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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 

Photo: courtesy of the Kennedy Center

A Footloose Conversation with Isabelle McCalla

The movie Footloose evokes memories of a young Kevin Bacon angrily dancing next to that iconic yellow Volkswagen Bug. Maybe you think of the popular Kenny Loggins’ song of the same name? The music, clothing and cinematography all scream 1980s. So why is this story continually rewatched and remade? After speaking with Broadway Center Stage: Footloose star Isabelle McCalla, it’s clear this narrative is still extremely relevant.

The Kennedy Center is bringing Footloose to DC with a star-studded cast. Among them is McCalla, who in addition to playing the role of Ariel in this production, has played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and originated the role of Alyssa on Broadway’s The Prom. Like her character Ariel, McCalla is no stranger to standing up for what she believes in. She and her The Prom co-star, Caitlin Kinnunen, shared the first same-sex kiss in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade history. Before seeing her on stage, read on to learn more about her history with the material, performing in DC and more. 

On Tap: The movie Footloose came out in 1984, the musical was introduced in 1998, and the movie was then remade in 2011, what do you think is so compelling about the story that makes it able to span decades?
Isabelle McCalla: I think it’s really a story of communication, or the lack thereof, and people with different ideologies who don’t see eye-to-eye. It’s a story of people who listen and understand someone who walks in a different pair of shoes. So I think that has transcended and we do it with musical comedy, and that’s what’s so incredible. 

OT: At the very heart of it, Footloose is about young people fighting for what they believe in. This is very relevant today, especially here in DC. Does performing at the nation’s capital have a different impact?
IM: Oh absolutely! We are in a very difficult time in our history where there is a lot of negative rhetoric going on and the people in charge aren’t necessarily representing their constituents. [Footloose] is about a time when the new generation has to do some toe stepping while standing up for what they believe in and it will resonate a lot with the people living in DC today.   

OT: What was your first experience with the film?
IM: I’ve actually never seen it!

OT: Really?
IM: Yeah, I somehow managed to go my entire life without seeing it. It helps keep it fresh for me in the role.

OT: What drew you to the character of Ariel?
IM: I like that she is very intelligent and able to play the various facets of her society. She knows exactly what roles she has to play with which type of people to get by. She has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, and she just wants to get out of her small town and make something of her life. That’s not something that many people in her community aspire to necessarily. That’s been fun to tap into. She’s very dynamic. It’s hard to find roles that are so versatile, in the sense that they can be vulnerable and demure yet so confident and sexy at the same time. Ariel is kinda the whole package there.

OT: Obviously, the narrative focuses on a small town that bans dancing. You originated the role of Alyssa in The Prom, a musical about a small town that shuts down a prom because Alyssa and her girlfriend want to attend. Are there any similarities between Ariel and Alyssa?
IM: There are similarities in that they both have broken relationships with their parents. They love their parents but for some reason or other, Ariel with her father and Alyssa with her mother, their parents have visions for their daughters that don’t line up with their daughters and who those characters actually are. It’s constantly a fight to just be seen for who they are by their parents. 

OT: If music and dancing had been banned from your town, what would you be doing today?
IM: Oh my god. I would have to move towns. I love singing and dancing, but I’d probably be an investigative journalist. That was always a dream of mine. 

While McCalla isn’t sure what’s next, her successful career thus far is an indication of great things to come. See her in Footloose this Wednesday through Monday, October 14. Showtimes vary, tickets $59-$175. For more information, click here.

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

WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf // Photos: Rich Kessler

Inside the Living, Breathing World of the Washington National Opera’s Costume Design

“They think of the costumes as living, breathing things. They develop intense relationships with the costumes themselves as they’re literally forming them with their hands.”

Timothy O’Leary is describing the love story between the Washington National Opera (WNO)’s costume team and the works of art they fit to singers not like a glove, but like a second layer of skin, an extension of their very being. And it’s an easy romance to get swept up in.

As WNO Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf walks me through her vast costume shop in Takoma, my little performing arts geek heart begins to pitter patter. There’s a wig-making studio and a fabric-dying room and walls lined with every brightly colored shoe imaginable, not to mention never-ending rows of textures organized by production and drawers upon drawers of tiaras and pearls and other costumed jewels.

I’m sent over the edge when she pulls out a cape from the 1981 opera The Magic Flute, made particularly notable by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak’s iconic design aesthetic. The ticking along the fabric looks remarkably like Sendak’s costume sketches and illustrations from his classic children’s book, and though not totally sure, she’s pretty convinced we’re touching fabric hand illustrated by Sendak himself.

“I’m just in awe of a costume shop like hers,” O’Leary says of LeBoeuf and her team’s 20,000-square-foot space. “The people who work there feel so strongly about doing everything exactly right.”

This devotion not only to precision but to the craft itself is evident in my hour spent with LeBoeuf, as she shares insight into the meticulous level of detail and care her staff must treat each individual costume with – and her own lifelong love affair with opera.

The 64-year-old costume director has been with the WNO, an artistic affiliate of the Kennedy Center, for 31 years, describing herself as “one of the lucky ones” for being able to spend her career doing what she went to school for. She started out as a freelance costume designer after receiving two theatre degrees, playing the role of designer, patternmaker, stitcher, painter, dyer and more before landing her a job with the District’s opera company in 1998.

