Talking Ladino with Guy Mendilow

A sneak preview of Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom, to be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble at the Skirball on March 27:

Guy Mendilow is not only an incredible musician, he is also quite a scholar of Sephardic culture. He and his ensemble’s concerts not only present the music of Sephardic tradition in a contemporary style, they also share the stories and culture of the Jews of both pre- and post-diasporic Spain. Their concerts become not just an opportunity to enjoy, but also to learn. I invite you to share in my conversation with Guy and then join us at the Skirball for what is certain to be a great evening.

So what is Ladino? How is it an “endangered” language?
First off, let’s quickly tackle the question of names. The term “Ladino” is arguable. Although it has become the most common name for the language, the spoken language itself is more correctly called Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Judeo, Judaismo, Hekatia (in Northern Africa), Saphardi, or, as was the case for older generations, simply Spanish. Today, the various dialects are often grouped under “Judeo-Spanish,” an umbrella term used mainly in academic study.

What the language is is a great story. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 marked the start of large-scale migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, the language, food, customs, stories, songs, and musicality that the Jews brought with them mingled with local variants—and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved. To some extent, each Jewish community adopted words and expressions from the local languages, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. The language of Ladino is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Another reason that the language is fascinating is that it keeps alive some of the grammar, words, and even pronunciation from the 1500s. It’s like a time capsule.

Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel. But the culture has succumbed to many of the same forces of modernity and assimilation to which other cultures have also succumbed. Children stopped learning the language, focusing instead on the dominant languages of the new home, like Hebrew or English. When grandparents passed away, the language went with them.

This is the case of Judeo-Spanish today, though thankfully there are a handful of universities—like Tufts, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Pennsylvania—that are teaching the language.

 

Why do you think preserving Ladino through song is important?
Songs—and other arts—can tell us much about a culture. They are a glimpse into a constellation of values and perspectives, occasions, life cycles, and celebrations. Songs are also an opportunity to hear the language, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, for most of us at any rate. Continue reading

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Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

The mission of music group Rhythm Child has always been to get people of all ages up and moving. For the past six years Rhythm Child founder, Norm Jones, has been inspiring young drummers and their families to get up and move as part of the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series. If you’ve been to any of the group’s last six performances, you know that once Jones passes out his instruments and lays down a beat, the Amphitheater comes thumping to life! I’ve always loved the energy and enthusiasm of Rhythm Child, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this fun and feisty musical collective as they plan for their Amphitheater performance on July 21st.

How did you get started in performance?
I grew up being inspired by the performance of others (my brother’s band, choirs in church, supper club shows that my mom took me to). I watched how these singers moved the audience with style, humor, and emotion. For years I practiced at the mirror in my basement before I ever took the stage and performed for people.

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I love the immediate feedback that you get from a live audience. There is an exchange of energy that is unquestionable. There is a feeling of being out there on the edge without much of a safety net and usually the audience is open and willing to go for the ride. What I hope for is that everyone walks away feeling connected and inspired.

What is the most memorable moment from your career?
I must say that performing at the White House was pretty cool. I got to have my family with me on stage for one of the greatest days of my career.

What music or artist inspires you? Continue reading

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Destined to Puppeteer: An Interview with Elizabeth Luce

Elizabeth's "Moon Lady."

Elizabeth’s Moon Lady.

Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.

Elizabeth's first puppet.

Elizabeth’s first puppet.

Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.

Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.

Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:

Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading

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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
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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

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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

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De Temps Antan Encore

De Temps Antan performs at Sunset Concerts next week, Thursday, August 16. Here’s a clip of them performing “La maison renfoncee.” What joie de vivre, what panache. I want a jacket with crossword puzzles printed on it!

While attending booking conferences, arts presenters are overwhelmed with options. From established to emerging, hundreds of artists a day vie for your attention. It’s easy to get a little jaded in your choices and easier still to overlook opportunities.

A few years ago, after one particularly tiring day at APAP in Manhattan (I had crisscrossed the island a few times for meetings and performances all over town), I was leaving my hotel to meet a college friend for dinner and a few more showcases. As I stepped into the hotel lobby, I suddenly heard terrific, foot-stomping music coming from the hotel bar. I stopped dead in my tracks, listened, and walked in.

