Best of Ann Arbor's community culture 2019
Few pieces of music carry the magnitude of meaning that can be ascribed to Benjamin Britten's “War Requiem.” The work combines traditional requiem texts with poetry by Wilfred Owens about World War I. It calls for three separate performing groups: a full orchestra with choir and soprano soloist, a chamber orchestra with baritone and tenor soloists and a children’s choir accompanied by organ.
This past February, the UMS Choral Union, Ann Arbor Youth Chorale and Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra decided to take on this work under the baton of conductor Scott Hanoian. The performance lasted about 90 minutes. It spanned all sorts of textures and styles, from traditional-sounding Roman Catholic choral singing to dissonant, 20th-century orchestral pandemonium — it was impossible to escape the brutal irony of war as justified by traditional secular and religious institutions.
At the end of the work, the melodic interval of a tritone — the most dissonant interval, known by Church composers at one point as “the Devil in music” — becomes a consonant form of closure. Over the course of the piece, Britten slowly inverts the fundamental laws of functional Western harmony. What was once consonant is now dissonant, what was once dissonant is now consonant.
The “War Requiem” was by far my most intense audience experience of the past year. I’ve never left a performance with more thoughts running through my head. It took days before I wanted to listen to music again — before I was ready to interrupt the perpetual experience that is the “War Requiem.”
— Sammy Sussman, Daily Arts Writer
Rachmaninoff at Hill Auditorium
In late February 2019, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and pianists from the Doctor of Musical Arts program in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance performed the best and most moving orchestral works over the course of two days of shows. I vividly remember listening to a live arrangement of a Sergei Rachmaninoff piece for the first time. I sat truly entranced in Hill Auditorium as “Finale: Alla breve” echoed off the high ceilings. I left the performance with a new fascination in Rachmaninoff. The performance was a characteristic example of how the arts — particularly the arts at the University can have a lasting effect on the audience. As I imagine the case was for many students in prime midterm season, I was able to escape the stress of consecutive nights spent studying by placing myself in Hill Auditorium. It took only these few hours to be rejuvenated and energized by listening to the masterful work done by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra and the University’s own pianists. This combined recital was the best of 2019, not only as a result of the quality of music being played, but also because of how well it represents the utility of experiencing the arts as a university student. The recital pulled me away from my work for a little while, and released me back with a new perspective and a new song playing in the back of my mind.
— Zachary M.S. Waarala, Daily Arts Writer
Teac Damsa: "Loch na hEala"
There is no bodily noise in ballet. Ballerinas do not talk, clap or whistle. They land each jump softly and gracefully and keep heavy breathing to a minimum. These rules are the epitome of “Swan Lake,” a show that is as much about its tragic storyline of lost love as it is about ballet itself. Irish dance group Teac Damsa’s modern interpretation of the story — performed at the Power Center this past November — pushed these conventions to the wayside. Characters spoke, grunted and screamed, swans clapped and stomped, people shook plastic tarps and threw cinder blocks. In doing so, they stripped “Swan Lake” of its classical identity to present the story’s most organic form: “Loch na hEala,” a gripping story of darkness.
During the one-act show, protagonist Jimmy struggles to fight his depression in the aftermath of his father’s death. Using the gun gifted to him by his mother, he attempts to kill himself while standing by the side of a lake’s gloomy waters. As he raises the weapon to his head, a swan named Finola diverts and captivates him. Together, the two characters dance in an ephemeral moment of darkly emotional movement before being aggressively separated by Finola’s rapist, a priest who is also the show’s narrator.
I first went and wrote about the show for a class, but by the time Teac Damsa was done with its 90-minute performance I knew its impact would continue to touch me for far longer than the semester, or even the year. While the synopsis might sound disconnected from the original 19th-century ballet, I was most captivated by its similarities. In the original ballet, Odette is also a swan cursed by a male predator. Prince Siegfried is also a man who struggles to find his purpose, and both characters suffer because of their misunderstandings. Teac Damsa’s founder, Michael Keegan-Dolan, reached deep into the original story to find these similarities, producing a modern essence of an old show: darkness, depression and the lasting effects of power abuse. In doing so, he reminded audiences about the timelessness of dance itself. Without a doubt, it was the best performance of 2019.
— Zoe Phillips, Senior Arts Editor
The Final BLED Fest
2019 saw the last installation of BLED Fest, a small festival showcasing some of the biggest up-and-coming names in punk, indie rock and metal. The festival began over 15 years ago as a small house show, eventually expanding into the all-day festival it is today with multiple shows spanning across the high school campus turned festival grounds. Performances from modern punk legends and local newcomers alike took place in gymnasiums, cafeterias and classrooms.
While this festival took place just outside of Ann Arbor and gained considerable national attention, its do-it-yourself roots still shone through as local bands from southeastern Michigan, including Ann Arbor, littered the lineup. Groups like Dogleg, Ness Lake, the Doozers and Complainer all played heavily attended sets.
While it does involve a community just slightly larger than Ann Arbor, the final installation of BLED Fest proved to be a significant event that was different from any other summer music festival, not only because it took place inside of a high school, but also because of its unique lineup that featured members of the southeastern Michigan music community.
This installment of BLED Fest also proved to be the most diverse, both in terms of genre and artist personnel. While the original BLED Fest featured heavier music performed by mostly white males, the final installation of the festival featured hip-hop, spoken word and singer/songwriter acts with a wide variety of identities, allowing the festival to end on a different, more diverse chapter than it started on.
