friday night at 14 Pews. As a Tesla freak myself (he did his alternating current thing right in my hometown of Buffalo), I can imagine these handmade actors are perfectly cast to reveal the dark side of light.

I’ve been creeped out by puppets ever since Pinocchio turned into a donkey in Disney’s 1940 film. Still, I get excited when a sub-human presence enters the stage. By some strange suspension of disbelief, puppeteers have the power to make their own bodies invisible, directing our attention to what would be a lifeless object without them. It’s animation at its deepest level, with various layers of scaffolding visible, depending on the type of puppet.

Twist, a household name in theater circles, is fluent in many styles of puppetry, much of which has been seen in Houston. Houston Grand Opera‘s production of Hansel and Gretel  featured the then HGO Studio artist Liam Bonner stuck inside Twist’s gigantic machine puppet. WhenSociety for the Performing Arts brought in the Joe Goode Performance Group, a non-human dancer mesmerized us in Wonderboy. The last timePilobolus popped in for their acro-candy style of dance making, they showed off Twist’s finesse with shadows in Darkness and Light, also on the SPA stage. I just recently watched a DVD of Twist’s Petrushka, enormously weird and entertaining.

It’s been a summer of puppets for me, first with Underground River, followed by Kidd Pivot in Crystal Pite’s Dark Matters, a sinister and captivating investigation into the creation myth. Maybe you caught Joey Fauerso’s subversive Me Time at Box 13 ArtSpace, where the artist makes out with a policeman, a firefighter and construction worker puppets. Awkard and hilarious. “The object of my affection is literally an extension and projection of self, reflecting many of the highly narcissistic romantic descriptions of erotic love,” writes Fauerso in her artist statement.

We can’t talk about puppets in Houston without mentioning Bobbindoctrin. “I think they’re from Eastern Europe,” I told Sixto Wagan, leaving DiverseWorks after their production based on Tolstoy’s Ivan the Fool several years back. “No they’re not,” replied Wagan. “I work here; they’re from Houston.”

I guess that’s how alien puppets feel to me. Bobbindoctrin founder Joel Orr has a show coming up at 14 Pews in November, in addition to his annual festival next spring. 14 Pews’ Artistic Director Cressandra Thibodeaux is also making a film about Orr (and others), aptly titled, Puppet Doc.

Houston has a burst of puppet action coming down the pike. Bobbindoctrin veterans Mike and Kelly Switzer’s Bedtime Stories headlines FrenetiCore’s Houston Fringe Festival, Aug. 12-14, atSuper Happy Fun Land. Mike is a former member of the Puppet Liberation Front and Kelly is an Assistant Professor of drama at University of Houston-Downtown.

Bedtime Stories is a written/salvaged/compiled piece. I see the script as a chance to hear some snippets of my favorite conspiracy theory literature spoken through the mouth of a puppet,” says Mike. “Kelly has made very traditional looking ‘kids show’ kind of puppets, so having this weird stuff come out of the father’s mouth adds a kind of poetry to it.”

“Puppetry forces a little alienation on the audience, analyzing what they are seeing and feeling rather than being swept up in the moment.”

Kelly prefers the separation puppets allow. “I like the fourth wall the puppets create,” says Kelly. “Puppetry forces a little alienation on the audience, analyzing what they are seeing and feeling rather than being swept up in the moment.”

BooTown goes to puppet town this fall with a pair of shows. “A Bloody Puppet Show is based on the Sally Jessy Rafael episode with metal band GWAR as the musical guest, only we are definitely deviating from history,” says Emily Hynds, BooTown’s Artistic Director. “A Sandbox Love Story follows, which is about two kids who like each other but don’t know how to express it, playground style. We’re talking hair pulling and sand-castle-push-overing.”

Hynds has also enlisted Clements‘ assistance for both of these projects. “I’ve helped to conceptualize puppet designs that reflect what the puppets actually need to be able to do,” says Clements, whose play, Beast Baby Hospital, was a standout at the most recent Bobbindoctrin Festival.

