The Ford Invades DTLA!

If you were tooling around Downtown LA last Friday, you might have seen a few of us. With our space in the final stages of construction, we needed a place to play.

So we packed up our artists (well, three of the groups in our summer season anyway) and headed on over. Our new friends at The Broad Museum, Grand Central Market and Angel City Brewery welcomed us with open arms. Thanks guys!

The Filharmonic at Broad-lowresWe started off the day right, with coffee and a serenade. The Filharmonic harmonized and beatboxed their rendition of “Shut Up and Dance with Me” in front of the beautiful Broad Museum, to the surprise and wonder of those waiting in line.

Versa-Style at GCM by Kim KandelFrom there, we moved on to Grand Central Market for a lunch and hip-hop break. A potpourri of food options satisfied everyone’s cravings. We were just settling in for a post-lunch coma when Versa-Style Dance Company popped up from their seats and woke everyone up with their rad hip-hop moves to “Too Hot” by Captain Obvious.

Vaud & Villains at ACB-lowresWe topped off our day in DTLA at Angel City Brewery where Vaud & the Villains got everyone jazzed with their raucous 1930s New Orleans orchestra and cabaret show, performing their original song, “It All Ends the Same.” A truly perfect ending to our fun-filled day.

Stay tuned…we’ll be sharing videos from the day throughout the summer.

The Filharmonic will be performing as part of The Fil-Am Collective Music Show on July 24, Vaud and the Villains will villainize the Ford August 19 and Versa-Style Dance Company presents Box of Hope on September 17. Find out about all the Ford has to offer this summer at

Making theatre history at the Ford

Rumor has it that in 1912, John Barrymore was frolicking in the Cahuenga Pass reciting soliloquies from Hamlet when he declared, “What wonderful acoustics – there should be a theatre here!” Less than a decade later, the Pilgrimage Play Theatre (now the Ford) was built on that very spot.

During the Ford construction, we discovered this wall – a relic from the Mark Taper Forum’s Lab program.

Since then, the rolling hills of the Ford have echoed classic verse of all kinds, from a lavish production of Faust in the 1930s to an iconic production of King Lear in the 1960s. And, though the striking outdoor space lends itself perfectly to the classics, the intimate indoor space beneath the amphitheatre witnessed the birth of some of the most influential modern theatre of the twentieth century.

From 1973 through much of the 1990s, this 87-seat black box theatre was the home of the Mark Taper Forum’s new play development programs The Lab and Taper, Too. The list of artists and productions that those programs developed is truly remarkable, from the first workshop of Tony Kushner’s landmark Angels in America and the Taper’s first presentation of a Latin American play (Jose Ignacio Cabrujas’ The Day You’ll Love Me) to the works of theatre icons like Spalding Gray, Bill Irwin and Joseph Chaikin.

The recent uncovering of The Lab’s logo during renovations sparked a desire to unearth more about this seminal period.

How did The Lab and Taper, Too end up at the Ford?

Madeline Puzo [Producer of The Lab and Taper, Too, 1979-1989]: Robert Greenwald, who is now a documentary filmmaker, was the one who saw the space and started The Lab, as a laboratory for artists to create experimental work.

How specifically did the Ford space influence the work?

Andrew J. Robinson in Belly of the Beast. (Courtesy of CTG)

Andrew J. Robinson [Actor and director]: The downstairs Ford space was like a pressure cooker. Once the doors closed, that was it. You were in the world that the artists had created. The outside was completely shut off.

Michael Jung [Associate Producer of the Taper New Works Festival]: The space could really be converted into almost any creative vision.

Robinson: During Belly [Belly of the Beast, 1984] we turned off all lights and created total darkness  – and I mean total – to give the audience a feel for [the character’s] sensory deprived life in solitary confinement. People would freak out, and on a couple of occasions, beg that the lights be turned back on. One man literally crawled over people and fled the theatre.