Not only does she oversee costuming needs for all WNO productions, LeBoeuf and her team support other Kennedy Center programs as needed like its Theater for Young Audiences and Broadway Center Stage, including last fall’s Little Shop of Horrors. She describes the WNO costume studio, which has housed her staff’s robust operations since 2001, as a building shop.

When the WNO embarks on a new production or needs to create new costumes, her team works with designers to acquire the right fabrics for whatever they’re making. And though many of the operas brought to the Kennedy Center are touring productions with existing costumes, she notes that they still have to be customized to the WNO singers’ bodies.

“That’s our job, no matter if you’re the title character of if you are just in a crowd scene,” LeBoeuf says. “Every single costume on our stage is custom-fit to whoever gets to wear it.”

There’s much, much more that goes into each customization than the average audience member might realize, as opera singers have very specific needs onstage.

“Singers have a different kind of movement that they have to do,” she continues. “They have to be able to breathe. They have to be able to hear. We answer a lot of those types of questions in the fitting. It’s fun. I have so much respect for the way a singer prepares for a role, and it’s always been my secret delight to have something to do with that. We’re here to support.”

The scope and breadth of how the proverbial sausage is made is overwhelming: custom colorization of flesh-colored inserts to perfectly match singers’ flesh tones; crafting accurate, realistic hairlines for every single wig; and the stealthy insertion of cooling gel packs into wool uniforms for singers to avoid sweating profusely onstage, to name a few. But of paramount importance is giving singers as much flexibility and range of motion for their vocal cords as possible – often requested by male vocalists in particular is extra breathing room in fabric covering their throats.

“I like to think of costumes as a bit of armor that our performers put on to face what they call ‘the mouth of the wolf,’” LeBoeuf says. “That means you’re saying, ‘Good luck,’ because when the curtain opens and you face the audience, they are the wolf and you’re facing the mouth of the wolf. Those Italians, they’re so passionate and illustrative. I like to think of the costume as a bit of armor to help with that process.”

She describes each singer’s relationship with their costume as deeply personal, noting the often transformative and vulnerable moments that occur during the first fitting.

“Just about the most rewarding part of this job – aside from seeing those designs become three-dimensional costumes, that presents its own joy – is when you get to go in the fitting room and introduce a singer to a costume. You see them start to adapt those clothes as part of their character. That’s a huge moment for me. To get to see that brought to bear onstage is what keeps me here. It’s so much fun.”

LeBoeuf and her team act as translators of sorts, walking singers through the intricacies of their costumes while also honoring the conception of each individual production as envisioned by the stage director and designers.

“Within the context of the inevitable conversations we have when we are in a fitting situation, which is very personal as you would imagine, it is our job to answer any questions and give any information that we can to help that performer understand why they’re being asked to wear this particular costume this particular way.”

O’Leary has great respect for LeBoeuf and what he describes as her very high-pressure job to meet the costuming needs of performers who are doing something incredibly physically intense with their bodies onstage.

“People like Marsha and all the people who work within the costume shop are magician problem solvers because of the enormity of the task of putting an entire cast, chorus and dancers into all of the costumes that have to be fitted exactly to them. There’s an absolute deadline: opening night curtain. Everything’s got to be ready.”

The WNO’s general director reiterates how much the costumes matter to the singers, allowing them to truly inhabit their characters. He waxes poetic about how opera is a completely vibrant art form in the 21st century, and an enormously expressive medium.

“It’s not worth telling a story in opera if there’s no reason for the characters to express their feelings through this kind of singing,” he says. “Some stories make more sense as a play or a movie, but some stories make sense as an opera because they deal with the deepest emotions that we have.”

The kind of singing he’s referring to is what LeBoeuf describes as “different from anything else that’s amplified.”

“The amplification is natural,” she says. “The loudness you hear from those instruments comes from the instruments themselves. The voices you hear in your seat in the second tier are not coming to you through speakers. They’re coming to you from those singers’ vocal apparatuses.”

Both WNO leaders rave about the upcoming season, with Otello opening on October 26 and the aforementioned The Magic Flute opening on November 2. O’Leary describes Otello as a blood-and-guts Italian opera that lives up to the traditional definition of opera with every fiber, and playfully refers to The Magic Flute as a “gateway opera,” a great introduction to the genre for Sendak fans and opera newbies alike.

Magic Flute is adorable,” LeBoeuf says. “If heavy drama isn’t your bag, come to Magic Flute. It’s uplifting like crazy, and colorful. It was created originally by Maurice Sendak and it has been loved for many years. The original scenery was lost in Hurricane Katrina and has been lovingly recreated. Some of the original costumes did survive and they are from his creative source. They’re very Sendakian looking.”

She and O’Leary mention the highly anticipated opera Blue, coming to the Kennedy Center next March, about a family’s tragic experience losing their teenage son to a police shooting. LeBoeuf embraces the unique challenges of getting the costumes just right for a 21st-century production.

“This is a contemporary tragic tale ripped right off the headlines, so people are going to know what they’re looking at. If you’re putting a New York cop onstage, it’s got to look like a New York cop. If you’re putting his troubled teenager onstage, you’ve got to know who that is. You don’t come out of those performances screaming about the costumes. They don’t take an overt presence in your mind. But the characters get under your skin, so you’ve got to get that right.”

