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Rakim // Photo: courtesy of Micheal Wong

Internationally Known Rakim Discusses Legacy, Technique At Kennedy Center

Writing hip-hop lyrics seems, sounds and definitely is, a daunting task. I’ve tried to write in rhyme via poetry, and let me tell you…it’s not easy. Add that to beats, drum rolls and whatever else those wizards known as producers throw in the background, and writing raps suddenly becomes radically more daunting than, say, writing a sentence. Maybe you’ve seen those books on the shelves that offer help with writing screenplays, novels or even love letters, but how many give you guidance on writing raps. Look, I’m sure you can Google anything and get results, so no I’m not saying NONE exist. Instead, let me be a more specific: How many of those books that offer said guidance on rapping are penned by Rakim, of famed duo Eric B. and Rakim? Just one.

One of the greatest MC’s of all time is currently on tour speaking about his one How-To, other part Memoir, Sweat The Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius, and his latest stop brings him to DC’s John F. Kennedy Center this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The discussion will be moderated by collaborating writer Bakari Kitwana and features a DJ session by the equally celebrated Eric B. You’ve heard the music, and while the event page is coy on whether you will or won’t hear legacy tracks like “It’s Been A Long Time,” Rakim will inevitably touch on his journey from unheralded New York rhymer to one of the genre’s greatest gifts to music. Before he takes the stage to discuss his book and story, we were able to ask him a few questions in advance of his capital visit.

OT: Take me through your decision to write this book now, I’m sure you’ve had book offers in the past, so why was this moment the right time to deliver your memoir? How did you come to the conclusion to format it the way you did, one part memoir, one part explainer on writing music? Why did you think this was an effective way to tell your story? 
Rakim: There have definitely been a lot of offers, but there wasn’t a lot of shared vision in what the book should be. Publishers wanted some exposé and call out piece, but no matter how many times it was asked, I’d never snitched with my music, so why would I do it in a book? That kind of book’s been done and, to me, the day-to-day gossip is way less interesting than what happens when I’m making music. Meeting Tracy Sherrod at Harper Collins changed the way I looked at what it could be. We decided if I could base the book around the creative process, my creative process, but also how that might translate for other artists in an almost mentoring way, I could write something special. We could use almost a student guide as a platform and then talk about my specific experiences and observations along the way.

So you start with how I think, how I write, what I believe it means to be an artist and then you build around that with personal stories that have real context and purpose. You can tell the story about Eric B and I going over to our first recording session with Marley Marl, and it’s a fun little story in and of itself. But when you frame it as part of a lifelong journey of being true to yourself as an artist, it becomes more than that. Not every artist is going to luck into sitting with the A-list producer of the day, but every reader is going to be confronted with a time where they are asked to bend, maybe break, from their inner sense of direction. So that little story, combined with other similar experiences, can become a lesson or at least a principle to reflect on.

OT: What are some aspects of how you approach writing that you discuss in the book that might be surprising to people who have listened to your music?
R: I think my fans are pretty in tune with the way I think and the references both street and spiritual that I intertwine throughout my rhymes. For them, this goes a little deeper down that path and really explores some of those cultural and intellectual themes of my music. The book pulls back the curtain on some of the more esoteric references universal consciousness, the exploration of how musical frequencies can evoke emotion, how and why certain historic figures and moments resonate for me. And I like to think it could also serve as a gateway to people unfamiliar with Rakim or even uninterested in hip-hop. It let’s them see how all the words, ideas, memories and visions ricocheting around the mind of an songwriter get focused down through a pen and microphone or unleashed in front of an audience of thousands. It points them towards the X-factor. I’m not trying to say I hold the key to the universe of creativity, but I’ve been doing this day in, day out this for three or four decades, so I might have a little insight…a few tips and techniques.

OT: How does writing a book compare to writing music/poetry? How does your approach shift with the new medium?
R: To start, it never took me the better part of two years to write even my most complex rhyme. When I started, I was thinking it would just be like coming up with responses to another interview, just much longer. I was way off. But then I actually fell back into the process I use for writing music and things became more clear. I once heard Francis Ford Coppola say if you know the end of the movie, you can start writing backwards and the story will unfold itself, so sometimes I apply that to writing songs. When I’m putting rhymes on paper, I also will grid out the musical bars and use dots to mark where my emphasis has got to be. When I started to look at the book that way, knowing where I was going to end up and what and where those highlights needed to be, things started to come together. But there were still some false starts and compared to writing songs, ya know, long!! Real, real long. And I don’t even want to start about recording the audio book and I’ve spent most of my life in the booth.

OT: What were some challenges to constructing the book? Was it getting personal in a longform manner, was it just the formatting that I mentioned? What were some of the tougher moments?
R: Looking back at some of the big life moments like the passing of my father and then my mother. That was tough. Those aren’t emotions you really reflect on constantly, at least not at that level. Reading it back when we were recording was even harder. I’m a pretty strong willed and collected man, but you can hear me choke up more than once. In other places, the process of writing my experiences down opened me up to new interpretations. Some of the conflicts I’ve had, the struggles personally and professionally take on a different reflection when you have to dig deep into them. I don’t want to come off too cliché, but I learned about myself while trying to put together something meant to teach others.