Robert Egan [Director and Producing Artistic Director of the Taper New Works Festival]: It was also ideal for developmental theatre. It was a rough, raw space. The walk up the hill [into the venue] was a welcome procession out of the bustle of the city through nature into a surprising and sacred space for new and challenging work. It was intimate at less than 90 seats. So it was a truly embracing space to focus on new groundbreaking work.

Jung: The intimacy of the venue also allowed a special connection between the performers and the audience. We served wine and beer and snacks and often the audiences would stay after the talk backs just to hang out.

See Below Middle Sea.Roxanne Mayweather
Roxanne Mayweather in Mimi Seton’s 1986 multimedia event See Below Middle Sea at the Taper, Too. (Courtesy of Seton)

What are some of your favorite projects from that time?

Egan: I will never forget our workshop of Angels in America. It was so simple, without any of the technical pyrotechnics that would ultimately be employed in its many major stage productions around the world. I remember the Angel simply walking on stage and stepping on a black box and spreading her arms to suggest feathered wings and I saw it all. It was so powerful and it was the first time the world was hearing those magnificent words and confronting those powerful ideas.

I also remember that in that same season we heard the first three plays in Robert Schenkan’s Kentucy Cycle. Both plays went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And it all started here in LA at the Ford!

Robinson: [Acting in] In the Belly of the Beast directed by Robert Woodruff was my one titanic production experience at Taper, Too. Belly was the story of Jack Henry Abbott, a man who spent nearly his entire life in some form of penal lock-up. Norman Mailer wrote a book of the same title and helped get him out of prison, at which point Abbott promptly murdered a young man on the Lower East Side. It was perhaps the most powerful theatrical experience I ever had.

Jon Matthews & Stephen Spinella in the first workshop of Angels in America. (Courtesy of CTG)

Puzo: Oh yeah, In the Belly of the Beast was an incredible production. I couldn’t have been prouder of being a part of that. We didn’t think it would go anywhere, then suddenly it went to Sydney, then it went to the main stage and then it went to New York.

I’m also really proud of is Struck Dumb with Joseph Chaikin. Joe had aphasia, but wanted to perform again after he had a stroke. He was terrified the whole time, but he wanted to do it.

I remember [the director] Robert Woodruff asked Joe, “How will you learn your lines?” And Joe said, “I can’t.” Woodruff asked, “How will you remember your blocking?” And Joe said, “I can’t.” And Woodruff laughed and said, “Well, you’ll have no trouble keeping it fresh!” And that was true; it was a life-changing performance.

Egan: Another highlight for me was watching Luis Alfaro roller skating around the stage in a black slip during a moving piece about the trials and tribulations of being gay and Latino. It was incredibly brave, imaginative and funny. I think the projects and the Taper staff truly reflected the dynamism and diversity of Los Angeles at the time.

Luis Alfaro
Luis Alfaro in performance. (Photo by Monica Naranjo)

Diversity and inclusion have been big topics of conversation lately. Could you tell me a little more about how that factored into Taper, Too’s programming?

Jung: We always looked for diversity of content and experiences and searched for unique voices that represented the American tapestry and particularly a perspective on Los Angeles.

Egan: I really think that is why huge crowds would line up in front of the theatre. They were there to see new plays that spoke to the diverse, political, complex social world in which they lived.

We premiered artists from many different communities – I first saw the work of Luis Alfaro, George Wolf, John Fleck, Tony Kushner, John Belluso, Han Ong and many more in that space.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Puzo: There was also a professional development element to the Taper, Too. As a producer, I believed that our responsibility wasn’t simply to the audience, but also to our artists and the artists in your community.

We welcomed LA theatre artists and gave them the opportunity to develop and show their work. That’s what Taper, Too was about.

Robinson: It was another theatrical world then, kinder, more generous, more appreciative to theatre artists.

Puzo: And the work these artists did at the Ford was life-affirming and life-changing. It was an incredible time where the forces of creativity aligned and some profound work came into being.