Clements has some serious puppet connections. Her husband, Kevin Taylor, has been working with Twist for a decade. The couple met while Taylor was working on HGO’s Hansel and Gretel. (Lots of puppet roads lead to Twist, some to marriage.) Both Clements and Taylor have new fall shows in the works.

I haven’t seen the five Tony Award-winning play War Horse at Lincoln Center, but it’s on my must-see list. Handspring Puppet artists Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are the masterminds behind Joey, the War Horse.  Kohler gets it right in his Ted Talk, when he says, “Puppets have to try to be alive.” No one understood that more than the late Muppet master Jim Henson. Next time I’m in New York a visit to the Museum of Moving Imageto see “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” is in order.

Until then, I’ll hole up with The Dark Crystal knowing full well that Houston is one happening puppet place.

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Your Body: Salt

Jane Weiner of Hope Stone Dance in Salt. Photo by Simon Gentry

Update:  Jane Weiner’s Salt cracks me up every time, then hits me hard on the head with its message, which has really nothing to do with salt, that mysterious substance that keeps us alive while trying to kill us.  At one point, it was a currency. To dive deep into salt’s lore read Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt: A  World History.  Remember to get your yearly check up, because they don’t call high blood pressure the silent killer for nothing.  Keep up with Weiner and Hope Stone dance as well.

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

In her pithy story dance Salt, choreographer Jane Weiner spins a funny tale of a bewitched village that falls under an evil spell when all the salt disappears and suddenly the villagers start dropping like flies. Weiner’s dance draws a parallel between all the unsuspected things that sustain us like dance, art…. and salt. I found out the hard way when a series of fainting spells sent me to my own version of Dr. House. “Do you ever use the salt shaker?” asked my internist. As someone with low blood pressure, to stay conscious I needed to stop my avoidence of salt. And trade water in for a sports drink whenever I felt dizzy.

Dancers rarely worry about getting enough salt. Trained to avoid bloating and apt to skip high-calorie salt-saturated processed foods, most dancers view salt as an enemy. What few realize is how essential a role salt—and salt intake or loss—plays in basic body functions, like muscle contractions. Dietitian Marie Elena Scioscia, who works with dance students at The Ailey School, notes that some dancers’ extremities get cold easily. While there can be many causes, sometimes low blood pressure can be the culprit, since dancers tend to be very fit, lean and eat healthil. These dancers will be able to tolerate, and may even need, a little more salt in their diet.

When we sweat—and dancers are prone to sweating as an occupational hazard—we loose precious sodium. Sodium gets a bad rap, mainly because the over-consumption of salt has been linked to some 74.5 million people who suffer from high blood pressure. But omitting salt altogether creates equally serious problems. Salt regulates our body’s fluid balance. The body needs salt to maintain blood pressure. Without enough salt, we become dehydrated and easily lose focus. Since dancers lead active lives where they frequently sweat during the day, just how much salt does a dancer need to stay healthy and moving?

Since 600 BC, salt has been used to preserve food, making just about everything taste better. “You never want to totally eliminate sodium,” says Scioscia. “Salt helps the body move nutrients in and out of the blood vessels and regulates your electrolyte balance.” It’s that balance—or the loss of it—that can lay a dancer low. Electrolytes—sodium, potassium, and magnesium ions among others—help cells in your body maintain their voltage and carry electrical messages to the rest of the body. “Electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle function, blood PH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissues,” says Scioscia. “Since body fluids like sweat contain a high concentration of sodium chloride, a sudden fluid loss through sweat can throw a dancer’s electrolytes, and so their body, out of balance.”

Some dancers are prone to this kind of problem. BalletMet’s Jackson Sarver has often triumphed as the lead in Dracula, David Nixon’s physically grueling ballet. A heavy sweater, Sarver finds he needs an extra sodium and potassium boost via an athletic drink like Gatorade to keep himself properly hydrated during the ballet. “There’s a joke in the company that if you dance with me you, will end up with more of my sweat than your own,” he quips.

