JAM Sessions are back!

JAMmers busting a move at Versa-Style Dance Company’s hip-hop JAM in East LA!

By Jennifer Fukutomi-Jones
Associate Program Manager

We’re pretty excited about the 2016 JAM Session series and we hope you will be too! For this year’s JAM lineup, we tried to include the perfect balance of the new and the familiar. One of our newest: a Tropicál Dance JAM with Andrea Rodriguez who will show you dance moves that originated in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region and Panama, set to the hip-swaying beats of local band Buyepongo. Other new art forms to explore this year include Brazilian forró dance, Celtic dance and a not-to-be-missed Funk Dance Party. And, of course, the most exciting part of all is that you will have the opportunity to get up and dance on the Ford’s newly renovated stage! All good things come to those who wait, so they say, so set an August reminder for JAMs at the Ford. (Specifics on the Ford’s reopening summer season coming soon.)

CONTRA-TIEMPO’s salsa JAM taking over Newhall!

Because we know that waiting is hard, we’re continuing JAMs at sites throughout LA County. This year, you can get your JAM on in Newhall, San Fernando and Pomona, with some fantastic new local artists such as Kalakeke Pacific Island Dance Company, The GR818ERS and Tradición Dance Company. One of our goals is to cultivate the growth of local artists in the communities where JAMs take place, so we’re thrilled to share these new artists and art forms with you.

For your dose of the familiar, you can look forward to the following JAMs returning: Bollywood dance, swing dance, Japanese folk dance, Mexican folk dance, salsa, hip-hop dance and more!

JAMs have already begun – the next one is March 26 – so click FordJamSessions.org for more details. Can’t wait to JAM with you this summer!

Interested in getting info on JAMs right in your inbox? Click here.

Construction Update #3

What’s happening with the Ford Theatres construction,  you ask? To which we say: OMG SOOOO MUCH! The venue is really shaping up and we can’t wait to share it with you this summer. Click on the images below to get your own tour – no hard hat required!

All photos by Kim Kandel.

Melding Past & Future at the Ford: A Conversation with Brenda Levin

By Carren Jao

It seems fitting to be visiting architect Brenda Levin at her new offices within the former Macy’s Plaza complex downtown, where change is afoot everywhere you look.

Brenda is a renowned preservation architect responsible for reviving many of LA’s architectural gems, including the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Griffith Observatory and the Wiltern, to name a few. Over the years, her work has subtly shaped the LA landscape by preserving its most cherished landmarks.

Brenda is at work again at the Ford Theatres, ensuring that Angelenos will experience the venue’s intimate natural beauty for generations to come.

Check out some of the Ford’s new features!

“The Ford will be at once familiar, but also changed – mainly in the way you move through it,” she said, spreading out the plans for the future Ford Theatres, her pen busily dashing here and there, making notes on the margins. All around her, renderings and material samples gave me tantalizing clues to the venue’s revival.

“What’s special about the Ford is that as an audience member, you’re looking at nature,” she said. “At other venues, nature is behind you but with the Ford, the canyon is part of the backdrop.”

Rather than compete with the Ford’s architecture and natural backdrop, Brenda’s design takes its cues from it. For example, a dramatic new acoustic barrier that will dampen noise from the 101 Freeway will use a soothing green and blue palette interspersed with wood battens, creating an organic extension of the canyon.

Architect Brenda Levin sits before a rendering of the Ford in her Downtown LA office.

Brenda had been to the Ford perhaps five times in the 30-odd years she’s lived in LA but this project has given the architect a deeper understanding of the venue and the role it plays in the LA arts landscape.

“What I didn’t appreciate until we had master-planned the venue was the County’s commitment to local artists in terms of capacity building,” said Brenda. “There are a lot of theatres in LA, but they tend to feature very well-known artists. I can’t think of another location where the commitment to diverse up-and-coming artists is that clear. [The Ford] represents a cross-section of the region.”

Brenda’s design reflects the Ford’s focus on local artists. Instead of a raked stage, Ford artists will now enjoy a new stage that is centered and level. Plus, there will be new dressing rooms, increased storage space and easier access to the stage for artists with disabilities. New lighting and sound equipment will also ensure that performers are given more flexibility to experiment and push the envelope – a bonus for audiences too.

A rendering showing the entire renovated venue from a bird’s eye view.

Adding to the magic of an evening at the Ford is the new picnic terrace, which will accommodate 150 people and will include a new concessions building with full kitchen (for faster service and more food options – yumm).

There’s much more to the renovation, of course, like slope stabilization and a new loading dock, but these will be invisible to the casual visitor. “It’s not just paint, patch and repair. It’s more complex that it seems,” added Brenda.

What patrons will notice, however, is that the Ford’s iconic Neo-Judaic concrete structures will remain in place, as well as its distinctive wood doors (which are an artifact from its origins as the Pilgrimage Theatre). But, all around it, something new and exciting will emerge. I can’t wait to experience the transformation for myself!

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.

Ford on the Road Neighborhood Guide: East Hollywood

A lovely view of the city from Barnsdall Art Park. (Photo courtesy of Yelp)
A lovely view of the city from Barnsdall Art Park. (Photo courtesy of Yelp)

Ford on the Road‘s next stop is the Angel City Jazz Festival to experience the sonic wizardry of Motoko Honda and Vanessa Vo at Bransdall Art Park in Hollywood. To prepare for this leg of our journey, we asked Angel City Jazz Fest’s Rocco Somazzi to recommend some fun things to do before and after the show!

What do you love most about the neighborhood?
Rocco Somazzi:
There is a very exciting confluence of different cultures in East Hollywood. Immigrants from Thailand, Korea, Armenia and Iran, among many others, live in the area and you can find interesting shops and restaurants representing them all on any given block.

Sanamluang Cafe offers a fun late-night dining experience. (Photo Courtesy of Yelp)
Sanamluang Cafe offers a fun late-night dining experience. (Photo Courtesy of Yelp)

What’s your favorite place for late-night fun?
Rocco Somazzi: I love Sanamluang Cafe. This hole-in-the-wall Thai cafe is known for staying open late. On Saturdays and Sundays, it fills up with all kinds of revelers. This eclectic scene is the perfect way to wind down after a night of partying.

What’s the best spot to sit and watch the world go by?
Rocco Somazzi: Barnsdall Art Park is perfectly located atop its own hill and allows for 360 degree views of the hustle and bustle of LA. Watching the world go by from up there is quite magical, especially at night.

Sqirl's hip and healthy breakfast fare is a local favorite. (Photo courtesy of Yelp)
Sqirl’s hip and healthy breakfast fare is a local favorite. (Photo courtesy of Yelp)

What is your favorite area to walk around?
Rocco Somazzi: Vermont in between Hollywood and Franklin is my favorite area for a stroll. The street is lined with funky businesses and cool cafes with patio seating. You always see lots of people out and about and whenever I walk up and and down the street, I run into someone I know.

Are there any other local businesses we should check out?
Rocco Somazzi: Sqirl is a fantastic little breakfast and lunch spot focusing on very high quality ingredients and creative preparations. They offer some of the best beverages I’ve ever had, like fresh pressed blood orange juice, a turmeric tonic and rhubarb lemonade. Everything there is so fresh and full of flavor!

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.

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.