Por Fin Viene: Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas in L.A.

I visited Cuba in December 2011 to attend a major international jazz festival. It was a great chance to view the Havana beaches and cityscape, including the Hotel Nacional de Cuba (pictured above right). Photos by Jordan Peimer.

When I think of Cuban music, I think of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Its grand ballroom has hosted all the greats—from Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas, founded by renowned bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez (1911–1970), to, more recently, members of the Buena Vista Social Club. In the 1940s and 1950s, the hotel was the center of Havana’s rhythmic culture, a place of glamour where residents and vacationers alike could rub elbows with celebrities, gangsters, and politicians and dance the son. [Incidentally, a large influx of American Jews traveled to Cuba specifically to explore the Latin sounds that had provided the soundtrack to the Borscht Belt’s nightly dance parties. There, in the Catskill Mountains, Latin music had been entertaining Jewish audiences for decades.]

You’ll definitely get on your feet and dance when you hear Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas this week at Sunset Concerts. Here’s a clip of the band performing at Lincoln Center in New York this year.

This Thursday night at Sunset Concerts, Conjunto Chappottín y Sus Estrellas perform in the ensemble’s Los Angeles debut, bringing more than seven decades of history as icons of Cuban son. In recognition of how much Angelenos love Latin dancing, the Skirball will be removing many rows of seats and installing a dance floor for the show. We invite you to bring your dancing shoes and dance the night away—just like you would have in 1940s Cuba at the Hotel Nacional! Continue reading

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House Party with Noura

Noura and me at the party in Timbuktu.

Noura Mint Seymali comes from Mauritanian music royalty. Her father was the first person to apply written notation to folk music in Mauritania. Her stepmother is Dimi Mint Abba, one of the few Mauritanian singers to achieve a degree of fame outside her home country. And Noura herself is a master of the ardine, a harp-like instrument containing about fifteen strings and built from a calabash base and two cylindrical wooden rods. But these impressive facts do nothing to prepare you for Noura’s voice—an instrument of such power, control, and resonance that it seems to fundamentally rearrange the DNA of the listener. Like Umm Kulthum (Egypt), Sussan Deyhim (Iran), and Fairuz (Lebanon) before her, Noura takes the root sounds of her homeland and transforms them into something new and ecstatic.

Umm Kulthum performing “Baeed Anak” in Paris, November 1967.

I first met Noura in Timbuktu, Mali, in January 2012. Like me (and thousands of others), she had come to Timbuktu for the twelfth edition of Mali’s famed Festival au Désert. Unfortunately, geopolitical events had recently forced the festival’s organizers to abandon their longstanding location in the rural commune of Essakane. As a result, the festival instead took place within walking distance of Timbuktu’s city limits. One evening, as the festival was winding down, I received word of a house concert being held by my hosts in Timbuktu in their private compound just across from my quarters. Noura was scheduled to perform with her band at the festival the following day, but that evening we were treated to an intimate command performance that ran late into the night. Continue reading

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Step by Step: An Interview with Lula Washington

The 2014 Summer Amphitheater series at the Skirball is in full swing. One of the new acts this season is the internationally renowned dance company Lula Washington Dance Theatre, performing on Saturday, August 23. For the first time, the company will be performing at the Skirball for families, so I thought we should take some time to get to know Lula and hear about her thirty-year career as a dancer, choreographer, and mentor on the LA dance scene.

How did you get started in dance?
When I was in high school I enrolled in a class where the teacher played music and we danced and exercised to the music. It was a dancercise class, not a real dance class, but I got the dance bug there. I only took the class because I wanted to get out of Physical Education. Later, when I went to Harbor Community College to study nursing, I walked past a dance class. I had never seen anything like it before. I had only seen dance on television. I kept watching and I eventually went in and asked if I could take the class. The teacher told me to show her what I could do. It was obvious that I did not know how to do anything. She said, “You’ve never had a dance class, have you?” I said, “No, but if you let me in this class, I will work real hard and I will do my best to catch on.” She let me in. That’s how I got my start. I had no dance training. I did my first dance concert with my teacher at Harbor Community College. She is also the one who took me to my first dance performance. She drove me and her other students to Royce Hall at UCLA to see Alvin Ailey. Seeing the Ailey company sealed it for me. I decided to dance.

 

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Wade in the Water” from Revelations.

 

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I believe that the art of dance has the power to change people’s lives. Dance can inspire people and uplift people. Every time we perform for live audiences, I know that someone will be moved in a deeply personal and powerful way. That gives me joy. The direct feedback from our audiences is what I enjoy most. After our shows, people come up to me and they tell me how much they were touched by our performance. I also enjoy it when I see a dancer reach a new level of excellence. When I see the dancers step up and hit it, and when I see them grow and surpass where they had been before, I get so excited. It gives me great joy.