Plain water does not—in fact, cannot—sustain Sarver’s electrolyte balance. He learned the dangers of fluid loss, particularly the muscle fatigue that can come from electrolyte imbalance, as a high school cross country and track and field athlete. Sarver’s coaches and dance teachers explained that water further diluted sodium levels, leading to a compromised performance. Athletic drinks like Gatorade and its rivals blend water, sugar, salt, potassium and other essential elements lost through sweating.

Dancers can avoid processed foods and still get enough sodium and other minerals to modulate their blood pressure. There’s sodium in just about everything, including yogurt and broccoli. Even an apple contains 1mg of sodium. Most Americans consume about 6,000 milligrams of salt daily, about twice as much as they need. “If you keep to about 3,000 milligrams daily, you will be doing fantastic,” says Scioscia “Most dancers can replace the salt they lose through sweat with a daily diet of fruits, vegetables and lean protein, all of which contain trace amounts of sodium.”

Although high blood pressure may be a rare finding in dancers, it’s important to remember it can be hereditary and unrelated to weight. Get your blood pressure taken at your annual checkup, particularly if you come from a family with high blood pressure history. Dancers, though fit, still need to be concerned with salt over-consumption. “Too much sodium in your daily diet also causes the body to excrete calcium,” says Scioscia. “That affects bone health. I am most concerned about young dancers’ bones.” This is one reason that Scioscia does not recommend salt tablets. “

For Sarver, his body chemistry links directly to his dancing. Understanding it, and accommodating to it, has made him a stronger performer. “I’m fascinated by how the body works, it’s an incredible machine,” he says. “I can tell a big difference in my body when my electrolyte balance is in order.”

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Your Body: Magic Touch

Former Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Martha Chamberlain with Principal Dancer Zachary Hench in Who Cares?, choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.

Update:  Both Patrick  Simoniello and Martha Chamberlain have retired.  Chamberlain has continued her interest in costume design and also teaches.  My fascination with the power of touch is as strong as ever.  The wonders of both the strongest forms, like Rolfing and the lightest forms, like lymph and Feldenkrais’ Functional Integration,  hold the most interest.

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

During a rehearsal of a lightning-fast section in Gerald Arpino’s Birthday Variation, Joffrey dancer Patrick Simoniello pulled his adductor muscle in his left leg. After a neuromuscular massage, which uses trigger-point therapy to ease up seized muscles, Simoniello found he could dance that night. A short, specific massage immediately after the injury was just the thing he needed to get back on his feet. “I thought it was amazing stuff,” remembers Simoniello, who has since trained as a massage therapist.

Massage has been well documented as a healing agent, but getting the type and timing right makes all the difference. Short and vigorous types like the neuromuscular kind get you ready to move. Slower, deeper ones are ideal for down time, not for when you have to perform or learn new work, because the massage can create  changes in muscle length.

However, deep work can help the body recover in a range of ways. During his stint with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago from 2002–2006, Simoniello found a weekly massage essential in helping his body repair and prepare for the next week’s demands. “I was dancing work by Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, and Jirí Kylián while on tour,” says Simoniello. “That takes a toll. If I missed a week’s massage, it became much harder to get back on track.”

There are several types of massage that can be particularly helpful to dancers:

• Swedish/traditional uses light to medium pressure. It’s excellent for general restoration and stress-reduction.

• Sports massage is a deep-tissue form that is more vigorous than Swedish and works on muscle and fascia (the outer layer of muscles and organs). It’s not recommended prior to intense activity.

• Neuromuscular uses sustained static pressure on trigger points to relieve pain and increase range of motion. It can release muscle spasms.

 Lymph massage offers a light touch at skin level and helps flush the lymph system of waste products from injury. It aids with swelling and inflammation.

• Myofascial Release and Structural Integration each address both muscle and fascial tissue. Structural Integration involves 10 consecutive sessions, and is best performed when dancers are off since the body needs time to adjust.