Grandeza Mexicana: A Month of Magic

A photo from last year's iteration of the show. (Photo courtesy of Grandeza Mexicana)
A photo from last year’s iteration of the show. (Photo courtesy of Grandeza Mexicana)

By Brian Sonia-Wallace

Winter is finally really here in LA. It’s cold, the sun is down and I’m muddling my way through a conversation in Spanish with Rocio Arambula, Grandeza Mexicana’s wardrobe mistress. She’s standing in the forest of color that makes up Grandeza’s costume shop, lovingly repairing cloth by hand. Her fingers pick at a seam – behind her, over 100 costumes wait for the company’s upcoming show Diciembre Mexicano. Last time I wrote about Grandeza, I focused on Rocio’s work and the company’s community spirit.

But this day, I met its soul. Emerging quietly from between the dresses, Artistic Director Jose Vences joined our conversation. I’d already heard a lot about Jose. Everyone in his company spoke of him with an air of reverence, emphasizing his perfectionism. I got the sense that this meant exhausting work across the board, with each company member channeling Jose’s level of commitment to build something greater than themselves: to build Grandeza.

Although I had started stitching together a story for this article before meeting Jose, no sooner had I asked my first question then he said, “Hold that thought.” This was a man of vision. Jose had his own story.

“Nobody is a prophet in their own land,” he said. Jose came to the US at my age, and since then has been working to bring folkloric dance from his native Mexico the quality and recognition it deserves. It took coming to the US for him to discover his calling. Ever the perfectionist, Jose talks about adjusting the recipe for the upcoming show every year, since its first presentation in 2009. It’s the only show that makes him cry, he says.

For Jose, Diciembre Mexicano is deeply personal. The name makes no reference to Christmas, because, Jose explains, in Mexico the whole month of December is holy and filled with celebrations and rituals. The show mixes folkloric dancing, choral singing, the devotional art of Lalo Garcia and acted scenes that follow the chronology of celebration, not the chronology of the bible stories. For Jose, it’s not enough to retread the familiar stories. For him, it’s about recreating the feeling of growing up in Mexico in a month when everything is magic. It’s about a visceral experience that brings adults back to their childhood and introduces children to their cultural traditions.

Grandeza Mexicana’s vibrant costumes add to the festive holiday tradition. (Photo courtesy of Grandeza Mexicana)

But there’s a difference between tradition and understanding. Part of the purpose of Diciembre Mexicano, the one show in the year in which students from Grandeza’s Academy perform alongside the professional company, is to use dance as a tool for critical inquiry into what youth learn in church, so that they understand not only what they are doing but why. Jose Vences speaks of the Academy as a door to the future. The metaphor is for his company, as youth are prepped to become professional dancers and take their place on the stage, but also for their future as Mexican-Americans whose relationship with tradition will shape the country’s cultural future.

Folklorico dances always end with the Jalisco dance, but not Diciembre Mexicano, which lingers for one last devotional song after the festive Jalisco. Jose acknowledges the many facets of culture and devotion he’s working with, serving Mexicans from many regions who worship in very different Evangelical and Catholic traditions. He talks about different expressions of devotion, from solemn reverence to laughter. His goal is to encompass them all, to give the show resonance with each audience member, to draw out their memories and emotions, to make this show personal.

I shook Jose’s hand and went in to watch the dancers rehearse, somewhat shaken. I was struck by the strength of this man’s personality, at how, even in a brief conversation between racks of brightly colored costumes, he had created another world with his words, a private world from his youth.

I walked back to my car in the dark, contemplating what I’d seen and heard. I knew I’d see them all soon again. Before I left, Jose and the board members who’d shown me in invited me to the show as their guest. I had the feeling of stepping through a barrier. Of being invited into this family’s magical December.

Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet’s Diciembre Mexicano performs on December 5 at 7:30 p.m. & December 6 at 2:00 p.m. at Downey Civic Theatre. Tickets are $20-35. Click here or call (562) 861-8211 for more information.


Kicking off the holidays – salsa style!

