In the middle of a fall season celebrating its 30th anniversary, acclaimed performing arts organization Harlem Stage is presenting two commissioned works, Kyle Abraham’s Pavement (November 1-3) and Robert Glasper’s Stevie Wonder tribute Songs In The Key Of Life (December 13-14).
Both are world-premieres and part of Harlem Stage’s celebrated WaterWorks Program of dance, music and multidisciplinary performances whose themes involve issues of local, national and international significance.
They follow preceding WaterWorks fall presentations of Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, a world premiere of a collaboration by jazz composer/arranger Vijay Iyer, poet Mike Ladd, poet/veteran Maurice Decaul and Hurt Village director Patricia McGregor that explores American soldiers of color who return home to widespread indifference and a numbing bureaucracy; and Sleep Song, an American premiere of another Iyer/Ladd/Decaul collaboration, created as a response to Holding It Down and contemplating the impact of the soldiers and their missions on the lives of civilians in Iraq, and directed by Ladd.
Holding It Down and Sleep Song, which also incorporated music and poetry, thereby continued Harlem Stage’s three-decades focus on socially conscious and diverse works by artists of color.
“The most important thing for us about our 30th anniversary is that it affords us the opportunity to look back at what we’ve done as an institution–and what we do and how we position ourselves in the world,” says executive director Pat Cruz.
“There’s so much going on in New York at any one moment, and our constituents have so many choices,” she notes. “So we have to ask, How do you make it known that you’re the choice they want to make? How are we unique?”
She answers her questions thusly: “For 30 years we’ve identified and nurtured visionary artists of color who have made the commitment to do work that examines the world and gives back to us a critical lens to see the world—and that’s one of the clarifying revelations we had. We’re different in commissioning and producing and presenting work that cuts across all disciplines—music, dance, theater, opera, film and spoken word, as well as children’s works.”
Harlem Stage’s commissions and “nurturing environment,” Cruz adds, has afforded artists like Iyer and Abraham the time needed to create and debut new works that resonate with “our geographical community as well as the community of like-minded people who believe art should be challenging and transformative in nature—that who you are when you walk in is different from who you are when you walk out, that you can be a creative being as opposed to being a passive one. If you can do that as an institution or as an individual, it’s worth the price of admission.”
Over the 30 years of its existence, the small performing arts organization has indeed nurtured such contemporary artists as choreographers Bill T. Jones (Fela!) and Ronald K. Brown (Porgy And Bess), award-winning film and stage actor Roger Guenveur Smith and dance theater collective Urban Bush Women, in addition to Iyer and Abraham. It has also supported such socially relevant artists of color as Harry Belafonte, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Tito Puente, and hosted a 1990 Town Hall meeting with then newly released Nelson Mandela conducted by Ted Koppel.
Meanwhile, Harlem Stage, which in 2006 opened its landmark Harlem Stage Gatehouse in an abandoned space that once managed the flow of fresh water into the city, continues to provide 10,000 New York City children each year with access to performing arts representing many diverse cultures.
“We want people to come in and be surprised,” says Cruz. To this end, the organization earlier this year debuted Dig Deeper as a new initiative designed to provide audiences the chance to interact with artists and performers and take part in the creative process of Harlem Stage presentations. Its components include both live and virtual activities including open rehearsals, pre- and post-performance discussions, free films relating to issues presented in staged performances, and online content heightening audience understanding of artists and the creative process.
Other 2012 highlights have included African-American jazz vocalist-composer Somi’s concert of music from her If The Rains Come First album; the late multimedia artist Sekou Sundiata’s WeDaPeoples Cabaret, a gathering of artists and activists first presented in Harlem Stage’s inaugural season that this time featured guest artists including Queen GodIs, Eisa Davis and DJ Rich Medina and was curated by theater artist/educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph; the continuation of Harlem Stage’s Uptown Open monthly open mic series for teens and presenting young poets, MCs, scholars and activists in collaboration with Urban Word NYC; and the facility’s ongoing monthly film series collaboration with Black Documentary Collective and Media That Matters/Arts Engine Inc.
But Cruz is now excited about Harlem Stage’s upcoming commissions.
“Kyle Abraham’s Pavement is a stunning work,” she says of the choreographer’s piece, which is inspired by John Singleton’s 1991 film Boyz N The Hood as well as W.E.B. DuBois 1903 essay The Souls Of Black Folk and French sopranist countertenor Philippe Jaroussky’s contemporary performance of Handel’s 18th Century composition Carestini (The Story of a Castrato).
“What I love about it is the bravery with which he tackles something very topical in terms of the horrible plight of young black males—which has only gotten worse since the inspirational film was first shown,” says Cruz. “This work deals with the subject, but in the most delicate manner in choreography that combines the lyrical with the stylized movements one sees in the street. It’s brilliant, and again offers us the possibility of being reborn from seeing something unique.”
Jazz/hip-hop pianist Robert Glasper’s Songs In The Key Of Life is part of the Harlem Stage Uptown Nights series, and involves new arrangements of Wonder’s songs along with new compositions by Glasper that were inspired by Wonder’s music. Joining Glasper is an all-star cast including The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, bassist Derrick Hodge, and vocalists Lalah Hathaway, Bilal and Eric Roberson.
“It’s another part of the musical spectrum,” concludes Cruz. “Stevie Wonder has certainly been a major influence in our lives, and one of the things that’s wonderful with our space is that we can have auditorium-style seating for Pavement, and a club-like setting for Songs In The Key Of Life.
The 30th annual premiere presentations continue into Harlem Stage’s Spring 2013 season with the WaterWorks premiere of Makandal, a multilingual contemporary opera based on the life and legacy of 18th Century Haitian freedom fighter Francois Makandal.
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