OT: Your often cited as an influence and legend among hip-hop heads, when you look back on your career, how do you feel about your legacy?
R: I’m proud of the legacy. And I’m now more accepting of some of the accolades and think of them as true blessings. I’m confident in what I wrote and the songs that I recorded. I’m amazed and again blessed by the reactions I get from fans who come out to this day. But beyond the words on the paper, I’m happy with the way I played things out. The path I chose and a lot of the decisions I made. For better or worse, and there has been some [for] the worse but more of the better, I’ve been able to live a life and have a career true to the core purpose I believe in. I get into that in the book a lot.

OT: After years and years of performing for people with your music, how does the experience compare to your book tour, and that kind of event?
R: Well, I get to sit down for most of it, so that’s something different. At its surface, you might think it’s apples and oranges, but the energy and the connection is more similar than you’d expect. On stage, I know or at least get the feeling things are resonating because you’ve got all these people staring up at you, screaming and dancing. And they know all the words and rap right along with you. They’ve taken the time, consciously or not, to learn and think about songs and lyrics, so you gotta think it’s had some sort of affect on their lives. When I’m talking about the book, it might be a little more muted activity wise no one has stage dived on the book tour yet but that resonance is even more evident. When the audience reacts to what I’m saying and especially when they are asking questions, they’ve taken the time to think about my art, lyrics and life, and the way that it’s affected them shines through brightly.

OT: What does it mean to be able to bring your story to the Kennedy Center, does the venue’s history add significance to this particular tour spot?
R: It’s part of those accolades, those blessings I’m speaking of. Hip-hop started in the parks, in the basements and in the school cafeterias, and now we are here damn near on the steps of The Capitol. I’m humble enough to not compare myself to too many of the great orators who have spoken from the monuments and institutions of DC, and the artists who have taken the stage in the great halls of the Kennedy Center, but from a personal perspective, it’s hard not to smile wide and take in the moment. A blessing. No other way to say it.

See Rakim at the Kennedy Center this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $35. For more information, visit here.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org 

Photo: Teresa Wood

The National Ballet Of Canada Brings Timeless Sleeping Beauty To Kennedy Center

The National Ballet of Canada is on tour in the District for a whirlwind week of performances at the Kennedy Center, including the classic The Sleeping Beauty (January 28-February 2) and Works by Forsythe, Kylian, and Ratmansky (January 28 and January 29), the latter comprising a mixed bill of seven modern shorts.

The intent behind the eclectic pairing of productions was to showcase the strength and diversity of the company’s talent, offering multiple rolls for many young and up-and-coming dancers to take the stage alongside seasoned principals. 

The Thursday, January 30 Opera House performance of The Sleeping Beauty in was indeed an ensemble piece – and perhaps fittingly so, as it was this staging, choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa, and revised by Artistic Director Karen Kain in 2006, that put the then-young Canadian company on the map in 1972.

Set to an equally famous score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty is an epitomic full-length work known both for exaggerated spectacle of costume and design, and its technical demand.

Principal dancer Jillian Vanstone, who performs the lead role Aurora for the January 31 and February 2 performances (and also danced the Petite Mort in the contemporary shorts), has been with the company since 1999.

Sleeping Beauty is always a little intimidating – it’s classic, long and requires stamina. I really love it but at the beginning [of a run] it’s always a little mentally daunting,” she says. 

But what does it mean to perform The Sleeping Beauty in 2020, in DC? Timelessness aside, is this “romantic” tale of a helpless princess cursed to 100 years of slumber by an evil witch, and whose only hope for survival is the kiss of a prince truly important or even appropriate to perform here and now?

“It is a challenge to update [a work like this] or make it relevant for this century, and I think there’s room here for that,” Vanstone says. “What I do think is a little interesting about our version is from what I understand, the director wanted more of a strong character as Aurora, not just this demure pretty thing. Someone regal and strong. She has, especially in the third act, this regal authoritative feel about her and so I try to bring that out.”

Thursday evening’s packed Opera House indicates that while perhaps not thematically on point for today, lovers of the ballet still flock to this work for a reason. The pageantry was transformative: Ornate costumes, dreamlike scenery, Tanya Howard’s floating Lilac Fairy and, of course, a live orchestra playing Tchaikovsky took the beltway audience to a land far and away – which may have been just the remedy to reality some sought. 

One unfortunate aspect of the pageantry was that costumes often obstructed the dancing – though by no fault of the dancers themselves, who nevertheless seemed to navigate the heavy fabrics, feathers and props with as much grace as possible. 

And despite the reimagining of Aurora’s character as more than a demure damsel, taken as a whole, the male dancers of the company outperformed their female counterparts during this performance, particularly in demonstrations of strength. Especially notable talents were Naoya Ebe as Bluebird and principal dancer Harrison James’s Prince Florimund. 

James, who joined the company in 2013 as a member of the Corps de Ballet, was promoted to principal dancer in 2016 and won the Rolex Dancers First Award for his performance as Alexei Vronsky in Anna Karenina, Oberon in The Dream and the title role in Apollo

In contrast to “hammering home the excitement and energy” of Forsythe, or a piece like the Petite Mort, which James describes as “so innately musical and human,” the young dancer says The Sleeping Beauty is, “a monolith – everything you want and expect to see from classical pure ballet, which of course makes it a little more challenging to take on.”

The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Sleeping Beauty continues at The Kennedy Center through Sunday, February 2. Tickets are $29-$149. 

