BODYTRAFFIC Moves for Schools

Classically trained dancers. Klezmer, Ladino, and jazz music. A man lip-syncing to an Ella Fitzgerald song. High school students from all over Los Angeles. This amazing mix came together on Wednesday, October 29, during a performance at the Skirball by local dance company BODYTRAFFIC.

BODYTRAFFIC was founded in Los Angeles in 2007 by Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett. It was recently named the “Best up-and-coming dance company” by LA Weekly, the company of the future by The Joyce Theater Foundation, one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch in 2013,” and “Best of Culture” by the Los Angeles Times.

This performance was typical of our school performance series in which we offer music, theater, dance performances, and film screenings that bring diverse groups of students together to explore culture, history, and identity with world-class performing artists.

In order to whet their appetite for the performance, we asked students to respond to some questions about dance. These questions got them thinking about dance as a mode of expression and how it factors into their own lives. Here is a sampling of the students’ responses:


What does dance mean to you? When was the last time you danced? What types of dance do you know?
Dance is a way to express yourself In the morning Tango
Freedom Last week Cha-cha
Feelings When I was little Ballroom
Art At homecoming Dougie
Everything I twerk when I can Cumbia
Emotion Ballet
Be Yourself Shuffling
Gangnam Style


The first piece, an excerpt from and at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square… choreographed by Barak Marshall, explored gender roles and the push-and-pull dynamics of romantic relationships.


In the second piece, dancers wowed the audience with a mash-up of disparate dance styles—breakdancing, ballet, and contemporary—in a selection from their newest work: once more before you go by choreographer Victor Quijada.


The final dance included selections from a suite of dances called o2Joy, an exuberant homage to American jazz standards, by choreographer Richard Siegal. In it, the dancers spun, swayed in pairs, and proved that it is possible to fly in our Ahmanson ballroom! Continue reading

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

Dancing with the Skirball

This Friday, December 6, Brooklyn-based indie rock band/dance troupe People Get Ready will perform at Into the Night: Progression, a late-night party taking place at the Skirball.

People Get Ready fuse music and modern dance in a combination that’s as arresting as it is unexpected. After attending one of their shows, Bob Boilen, host and creator of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” dubbed it his favorite show of 2012: “No single show took my breath away the way this one did—part rock concert, part performance art, part dance, all perfectly melded together. … It felt like a band creating a music video for every piece of music performed.” Below, check out a live video of People Get Ready’s performance for the song “Middle Name,” followed by a collection of six music videos in which unexpected dancing is the name of the game—including a few videos featuring artists with ties to People Get Ready.


1- In this music video for Blonde Redhead’s “Top Ranking,” artist and filmmaker Miranda July contorts her body in a series of one-second-long poses. [Interesting connection: People Get Ready’s Steven Reker served as choreographer for July’s 2011 film, The Future.]


2- Bay Area–based art-rock band Deerhoof enlisted People Get Ready members Steven Reker, Jen Goma, and James Rickman to dance in their video for “Fête d’Adieu.” Check out Reker’s solo around 1:36.


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President’s Greeting: Mar/Apr 2013

The burning bush is one of the vinyl graphics used to help visitors reenact the story of the Exodus in Exodus Steps, a story performed by you, our visitors.

During this season of Passover, the Skirball Cultural Center presents the commissioned work Exodus Steps. It welcomes families of all beliefs and heritages to take part in dramatizing the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

Passover has assumed the symbolic meaning of human freedom in general and of the universal hope for the end of all oppression. The act of recalling and retelling a people’s journey from enslavement to freedom is meaningful. When we retrace the steps (and even the missteps) of those who struggled for justice and equality before us, we are reminded that we, too, were once slaves. We come to experience liberation as if we ourselves were breaking from oppression.

When we walk in the path of our forebears who sought a promised land—whether in ancient history or modern-day America—we understand that we remain ever in pursuit of freedom.

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Sticking Not Stuck

Simon Ford takes notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

I took this photo of our graphic designer, Simon Ford, as he jotted notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

Following up on my last SkirBlog post, I wanted to share more about the design of Exodus Steps, but time, time, time! We’ve been working away at it late, late, late. The story’s so big, and the Skirball campus is so full of possibilities, we’ve gotten carried away with ourselves. This is going to have to be fast.

Since agreeing with the Skirball we were going to make Exodus Steps, we have (cutting out all the tedious administrative/visa waiver stuff that no one wants to hear about, least of all me):

  1. Re-read the book and identified all the must-have, could-have, and don’t-need scenes.
  2. Written a draft script.
  3. Decided who needs to say how little to make the story function and have some degree of character/humanity. (Remember, we’re cutting all the text into vinyl speech bubbles, so no one is allowed to soliloquise.)
  4. Thought about what objects the audience needs to see/interact with to tell the story and make the thing look attractive. (As in most movies, we’d like the story to be told by sight and action rather than words.)