— Ryan Cox, Daily Arts Writer
The Polar Vortex
The Tuesday night before the Polar Vortex, my housemates and I were in the kitchen making dinner when we were alerted about the cancellation of classes for the next two days. Within a minute, Jacob had made us a Facebook event: ENTER THE VORTEX. The cover photo showed our house in the middle of a storm system map that posited Michigan to be colder than the Arctic for the next 24 hours. We were having a darty.
The following day was filled with ski shots, blankets and mulled wine. The crowd was composed of individuals who had actually left their houses that day to come over. This sense of comradery was not bound by the house’s walls.
Everyone at the university seems to remember last January’s Polar Vortex fondly. Some stayed in and spent quality time with their roommates. Some painted the scenery. Others trekked across campus to the promise of warm drinks and good company elsewhere. I personally went to see “Your Name” at the Michigan Theater after the party. We all proved creative and robust.
At the same time, though, we were shielded from the storm’s ugly side by warm abodes and comfortable clothes. It proved a hardship for many others, and even though it was memorable, let’s hope to leave such callous weather in 2019.
— Ben Vassar, Daily Arts Writer
18th Annual Clown Show
As someone who is truly terrified of clowns, it feels strange saying this, but my favorite event of 2019 was hands down the 18th Annual Clown Show (also known as the final presentation for the class “Physical Theatre”). The Clown Show acts as the final assessment for a senior BFA acting class in which majors develop a clown persona and perform short improvisations for about an hour. The clowns perform short 15-30 second “noodles” (brief solo improvisations) as well as loosely structured partner scenes. They perform in the heart of finals week — right after classes end and right before the first week of exams — in the Arthur Miller Theater. The house is always packed, the admission is always free and the evening is always bubbling over with laughter. This year, as with every year, the acts were wonderfully unpolished; the audience got the delicious chance to see actors’ minds at work. We got to laugh when they failed and laugh even harder when they found a spark of success (which sometimes took the form of an earnest failure).
As a member of SMTD, this event always means a lot to me. Regardless of the finals or the papers, everyone finds a way to make it out for the clown show and share warm laughter together before the cold isolation of exam time. In the stressful period when everyone is asking the students to plan ahead, we get to turn that off and be present for an hour to watch people try to make us happy, if only by accident or for a fleeting moment. I can’t quite explain what exactly makes it so joyful; perhaps it stems from that mischievous sense of schadenfreude inside all of us, or perhaps because it is the beginning of a series of goodbyes to the senior acting class, and the happiest one we’ll probably ever get.
Regardless of the reason, the Clown Show — and all of the community, warmth and delightful distraction it brought — slipped over a banana peel and landed at the top of my 2019 list.
— Stephanie Guralnick, Daily Arts Writer
I came home for fall break in October to an unusual sight: My parents were nestled in the living room, art supplies strewn haphazardly around them, drawing a large peach on a white board. My mother’s eyes glistened mischievously as she looked up at me. “I’m going to draw Trump on this peach,” she giggled, then proceeded to pick out a brilliant orange from the sea of colored pencils in front of her. Political action and protests have always been an important part of my family’s life, and 2019 was a big year in politics. Protest events littered my facebook feed the whole year: I attended the climate strike in Ann Arbor, the gun control rally in Detroit and the women’s march in Ann Arbor, and that wasn’t enough. These issues are far from mutually exclusive, and I urge everyone to resist confining them to their own isolated spheres. If you care about tackling climate change, chances are you’re in favor of background checks for gun purchasing as well. If you’ve never been, attend a protest or two in 2020, to listen and observe if nothing else. Let 2020 be the year where you give a sh*t.
— Trina Pal, Daily Arts Writer
Nevertheless Film Festival
There’s nothing like being a female watching other females kill it. I attended the Nevertheless Film Festival right here in our own glorious Ann Arbor over the summer, and it was magical. It was also my first outing with my own VIP press pass, and I felt like I was the coolest cat in town.
The festival spanned an impressive range of female-made films from all over the world in all sorts of languages. I loved the vastness of what the festival offered; the short films were just as important as the feature length.
After some of the feature lengths, some of the filmmakers gave a talk-back at Fat Cat (across the street from the Michigan Theater where the majority of the events took place). After watching whichever film you experienced, you could go grab a beer with a director or producer. I still have the card of a kind Canadian director she so generously gave me in case I had any questions.
For anyone wanting to spend some time in Lady Ann this summer, make sure you hit the Nevertheless Film Festival. It’s more than worth your time, especially if you’re interested in any aspect of the film industry!
— Natalie Kastner, Daily Arts Writer
The Great Tamer
My favorite event of 2019 came to Ann Arbor early into the year. On January 19th, Greek artist Dimitris Papaioannou’s masterful surrealist dance piece “The Great Tamer” graced the Power Center stage through the University Musical Society (UMS). Through references to famous sculptures and paintings by some of the most well-known artists of the century, Dimitris Papaioannou used the beautiful aesthetic of the human body to create vignettes that are “at once macabre and beautiful, imbuing life with magic through circus like stunts and optical illusions,” (UMS). The dichotomy between simplicity and intensity this dance theater piece discovered was unlike anything I had been exposed to before. The choreographer and performers delicately balanced a powerful aesthetic beauty with troublesome chaotic emotions. Thanks to UMS, Papaioannou’s genius was brought to Ann Arbor at accessible student ticket rates. I feel so honored to have been witness to this performance; the images depicted on stage that evening are still bouncing around in my mind, even over a year later. Not only is it the Best of 2019, but it is quite possibly the best of the decade. I hope to one day create art as inspiring and electric as “The Great Tamer.”
— Alix Lila Curnow, Daily Arts Writer