The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Next To Normal Anything But Normal At Kennedy Center

DC theatergoers are in for a real treat as the 2010 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, Next to Normal, visited the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, bringing a tale of how mental illness takes a toll on a suburban family.

With the original Broadway director, Michael Greif, taking the helm in this inspiring and informative tear-jerking production, onlookers are sure to feel admonished at the deadly cycle of depression.

Leading the all-star six-person ensemble is Emmy and Tony Award nominee Brandon Victor Dixon (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, Shuffle Along) as Dan and Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen) as Diana.

Dixon personifies a grief-stricken father whose avoidance tactics prove detrimental to his family. However, as the all-American Dad, he uses his broad register to capture audiences in a musical spell.

Jones delivers an illustrious vocal performance most comparable to Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in Grease mixed with Stevie Nicks, showcasing a dynamic range from whimsical ballads to heartfelt songs during her character’s spurts of mania.  

Dan and Diana have been married for more than 16 years and have battled varying degrees of mental illness within their family. Though their time together is riddled with trauma, their love nearly trounces every setback.

The couple is an eccentric and quirky pair that uses coarse language that proves refreshingly candor. Continuous sexual innuendos, some quite literal, are expressed creating a necessitated comedic cloud of relief.

Set to contemporary music, Next to Normal is fresh, daring and required viewing. Similar to that of the Broadway hit RENT (also directed by Greif), this performance splendidly uses ballads and rock music to hone the dark truths of psychosis.

Several elements are done right, beyond the perfectly executed score and vocal prowess. But I must say, the five-member band, optimally positioned behind the two-level scaffolding, will cause you to leave the theater exhausted from the excessive foot patting, body-rocking music that earned the Tony Award for Best Original Score.

Filled with a multitude of timely social themes, Brian Yorkey’s masterpiece will have you questioning your stance on how to best treat patients coping with bipolar disorder and more.

Several avenues are considered to offset the symptoms brought on by trauma but at what cost? Big pharma, shock therapy and hypnotherapy are all referenced during the nearly 2 hour and 20 min production, all introducing another layer of complexity to an already crowded experience.

As Diana visit with her doctor, a cascade of pills is administered to counteract the constant cycle of depression and anxiety. To no surprise, this path to healing is quite turbulent, which marks a downward spiral leading to rock-bottom, where only enlightenment can be gained with hope for a better tomorrow.

To best prepare for the emotional journey that is Next to Normal, pack some tissue. Between the music, artistic emoting and the general plot, sniffling will surely be uncontrollable during this viewing experience. 

Next to Normal is showing through Monday February 3 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets are $79-$189 and can be purchased here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; (202) 467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: courtesy of The Roots

The Roots Take Center Stage At Kennedy Center

A decade ago, The Roots were already one of the most dynamic and potent bands in the world; then they got the call that made them one of the most popular. If you’ve heard of “The Legendary Roots Crew” from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, you probably recognize them as the house band for Late Night and now The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The group – in an expanded form featuring more keyboards and percussion – excels at their on-air role, pulling out new walk-on music for each guest, playing along to numerous musical sketches, and sometimes going head to head with other rappers in “freestyle” games. It’s this last category of sketches that reveal a sliver of the group’s full potential as frontman and emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter weaves dense rhymes that flow like warm honey.

All of that late-night talk show band workhorse talent comes from The Roots’ long years on the road and deep study of creating one of the most fulfilling live experiences in hip-hop. Live sets often reflect some of the hits from the group’s 11 studio albums – including the monumental breakthrough album Things Fall Apart – and the deep jazz, classic soul and R&B roots that fuel the symphony that surrounds Black Thoughts’ raps. In fact, the group also digs into some of the sounds that inspired them, including classic hip-hop tracks like Kool G Rap’s “Men at Work,” R&B party anthems like Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” and heavily-sampled, well-beloved soul numbers like Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” The Roots’ live set can be like a jazz show in that way, a spontaneous, dynamic mix of music; with Black Thought and drummer Questlove’s propulsive attack pushing you out of your seat.

After a decade playing it up on Fallon’s shows, releasing their own studio projects and full collaboration albums with the likes of John Legend and Elvis Costello, and recording one of the most popular NPR Tiny Desk concerts with neo-soul powerhouse Bilal, The Roots cap off the 2010s with their first headlining show at the Kennedy Center. The group will take over the Concert Hall on December 29, turning the room that houses the National Symphony Orchestra into a South Philly house party for a pre-New Years blowout.

“Questlove and Black Thought are founding members of the Kennedy Center Hip Hop Culture Council,” Simone Eccleston, Director of Hip Hop Culture at the Kennedy Center, reminds On Tap. “Therefore, having The Roots at the Center reflects a natural progression in our relationship with them.”

Historically, The Roots have graced DC with a show or two this time of year and have played at the Kennedy Center before as part of tributes, honors shows and other special programs, but this will be the first time the group takes center stage at that great temple to the arts. This show also marks the last show of the year for the Kennedy Center’s hip-hop programming, which had a remarkable second year of events and performances, including notable headlining sets by De La Soul, Robert Glasper, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and Flying Lotus, as part of the REACH opening festival in September.

The Roots continues the line of performers embodying the highest principles of the art of hip-hop, something that is at the core of all the Kennedy Center’s hip-hop program.