 

The Lula Washington Dance Theater performing Spontaneous Combustion in China.

 

Dance has remained popular on television and in films. What do you think is the difference between seeing dance on a screen versus seeing it live in a performance space?
You can feel dance when it is live. There is something intangible that does not come through on the flat screen. Dance is more powerful when it is live. You can hear the feet on the floor, the breathing of the dancers. You see them flying through space and have a truer sense of how high they are leaping, or falling, or sailing across the room. There is no comparison to seeing dance live and seeing it on screen. Live is better.

 

What is one memorable moment from your performing or choreography career that stands out?
My work with James Cameron on the movie Avatar is what stands out most in my mind. I choreographed movement, rituals, and the Na’vi greetings to each other for the film.  My dancers had to wear these motion capture suits Continue reading

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Your Recipe for a Romantic Vegan Date at the Skirball

Check out my recipe (linked in the article below) for a fresh vegan summer salad, a satisfying accompaniment to Sunset Concerts at the Skirball.

Check out my recipe (linked in the article below) for a fresh vegan summer salad,
a satisfying accompaniment to Sunset Concerts at the Skirball.

It’s summer, and that means concert season has begun! Now that it’s officially July, you can start counting down the days to this summer’s Sunset Concerts at the Skirball. It all starts on July 24 with a performance by Noura Mint Seymali and continues every Thursday night through August 28.

Sunset Concerts are fun, festive events to share with friends and family. Each concert offers you a night filled with music and dancing, and the concerts are all FREE! Every concert showcases a different style of music, so make sure to check out the Skirball website for a complete line-up. The concerts begin at 8:00 p.m., but try to arrive early because the seating is first-come, first-served!

In my opinion, Sunset Concerts are especially perfect for a romantic date night. If you are looking to impress that special someone, I’ve outlined the recipe for a romantic summertime evening below:

  • I would suggest planning ahead and packing a picnic. Who doesn’t love to be courted with a home-cooked meal? If your date has any special dietary needs, check out my recipe for a vegan Greek salad. As with any great recipe, there’s room for modifications; for instance, you can add feta cheese if you prefer to make a nonvegan version. Along with the salad, pack a baguette or crackers, your favorite hummus, and grapes or strawberries to nibble on. (If packing a picnic isn’t your style, you can purchase a complete meal on site at Zeidler’s expanded grab-and-go cart, featuring gourmet sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, and assorted other goodies.) Continue reading
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President’s Greeting: Jul/Aug 2014

Dendé And Band on stage for Sunset Concerts at the Skirball 2013.

Dendé And Band on stage for Sunset Concerts at the Skirball 2013.

Music moves us like few other forms of human expression. It speaks a universal language. Gladness, sorrow, yearning, hope, love—each of us feels these emotions as unique, yet music has a way of connecting them, and us, in all our shared humanity.

Music, like every language, is more than sound. It comes from somewhere—not only from a voice or an instrument, but from a composer, a performer, and a context. The Skirball Cultural Center is all about context—the communities we inhabit, the cultures we celebrate, the memories we cherish. When concerts are performed at the Skirball, they are appreciated not only as music but as vessels of community, culture, and memory. They enrich our knowledge of the world and of each other, even as they unite our hearts in song and dance.

This summer, Continue reading

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Remembering Paul Mazursky

George Segal (left) and Paul Mazursky (right) on the Skirball stage in April 2012 as they reminisced about the making of Mazurksy’s Blume in Love, which starred Segal as the title character.

George Segal (left) and Paul Mazursky (right) on the Skirball stage in April 2012 as they reminisced about the making of Mazurksy’s Blume in Love, which starred Segal as the title character.

We at the Skirball mourn the loss of Paul Mazursky, undeniably one of America’s great filmmakers. He was at the vanguard of a generation of American auteurs who took their cues from the history of American and foreign film and adapted it to contemporary filmmaking. Paul had an understanding of and an ability to create both comedy and drama that touched us all in so many ways. From Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, his first film, he made an instant mark upon the American psyche. The list of his classics is long and includes the extraordinary Harry and Tonto, the heartfelt Next Stop, Greenwich Village, the trailblazing An Unmarried Woman, and the madcap Down and Out in Beverly Hills. As an actor, too, Paul captivated audiences in important work, from Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire right through to episodes of The Twilight Zone and, more recently, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Paul gave generously of his time and participated in numerous programs with us at the Skirball. Most recently I was fortunate enough to work with him on a 2012 Skirball retrospective of his films, a series we entitled “Through a Glass Brightly.” Continue reading

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The Snowy Day to Knuffle Bunny: Caldecott Winners to Enjoy with Your Kids

I’ve always been a reader. Some of my life’s crazy historical obsessions started with a children’s one-volume encyclopedia I received as a gift when I was ten, and today I probably own 2,000 books. To me books are the best possible means for “walking in someone else’s shoes.” As book buyer for Audrey’s Museum Store, I’m glad to see some of our visitors go home with books like The Snowy Day, pictured above (with me peeping out from behind!).