I could barely squeeze into the packed lounge. To my surprise, the ruckus came from just three musicians having an awfully good time. Everyone, including the bar staff, was joining in on the bonhomie. The sound was upbeat and decidedly Celtic, but also very French. I had noticed on my way in that this was part of the “Annual Lobby Showcase” of “Quebec roots-trad-folk” put together by Folquébec. Not feeling the least bit jaded, I found myself entranced, clapping away until the end of the band’s set. Continue reading

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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

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My Top 10 Puppet Festival Moments

I was among the many excited visitors and staff who were at the Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 1. It was a joyous day. During the daylong program, I worked with a terrific photographer, Peter Turman, to capture the day in pictures, meeting many Puppet Festival attendees along the way and catching countless special moments. Here are just ten memorable moments caught on camera that give a sense of what the Puppet Festival was all about: an array of puppets throughout the day and fun for the whole family.

Rene’s Marionettes were a huge hit! The Founder’s Courtyard was full of animated audience members, and I felt transported to what I imagine a Vaudeville-era puppet show would have been like. This dancing skeleton marionette was my favorite among the marionettes.

Rene’s Marionettes were a huge hit! The Founder’s Courtyard was full of animated audience members, and I felt transported to what I imagine a Vaudeville-era puppet show would have been like. This dancing skeleton marionette was my favorite among the marionettes.

I am convinced that the Noah's Ark ostrich puppet is a favorite among the toddler crowd. Something about the smiling beak leaning down towards them puts an instant look of glee on their faces, as exhibited by this little girl. I bet that that same happy look continued for the rest of the day. After this photo was taken, she and I played a short game of peek-a-boo.

I am convinced that the Noah's Ark ostrich puppet is a favorite among the toddler crowd. Something about the smiling beak leaning down towards them puts an instant look of glee on their faces, as exhibited by this little girl. I bet that that same happy look continued for the rest of the day. After this photo was taken, she and I played a short game of peek-a-boo.

Another enchanting ostrich moment: This little girl was entranced by the puppet. She kept putting her hand out and every time the beak would touch her open palm, she would laugh and smile at her dad. Their delight was contagious: I couldn’t help but laugh and grin, too.

Another enchanting ostrich moment: This little girl was entranced by the puppet. She kept putting her hand out and every time the beak would touch her open palm, she would laugh and smile at her dad. Their delight was contagious: I couldn’t help but laugh and grin, too.

Hunter, the incredibly realistic-looking Juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet from the Natural History Museum, made a few appearances throughout the day. Crowds of visitors closely surrounded him all day, waiting with anticipation for something scary to happen. Here, Hunter appears docile, almost like he’s smiling for pictures. But the next minute....

Hunter, the incredibly realistic-looking Juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet from the Natural History Museum, made a few appearances throughout the day. Crowds of visitors closely surrounded him all day, waiting with anticipation for something scary to happen. Here, Hunter appears docile, almost like he's smiling for pictures. But the next minute....

… he roars ferociously and unexpectedly! Visitors jump and scream out of fright, then laugh, reminding themselves that he’s just a puppet!

… he roars ferociously and unexpectedly! Visitors jump and scream out of fright, then laugh, reminding themselves that he’s just a puppet!

This young girl was enamored with the Noah's Ark snow leopard puppet. She ran into this puppet as her mother was getting ready for them to go home. Her mom patiently tried many times to get her to say goodbye to the puppet, but it was as if this girl and the snow leopard were in their own little world. She would not budge. The young visitor finally left with a longing look, after giving her new friend one last snuggle and pat on the head.

This young girl was enamored with the Noah's Ark snow leopard puppet. She ran into this puppet as her mother was getting ready for them to go home. Her mom patiently tried many times to get her to say goodbye to the puppet, but it was as if this girl and the snow leopard were in their own little world. She would not budge. The young visitor finally left with a longing look, after giving her new friend one last snuggle and pat on the head.

It was amazing to see the level of creativity and work that went into many of the homemade puppets made by children and their parents at our puppet-making stations. This purple-clad girl crafted her dog puppet with her mom. She first came up to me making barking sounds. I peered down and saw her boisterous puppy coming to see me. It was by far the most “high-tech” and realistic visitor-made puppet that I saw during the festival. To the girl’s delight, I gave her dog a few pats. Then she told me all about how she and her mother made this amazing puppet. She was very proud.

It was amazing to see the level of creativity and work that went into many of the homemade puppets made by children and their parents at our puppet-making stations. This purple-clad girl crafted her dog puppet with her mom. She first came up to me making barking sounds. I peered down and saw her boisterous puppy coming to see me. It was by far the most “high-tech” and realistic visitor-made puppet that I saw during the festival. To the girl’s delight, I gave her dog a few pats. Then she told me all about how she and her mother made this amazing puppet. She was very proud.

This girl and her grandmother are putting the finishing touches on the giraffe puppet they were making together. The puppet festival was truly inter-generational!

This girl and her grandmother are putting the finishing touches on the giraffe puppet they were making together. The puppet festival was truly inter-generational!