“It is important to have artists like The Roots at the Kennedy Center because they reflect the very best of who we are as a culture,” says Eccleston. “Their live performance is a masterclass in musicianship, showmanship and lyricism. They have helped to shape and redefine the American canon so it’s only fitting that they would perform at the nation’s performing arts center.”

The Roots went national at the beginning of the decade, and it’s fitting that they end it at one of the biggest stage’s in the nation’s capital.

For more information about The Roots or their performance at the Kennedy Center, visit here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.reach.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Little Fang Photography

Machine Dazzle Puts Artistic Twist On Holiday Sauce Costumes

Being the decorator of a bonafide genius isn’t for the faint at heart. At least that’s what I imagine when considering the dynamics between Machine Dazzle and MacArthur Fellowship, unofficially known as the Genius Grant, recipient Taylor Mac, known for his genre-bending drag performances. 

Just weeks before their Holiday Sauce performance at the Kennedy Center on December 12, I spoke with Dazzle, Matthew Flower, responsible for envisioning award-winning masterpieces and costumes worn by Mac onstage, and by Diane von Fürstenberg and Cara Delevingne at the 2019 Met Gala.  

The holiday-themed performance is set to feature Mac upending traditional Christmas expectations with Dazzle, music director Matt Ray, a band of eight and NPR’s Ari Shapiro.

In the lead up to this week’s show, Machine Dazzle is the definition of booked and busy.

“I don’t have time to have goals because I’m already busy,” he says laughing.

Between shows at the Guggenheim and on tour with Taylor Mac, and a host of other engagements, time for him is truly a priceless commodity.    

Fortunately, while on location at Harvard University, co-directing and creating costumes for a queer cabaret show featuring six students who provide commentary on Harvard politics, I’m given time to hear of the artist’s thoughts on the holidays, why Holiday Sauce is a must-see and how Dazzle’s design style distinguishes from contemporaries. 

On Tap: How do you select your projects?
Machine Dazzle: Any opportunity to exercise the brain is good. I appreciate a challenge and I love meeting all these interesting people along the way and doing a project like this at Harvard allows me to do all those things. I am a yes person; I will always say yes. Unless I’ve worked with someone before and it just wasn’t great. I love new adventures and new people, but the job must be interesting and challenging. I need to be able to do what I want to do. I can’t have anyone who’s too precious about anything. There needs to be room for a layer of art, that may or may not necessarily exist in the script. 

OT: What’s novel or special about your contribution to the production on which you collaborate?
MD: I’m an artist in the realm of costume designers. What designers don’t really have is an agenda, they don’t necessarily have a story to tell. They are visual; they are engineers. An artist takes it further and tells a story and makes some social commentary. In other words, no one can tell me how to do my art. You can tell someone to make something for Bob’s character, but I bring a layer of art to the production.

OT: How do you explain the success behind your partnership with Taylor Mac?
MD: Taylor lets me do whatever I want. Never once has he told me what to do. He trusts me to bring something interesting to the table. A lot of people really love his costumes and that’s thanks to me, and thanks to him for letting me make my work. 

OT: What did Taylor Mac say when bringing Holiday Sauce to you?
MD: The first year, Taylor Mac came to me and said we’re doing a holiday show and we need two costumes. I knew that I wanted to distinguish these costumes from other costumes I’d made for [Mac] in other productions. I definitely wanted them to have a holiday flare, or my take on holiday. So, the first thing I thought of when thinking of the holiday was naughty and nice. I made one costume that was very naughty, and I made one that was kind of nice. DC’s show is different from the past two years, though, because he’s wearing four costumes this time. In addition to the other looks, I thought of two faces of the kitchen, one where you’re in the kitchen baking cookies, the other outside in a winter wonderland. 

OT: Are the holidays a special time for you?
MD: My birthday is during the holidays, it’s December 30.  People would always say, “Oh, no! You got cheated!” But they had it all wrong. When I was a child maybe it felt like that, but the truth is it’s the best time of year to have a birthday because everybody is in celebration mode. It’s a beautiful time of year to do anything. I’m not a religious person, I don’t believe in God. I believe the god is the self, the highest self-possible. We have the universe we have each other, we have microcosm and we have macrocosm. I believe in the winter solstice. I believe in the changing seasons. In the darkest day of the year, which lends itself to the season of giving, when people are in need. That’s what I think about during the holidays. [However] I love certain rituals and traditions. I love the decorated tree, I love leaves, I love lights, I love caroling, I love the onslaught of winter and preparing for the next year. It’s a really great time of year to have a party!

OT: What’s makes Holiday Sauce different from other seasonal productions?
Machine Dazzle: We keep building the show, every time we tour, we make it bigger and better. Plus, we’re bringing it to cities that we’ve never been to before. No one in DC has seen it before. There’s a choir in it and we want the choir to get bigger. I want the scenic elements to get bigger. The costumes are going to change and get bigger and better. It’s going to be more of an extravaganza. 

OT: What’s the secret sauce that has your audience or following growing with each additional year?
Machine Dazzle: You just have to keep coming back to see. It’s like the people who go to see the [Radio City] Rockettes show every year. It’s not that different every year. But you still go. They do it every year and people live for it. And if you can go and look at that every f**king year you can go to our show which is actually changing and getting better. 

Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce is showing at the Kennedy Center in the Opera House on December 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$129 and here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

"The Day" // Photo: Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow

The Day Tackles Life, Death And All In Between At The Kennedy Center

The expiry of life is a shared experience. Yet, though our existence is riddled with these life-ending and life-altering moments, we tend to struggle with the acceptance or articulation of this obligatory unknowingly path-dependent terminus.

Fortunate for us, world-renowned cellist Maya Beiser has initiated a two-part collaborative effort, where audience members visiting the Kennedy Center December 6-7 will embark on a partially guided journey named The Day. Here, onlookers will grapple with their acceptance of life, death and everything in between, depending on your religious or ideological beliefs. 

The conception of World to Come, the sequel of The Day, began forming during September 11, 2001, while American composer David Lang and Beiser were commissioned by Carnegie Hall to produce an evening performance.

The two were living in New York during the attack on the World Trade Center, and inspiration sprung from the unfathomable event, wherein the title of their work even emulates the acronym, WTC.

“The piece just became informed by that event,” Beiser says. “In particular, by this incomprehensible idea that there were thousands of people who woke up that morning, took the train or car and went to work, and a few hours later they were all gone weeks afterward. People in Union Square were just walking around sort of dazed with signs of their loved ones they were still looking for. People were looking for those who just kind of disappeared…that became the subject of this piece.”

The Day, was imagined after its sister title World To Come.

“We wanted to create this piece that is really about life; it’s really about the sanctity of memory,” Beiser says. “For this particular case, there were two compositions that were relating to death and September 11, something personal but also universal. I think super personal things are also the things that resonate with all of us on some level. We all, of course, have this predicament. We are all born and we are all going to die someday.”

The Day will feature three significant artistic expressions: Music, composed by Lang and performed by Beiser; dance, choreographed by Lucinda Childs; and performed by Wendy Whelan. Finally, there will be poetic texts crowdsourced online to reinforce the importance of memory.

“Three-hundred different people are answering the question, ‘If I remember the day?’ and it’s all these different memories from things that we think are super profound or super mundane, but they are all being told in this matter of fact and without any judgment [space]”, Beiser explains.

The text illuminated onstage is without a narrative, yet, naturally conveys, “what’s important and not important to us, and what it is that makes our lives and our human experience a community.” 

Beiser will tell you firsthand that she is a visual musician, “You know, I’m a musician but I always see music, I don’t just hear it. Music has a very large sonic visual palette for me. When I play and when I perform, the visuals are always important to me.”

“As I was recording [The Day], I kept imagining a women dancer who danced with and who would communicate with me.”

In true Beiser fashion, she elicits the prowess of former New York City Ballet Company ballerina turned associate artistic director,  Wendy Whelan, whom she came to admire since their meeting in 2010. “I thought she would be the absolute perfect person for this idea.”

Whelan joined the illustrious team without hesitation,.

“We just clicked personality-wise”, Whelan reminiscing over her early encounters with Beiser.  

Whelan’s international dance career spans more than 30 years, so we wondered, how does her experience impact her movements concerning the illustration of life and death? 

“It’s been interesting,” she says. “Since I left the New York City Ballet [as a principle dancer] five years ago, I’ve lost maybe five very very close friends. They’ve died very young, and I have to say, these experiences in dealing with this kind of lost have very much affected how I look at this work and what I bring to the work.”

“There’s sort of simplicity to [The Day]. I don’t overthink, I just dive into the work and almost relax into it. Because of my experiences and my age, I let go in life. I’ve let go of the ballet. I’ve let go of friends. The power in letting go is everything. We all want to control and we want to push through and hang on. The realization is that this sort of letting go of different chapters in our life or different people, it gets you to the next place. It helps us evolve and land with new wisdom. I’ve sort of learned the beauty and power in that, and I try to let that experience come through in my being.”

The Day is showing at The Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater, December 6-7 at 8 p.m. on both days. Tickets are $25-$69 and can be purchased online here.

The John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Jason Moran (left) and The Bandwagon // Photo: courtesy of Jason Moran

Between the Riffs: Catching Up With Jazz Musician Jason Moran

The DC music scene is known for being the home of the go-go, however, it’s also more diverse and alive than ever. This includes its burgeoning jazz. To add to this, in May 2014, the Kennedy Center recognized Jason Moran, an accomplished jazz musician, for his talent and appointed him as the Artistic Director for Jazz. With his help, the Kennedy Center has expanded their jazz programs here in DC. On November 9, Jason Moran and The Bandwagon will celebrate their 20th anniversary, and along with Ingrid Laubrock, they will perform music from Moran’s album, Black Stars at the Kennedy Center. We got the chance to ask Moran a few questions and learn more about him and his thoughts on DC’s jazz atmosphere before his big performance.

On Tap: In 2016, you said you’re still trying to play like Teddy Wilson. Taking a moment to reflect on your musical journey, have you managed to play like him yet?
Jason Moran: If I referred to Teddy Wilson, it was that my teacher Jaki Byard had a father that loved Teddy Wilson. Jaki’s father said to him, “if you’re going to play piano, can you play like Teddy Wilson.” Wilson is a marker for not only technique but also in terms of being one of the “firsts.” To be the African-American musician that symbolized the breaking down of racial codes in the same way Jackie Robinson did for [Major League Baseball]. To answer your question, no, I won’t ever be able to crystallize quite like Teddy Wilson, but I am happy to be on the journey of musical excellence combined with civilian bravery.  