O’Leary views this new opera as a modern version of works that came before it, a window into the breadth of the art form.

“Opera is so weighted down with stereotype that the broader public often doesn’t realize that a piece like Blue is just part of a continuum,” he says.

When I ask LeBoeuf why she thinks opera remains relevant, she tells me that every time she’s subconsciously put the genre in a box, her eyes have been opened.

“People who are not in my generation – and not just 30-somethings, I’m talking about teenagers – I will encounter them and realize they have discovered this performing art form, and really think it’s great and want to be exposed to more of it. This amazing combination of orchestra music, theatre and some incredibly beautiful singing can just take you to a different place emotionally.

I really think that sitting quietly and letting opera happen to you is a very rewarding experience if you will take the time to let it happen.”

Otello runs from October 26 to November 16 with tickets starting at $45, and The Magic Flute runs from November 2-23 with tickets starting at $25. Learn more about the WNO’s upcoming season at www.kennedy-center.org/wno.

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

Welcome Pavilion from South with Sedum Swoop // Photo: Richard Barnes

The Art + Architecture of The REACH

The Kennedy Center’s original building may be a box-like structure in its physical form, but it has truly grown into a space that cannot be boxed in. A monument, performing arts space, educational center and must-see stop on a list of tourist travel plans: these are all roles the space has held since opening in 1971. 

Naturally, as the Center’s roles have shifted, so have the needs of the community it serves. That’s where The REACH comes in. An expansion of the Center, its sprawling, subterranean layout and public art installations are just as integral to the vision of this new endeavor as the programming that will take place in it. 

The care and attention to detail invoked by those involved in designing the building and placing the art within provides another layer to the deep commitment of the Center – not only to the legacy of its namesake who cherished the arts so dearly, but for the community it will serve in the years to come. 

THE ARCHITECTURE

Chris McVoy, senior partner at Steven Holl Architects, says the selection of their firm to design The REACH was a once-in-a-lifetime commission – the kind of project that makes up an architect’s dream. 

With its serene, subterranean layout, exterior slopes made up of glistening white titanium concrete and lush greenery surrounding the grounds, McVoy says The REACH represents more than a stunning arts campus or extension of the institution the Center established with its original building.

“We had a chance to transform a 1970s notion of what a national performing arts center [is] into a 21st century vision,” he says. “It’s an expansion of an existing building that hasn’t really been touched since 1971.”

McVoy notes how the performing arts and the spaces that house them have changed since the Center opened, both in the District and nationally.

“This was a chance to take that 1971 model and completely transform it and open it up. In the original building, [the arts] are really now held within a box – a very large box. This was a chance to break that open, turn it inside out and open it up to the city.”

Although the building is made of the aforementioned white titanium concrete, another material is an essential part of the building: natural light. McVoy says that Holl will always say natural light is his favorite material when asked what he prefers to work with.

That affinity followed Holl, McVoy and their team to The REACH in an especially effective way. The sweeping windows, skylights and frosted glass blur the lines between the natural and the manmade. When walking through The REACH, it’s easy to forget you’re in an urban space as you’re enveloped by sunshine and greenery throughout.

“[Natural light] is essential to your psychological sense of well-being,” McVoy continues. “You feel good when you have a connection to the outdoors. You know what the weather is like outside, you know what time of day it is, you know what season it is. When you put that in a rehearsal space or performance space, it gives the artists or the audience a critical connection to the outdoors. It’s inspiring. Often when you’re rehearsing, you’re there eight hours a day. To have this feeling of relief in the light gives a whole inspiration to the process of making art.”

McVoy and senior associate Garrick Ambrose felt inspired during the process of constructing The REACH, pioneering an internal design element with their team just for the space. Called crinkle concrete, it adorns the walls of the Justice Forum and other rehearsal spaces. And although the Justice Forum is the only room in the space without windows, the fluidity created by the design also emulates the same natural serenity as the rest of the building. Its crisp acoustics are also novel, as concrete is not necessarily known for creating purity of sound.

McVoy notes that his team had the idea to imprint the concrete with a texture that does the acoustical work of diffusing the sound.

“We did many studies of what kind of texture we could put into the form work of the concrete to create this diffusion. [Ambrose] was doing experiments and found this idea of a crinkle concrete, where by taking a sheet of aluminum and bending it and banging it up and then using that as the liner that the concrete is cast against, [it] creates the ideal acoustical texture to mitigate flutter echo and diffuse the sound in the space.”

Once perfected, the team took their creation to the rest of the rehearsal spaces. While they met their goal acoustically, the accomplishment is twofold. The fluidity provided by the crinkle concrete is not only aesthetically appealing but provides a metaphorical distinction of the fluidity in the arts that The REACH itself represents.

“When you see this texture, especially in the Justice Forum, it’s immaterial,” McVoy explains. “On the one hand, it [appears] carved out of solid rock. And then on the other hand, it seems as light as folded paper. And then, especially in the Justice Forum where we’re lighting it right along the surface – we’re just raking it with light – the textures [are] particularly pronounced and immaterial. In fact, it’s a concrete structural wall but it feels like a folded texture of light.”