By Ann Jensen

It’s no surprise that Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s upcoming show Salsa Navidad at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) will inspire plenty of dancing. Oscar Hernández, band leader of the two-time Grammy-winning group, expects people to be dancing in the aisles by the end of the show. SHO’s 13 world-class musicians and vocalists are masters of New York-style salsa dura—a genre that’s inextricably linked with dance.  (Hernández himself has been especially immersed in dance, having just completed the dance orchestrations for the new Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet!, which opened on Broadway earlier this month). What may seem surprising, at least at first glance, is SHO’s collaboration with LA-based Ballet RED.

Ballet RED isn’t your typical ballet company. Founded in 2000 by Josie Walsh, the company prides itself in transcending artistic boundaries – working with musicians, visual and multimedia artists, and fashion designers to fuse various styles and genres. For their collaboration with SHO, Walsh and her dancers have been combining salsa with traditional ballet. In one number, a dancer will be wearing one salsa/ballroom shoe and one pointe shoe. Walsh and her dancer have been exploring the way wearing two very different shoes affects movement. “It’s comical, when she’s not dancing,” Walsh says, describing how her dancer almost looks like she’s limping between numbers. (It’s a concept Walsh has played with before—in her work “Get Ur Ballet On,” her dancers paired a pointe shoe with a stiletto.) Walsh is also preparing two more traditional salsa pieces sure to dazzle salsa purists and more adventurous dance fans alike.

Both Hernández and Walsh note that collaborating cross country has been quite an experience. The two have met a few times and have been emailing regularly back and forth, but the orchestra and ballerinas won’t actually be in the same room together until the morning of the show. SHO’s musicians regularly improvise during their shows. Improvisational breaks feature the musicianship of the individual players and “give them the space to create as artists,” says Hernández. As band leader, he provides the group with great orchestrations, then “within that framework, lets the band loose.” In order to work with Ballet RED, Hernández will be reining the riffs in just a bit to accommodate the dancers’ choreography. With the limited rehearsal time and improvisational surprises, the performance promises to be as exciting for the performers as it is for the audience. “It will be quite a visceral evening, that’s for sure,” notes Walsh. Hernández, too, is inspired by the possibilities. “I’m looking forward to the chemistry [the collaboration] will create. It will be a beautiful thing.”

In addition to salsa influences, the show will also showcase SHO’s renowned jazz chops. Of the evening’s selections, Hernández’s particular favorite is the Latin jazz instrumental “Rumba Urbana.” The piece features SHO’s percussion section, which Hernández calls “one of the best of its kind in the world.”

Both directors are also delighted to be performing at VPAC–“an incredible venue and beautiful stage,” according to Hernández. Walsh notes that the show will give dance fans, in particular, a rare opportunity to see dancers perform with live music. “The collaboration of dance and live music—that in itself is so special, and something that doesn’t happen that often.”  In short, for dance and Latin jazz fans, alike, Salsa Navidad will be a must-see for the holiday season.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s Salsa Navidad with Ballet RED performs Saturday December 5 at 8 p.m. at the Valley Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $30-60.
The Ford Signature Series is made possible through the generous support of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Original program created with support from former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Proceeds benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation.

Tradition meets the cutting edge in Honda & Vo’s soulful musical pairing

Motoko Honda (Photo by Will Cohen)
Motoko Honda (Photo by Will Cohen)

By Sheri Linden

A golf tee, a metal screw and a ruler — not the first things that come to mind when the subject is music. But each of these items had its moment in the spotlight during my recent chat with Motoko Honda, a composer/performer whose sonic improvisations have drawn ecstatic comparisons to Radiohead, John Cage and Prokofiev.

As she spoke from her home studio in Oakland on a recent Friday afternoon, the occasional digital glitches in our Skype connection did nothing to dampen Honda’s enthusiasm. Besides sharing background info on her upcoming Angel City Jazz Festival/Ford on the Road performance with Hanoi-born musician and Oscar nominee Vanessa Vo (a.k.a. Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ), Honda offered an exuberant lesson in extended technique and prepared piano after I confessed to being unfamiliar with those terms.