Many companies’ massage schedules reflect performance and rehearsal schedules. At Pennsylvania Ballet, physical therapist Julie Green schedules the massage therapist for Fridays so dancers can let the massage settle in their bodies for a day or two before taking class or rehearsing. “I always ask a dancer what’s on their plate that day,” says Green. “When you make a muscle longer, it can temporarily weaken it and make it cramp. I want to know if dancers will be jumping a lot. If so, then I stay away from the power muscles.”

PAB principal Martha Chamberlain adjusts the timing of her appointments to her performances. “I never want my feet or calves worked on before a show,” she says. “Beside the fact the oil makes my feet slip in my shoes, if you get worked on and run into a rehearsal, it can throw things out of whack.”

Many dancers note that iliotibial (IT) bands are an exception. These connect the pelvis to the knee, so a tight IT band can actually pull the knee cap out of alignment. “My IT bands are a different story,” Chamberlain says. “You can pound on those anytime.” Many dancers use foam rollers to loosen up between classes or rehearsals. “IT are more like ligaments than muscle tissue,” says Green. “Because they don’t have the contractile properties of a muscle, it’s usually fine to massage them before dancing.”

There are times to be cautious about massage. If you suspect a fracture, or if you have an open wound, deep work can exacerbate it. “If you are injured, get a diagnosis first,” says Green. “If you have an infection, a massage could spread it.” Though lymph massage, Green notes, can flush the tissues and relieve swelling.

Massage can also help in ways that go beyond a dancer’s mobility. Simoniello noticed he had more confidence performing after he added massage to his health regime. “Dance is not solely an art of physicality,” he says. “Mind and spirit are involved as well.  Massage provides a non-judgmental place for treatment, allowing us not only to physically heal, but to take a breath and and care for ourselves.”

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Your Body: Aerobics

Keigwin + Company; photo Christopher Duggan

Update:  I got to see for myself the kind of athletes of God who make up KEIGWIN + COMPANY this summer while a scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Kristina Hanna, shown above in the orange two-piece, is truly a force to be reckoned with.  Larry Keigwin heads to Houston later this month to set Air on The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and HSPVA will be dancing Caffeinated. I expect both will tucker out the dancers.

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

Kristina Hanna bolts through choreographer Larry Keigwin’s buzzy new dance, Caffeinated, with ease. She thinks she knows why: Her weekly 12-mile runs through New York’s Central Park are a good prep for getting through Keigwin’s kinetic work. “I love running because I get to propel myself through space,” says Hanna. “You don’t get that on a treadmill.”

Whether it’s for conditioning, weight loss, or staying in shape while injured, many dancers use aerobics as a cross-training tool. But should they, or are they adding unneeded stress on joints and muscles, leading to deeper fatigue? Most research indicates that a combination of strength and aerobic training delivers the best cardiovascular health, and that strength training actually contributes more than all that pavement pounding. Does that mean you should cut back on the cardio and focus on weights? Not necessarily, say experts who work with dancers. Instead, many now recommend tailoring your aerobic workout to reflect your dance repertory.

Houston exercise physiologist James Harren makes sure his dancer clients receive conditioning geared to the demands of what they perform. “You get what you train for,” says Harren, who works with Houston Ballet. “I want to make whatever cardiovascular training we do be as similar to dance as possible. Often, we work on the core board so I can add balance training in the mix.”

Many dancers gear their workouts to what they dance without ever seeing an exercise physiologist. Dominic Walsh Dance Theater dancer Felicia McBride swims three mornings a week and hops on the elliptical a few days a week after rehearsal. “Swimming relaxes my mind,” says McBride, who recently danced the role of Juliet in Walsh’s own version of the classic tale. “I feel clearer, fresher, focused, and ready for the day. I also get out of the water ache-free.” McBride says swimming has made a difference in her dancing. “Juliet was a big role for me, and I needed physical and emotional stamina for it. I’m more aware of my breathing and I love the definition I get in my arms and back from swimming.”