Though the Center’s original space will always stand as the iconic monument to its namesake’s legacy and commitment to the arts, the fluid and flexible notions brought forth in The REACH – both in structure and ideology – surely show the creative future Kennedy advocated for as the catalyst of change in our modern times. 

THE ART

Longtime DC residents will be greeted by a familiar figure when entering the grounds of The REACH: Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes, on loan from The Hirshhorn. The 1996 sculpture is just one of three outdoor sculptures that, along with many other pieces of art indoors, were selected with the help of Dr. Elizabeth Broun.

“I’ve been a longtime admirer of the Kennedy Center and the role they play – not just in Washington but across the country – to encourage the performing arts,” says Broun, The REACH’s visual arts advisor. “It’s an organization with a deep sense of mission and a real commitment to the idea that the arts can really express American life.”

Broun, who served for many years as the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and retired in 2016, says her involvement in The REACH is a perfect way for her to stay engaged with the arts and work with one of the most prestigious, fabulous arts organizations in America.

She took Kennedy’s legacy as a powerful arts advocate to heart while working with artists, museums and donors to adorn the space. She notes that while a connection to the Kennedy administration was not a necessary requirement for inclusion, there are some beautiful connections to his life that make an appearance at The REACH – namely in the case of painter Sam Gilliam and sculptor Joel Shapiro.

Gilliam’s work, which Broun describes as “lyrical and musical,” drapes across the interior space. Shapiro’s sculpture almost appears to “pirouette” across the lawn, and she envisions it becoming something of an iconic symbol of The REACH due to its visibility from the river, the highway and within the landscape of the building.

“[Gilliam] is really the internationally acclaimed dean of Washington’s artists. He’s long been affiliated with Washington. He came to the city in 1962 during the Kennedy administration, so we liked that reference. We liked that Joel Shapiro was actually in the third cohort of Peace Corps volunteers in India. The Kennedy legacy really does live on and is a very active component in the arts.”

In working to bring this incredible array of American art to The REACH, Broun’s hopes lie in the idea that patrons will see the multidimensional impacts of the arts that harken back to the Kennedy legacy it so gracefully pays tribute to.

“People mostly don’t think of the Kennedy Center as being about art, except for maybe that great big bronze head of Kennedy that’s in the foyer. I hope it makes them sort of reflect a little bit that yes, this is a great center for all of the arts in America. It’s encouraging the arts of every type. It’s comprehensive in the same way that President Kennedy’s vision for the arts was to be a beacon and related to our democracy. It’s about public spaces and public art. I hope they respond to all of that.”

For more on the work of Chris McVoy and Steven Holl Architects, go to www.stevenholl.com. Visit www.reach.kennedy-center.org for continuing announcements about upcoming programming at The REACH. 

Alysia Lee and Ty Defoe // Photo: Tony Powell

The REACH’s Opening Festival

The inside spaces of the Kennedy Center’s The REACH are spacious and cavernous, like an underground college building with rooms ripe for seminars, classes, performances, films and whatever other kind of programming the Center offers, which is to say almost anything. The outside buildings are equally stunning, standing tall not in an intimidation, but a reassurance.

The facility had yet to open when we walked through the grounds in mid-July, but it was easy to close your eyes and imagine a swath of people congregating in one of the spacious fields for a concert or a movie projected directly on the side of their sloping creations. Soon, there won’t be much left to the imagination as the Center is set to unleash every kind of installation you can think of – big name to small name, hip-hop to opera, dance to painting, sculpture to DJs.

“We’ll achieve a vision in people’s minds,” says Robert van Leer, the Kennedy Center’s senior vice president of artistic planning. “And I mean everyone: artists, staff, visitors, civic leaders. When you open a new building, there’s a process that comes up with that vision, but it’s important to start with what it can be.”

From Saturday, September 7 through Sunday, September 22, the Kennedy Center’s The REACH Opening Festival will feature close to 500 free events inviting people to explore the space, participate in workshops, and see headlining acts such as Robert Glasper, Bootsy Collins, The Second City, Thievery Corporation and so much more.

“It’s a great way to illustrate what The REACH can do,” van Leer continues. “It’s a combination of all of those things and a chance to learn with the artists to see what the future opportunities can be.”

Artists Ty Defoe and Alysia Lee are perfect examples of the diverse range of creative talent participating in the festivities. Both will travel from different East Coast cities – Baltimore and NYC, respectively – to support The REACH and take part in the public’s first invitation to the campus.

“I like the word festival,” Defoe says. “I like the word joy and I like the word connection. I feel like among those words, it reminds me that we’re at a time right now where the arts are a place of healing, celebration and activation. The arts not only change people’s minds, but people’s hearts. I feel like we’re in a time where that is very necessary right now.”

Defoe is an interdisciplinary artist from New York slated to participate in two events: a panel titled “The New Contemporary in Native American Art” and an interactive participatory hoop dance. The latter is only allotted 15 minutes, but despite this expedited runtime, the movement has several different layers all geared toward a unique experience.

“I’ve been working on this since I was 7 years old,” Defoe says. “It gets at a lot of intersections that I like to operate in, which is contemporary indigenous culture, community, spectacle, and utilizing spaces [both] indoors and outdoors. Also, [knowing] this festival will have all these amazing people of culture coming together in that circle, there was no other thing in my mind that came up besides this.”