“I can show you!” Honda said with a beaming smile. After playing a few notes, she inserted that golf tee into the workings of her piano — transforming the instrument into a “prepared piano” — and then demonstrated how those same notes deepened and changed.

It’s one of many extended, or unconventional, techniques that Honda uses in her holistic approach to music, which combines the acoustic keyboard with a range of electronic devices that manipulate sound. She’s been hailed as a virtuoso of this hybrid strategy. But Honda wasn’t always a fan of plugged-in music. “I actually didn’t like electronic music at all when I was young,” she says.

Motoko Honda at the piano. (Photo by Charles DeGuzman)
Motoko Honda at the piano. (Photo by Charles DeGuzman)

At the same time, she felt increasingly frustrated by piano’s limitations and longed to play “between the notes.” Inspiration struck when Honda, who was born in Yokohama and raised in the northern Japanese city of Sendai, was a graduate student at CalArts. “I saw guitarists playing all sorts of things using their stomp box. They can change the texture, they can change the tone, they can bend the sound.” Maybe, she thought, she could do the same with her piano.

Further demonstrations during our conversation made clear that she could do just that. With a simple screw placed just so, she gave her piano the metallic clang of a bell. Most impressive, though, was the soul-stirring power of an excerpt from the piece she’s writing with Vo for their October 3 performance. The brief musical passage churned with suggestions of thunder and then gave way to a lyrical section evoking the rippling of water.

Water is one of the motifs that Honda and Vo explore in their first collaborative composition. “We have such a close connection to water in our countries,” Honda says, noting that California’s drought lends additional resonance to the subject. She acknowledged with a laugh that the piece was still untitled as of mid-September, two weeks before its world premiere performance at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre in Barnsdall Park.

Honda likens their collaboration to storytelling with a personal slant. Although they’re from different countries, she and Vo share points of reference as Asians who emigrated to the States. “We still have memories about who we were in our countries,” Honda says, adding that their joint composition expresses a sense of “reaching out,” not just in terms of the distance they traveled to the US, but a reaching out “to the audience, to ourselves, to each other.”

Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winner Vanessa Vo who collaborated with Honda for their Ford on the Road show. (Photo courtesy of Vo)
Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winner Vanessa Vo who will perform with Honda at the next Ford on the Road show. (Photo courtesy of Vo)

For Honda, that distance traveled was a bold leap: from northern Japan to central Kansas, where, with little English and no friends or family in the area, she enrolled in tiny Bethany College. Her teachers in Japan had expected her to attend a high-profile East Coast conservatory. But Honda, overwhelmed by the time-consuming nature of classical training and competition, determined to study anything but music.

“My life had disappeared into music, and I no longer existed,” Honda says. In Lindsborg, Kansas, she “learned to become a person again.” Supportive and nurturing friendships eventually brought her back to the piano, with a fresh sense of balance.

One of the things she and Vo have in common is their resolve to enjoy their careers without sacrificing their personal lives — a challenge for women in particular. “In the long run, we want to celebrate and enjoy life, and we see life as the source of music.”

Like Honda, Vo uses extended technique on acoustic instruments. Their Barnsdall performance will incorporate three traditional Vietnamese instruments: the dan tranh zither (Vo’s a national champion in Vietnam); the dan bau, a monochord, or single-string, zither that can sound like the human voice; and the dan trung, a bamboo xylophone. Vo, who often performs with the Kronos Quartet, will also sing.

For all their complex layers of sound and ideas, the two musicians aim for simplicity in execution, and an experience that’s open to listeners of all ages and musical tastes.

“It’s not about trying to play Eastern or Western music but really trying to be true to our feelings,” Honda says. “It’s almost like my identity. As a pianist, I think as a Western person, but my soul is in Japan. I don’t know which one I am, but I like both.”

Motoko Honda & Vanessa Vo perform as part of the Angel City Jazz Festival on October 3 at 8:00 PM at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. The evening will also include performances by Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue with Ambrose Akinmusire and Mat Maneri. Tickets are $15-$20.