Shaw Bronner, a New York physical therapist who works with dancers, isn’t surprised by McBride’s experience. The well-being gained from a new form of exercise, combined with the endorphin release, can be a boon to any dancer. Bronner helps dancers from Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She finds their aerobic needs vary, and it’s best to pay attention to each individual experience. “We have bikes on either side of the stage at Cedar Lake and they get used a lot, but I don’t push any one kind of exercise,” says Bronner. “Some of the dancers came from track and field and they simply love to run. Also, since most dance happens in the vertical plane, running may make more sense than biking. But if you are tired of being on your feet, swimming and biking are better choices.” Bronner finds that aerobic training cuts down on her clients’ performance fatigue, a leading cause of injury. She points out that aerobic conditioning has been included in the Dance/USA task force health screen, now used by 30 companies.

Aerobic training is not for everyone or every season. Harren cautions against too much extra conditioning during peak rehearsal and performance times. “I don’t recommend anything extra during Nutcracker,” says Harren. “When you add more pounding you are upping the risk of an injury.” Any injury that prevents weight bearing or requires dancers to wear a boot, and back or neck injuries, can be aggravated by additional exercise. “Although if they can tolerate the bike, it can be good for a dancer’s head and help ease the depression that often comes with an injury,” he says.

An athlete all her life, Hanna finds that running adds balance to her schedule. It also works well with Keigwin’s hard-hitting style and its running, jumping, and quick lifts. “Dance is so focused. I want a time to be physical and not be analyzing everything,” she says. “Running helps me experience my body in a different way and all I need is a pair of shoes. I get such a sense of liberation from it and I know I use that onstage.”

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Power to the People

The cast of Theatre Under The Stars' VOTE! A New Musical playing at the Hobby Center September 16-17, 2011. Photo by: Claire McAdams Photography

Update:  Houston is still voting crazed. Take Vote!, a new Theatre Under the Stars musical, penned by two Rice Alum and staring local performers goes down this weekend.  Jane Weiner of Hope Stone has her own voting frenzy going on with a Pepsi Refresh Project for her kid’s program . She wants your vote.

The story did arouse some wise feedback from Catastrophic Theatre artistic director Jason Nodler, who had some good points.  Do we really want the audience  driving programming? There are better ways to get them engaged.  I tried to concentrate on people using a voting process in more innovative ways,  yet Nodler’s worries are founded. We could easily go a little American Idol crazy.  Next up at Catastrophic is Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness that Morning is, running Sept. 23-Oct. 23 at Catastrophic’s offices on 1540 Sul Ross.

Oh, and guess who got elected at BalletMet? Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch was selected through the BalleMet onDemand program. His piece Return, set to music by Benedetto Marcello opens on Sept. 23.

Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Christopher Duggan

Reprinted from Culturemap.

“The people have the power,” screamed Patti Smith in her now iconic song from Dream of Life. It’s official. Art lovers don’t want to just plop in row “J” like a lump anymore. Selecting our seats, where to eat and whether or not to valet park just doesn’t cut it these days. The era of the passive viewer is winding down. First, the audience wanted a party, now they want some authority.

To be specific, they want a vote.

Simon Cowell may have come and gone (to The X Factor), but theAmerican Idol template is everywhere, from Houston Grand Opera’sConcert of Arias to Opera Vista’s Competition/Festival. Most ballet competitions have audience choice awards, which dancers cherish. It means something to have the audience speak up. The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.

Let’s look at some innovations that go beyond the Idol format. Apparently, it’s not just the vote that matters but contact with the people you are voting for, as in the artists.

There are tons of fundraisers that get folks engaged through a voting process. Gift of Gift of (GOGO) is the love child of a contest and crowd fundingThe idea is for new collectors to have a chance to support emerging photographers while sipping a martini. Yes, there’s a party. Always a party. Write that part down. It’s a crucial step in leaving lumpland. The ticket price of the party gives you three votes.

GOGO held an open call for entries for photographers to submit work. The vote and party night goes down on August 20 at Spacetaker. The artists come to chat up their work and vie for your votes. The cash haul from the party tickets helps the group purchase the top-voted photographs, which are then gifted to a museum, in this case it’s theMuseum of Fine Arts, Houston. GOGO plans to expand to other museums across the country.