The dance starts off with a story about finding a way through fighting and warring as a community, but it’s not all spoken. For some, the narrative is better understood through a series of physical steps, hence the hoop dance.

“I’ll weave myself in and out of these hoops to make different shapes – things you’d see in nature like trees, plants, flowers and animals – to pay honor to the equity of all living things,” Defoe continues. “The interactive part breaks down the multigenerational part because as adults, we are sometimes living in our heads and not able to feel. No matter who you are – shape, size, color – you’re standing shoulder to shoulder with your friend or relative.”

While Defoe’s interactive performance welcomes all people in attendance to gather around and dance, Lee’s workshop about protest songs will focus on inspiring middle school children to express themselves in tune. As a Kennedy Center 2019-2020 Citizen Arts Fellow and multifaceted vocalist, Lee is an obvious choice to lead an educational workshop for the opening festival.

“I really want to have something where kids walk away with something they created,” Lee says. “I want collaboration and sharing, and something where there will be high incentive and high reward to move quickly together.”

Lee came up with the activity upon learning that a majority of 60s protest songs were parodies of oldies from the 40s and 50s. The format took form when she thought of using modern pop music to help kids write their own pieces.

“What do we care about and how can we use music as a way to voice our opinions? The accessibility of these protest songs is super cool because you can get kids to take their favorite hits and use them for social change.”

Lee feels confident that the children participating will be up for protesting, whether it be concerns about global warming or requests for more snack machines.

“Kids nowadays are so in tune because of social media,” she says. “They’re so in touch with the world in a way that I wasn’t. Kids really feel very strongly and passionately about things that are beyond them. They feel more connected to the global society.”

The REACH is also slated to feature a number of DC-based artists as part of the festival’s lineup. GIRLAAA Collective Founder Dominique Wells has coordinated a full slate of curation on opening day with a panel of female DJs – including Mane Squeeze, Ayes Cold and Niara Sterling – followed by a performance.

“We want to discuss women in the music industry and how they’re doing more than just following contemporary trends – they’re breaking barriers,” Wells says. “I feel like what they’re doing is important and monumental and necessary.”

The DC native sees The REACH as an opportunity for the Kennedy Center to better serve the underprivileged in the community by introducing them to art by way of free workshops and performances, much like the programming for the festival.

“It’s about what’s happening beyond their main space,” Wells says. “I think The REACH is going to offer a lot of people who otherwise might not come there an opportunity to experience something inclusive and diverse. They have a great team of people who are working really hard, and they’re listening to people.”

From local to national, big to small, contemporary to classical, the Kennedy Center’s The REACH Opening Festival is a multi-dimensional playground for patrons of the arts from any background. Van Leer says there are no plans to make this an annual tentpole event, so you will definitely want to revel in it while you can.

“You see all the cross-pollination that’s occurring,” Lee says of the festival programming. “It’s really inspiring and makes me think about the through-line of creativity and how things can speak. I love that the festival is a place for that. It’s hard to even fathom missing one day of it.”

To peruse the comprehensive list of events at The REACH’s Opening Festival, visit https://cms.kennedy-center.org/festivals/reach. For announcements about upcoming programming at The REACH, go to www.reach.kennedy-center.org.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph// Photo: Tony Powell)

The Vision of The REACH

“Listen man, Q-Tip is one of my heroes.”

I’m going to venture an educated guess that the first image that comes to mind when someone mentions the Kennedy Center isn’t a Haitian-American playwright and spoken-word poet choking back tears as he describes what 90s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest means to him. And yet, here we are.

I’m sitting next to Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Kennedy Center’s vice president and artistic director of social impact, in a state-of-the-art, subterranean studio space having a deeply personal conversation about how hip-hop shaped his formative years and how he now gets to work alongside one of his idols for one of the world’s most renowned arts organizations. It is at this exact moment that the driving force behind the Center’s highly anticipated expansion of its campus – The REACH – clicks into place for me.

The three sloping structures opening to the public this month were built upon the pillars of inclusivity, accessibility and interactivity as spaces to facilitate shared artistic experiences for the community. And while the Center’s leadership has invested years of strategic planning and creative thinking behind how to make the spaces as innovative as possible, they ultimately exist as a platform for artists and the community to connect on their own terms.

“We’re inaugurating a way of being in public space,” Joseph says. “People make place. While there’s been an incredible investment in the built capital of these three interconnected pavilions, there has to continue to be investment in the social capital and the social possibility that is made through the creative enterprise.”

Though the Center’s chairman of the board of trustees, David Rubenstein, had a vision for launching The REACH in 2017 to celebrate John F. Kennedy’s 100th birthday, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter says she believes the space is opening now because it is the right time to unveil it and share it with the world.

“It’s a time in our society where people crave authentic experiences they can share with others,” she says. “There is a thirst for a sense of community and inclusivity, and The REACH gives us a place for those kinds of experiences.”

Rutter likens The REACH to her own analog version of the Internet.

“I don’t believe that the only way to learn about art is through YouTube or a Google search – no matter how extensive – but rather by experiencing it firsthand. There is no question that the desire to have a shared performance experience is really high, and whatever we can do to promote that is really important.”