This particular show seemed to be an audience favorite, as it was musical and invited lots of audience participation. As families watched Zomo, The Trickster Rabbit—A West African Folk Tale, children helped tell the story by playing drums, clapping, and repeating words after the storyteller. I love how engaged each of the kids looks in this photo. It also shows the variety in puppet shows presented at the festival: some were staged in dark theater-like settings meant for visitors to sit back and take in, while others, like this one, were in brightly lit rooms in which the visitors themselves became part of the story.

This particular show seemed to be an audience favorite, as it was musical and invited lots of audience participation. As families watched Zomo, The Trickster Rabbit—A West African Folk Tale, children helped tell the story by playing drums, clapping, and repeating words after the storyteller. I love how engaged each of the kids looks in this photo. It also shows the variety in puppet shows presented at the festival: some were staged in dark theater-like settings meant for visitors to sit back and take in, while others, like this one, were in brightly lit rooms in which the visitors themselves became part of the story.

Even with puppets and activities continuing throughout the day, there was plenty of room for families to just relax and enjoy the Skirball grounds and architecture. After dancing in a circle while their parents finished lunch, these three girls took a moment to look at the beautiful pond in the Taper Courtyard. After a long day of puppet interaction and performances, the trio shows what we love to see at the Skirball: a celebration of family, friends, and community while experiencing new things together.

Even with puppets and activities continuing throughout the day, there was plenty of room for families to just relax and enjoy the Skirball grounds and architecture. After dancing in a circle while their parents finished lunch, these three girls took a moment to look at the beautiful pond in the Taper Courtyard. After a long day of puppet interaction and performances, the trio shows what we love to see at the Skirball: a celebration of family, friends, and community while experiencing new things together.

Rene’s Marionettes were a huge hit! The Founder’s Courtyard was full of animated audience members, and I felt transported to what I imagine a Vaudeville-era puppet show would have been like. This dancing skeleton marionette was my favorite among the marionettes.I am convinced that the Noah's Ark ostrich puppet is a favorite among the toddler crowd. Something about the smiling beak leaning down towards them puts an instant look of glee on their faces, as exhibited by this little girl. I bet that that same happy look continued for the rest of the day. After this photo was taken, she and I played a short game of peek-a-boo.Another enchanting ostrich moment: This little girl was entranced by the puppet. She kept putting her hand out and every time the beak would touch her open palm, she would laugh and smile at her dad. Their delight was contagious: I couldn’t help but laugh and grin, too.Hunter, the incredibly realistic-looking Juvenile Tyrannosaurus Rex puppet from the Natural History Museum, made a few appearances throughout the day. Crowds of visitors closely surrounded him all day, waiting with anticipation for something scary to happen. Here, Hunter appears docile, almost like he’s smiling for pictures. But the next minute....… he roars ferociously and unexpectedly! Visitors jump and scream out of fright, then laugh, reminding themselves that he’s just a puppet!This young girl was enamored with the Noah's Ark snow leopard puppet. She ran into this puppet as her mother was getting ready for them to go home. Her mom patiently tried many times to get her to say goodbye to the puppet, but it was as if this girl and the snow leopard were in their own little world. She would not budge. The young visitor finally left with a longing look, after giving her new friend one last snuggle and pat on the head.It was amazing to see the level of creativity and work that went into many of the homemade puppets made by children and their parents at our puppet-making stations. This purple-clad girl crafted her dog puppet with her mom. She first came up to me making barking sounds. I peered down and saw her boisterous puppy coming to see me. It was by far the most “high-tech” and realistic visitor-made puppet that I saw during the festival. To the girl’s delight, I gave her dog a few pats. Then she told me all about how she and her mother made this amazing puppet. She was very proud.This girl and her grandmother are putting the finishing touches on the giraffe puppet they were making together. The puppet festival was truly inter-generational!This particular show seemed to be an audience favorite, as it was musical and invited lots of audience participation. As families watched Zomo, The Trickster Rabbit—A West African Folk Tale, children helped tell the story by playing drums, clapping, and repeating words after the storyteller. I love how engaged each of the kids looks in this photo. It also shows the variety in puppet shows presented at the festival: some were staged in dark theater-like settings meant for visitors to sit back and take in, while others, like this one, were in brightly lit rooms in which the visitors themselves became part of the story.Even with puppets and activities continuing throughout the day, there was plenty of room for families to just relax and enjoy the Skirball grounds and architecture. After dancing in a circle while their parents finished lunch, these three girls took a moment to look at the beautiful pond in the Taper Courtyard. After a long day of puppet interaction and performances, the trio shows what we love to see at the Skirball: a celebration of family, friends, and community while experiencing new things together.

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