TAIKOPROJECT + Quetzal: the new generation of LA music

Quetzal Flores (furthest left) and the band at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Quetzal Flores (furthest left) and the band at the 2013 Grammy Awards ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

By Molly Kodros

One of the best parts of living in LA is being able to witness the intersection of different cultures and artistic movements. Sometimes, these connections are obvious, but often they’re truly unexpected. At first glance, TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal‘s upcoming Ford on the Road collaboration would seem to be the latter.

As their name implies, TAIKOPROJECT is a raucous, contemporary take on the traditional art of Japanese taiko drumming. Grammy-winning Quetzal is one of East LA’s defining Chicano rock bands. So what could TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal possibly have in common? A lot more than you might think…

For one, they both exhibit exceptional artistic ability. I watched the two groups rehearse at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo a few Saturdays ago. With their arms and sticks flying, their quick movements and their gleeful shouting, TAIKOPROJECT put a huge grin on my face and made me want to jump right in and join.

Artistic Director Masato “Maz” Baba (center) and TAIKOPROJECT.
Masato “Maz” Baba (center) and TAIKOPROJECT.

Likewise, Quetzal’s songs of longing, displacement and finding home felt quintessentially Angeleno. I really felt the songs and lyrics deep at my core, even with just my rudimentary level of Spanish. The group fuses son jarocho, ranchero, salsa, cumbia, rock and R&B, with a political vision based in social activism, feminism and the belief that there is radical potential in expressive culture.

Another thing these two groups have in common is the prominent roles they play in their LA communities and their desire to go beyond typical cultural designations. TAIKOPROJECT has been a leader in the Japanese American community since its founding in 2000. Quetzal has played an integral role in shaping the East LA music scene since 1994. Both artists wanted to experiment, to explore what happens when leaders from two different cultures join forces.

In fact, Quetzal co-founder and guitarist Quetzal Flores had the opportunity to experience different Japanese celebrations at an early age – including taiko. “TAIKOPROJECT is the new generation of LA music,” he said. “Taking chances and pushing the tradition forward.”

TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal have something potent to say about modern life and respect each other for it.  TAIKOPROJECT’s Artistic Director Masato “Maz” Baba also grew up around taiko and started playing the music at six years old. He admires Quetzal for the group’s political voice.

Quetzal and TAIKOPROJECT playing together at the preview performance I caught at JANM!
Quetzal and TAIKOPROJECT playing together at the preview performance I caught at JANM!

Maz explained to me that TAIKOPROJECT was influenced by the powerful music and message of the Civil Rights movement. Taiko was a way for Maz and company to find their voice, to “be loud and show people who we are.”

I asked Quetzal what about taiko music he most responds to. “Taiko as a community practice most attracts me to it,” he said. He explained the connection between the two groups and that they had a mutually beneficial relationship growing up so close to one another. In fact, the original drummer of Quetzal is a taiko drummer.

So, given the complexity and plurality of LA’s many cultures, it’s not really much of a leap that TAIKOPROJECT and Quetzal started collaborating together. In fact, it’s actually been a long time coming.

Watching both groups perform together was thrilling. Their sets reinvent original songs from each other’s catalog, adding to them and reimagining them with a whole new musical palette.

With Quetzal’s full band on stage and TAIKOPROJECT’s slew of drums and a Zimbabwean marimba and shinobue, I felt like the collaboration was new, unprecedented and somehow always meant to be.

Quetzal + TAIKOPROJECT in Concert performs September 18 & 19 at 8:00 p.m. at Tateuchi Democracy Forum, Japanese American National Museum. Tickets are $25.


A stunning shot rom
A stunning shot rom “Fluid Infinities,” the third piece in the trilogy. (Photo by Kenneth Mucke)

“How many pull-ups can you do?” That’s how Artistic Director Jacques Heim greeted me as I arrived at the Diavolo | Architecture in Motion dance studio – a warehouse in the heart of Downtown’s Arts District. Jacques and company were in the midst of rehearsal when I arrived on a nearly 100 degree day. The dozen industrial size fans cooling the space beat like drums intensifying the moment.