Earlier this spring, the team from Black Hole, Poison Girl and Antidotethrew a $20-a-head SuperNova party where they listened to impassioned pitches from four Montrose non-profits: Tara Kelly from the Mandell Park Association on an idea for a video podcast tour of the park, Lindsay Burleson from BooTown Theater on a bloody puppet show on ice, Maureen McNamara from the Wilson Montessori PTO on a natural play space for Spark Park and Ryan Perry on a mobile astronomy lab.

Even the losers are winners in that they have potentially reached a few new folks. The Spark Park won the pool of $640 but runner-up Emily Hynds of Bootown reports, “It was a blast.” Partygoers feasted on soup, beer and bread.

“Ideally, I’d like to see these happen at other places in other areas of the city. I’d love for it to be known as something we do in Houston, that neighborhoods get together and make these kinds of decisions together,” says Scott Repass, an owner of Black Hole. “It could have a real impact on how we feel about our city and our neighborhoods.”

I like the mix of arts, science and community projects.


David Rafaël Botana, left, and James McGinn in Jonah Bokaer's "Filter. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell "

It’s not always about getting money, sometimes it’s an aesthetic choice. If you liked the lighting in Jonah Bokaer’s newest work, Filter, you can thank the audience, they voted for it in a smartphone app called Mass Mobile. When Bokaer arrived at Ferst Center at Geogia Tech he knew he wanted to develop some form of audience interaction. When Stephen Garrett, a graduate student at Georgia Tech Music Technology Program came forward with his idea of creating a special app, Bokaer was thrilled.

Known for his meticulous dances, Bokaer was fully ready to let go of the lighting. Audiences chose between four options and the timing of each choice. Bokaer was amazed at how well it all worked out. Several trial runs and the fact that he worked closely with his lighting designer, Aaron Copp, helped with that outcome.  University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts has plans to help Bokaer develop his next big project this spring.

During Psophonia Dance Company’s spring show, “Rip in the Atmosphere,” co-founder Sonia Noriega had the audience watch three versions of the same solo, each set to different music. During intermission, the audience voted on which music worked best. During the second half of the show, dancers repeated the piece as a trio with the winning piece of music. “Voting gave me the opportunity to interact with the audience,” says Noriega, who spent the intermission urging people to cast their vote. “People really got into it.”

BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, goes a step further in letting audiences curate the bill that opens the September season through a voting process in BalletMet onDemand. I voted for Dominic Walsh and Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch, who has a long relationship with the innovative Ohio troupe. Mildred’s Umbrella also lets the audience sit in the curator’s seat this season with their Fresh Ink Reading Series, where the audience votes for which play to produce next season.

Choreographer Jane Comfort takes the voting concept to the deepest place, letting selected audience members judge a Barbie beauty contest smack in the middle of her new work, Beauty, performed by Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week. The judged get to play judge in Comfort’s biting examination of the impossible standards of beauty set by mainstream media. I voted for Barbie #4 and she won. I felt, well, powerful.

I can’t wait to see what artists want me to vote on next. While the wisdom of the crowd is still being negotiated, I firmly believe that the future of art is in direct and lively communication. If it comes with some soup and beer, even better. Tired of just sitting there, we want to be a part of the action.

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Putting the FUN in arts fundraising

Andrea Dawn Shelly and Spencer Gavin Hering of iMEE Photography by Alberto Serra

UpdateDance Source Houston is the newest member of the Houston arts community to go the way of crowdfunding with their Indiegogo campaign for Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance.  The show goes down at Miller Outdoor Theatre on Sept. 24 & 26,  but they could use the cash now.  I Just sent them some of mine and I get a picnic as a perk.  Nice!  Amy Ell Vault and NobleMotion Dance also had successful campaigns.  Stay tuned for Alex Luster’s campaign for his street act documentary, Stick ‘Em Up.