The spaces have garnered most of their buzz thus far surrounding The REACH’s opening festival from September 7-22 with nearly 500 events, but Rutter assures that the project will only gain forward momentum with nonstop programming from day one. The REACH will operate as both an education center and public incubator, while offering rehearsal and studio spaces where artists can practice, create, collaborate and perform.

Rutter notes she’s quite proud of the artistic programming behind projects like Studio K’s (the other two studios are Studio J and Studio F, a clever acronym for the space’s namesake) transformation into a cross-genre club and destination for locals to hang out and hear jazz or pop music or spoken word. She also credits the education team for planning curriculum for “maker space” Moonshot Studio (named for “Kennedy’s call for America to think big and travel to the moon”) that’s universally relevant and ties back to programming taking place in the Center’s main hall.

The artistic and education teams behind The REACH are integral to driving its mission forward through immersive programming, and Joseph in particular is invaluable to both sides of the house as he’s uniquely equipped to ride the fine line between artist and administrator.

“To have an artist on staff is so reassuring,” Rutter says. “It’s really helpful because it helps our administrators think about their work through that lens as well. Each of our administrators works with artists in a variety of different ways but to have one as a peer, [and as] somebody who is so enormously articulate to provide the connective tissue between ideas and programming, is invaluable.”

The Center’s president gives a great example in Dear Evan Hansen.While the marketing team is interested in sharing the date and time of the next performance with the public, Joseph is focusing his attention on how the Center can communicate that this work debates and explores difficult emotional ideas of what’s happening with young people today. Both are critical pieces of information, but with very different messaging.

“That piece for me is why it’s so important for the Kennedy Center to do this work around mission, which is to hold a mirror up to our society, to talk about the good, bad and ugly in our everyday lives, and to use art to have greater understanding of who we are,” Rutter continues. “And Marc is the kind of guy who has the capacity to do that on a huge range of topics. He [joins] a team who is so proud and excited to have somebody who can help them take great work to the next level.”

Joseph remains humble during our conversation, saying he doesn’t see a delineation between the two roles – they blur together in everything he does.

“I make culture,” he says. “Some of us, we make dances. Some of us, we make plays. Some of us, we make spreadsheets. But I work with others to make culture. I don’t segment or even bifurcate this notion of administrator and artist. Artists are entrepreneurs and administrators. There isn’t so much of a fixed economy for us.”

He notes that he’s a first-generation American who comes from struggle, and “that never leaves.” In many ways, it’s shaped his professional and creative ideology.

“In terms of my artistic practice and in terms of my administrative practice, there’s a commitment to a kind of equity – a kind of inspired, inclusive and expansive community – that I have to adhere to. What makes sense for me is culture: an inspired, collaborative, expansive, inclusive, loving culture. Anything I can do to make that happen, whether it’s making poems or making programs, I’m gonna do.”

Joseph speaks of a culture of invitation being born through The REACH, where he and his colleagues continue to shine light on culture makers of all stripes. He’s aiming to achieve this in the short-term through the Culture Caucus, a group of 35 artist organizations and individuals handpicked by the Center’s leadership because of their contributions to DC’s broad cultural landscape. He describes them as “community-facing artists-in-residence at work and at play” within The REACH’s walls.

Within the next six months, Joseph and his peers will initiate an impact band of programming to include discussion groups where instead of trying to get people to engage culture on the Center’s terms, they’ll be trying to resource artists whose work amplifies what’s happening in the local community.

“I think that the level of access to culture is different than the level of access to the Kennedy Center and I think that the Kennedy Center – and quite frankly, most arts institutions – have to see themselves as organic citizens within the body politic in a different kind of way,” he says. “It’s a reorientation of the institutional psychology. This is not something that’s just going to happen, but certainly something I’m committed to is recognizing the broad ecosystem of culture makers where they are, resourcing programs where they happen and thinking about the same thing on a national scale.”

He breaks it down for me in simpler terms. Joseph isn’t who you go to for discounted tickets to productions at the Kennedy Center. He’s who you tap when you want to amplify the artistic work being done around the city.

“Resource that and attach commitments of documentation or education or pedagogical support like this. We [as an organization] are a node, but we recognize that there are many, many spokes and many, many stars in this constellation.”

Thinking in broader terms across the nation, Joseph says the next iteration of engagement for arts organizations should be thinking about empowerment, the creative imagination and inspiration as a democratic ideal.

“I’ve been brought in [to The REACH] to infuse the institutional psychology and institutional DNA with a different way of thinking about what is sublime in the arts.”

The sense of openness at the Center lends itself to Joseph’s vision for the future, and Rutter has much to do with it. In the past five years, she’s placed giving DC a seat at the table among more traditional arts & culture hubs like New York and L.A. at the top of her list. Rutter has watched the city experience tangible changes on this front, and although she won’t give herself the credit she most certainly deserves, she along with the leaders of other influential arts institutions has helped break the stereotype of DC as a straight-laced government town. Together, DC’s arts leadership is offering a wave of cultural experiences that are both approachable and accessible to our city’s diverse community.

“I really believe that the DNA of the city has changed in a lot of different ways and that which was already of interest to the people of the city has now been able to be fully embraced,” she says. “If we can demonstrate that really exciting, interesting stuff is happening in Washington, DC and that we are bringing the country together through the arts, then we can change how people think about the importance of arts in our day-to-day life. That’s why it’s really important that as the national cultural center, we invite everybody to be here – from our elected officials to the people who can’t afford to buy tickets to the people who are avid arts lovers.”