I’ve always been a reader. Some of my life’s crazy historical obsessions started with a children’s one-volume encyclopedia I received as a gift when I was ten, and today I probably own 2,000 books. To me books are the best possible means for “walking in someone else’s shoes.” As book buyer for Audrey’s Museum Store, I’m glad to see some of our visitors go home with books like The Snowy Day, pictured above (with me peeping out from behind!).

Summer’s here, which means families with kids across the southland are in summer break mode (even if yours aren’t quite school-age yet). Let your kids travel to new worlds and meet new people between the covers of some first-rate children’s literature! One of the best ways to put together a top-notch book list for the littlest ones in your family is, of course, to ask for recommendations from a librarian. Even better, get recommendations from a whole bunch of librarians by checking out the work of current and past winners of the Caldecott Medal.

The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the most distinguished illustrated children’s book published that year. The exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats—on view at the Skirball through September 7—afforded us the wonderful opportunity to highlight one of the recipients of this special award (The Snowy Day received the medal in 1963).

Here are a few Caldecott honorees we chose to feature in Audrey’s Museum Store along with all of Keats’s in-print books:

noahs ark_skirball_caldecott winner

 

Noah’s Ark, by Peter Spier

With amazingly detailed pictures, Spier tells the Noah story with almost no words.  Perfect for a family who wants to create their own take on this classic story.

 

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LA Teens Weave Their Own Stories into the American Fabric

I’m the artistic director of artworxLA, a nonprofit arts organization that combats the high school dropout crisis by re-engaging students in their high school education through long-term sequential arts programming. Formerly called the HeArt Project, artworxLA has spent the last twenty-two years bringing professional artists into continuation and alternative high school classrooms to inspire students to embrace their own creativity, challenge their preconceived notions, and create a space for their creative voices. Our success as an organization rides on the amazing artists that live and work in Los Angeles and the fabulous cultural institutions with which we partner every year.

This school year we partnered with the Skirball Cultural Center. Inspired by objects in the Skirball’s core exhibition Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America, 550 students were invited to explore their identities as individuals and community members and to draw parallels to the American Jewish experience. Over the course of ten weeks, students from twenty-five schools worked with teaching artists to explore the immigrant experience across cultures, connect the past to the present, and celebrate their unique American identities as a collection of cultures and heritages. For a minimum of two hours each week, students, teaching artists, and workshop coordinators diligently collaborated to find a creative pathway to explore these concepts. The resulting projects included performance pieces, music mash-ups, short films, poems, and visual artworks.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Above left: A sampling of the range of student artwork from Pocket Portraits completed by students at Hollywood Media Arts Academy with Teaching Artist Lluvia Higuera. Above right: A three-dimensional Poet-Tree conceived by Teaching Artist Marissa Sykes. Photos by Rachel Bernstein Stark and Paul Ulukpo.

Each of the three series of ten-week workshops culminated with a public presentation at the Skirball, where students presented their artwork to one another and to members of the community. Continue reading

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A Taxonomy of Dads

I’ve been to quite a few events at the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances (kicking off June 21); it’s a great place to introduce your kids (and yourself) to everything from live marimba music to live porcupines. Most of the time when I’m there, my attention is devoted to my daughter—watching her delight in the day’s programming, chasing her up and down the amphitheater stairs (i.e., cardio for parents), trying to dredge up a box of raisins from the very bottom of the toddler utility tote (because of course that is the place where the thing you want will be), etc. Still, the casual observations I’ve made of my fellow parents in attendance have led me to the very scientific hypothesis that, tucked away in the catch-all descriptor of “dad,” there are various distinct subcategories of dads—a broad array of phyla in the kingdom of dads, if you will. I’m pretty sure I could fill a Birds of America-sized book with all of these dad types, but I won’t pretend that wouldn’t be kind of tedious for everybody concerned. Still, I feel that it’s my duty as a fellow dad and an armchair anthropologist to present a small sampling of dads in honor of Flag Day. I mean, Father’s Day.

Bjorn Again dad, you're living the dream, and feeling the burn (in your shoulders and back, from all the weight strapped to your torso), and waving your dad flag high. Now, some people might look at you and think, "He can't be enjoying that. Can he?" He can, unencumbered bystander, he can.

Bjorn Again Dad, you’re living the dream, and feeling the burn (in your shoulders
and back, from all the weight strapped to your torso), and waving your dad flag
high. Now, some people might look at you and think, “He can’t be enjoying that.
Can he?” He can, unencumbered bystander, he can.