Jerry Ochoa of Two Star Symphony reports:  “Our Indiegogo campaign was a success, exceeding our $7000 target (final total = $7220) with days left before the campaign deadline. We spent the next 7 weeks in the KUHF Frank Geary studio with engineer Todd Hulslander and came out with the finished album Titus Andronicus. For comparison, the most time we had ever spent recording an album before this was 2 days in the studio, from start to finish.”  Two Star held a swell CD launch party at Divergence Music & Arts too, along with fantastic reviews.

It gave me great joy to meet Jenalia Moreno and see her film Stitched at the MFAH earlier this summer.  Moreno reports Stitched has been entered in 29 film festivals.  “But my real show season begins Tuesday, when I show the film at a Knoxville quilt guild,” says Moreno. ” I have almost every weekend booked between now and Dec. 4.  On Friday & Saturday the film shows at a quilt show in Stafford. Stitched will be aired on local PBS on Monday, Sept. 19 at 7 pm. The film will be shown in Newark, Chicago, DC, Maryland and Galway, Ireland. In Houston, we are showing it at 8 am Nov. 3 & 10:30 am Nov. 5 at the quilt show in the GRB. We show it again at 2 pm Dec. 3 at the Houston Public Library downtown. ”

Katie Pearl and Lisa d’Amour had tremendous success with How to Build a Forest. You can catch D”Amour’s Anna Bella Eema at Catastrophic Theatre on Dec. 2.

Finally, don’t make a move without checking out Spacetaker’s handy crowdfunding tips.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Only 22 days to go. Act now. Send your cash. No, I’m not selling a used car, but a chance to finance Two Star Symphony’s recording its Titus Andronicus score created for Dominic Walsh Dance Theater using IndieGoGo, a crowd-funding platform.

For $500 you make the “lover” level, where Houston’s beloved indie band comes to your house. I saw Two Star perform in Walsh’s Titus. They were terrific, as was the score, so this a worthy effort to ensure we are going to be able to hear this wonderful music again.

Where’s the “fun” in fundraising? It’s certainly not in the heap of letters from various artistic directors stacked up in the Bermuda triangle zone of my office. There are new kids in town when it comes to artists collecting bucks for their projects and they go by the names of Kickstarter, IndieGoGoCrowdrise, RocketHub, and United States Artists, to mention a few.

Are these efforts to democratize fundraising, leveraging social media and enlisting campaign strategies to make those elaborate paper pleas for cash a thing of the past?

Let’s find out.

Two Star preferred IndieGoGo’s approach. The troupe proved a huge hit at last year’s TEDx Houston and are known for the classic film scores it performs at Discovery Green. Soon, the band heads to SXSW for a March 15 show.

“We considered several, and found IndieGoGo had a clean interface,” says Jerry Ochoa, a violinist in the band. “It’s so well laid out, too. I like that we can include testimonials.”

Ochoa first became interested in this type of fundraising from Divergence Vocal Theater  head Misha Penton’s well researched blog post addressing the possibilities for fiscal sponsorship. The group’s IndieGoGo page is remarkably comprehensive: you get the pitch, the idea of who they are, along with review clips and a video. Perks include a special cuddle offer for any angels who want to donate $10,000. Because Two Star is raising money for a recording, any amount would be a help.

Dianne Debicella, program director fiscal sponsorship at Fractured Atlas, has her eye on this trend. Fractured Atlas, a New York-based art infrastructure organization, offers fiscal sponsorship, its own fundraising platform and a special partnership with IndieGoGo, which allows donors to take a tax deduction.

“Most of these platforms are for profit companies,” Debicella says.

Big goals, big results

She’s right, Kickstarter raised over $20 million for projects so far. This is a growth industry. Debicella, along with IndieGoGo founder Danae Ringelmann, will be presenting Fundraising in a Box: Crowdsourcing Microgrants at SXSW’s Interactive and a Fiscal Sponsorship & Crowdfunding Info Session on March 10 at Spacetaker (a new member of Fractured Atlas’ Open Arts Network).

Ringlemann presented a complelling portrait of IndieGoGo’s story recently at a SWAMP workshop for filmmakers. Compelling? Fundraising? Yes, that’s the point.

Your project has meaning to you and your fan base, which wants to be a part of the things they love.