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

  5. Designed most of the props, including feet. As this is the eighteenth edition of the Steps Series we have a fairly extensive archive of designs from previous shows so cow, sheep, dog, and horse footprints don’t need designing. Simon Ford, our graphic designer, has created a new line of footwear for Exodus Steps as we aspire to show gradations of social class/wealth in ancient Egypt through the footprints—which admittedly is a little ambitious (the Sherlock Holmes stories were amongst our inspirations for the series). Continue reading

Planning the Exodus

Years ago I was thinking about “teach-yourself-to-dance” floor mats and how it was unfair that dance had these but theatre didn’t. I imagined that with some ingenuity we could right this wrong. All we needed was an organization to allow us to plaster their building with adhesive vinyl.

In 2008 mac birmingham, our local arts centre, was looking to commission a piece to mark its closure for rebuilding. We pitched the vinyl idea to them, and given that much of the building was due to be demolished anyway, they figured we couldn’t do too much harm.

Stan’s Café Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale

Stan’s Cafe Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale.

Making Dance Steps was tricky, as we didn’t know how “teach-yourself-theatre installations” worked. We’d never met one before. We had to make up the rules ourselves. We had to learn the art of applying vinyl stickers, which in some cases is more complicated than it sounds (though in other cases my three-year-old daughter was happy to help and couldn’t believe sticking stickers was my JOB!). Continue reading

Gary Cooper Rocked the Vote in Poland

Just a couple of days before Election Day, the Skirball will be presenting Ameryka. A meditation on democracy, this work-in-progress seemed to me a thought-provoking program to present in association with Creating the United States. Ameryka is written and directed by multidisciplinary artist and 2011 USA Hoi Fellow Nancy Keystone, working in collaboration with her Critical Mass Performance Group.

I recently had a chance to ask Nancy a few questions about the work… and I found out that an election poster in Poland was what first inspired it.

What sparked the idea for Ameryka?
I was in Poland in 2009, which was the twentieth anniversary of the “Solidarity” election. Solidarity was the free trade union in Poland, which sparked the modern democracy movement in Eastern Europe, the first semi-free elections in Poland, and the eventual fall of Communism.

It was during that trip in 2009 that I saw the famous Solidarity election poster. It features a picture of Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane, from the 1950s Western High Noon. He’s wearing a Solidarity badge above his sheriff star, and instead of a gun he’s holding an election ballot. At the bottom of the poster, it says, “It’s High Noon, 4 June, 1989.” I was really taken by this collision of cultures, by the use of this very American image to rally people to vote, by what this meant about the relationship between the United States and Poland. What I found was a vast universe of associations between our two countries going back to the American Revolution, and that’s what sparked the idea for Ameryka.

Your work addresses 200+ years of American history. How did you even begin to tackle this massive span of time and how have you chosen which eras to explore? Continue reading

Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading

“Unapologetic Agitations” by Modern Dance Artist Nora Chipaumire

Nora Chipaumire: Zimbabwean native, Bessie Award winner, and 2011 USA Ford Fellow. Photo by Antoine Tempe.

Although I’d heard about choreographer/dancer and 2011 USA Ford Fellow Nora Chipaumire for several years, it wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that I saw her perform for myself. It was at Bytom, Poland’s XIII Annual International Contemporary Dance Conference and Performance Festival. Nora’s master classes in modern and African dance created a buzz among both the students and her fellow teachers, and the solos I saw her perform were transfixing. Both works—Convoys, Curfews, and Roadblocks and Dark Swan—demonstrated not just her physical prowess, but also an intriguing intellect. These will be presented as part of her evenings of performance at the Skirball this weekend.

Nora will also give a sneak preview of a substantial excerpt-in-progress from her latest solo work, Miriam, which employs the music of Miriam Makeba (1932–2008). Widely known by her nickname, “Mama Afrika,” Makeba was an exiled South African musician who brought the realities of apartheid into the living rooms of music fans around the world. While Miriam examines the burden of representing a culture to a larger society, it’s not meant to be a biography of Makeba. Instead, it draws inspiration from Makeba’s life story, as well as from Chipaumire’s own experiences as a self-exiled Zimbabwean.

Click on the image above to see a snippet of Nora performing Convoys, Curfews, and Roadblocks. At the Skirball, she’ll perform inside our spacious Milken Gallery.

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