OT: What did it mean for you to be appointed as the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center?
JM: The Kennedy Center continues to define its role as an arts leader and to know that how we cultivate the history of jazz under our roof is very exciting and challenging. I take the role very seriously, and only after a few years have I begun to understand the magnitude of such a position. The creator of the role, Dr. Billy Taylor, was an advocate for the music. His foresight brought much of what I hope to continue to preserve within the Kennedy Center. He continued to nurture the music in each state: past, present and future.  

OT: What has it been like to work with Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits for the 20th anniversary? What are some of your fondest memories from when you first formed The Bandwagon?
JM: Tarus and Nasheet are my big brothers. I depend on them to push and pull The Bandwagon to new territories. One of my fondest memories for us is around how we were actually fired as a band. We were the rhythm section for a few bands around the turn of the century (funny phrase). The bandleaders did not like us all together, so they usually fired one of us and kept two. Eventually, we figured out that we were a unit that was better left free to roam. Despite the criticism from the beginning, we remained a unit because we were forming a language as a band that would help define our era. We ruffled the edges, folded them in, then burned them and smeared the ashes along the wall. We tagged the music.  

OT: You performed with Sam Rivers on the sax for Black Stars. What was it like working with him?
JM: Sam Rivers was a revolutionary. He was free thinking in his playing and composing. He was also the band mate of two of my teachers, Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill. So, to create Black Stars with him was thrilling because it was as if he was my uncle. He took The Bandwagon on a ride that we are forever thankful, because it was the first sign that we were looking for history to tell us the future.  

OT: You believe in cross-genre collaboration. In Facing Left, you covered Björk’s electro-pop/avant-garde song “Joga” and paired your music with comedy. Is combining genres a personal preference, or does it serve a bigger purpose for your sound?
JM: I believe my compositions sound better when set against another composer. Björk is one, Albert King [is] another, Rachmaninoff, etc. Also, I think I look for themes in the music to find meaning. Sometimes the next best thing to playing a song you wrote is to play a song you love.  

OT: You reshaped and refocused the Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead professional development program. You helped create a curriculum to work with other DC art organizations. Can you share the results of collaboration?
JM: You would have to ask the students because the students continue to tell us about the value of Betty Carter’s program. Many of the students have gone on to create quite a stir. In recent years, Jazzmeia Horn has set quite an example as a student of Jazz Ahead and then striking out on world tours. I think awakening the students’ sensibilities toward the arts is important to keeping the music healthy.  

OT: What do you think of the jazz scene in DC? Do you think your work with the Kennedy Center has helped jazz connect with a younger audience? What more could be done?
JM: The DC jazz scene is profound. Watching musicians lead sessions nearly every night of the week, open new venues, create new jazz festivals, document the music with different online resources, historians abound and at all of the clubs listening. [Plus] DJs on the radio with all the history one would ever need, institutions preserving and continuing to employ the musicians, the universities pushing out great musicians. The scene in DC has always been vast, and at the Kennedy Center, we continue to promote the music, and the (hopefully young) audiences know they have space here to live and grow with the music. 

OT: What can jazz fans and people who frequent the Kennedy Center for events expect from the November 9th show?
JM: Openness!!!  

Moran is set to hit the Kennedy Center stage on November 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance are $29-$49. For more information about the show or Moran’s work at the Kennedy Center, visit here.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Manganiyar Seduction, courtesy of the Artist

World Stages Brings The Manganiyar Seduction To Kennedy Center

I have never been to India. Other than watching a handful of Bollywood movies, I know virtually nothing about Indian culture. This is not due to a lack of interest; I like learning about different customs and traditions outside of my own. I just get caught up in my own way of life and forget to appreciate how captivating and diverse the world at large can be.

Luckily, living in a cultural hub like DC means there are plenty of opportunities to learn about and experience different cultures – especially through the arts.   

The Kennedy Center’s World Stages series brings extraordinary talent from around the world to the nation’s capital. The latest musical group to take the Eisenhower Theatre stage was The Manganiyar Seduction, more than 40 singers and instrumentalists from the Rajasthani deserts of India performing traditional Manganiyar music. 

Back for the second time at the venue, the Manganiyar musicians sat behind a four-story wall divided into 32 pods. The sold-out crowd sat in darkness and anticipation as one of the 32 red curtains opened. Bright bulbs of light outlined the pod as a man began to strum low notes on a string instrument that I didn’t recognize.  

As the lights flared around another pod, the curtain opened to reveal a different man who began to sing in perfect harmony with the strings. As more lights came to life, more curtains opened and the music swelled with the additional vocalists, drummers and string instruments. In addition to being visually stimulating to the audience, the component of  illumination illustrated who was playing and when they were playing. It made the large group seem much smaller and the concert more intimate. 

However, the light was not the only guide for the musicians as the performance featured a very enthusiastic conductor. 

Conductor Deu Khan was a stark contrast from any I had ever seen before. In bare feet, he danced in front of the wall of musicians leading them with head nods, arm movements and a clicking instrument. It almost seemed like he was communicating in a silent language the audience wasn’t privy to. As opposed to a baton, the clicking instrument lead the musicians while also adding to the sound. 