I was there to learn more about Diavolo’s upcoming Ford Signature Series show L’Espace du Temps coming to the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in September. The company’s most ambitious creation to date, the trilogy will be performed in its entirety for the first time in the US, with live orchestration from New West Symphony, under the direction of Christopher Rountree.

“Pull-ups?” I responded with a gulp. “I have no idea.”

“If you can do five pull-ups you can ask two questions. If you can do eight, you can ask three questions. 10, you can ask four. You ready?”

“No, please!” I blurted out. I then suggested that I’d just be a “fly one the wall” adding meekly that I didn’t want to interrupt their flow. 

Artistic Director Jacques Heim in action. (Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha)
Artistic Director Jacques Heim in action. (Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha)

“Ok then. Someone get me a fly swatter!” Jacques commanded and raised his hand as though to pin me to the wall. I laughed nervously, but the twinkle in his eye convinced me he was at least half joking.

I was saved by rehearsal director Shauna Martinez who reminded Jacques that it was time to rehearse transitions.

“Transitions! You’ll be a bored fly,” Jacques declared. One of the transitions involved a dancer packing another dancer in a suitcase and rolling her away. Boredom seemed unlikely. 

The Diavolo work space is a vast platform stage populated by several cubes, a large board with knobs protruding like bristles, a metallic sculpture of a woman doing a bridge pose and what looked like an iron cage.

Aside from their genre-defying style – that blends aerial work, martial arts, gymnastics, ballet, hip-hop, contemporary dance and more – it’s their interactive structures that really set Diavolo apart.

“The structures are never just there to be there,” dancer Kellie St. Pierre told me. “A lot of dance I’ve experienced has no relation to the scenery – except for maybe one moment. Here it’s not just a decoration. It’s moving us. We’re moving it. Our bodies are being influenced by it.”

Many of these structures are manufactured by Torrance vintage car restorer Mike McCluskey and it’s easy to see that influence in their sleek and sturdy designs.

“It’s always fun to learn how to use a new structure,” Kellie added. “The second piece [in L’Espace du Temps] has a floor that comes up with motors and boxes that fit into each other and pins that come out and spin. There’s so much going on.”

Here, in
Here, in “Foreign Bodies,” you can clearly see the influence of triangular blocks that inspired the trilogy. (Courtesy of Diavolo)

I was interested in learning about how the company creates its work, so I found Jacques again. “I work in a country called collaboration – it has its own rules, its own regulations and its own language,” he told me.

Jacques will come to the first rehearsal armed with an idea or a theme and a physical structure that interests him. He presents these to the company and assigns “homework,” which can include a piece of music or a writing assignment that inspires a string of movement. Jacques then modifies and arranges these strings of movement in collaboration with designers and choreographers. Often the last touch is the music, which is scored to the choreography.

“It’s not just that we’re allowed to have a voice,” said dancer Jessie Ryan. “We’re expected to have a voice. Everything that Jacques does poses a question or a faint idea and then we have to make that a reality.”

The initial idea for L’Espace du Temps hit Jacques while the company was on tour in Aspen, Colorado.

“Our dressing room was in an elementary classroom. There were toys everywhere – it was fantastic!” Jacques explained.

A shot from “Fearful Symmetries.” (Courtesy of Diavolo)

Among the toys were triangular blocks that, when arranged together, formed cubes. This inspired Jacques to research cubes. He found that the philosopher René Descartes believed the universe was built from geometric solids. 

“The cube became a symbol of the beginning of time and a metaphor for creation,” Jacques said. “Three questions emerged: Where are we coming from? Where are we going? How did everything start?” And, a trilogy was born.

Although all three in the trilogy have been performed before, they’ve been presented all together only once and never in the States, until now. “The impact of the three pieces together is gigantic. I feel like we’ve been building towards this moment,” Jacques said, the pace and volume of his words building with passion. “And don’t say ‘oh, Northridge is too far away.’ That’s wrong and lazy. Art is an experience. Art is who we are.”