While Rutter and Joseph agree that change is gradual, they’re both committed to the baby steps we as a city need to take. In the short-term, they’re both looking forward to this month’s opening festival and the reverberations of the its creative energy. Joseph says the hip-hop block party with headliners De La Soul on September 14 will be “off the chain” but he’s equally amped up about former Wailer (of Bob Marley and The Wailers) Junior Marvin’s DC Lovers Rock on September 22.

“I’m excited about that because love is a thing. Love is not a four-letter word. I want to center love in what it is that we do and how it is that we identify and so doing a reggae-driven ode to love at the close of summer on the river – the romantic in me just loves that.”

Rutter, on the other hand, chooses not to pinpoint just one or two events. Instead, she says she’s most excited about the juxtaposition of different kinds of activities happening simultaneously – a jazz opera going on at the same time as a dance program or taking in a Lichtenstein sculpture and then wandering over to the river pavilion and playing on the brand-new Sing for Hope Piano.

At the end of the day, her goal both for the festival and The REACH as a whole is to invite all of the other cultural organizations in our community and from around the world to share and experience the art being created and explored at the Center’s many spaces. She’s especially looking forward to seeing artists collaborate in-studio and appreciate each other’s work through The REACH’s open spaces.

“I really believe that art and artists hold a mirror up to who we are as a society and if we [act as a] facilitator, we can see into the process and understand why and how that story is being told. That’s the magic that we can do through places like this. We can’t force those new relationships, but we’re excited about creating a space where that can happen.”

Learn more about everything Deborah Rutter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the rest of their creative, committed colleagues have in store at The REACH by visiting www.reach.kennedy-center.org.

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

Kaena Kekoa as Jasmine // Photo: Deen van Meer

Into A Whole New World: A Q&A with Aladdin’s Kaena Kekoa

“Jasmine knows what she wants and she is determined to get what she wants, she stood out to me because she is a sign of empowerment for young girls.”

Kaena Kekoa said to me over the phone as we discussed her role in Aladdin. The Broadway national tour of the play is making its way through cities across the country to bring a whole new world to each audience, taking the Kennedy Center stage on July 18. While many remember the classic 90s Disney film, the stage version has chosen to rewrite Jasmine in order to give her more “umph” as Kekoa says. On Tap was able to speak with her about her start in theatre and what it means to play such a well-known character.

On Tap: When did your interest in the theatre first begin?
Kaena Kekoa: I got into the theatre when I was 11, mostly church musicals and community theatre. I have been singing for most of my life. 

OT: What brought you to Aladdin?
KK: I went to an open call at the end of January 2019 in Honolulu, when I auditioned for the show. I had moved back home after college, they had an open call for Frozen, Lion King and Aladdin. I had no intention of going because I was already home and I missed it and wasn’t planning on leaving. I thought it would be a fun thing to do, I got called back for Princess Jasmine in mid-February, which felt so fast!

OT: Why were you interested in playing the part of Princess Jasmine?
KK: Honestly, I had no intention of doing any of it, it kind of just happened for me. She is a role model for young girls, especially in this time where girls need a strong independent woman figure. Especially on the stage, they get to come to the show and see her. She knows what she wants and she is determined to get what she wants. She stood out to me because she is a sign of empowerment for young girls. 

OT: In terms of the power dynamic, Jasmine tends to get pushed away as a female, how did you approach this?
KK: In the show, we give her some umph, she was written with more umph than the animated film. She has her friends who push her, we have three attendants instead of a tiger, who push her to run away. “Love comes to those who go and find it, and if you dream then stand behind it,” she really takes that on in this show. She is determined to find what she wants. Even though her father is telling her what to do, she is still determined to go out and be a better person for her people and for herself. She’s not just another Disney princess, she has developed [much more].

OT: Do you think Jasmine’s story as a character is important? Why?
KK: Oh most definitely! Mostly because she kind of wears the pants, she is the only Disney princess who wears pants, actually. She takes charge of her own life. In this production, Jasmine is one of the only female principles in this show and she is surrounded by men telling her what to do. [It’s] relatable to this day and age, and it’s a story for all, not just for the little ones. 

OT: Did you feel pressure playing this character that is so well known and well loved by anyone who grew up with Disney?
KK: Honestly, no. I love taking on a character and figuring them out and adding my own flavor to it, but I didn’t feel as much pressure with Jasmine. As a woman of color, I love to represent that on stage because it is so important. 

OT: Do you ever get pre-show jitters/how do you get past them?
KK: I definitely had pre-show jitters for the first month straight. I’ve never been part of a Broadway national tour. I had a mentor in high school who told me to turn my nervousness into excitement and that will give you the energy to go on stage and take people to a “whole new world,” [laughs] if you will. 

OT: What are your favorite productions, what is your dream role?
KK: Hmm, good question! A Chorus Line, everyone in the theatre can relate to the first song, “I Hope I Get It,” and that song runs through your head and the story overall, getting to know all the different characters and their stories is just so touching and moving. Honestly, I probably don’t have a dream role, I feel like they are the ones we don’t know about yet, whether they are written or not, I haven’t played it yet so I guess I wouldn’t know what it is. I can [also] tell you that Princess Jasmine is my dream come true. 