At one point, he turned his attention to the audience. He created a pattern of clicks that the audience repeated in a series of claps. Ranging in levels of difficulty, the audience participated in the performance, as the band played softy behind him. 

In the big finale, the entire band played as the lights rode across the wall in horizontal and vertical designs. However, this didn’t mark the end of the show. Khan brought out the creator and director, Roysten Abel, who introduced the musicians and spoke to the audience.

“Love is the message of the night,” Abel said.    

Abel then asked if the audience wanted to hear an encore. If the standing ovation wasn’t enough, the thunderous applause indicated their desire to hear more. 

In contrast to the more jovial, traditional music that had been played throughout the night, the encore was a soft ballad about “seeing love in all things.” As the tune began to fade, all 32 red curtains closed. 

The Manganiyar Seduction is now off to bring their culture and music to New York City. Undoubtedly, the enthusiasm with which they were welcomed to DC is a likely indication they will return. 

The beautiful music and joyous energy they brought to the stage was unparalleled to any performance I’ve seen. And while it was for only 80 minutes, I feel lucky to have heard a piece of Manganiyar culture.     

For more information about the The Kennedy Center’s World Stages series, visit here.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day in the Life with Simone Eccleston, the Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music

When you think of hip-hop venues in DC, it’s probably fair to say that the Kennedy Center isn’t the first that comes to mind – but perhaps this sentiment is beginning to shift. In recent years, the nationally renowned institution has made exceptionally large steps toward taking hip-hop more seriously as a conduit for culture, including several festivals and concerts featuring performances by legendary stalwart Nas and Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar. In 2016, A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Q-Tip became the Kennedy Center’s first artistic director for hip hop culture, and less than a year later, the center announced the appointment of Simone Eccleston as its first-ever director of hip hop culture and contemporary music.

Since then, Eccleston has worked with Q-Tip and other members of the center’s hip hop culture council, which includes an impressive amount of star power and influence such as Questlove, LL Cool J, Big Boi, Common, MC Lyte and a score of others. Though Eccleston’s name may not evoke the same kind of awe from hip-hop heads as Q-Tip or Common, this doesn’t diminish her impact. Since taking on the mantle of director in this brand-new initiative, there’s undoubtedly been an uptick in programming investigating the cultural impacts of hip-hop, from workshops to film screenings and other intersectional events in-between. To learn more about her inaugural position at the helm of hip-hop culture, we spoke to Eccleston about her affinity for hip-hop, her ongoing mission and what she’s learned in the role.

On Tap: What are your earliest memories of hip-hop?
Simone Eccleston: The first song that I remember knowing word for word was LL cool J’s “Around The Way Girl.” I was age 10 at that point. There was something about the energy of the song and the video. It was fun and had an unapologetic New York vibe. I loved the way that it celebrated independent women and reminded me of women in my neighborhood. At 12, I heard Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s T.R.O.Y. and my whole world changed. It was so honest, vulnerable and familiar. I connected with it immediately. It’s still one of my favorite songs.

OT: Are there other artists who stuck out to you in your formative years?
SE: The artists that really helped me fall in love with hip-hop and see myself reflected early on were MC Lyte and Queen Latifah. They were both strong women with powerful lyrics. Their self-possession was inspiring. I remember seeing them and aspiring to be a woman of strength.


Five Things Simone Can’t Live Without
Prayer
Family
Purpose
Live music
A great DJ


OT: If you could’ve told that 10-year-old girl in the Bronx listening to LL Cool J, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte that in the future you’d be on the phone with these people, what would she have said?
SE: My 10-year-old self would bust out with The Running Man [Laughs]. I will say this: not necessarily when I was 10, but when I was 16 [to] 25 through now, there was a part of me that always knew I would be working in service of the culture. I knew my life’s work and purpose would be tied to celebrating the genius of people of color.

OT: Did you ever think you’d be in a role like this, focusing on the culture of hip-hop?
SE: I remember when [the Kennedy Center] announced their commitment to hip-hop culture as a program in 2016, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I want to be there.”  Who would have thought I would be the inaugural director, working with Q-Tip and our incredible council? They’re an incredible community that is so committed to being of service to the culture. They reflect the very best of who we are.

OT: Is it ever surreal for you to be working with some of the people you credit with your love of the genre?
SE: Yes, it can be surreal. But more than surreal, it’s incredibly humbling and gratifying. Being able to partner and collaborate with them to do this work is a gift and a blessing, and I don’t take it for granted. To be able to partner with someone like Q-Tip, who has deeply inspired my love of hip-hop and [A] Tribe [Called Quest] as a group – he’s such a visionary. He’s someone who’s so committed to ensuring that it’s never about him. It’s about the culture. You’ll never really see him trying to insert himself in particular ways. Instead, he’s like, “Use me so that way we can create space for others.”

OT: Why has hip-hop resonated with you in such a profound way, to the point that you’d dedicate at least this part of your career to it?
SE: There isn’t a place where hip-hop isn’t. Part of [the Kennedy Center’s] charge as an institution is not only to celebrate the tenets of the culture, but its intersections. You think about how hip-hop has informed fashion and film – it’s in practically all media content. Our role as an institution is to be able to create a space for all of that to be seen. Even if you think you don’t have a connection, you’re connected. Hip-hop not only shapes culture, it creates culture.