DiavoloArchitecture – Motion  L’Espace du Temps with New West Symphony runs September 19 at 8 p.m. and September 20 at 3 p.m. at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) in Northridge. Tickets range from $60-99. 

The Ford Signature Series is made possible through the generous support of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. Original program created with support from former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Proceeds benefit the Ford Theatre Foundation.

Flypoet: a cure for the lost souls of LA

By Brian Sonia-Wallace

“We drive and we drive and we drive
and we get to the part of town where it seems the American Dream is still alive.”
Taalam Acey, from his poem “Brotherly Love”

Flypoet founder John Hensley works the crowd at last year’s Flypoet Under the Stars at the Ford. (Photo by Gennia Cui)

Taalam’s words rang in my ears long after I first heard them. As a poet myself, I drove and drove and drove until I reached Flypoet‘s spoken word show at The Savoy in Inglewood – a monthly haven for us wordsmiths. Heck, these lines go beyond the poet community and resonate on a quintessentially LA level: what is LA if not driving and dreams?

When the Ford turned me on to Flypoet, I was excited to learn about a poetry hot spot that I hadn’t yet discovered. The show at The Savoy gave me a taste of what to expect at the annual Flypoet Summer Classic, part of Ford on the Road. I enlisted a friend of mine on the LA slam team at Da Poetry Lounge and we were on our way!

Audiences reactions to last year's Flypoet Summer Classic show. (Photo by Gennia Cui)
Audiences reactions to last year’s Flypoet Summer Classic show. (Photo by Gennia Cui)

Flypoet makes it very clear that this is not a coffee-house open mic. While most poetry venues in the city embrace their grassroots identity with “come as you are” open mics featuring anyone and everyone, Flypoet curates the experience of spoken word as a show with the same prestige as a night at the ballet or the opera. The acts feature seasoned performers; the show is technically flawless, with a smooth run and a steady flow of cocktails. The VIP tables are highly visible – this is a place to see and be seen.

But Flypoet is also very clearly a community – between acts, Hensley introduced first timers to Flypoet traditions like those in the audience who had come for their birthdays. The table seating allows groups to sit together – almost more like a supper club than a traditional poetry night.

After the show, I had a chance to catch up with Taalam Acey, an accomplished spoken word vet who will also be a headliner at next month’s Summer Classic. Acey has been a standing feature of Flypoet.

“The show has evolved over the last 15 years to be a cure for the lost souls of LA,” Acey said.

Taalam Acey, the
Taalam Acey, the “Godfather of spoken word,” is among the headliners for September’s Flypoet Summer Classic.

We then bonded over the idea of poems as “little spells,” works rooted not in the poet’s whim, but in what the audience needs to hear. The example Acey gives is a brokenhearted love poem – it’s not just about the poet sharing an experience, but also about saying the right words to help people deal with their own stories and start to heal.

This year has brought some big changes for the poet. Taalam recently moved back to LA full time and his birthday happens to coincide with the Summer Classic, an event he sees as a new beginning of sorts.

“It’s my remarkable 45th,” he says. “I’ve learned from my mistakes and now I’m back in LA.”

Acey describes himself as a social/political poet – that’s political with a small “p” rather than a large one – meaning that he’s concerned with the well being of people and his community and not government politics. In fact, the poets I saw perform at the show all fit within this designation, telling personal stories that hint at broader ripples.

Through these vital, personal stories, Flypoet is helping keep poetry alive in a cool atmosphere accessible to casual listeners and poetry aficionados alike. If you’ve ever questioned poetry’s relevance in the modern day, you owe it to yourself to see these spoken word artists do their thing!

Stay tuned for a follow-up article with Flypoet mastermind John Hensley on poetry, race, community and this year’s Summer Classic!

Flypoet Summer Classic takes place Saturday September 5 
at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center. Just added to the bill: Grammy Award-winner Lalah Hathaway! Tickets are $40 general admission/$60 VIP/$100 Ultra Preferred VIP. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the Preshow Party starts at 6 p.m.