Skirball_Audience Participation Dad_Family Amphitheater

Whoa there, Audience Participation Dad—the vigor with which you strut your stuff is, um, admirable, but maybe keep your weirdest dance moves under wraps.
And if you can’t put a lid on it for your own sake, then please think of the children.
Specifically, your own children. Watching you do the Funky Warthog, or the
“Duke of Weselton,” or whatever you call that number, with no regard for how it
reflects on them.

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Seeing Love Through a Pomegranate

In conjunction with the “commitment document” to be created and installed as part of the public participatory art commission Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, the artists invite you to submit photographs of people who love each other or you with someone you love. A selection of these photographs will be chosen by the artists and specially framed for display in the exhibition. For inspiration, the above photograph is from the Skirball collection: Wedding Anniversary Invitation for Gittel and Irving Weinrot. Gift of Bertha Hochberg, SCC13.3. Read on for submission instructions and guidelines.

In conjunction with the “commitment document” to be created and installed as part of the public participatory art commission Fallen Fruit of the Skirball, the artists invite you to submit photographs of people who love each other or you with someone you love. A selection of these photographs will be chosen by the artists and specially framed for display in the exhibition. Read on for submission instructions and guidelines. For inspiration, the above photograph is from the Skirball collection: Wedding Anniversary Invitation for Gittel and Irving Weinrot. Gift of Bertha Hochberg, SCC13.3.

When bright red pomegranates started filling every nook and cranny of wall space in the Ruby Gallery at the Skirball, I witnessed people stop in their tracks, puzzle over it, and smile. After working closely with the Los Angeles art collaborative Fallen Fruit (David Burns and Austin Young) on this immersive art installation, I have learned how something as simple as a piece of fruit can bring so many people and ideas together.

In their artistic practice, Fallen Fruit uses fruit as a filter to explore social engagement and relies on acts of sharing, public participation, and community involvement to make their work. The social, economic, and political implications of fruit reveal the relationship between those who have food resources and those who do not, and yet they also foster a sense of community and activism. In fact, Fallen Fruit’s name is derived from a passage in the book of Leviticus:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger.

This philosophy of giving and reaching out to strangers has allowed Fallen Fruit to collaborate with communities and institutions all over the world. After studying our collection of Jewish cultural artifacts, Fallen Fruit found inspiration in a seventeenth-century ketubbah (marriage contract). They also discovered how prominently the pomegranate figures in Jewish art and culture, particularly as a symbol of fertility and marriage. The installation in the Ruby Gallery combines their interest in both the cultural ritual of marriage and the beauty of the pomegranate by featuring specially designed wallpaper created from photographs of pomegranate fruits grown in Southern California.

Details of the wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit for their collaboration with the Skirball. It features pomegranates in all different forms—cracked open, discolored, seeds and juice scattered everywhere. These imperfections add even more beauty and dimension to the wallpaper and compel us to look closer and find something new each time.

Details of the wallpaper designed by Fallen Fruit for their collaboration with the Skirball. It features pomegranates in all different forms—cracked open, discolored, seeds and juice scattered everywhere. These imperfections add even more beauty and dimension to the wallpaper and compel us to look closer and find something new each time.

Fallen Fruit’s custom fruit wallpaper has become their signature visual format for exploring fruits that are important or symbolic to certain institutions and collections. But why wallpaper? Austin Young explains, “Fruit is often decorative. It appears in wallpaper, art objects, patterns on textiles, decorative art, and still life paintings throughout history in different cultures.” The wallpaper that Fallen Fruit creates often incorporates a lattice-like pattern that repeats continuously. Austin adds that this repetition reinforces the fact that “we see fruit as a common denominator and connector.”

After putting together the design of pomegranates taken from photographs of the fruit grown around Southern California, Fallen Fruit worked with a printer to get the repeating pattern printed on self-adhesive vinyl wallpaper. When installed, this wallpaper will be seamless.

After putting together the design of pomegranates taken from photographs of the fruit grown around Southern California, Fallen Fruit worked with a printer to get the repeating pattern printed on self-adhesive vinyl wallpaper. When installed, this wallpaper will be seamless.

The pomegranate wallpaper that Fallen Fruit designed has been made into a special edition just for the Skirball. In Jewish tradition, the pomegranate is a pervasive symbol from biblical times relating to the garments of the priesthood and royalty, the architecture of the ancient temple, and Torah ornaments of the synagogue. According to one rabbinic tradition, a pomegranate contains 613 seeds, corresponding directly to divine commandments in the Torah.

The installers make sure the wallpaper looks perfect. The round window looking into Zeidler’s Café was an especially tricky area of the installation.

The installers make sure the wallpaper looks perfect. The round window looking into Zeidler’s Café was an especially tricky area of the installation.

Views of the completed installation. The Ruby Gallery is entirely transformed by the wallpaper.

Views of the completed installation. The Ruby Gallery is entirely transformed by the wallpaper.

But the exhibition doesn’t stop here; Continue reading

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