Five Work Must-Haves
Our incredible Hip Hop Council
A White board + time to ideate
My pod
A great soundtrack
Music + culture podcasts


OT: Why do you think it was so important for the Kennedy Center to make such a large commitment to hip-hop?
SE: When you think about America’s art forms and when you think about hip-hop as a culture – not just about the music – I think that adds nuance, complexity and dynamism. It’s one mode of our ability to tell our stories and make ourselves visible. I think it was a platform for us to resist, even if the resistance was just us saying, “Hey, I’m here.” Historically, when you think about how we’ve been marginalized and the dismantling of our communities, hip-hop was a form of resistance. It was an opportunity to declare our presence amidst a society that was trying to erase us.

OT: That being said, how have you approached the integration of hip-hop into the Kennedy Center’s programming?
SE: Part of the impetus for us here is a celebration of hip-hop culture. For us, it’s about celebrating the genius of the culture and the genius of the communities that created it. This is about a centering of community and in ensuring that in this space, known as the nation’s performing arts center, we are truly reflective of the nation. You think about jazz being one of our greatest ambassadors, but hip-hop is equal if not greater when you think about the way it provides space on a national, [even] global level. You can see it when you go to different communities across the globe. People are using it as an opportunity to provide voice and visibility for themselves, but also to resist.

OT: How have things grown at the Kennedy Center over the past two years?
SE: At every show, there’s always a handful of people that come up and say, “Thank you.” [They’re] people who had never come to the Kennedy Center that now do. The institutional commitment to hip-hop culture as an anchor program came in 2016, but that wasn’t without years of groundwork being laid. What I’m seeing is clearly a growth in programming, but [also] a presence across the institution. You’ll have intersections with our special events. You’ll have intersections with our education department. You’ll see all of these different ways in which hip-hop is continuing to undergird, imprint and transform the work of the institution.

OT: What are some things you’ve learned that you didn’t expect?
SE: Just the lesson that transformation takes time. None of us will truly know the real results of our work until 10 or 20 years after it’s done. It’s about being patient and understanding the work isn’t about us. It’s about the people we’re trying to serve and the change we’re trying to make. We’re here and we have an ambitious goal of being a 21st-century performing arts organization. It’s teaching us the ways we need to evolve our work and our processes in accordance with that. It’s a formidable challenge, but I think we’re up to the task.

For more about the Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music programming, visit www.kenney-center.org/calendar/series/HHC.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Darian Volkova, courtesy of State Academic Mariinsky Theatre

Review: Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita at the Kennedy Center

A young girl and her father are sitting across from me on the shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center. She’s wearing colorful dinosaur tights. I look down at my own tights – black with a small tear threatening to become a hole. The other people on the shuttle are dressed in crisp suits and elegant dresses. We’re all on our way to see the Mariinsky Ballet perform Paquita

I worry that once I step inside the building, I’ll feel even more out of place. The stereotype of the stuffy ballet attendee doesn’t coincide with my thrift store dress or the fast food I ate for dinner. Am I couth enough to see a ballet? Am I couth enough to use the word couth?

I’m not sure how ballet took on this reputation, but Paquita was far from stuffy; it was whimsical, exciting and heartfelt. A storybook narrative that came to life with every twirl of a cape or swish of a skirt. The picturesque painted sets and hanging props served as a beautiful backdrop for the romantic tale of Paquita and Andres.

As a ballet beginner, the playbill proved a great companion. The clear synopsis quelled my fears of confusion. While normally spoilers are unwanted, they were helpful in knowing what’s happening while still being able to focus on the dancers. It also provided history about the production and the Mariinsky Ballet. You don’t have to know the difference between a pirouette and a plie to understand the storyline or appreciate the talent involved. 

Maria Khoreva was stunning as the spirited, strong-willed Paquita. Stolen from nobility at birth, Paquita now lives as a street dancer with a traveling group. She has many adoring suitors, but it is Andres who she asks to prove his love. Andres joins the travelers but finds troubles when the group is accused of theft. The third and final act ends in a grand pas wedding that features lead performers and soloists.   

I found myself being caught off guard by the moments of humor. I genuinely didn’t know that ballet could be so funny. One scene featured two men dancing, perfectly in sync, beneath a horse costume. A third man proceeded to try and ride said horse. The audience was audibly amused. Several times throughout the performance awes and exclamations could be heard throughout the arena. It felt like we were all watching a sporting event together and our team was doing really well. 

Outside of the opera house is a glass case featuring the costumes worn in the show. Every handsewn bead is a reminder of the work put into the show. Every tutu was perfectly fluffed. Every note of the orchestra, lead by Gavriel Heine, was at the exact right moment. The amount of syncretization that goes into the production is unfathomable to me – I can’t even get all of my friends to show up for lunch at the same time. Yuri Smekalov managed to create a nearly three-hour dance routine that never became dull or tedious.   

You can wear an expensive suit or dinosaur tights and it doesn’t matter because ballet is a form of escapism. Who doesn’t want to enter a world where all conflict is fought through dance and everything ends with a big wedding? There is a reason why the Mariinsky Ballet has been putting on performances since the 18th century, and it has nothing to do with the disposition of the audience. It’s the combination of beauty, passion and skill that makes going to the ballet a timeless event. 

The Mariinsky Ballet’s Paquita is being performed at the Kennedy Center through October 13. For information on tickets and showtimes, visit here.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F Street, NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org