The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

  • Arts

    In the studio with choreographer Mythili Kumar, SVCreates’ 2015 Legacy Laureate

    Feb. 7, 2016, 9:31 a.m., Posted by Margot Helm

    Margot Helm is the grants and database administrator at SVCreates, a Knight Arts grantee.

    It’s a Monday night in Saratoga, Calif., and I’m sitting in a multi-purpose room at the local middle school, surrounded by students of the Abhinaya Dance Company of San José. Dozens of girls from 6 to 16 years old are practicing together in small groups. On my side of the gym, the youngest students are learning a new step while sneaking glances at the older girls, who are working on a challenging sequence of moves. The littlest ones giggle and give me pointers as I struggle to stand in a simple “aramandi” stance with them, my skirt and legs refusing to cooperate. On all of their faces, I can see a mixture of emotions as they practice–focus and concentration, sometimes confusion, always mixed with laughter and joy. This group of hard-working young women is Mythili Kumar’s dream, made reality.

    The Abhinaya Dance Company of San José.

    Artistic Director Mythili Kumar established the Abhinaya Dance Company of San Jose in 1980, to present professional-quality, innovative performances of South Indian classical dance in the Bay Area. Recently celebrating a remarkable 35 years of performance and instruction, Kumar has directed Abhinaya’s growth into a regionally and nationally recognized dance program. Her name is synonymous with expressive dance performances and choreography that explores traditional and contemporary themes, and her work has garnered several prestigious awards over the years, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Sustained Achievement Award from the Bay Area Isadora Duncan Dance Award committee. But at the end of the day, Kumar returns to the heart and foundation of her work: her students.

    Kumar learned to dance a variety of classical Indian dance forms when she was growing up in India, and performed extensively throughout her home country before arriving in the U.S. in 1978. She is best known for her performance of “Bharatanatyam,” a style passed down by temple dancers who used its elaborate gestural language–called “abhinaya”–to reenact Hindu epics. As families in the Bay Area began to hear about her expertise, they begged her to teach their children this cultural tradition. “It seemed like the best way to keep up my dancing, and my tradition was to start teaching,” Kumar explains.

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    Classical Revolution Detroit helps classical music leap off the pedestal

    Feb. 5, 2016, 4:01 p.m., Posted by Rick Robinson

    Above: A CutTime Simfonica performance. Photo by Mark L. Brown.

    Rick Robinson is a Detroit classical bassist and founder of Classical Revolution Detroit.

    CutTime’s Knight Arts Challenge-winning project is to expand the ongoing Classical Revolution Detroit series to three events per month, each featuring our main ensemble, CutTime Simfonica, special guest musicians and musicians from the community. We adapt classical music–usually seen as stuffy, European and boring–to show another side to it that is instead fun, raw and personal. We’ve been able to reset the ideas of “classical,” particularly from an African-American viewpoint, as a universal tool for self-exploration, inspiring the average person to be curious about fine arts.

    CutTime began doing independent outreach in 1994 from within the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with a group of eight. We reduced further to a smaller group in 2010 to fit in bars, clubs, restaurants and coffeehouses. Today we play familiar and lively symphonic works, getting the audience involved with items such as eggshakers and cowbells. Several community musicians have joined us to sight-read written music, poets have rhymed with us–a virtuoso beat-boxer even turned Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” into a viral video! All of these interactions add personal meaning, new context and pleasant emotional memories to the classical music experience.

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    Philadelphia Photo Arts Center examines Russian identity and fate through photos and poetry

    Feb. 5, 2016, 1:10 p.m., Posted by Chip Schwartz

    Above: Anzhelina Polonskaya with Nicholaes Muellner, installation view of “Two Birds.”

    Russia is a behemoth in our world, both politically and geographically. Oftentimes it is easy for Americans unfamiliar with the Eurasian giant to misunderstand or make assumptions about the culture and lifestyle of the many groups that comprise its population. One need not look much further than the lengthy Cold War or the current rocky relationship between the East and the West to see that there is often a great divide between the planet's great societies.

    In order to capture the spirit of contemporary Russia, and the ways that everyday people–especially marginalized groups–get by in an often rigid and conservative culture, Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, a Knight Arts grantee, is highlighting the work of poet Anzhelina Polonskaya, artists Sasha Rudensky and Clemens Von Wedemeyer, and artist-curator Nicholas Muellner in an exhibit called “Fate Shifts Shapes.”

    Sasha Rudensky, “Snake Handlers.” Courtesy of Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.

    Based on the notion of the Russian compulsion to alter identity in the face of 'inexorable social forces,' the many photographs in the exhibit dissect elements of everyday life. The result is a collection of images that range from banal to bizarre. Take, for example, the first image visitors see upon entering: “Snake Handlers” by Sasha Rudensky. Three short-haired men in full-length black jumpsuits that resemble motorcycle jackets each help hold up a massive python. Without context, the scene could be a group of herpetologists at a zoo, or some type of performing group. Considering the matching outfits, it is unlikely that the trio are merely reptile enthusiasts or friends. There is an innate power projected by the subjects here, from their militaristic outfits to the way the deadly creature in their hands seems tame and controlled with no effort on the part of its handlers. Masculinity and mastery over nature are unbridled here, and the cultivation of these ideals seems at odds with the men's youthful, somewhat quizzical faces.

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