“People contribute to people, not just ideas,” says Ringlemann, who shared her own moving epiphany about the disappointment of old school fundraising.

Not all platforms are alike. All you need is an idea at IndieGoGo, but they want you to put in some elbow grease with something they call DIWO (Do it with Others), which means you do your part using the integrated social media tools. That’s the best way to end up on their homepage orblog. Houston filmmakers Jenalia Moreno and Nancy Sarnoff want to finish their documentary Stitched, which offers a glimpse of the lives of competitive quilt makers at the 2010 Houston Quilt Show. After a fully funded campaign on Kickstarter, they are giving IndieGoGo a go.

“You have to have your tentacles everywhere,” says Moreno, who learned a lot in the first go around.

She suggests three key tips for success: Ask for a realistic amount of money; get your trailer out there; and offer cool gifts. Morena has found the process a great way to connect to fans.

“They leave comments on the site,” she says. “And there’s nothing more exciting than getting an e-mail that we have received $500 from a complete stranger.”

The team has also applied for grants and is considering a fundraising event. “It’s hard to plan a party and edit a movie at the same time,” Moreno adds.

Kickstarter welcomes art projects as well as the creative end of food, design, journalism, comics, fashion, games and technology. It’s not a place for causes or business start ups. With Kickstarter you only get the money if you meet your target goal. That way you are not committed to a project you don’t have the funds for. For anyone who has received a grant for way less than you asked for, this is good news. If a little bit of money is better than nothing, it’s not for you.

United States Artists‘ name says it all. It’s an arts only operation and considerably more selective. Artists must be recipients of their USA Project Partners or other recognized organizations.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, currently in residence at the University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts funded red, black and GREEN, a bluesslated for a fall performance in Houston. Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour, of the Obie-Award winning team PearlDamour, just wrapped up a successful campaign for a new installation of their collaborative work with Shawn HallHow to Build a Forest, which was performed as a work-in- progress at the Mitchell Center.

Inspired by the loss of 100 trees on D’Amour’s New Orleans family home, the piece entails the assembling and disassembling of a simulated forest over an eight-hour time shift. I found the piece captivating, and can’t wait to see where it’s going next.

As recipients of a Creative Capital Award, United States Artists was a logical choice. “It’s brand new. There’s only 200 projects instead of 14,000, and it’s artist focused,” says D’Amour, whose play Anna Bella Eema is on Catastrophic Theatre’s 2011 season.

Pearl and D’Amour deliver a direct but warm talk about their project. “They really encourage a personal approach,” Pearl says.

As for structuring the campaign, they did their homework. “Shorter campaigns are more successful,” Pearl says. “Also, it allows us to have an ending, so we can go back and focus on the piece. It’s really helped light a fire under us.”

The Celeb Factor

Crowdrise has the uber cool Edward Norton behind it and, like other platforms, is wide open. You can raise $50 for a bus ticket. With a tagline of “If you don’t give back no one will like you,” it’s the most hilarious of the pack too. I got an e-mail reading, “Thanks for signing up and because you’re the 709th person within the past hour to create an account we’re sending you a special Crowdrise shower cap. That’s actually not true but it would be great if it were.”

When I raise funds for The Arthropologist: The Movie, I am going to use them for the funny factor. I want to chuckle while I beg for bucks. Nel Shelby, a leading New York-based dance videographer, chose Crowdriseto raise funds for her film Where Women Don’t Dance, which tells the story of Turkish choreographer Nejla Y. Yatkin.

“It just seemed fun to follow the trend and share our project in an authentic way,” Shelby says. “I loved setting up my page on Crowdrise, they have such a wit about them and it made me feel a bit more casual about writing about my film. You do have to market your page and really get it out there so people know what you are up to.”

According to Debicella and Ringlemann, it’s a reap what you sow situation. “The biggest misconception is that you just put your page up and wait. It sounds easy,” Debicella says. “Successful campaigns involve managing your page every day. Like any fundraising effort, it’s work.”

Just maybe, it’s fun too.

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