OT: What advice would you give to anyone coming into this business? Something you wish you had known?
KK: Hmm, I guess I would say to be kind to everyone, and I kind of knew to be kind to everyone, but it’s something that not a lot of people know how to do. There are so many people working hard behind the scenes making sure you are safe and that your show works, be thankful and say thank you and express that to everyone backstage. Express your gratitude, because if they weren’t there then you wouldn’t have a show. 

“Aladdin” will be featured at the Kennedy Center from Thursday, July 18 to Saturday, September 7. For more information and for tickets please visit here.

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

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Hello, Dolly!’s Analisa Leaming Provides Podcast Aimed at Motivating Artists

Broadway legend Betty Buckley is currently starring as the titular role in the national tour of Hello, Dolly!, playing at the Kennedy Center through July 7. The classic musical, with a book by Michael Stewart and songs by Jerry Herman, tells the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a middle-aged marriage broker in 1880s New York City, who navigates a colorful collection of characters in search of love. 

One of those characters is Irene Molloy, played by Analisa Leaming, whose Broadway resume includes stints in School of Rock, The King and I and On The 20th Century. She was also the understudy for Irene on Broadway, going on about a dozen times. 

When she got the call to do the national tour, she, her husband and dog packed up the car and began traveling from place to place. 

“I love that this show is light and fun and joyful,” Leaming says. “With everything going on in the world today, we get to be that two-and-a-half hours of joy every night.”

Being on Broadway was always something Leaming knew she wanted to do. In fact, when she was in sixth grade, her teacher inscribed in her yearbook, “I know I’ll see your name up in lights some day in Hollywood,” and she asked him to scratch the last part out and put “Broadway” instead.

Although her first Broadway show –  Rebecca – was cancelled the night before rehearsals started, and it took three years for her to get another chance, she stayed busy doing regional and Off-Broadway shows. 

In addition to her theater work on stage, Leaming is also passionate about promoting mindfulness and sustainability for artists who work in what can often be a stressful field. 

In that vein, Leaming hosts a podcast, “A Balancing Act,” which features conversations with other working artists about how to navigate the industry and create balance and happiness as a performer. 

“What happened to me with Rebecca is kind of like someone who gets drafted by the NFL, and [then] hurts their Achilles and doesn’t get to play; it’s that level of disappointment,” Leaming says. “It had been this thing I had been dreaming about my whole life. When it was taken away, I had to do some deep searching and what I found is that as artists, it’s very easy to wait for things to happen.”

She explains that includes waiting for calls about roles and always comparing yourself to others.

“I went on my search inward and I just had to share it with others so I created this podcast,” Leaming says. “What I found talking with other artists is that we all share these same fears. These are things that we don’t often talk about. It’s been very helpful.”

Among her guests have been Rebecca Luker, Gavin Creel and John Tartaglia. Tony winner Jessie Mueller will be on soon.

“Because it’s not a weekly podcast, I have plenty of time to edit and so I invite people to be as vulnerable as possible and if they want something taken out, I can totally do that, and I think that has helped create some really honest and emotional conversations,” she says. 

Now in its third season, Leaming originally did all the interviews in person, but being on tour, most of the interviews are recorded over the phone.

“I talk to these incredible people and learn from them and it helps me stay on my own path of where I want to be,” she says. “This is my way of changing my corner of the world.” 

“A Balancing Act” not only hears the stories of these artists, but gets tips on how they reduce stress and cope with the challenges that come with pursuing and maintaining a Broadway career. 

“What I’ve learned is how imperative it is for artists to have other things that we love and are actively doing, and being a more balanced person,” Leaming says.   

See Leaming in Hello, Dolly! at the Kennedy Center through July 7. Showtimes vary and tickets are $49-$159. For information about the show, visit here. Podcast episodes of “A Balancing Act” are available here

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

Photo: Jati Lindsay

Kennedy Center Arts Summit Explores The Human Journey: Creating the Story of Us

On April 29 the annual Kennedy Center Arts Summit created space for leaders in the arts and arts advocacy to address the difficult questions surrounding the role of the arts in an unjust world. The theme of this year’s symposium, The Human Journey: Creating the Story of Us, invited the dissolution of traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines and between the “arts world” and the “rest of the world.”

Storytellers from all walks operating as catalysts for change within a dramatic variety of arenas convened to redefine what even a story is – A technology? An art form? A breathing thing all its own? – and to consider why it matters here and now.

Words spoken aloud, words heard, narratives propelled forward into the space in a room, into the air, are driven by voices – and that is what gives them power over paper.

In a series of roulette-style interviews punctuated by musical performances, the first half of the day-long summit proved just that. The format alone attested to the power that can be wielded by being in charge of a narrative – as each session’s interviewee became interviewer for the next panelist, the dynamic shift in the person, progress and direction a story can take was on display.

Snap Judgement’s Stephanie Vu, who uses the awareness of this power to combat Complex PTSD, asked the audience to consider “how does the experience shift when you go from the interviewer to the interviewee, even when you’re interviewing yourself.” She continued, “giving of self is part of the process of unfolding a story.”

Hip-hop and rap artists, poets, podcast producers, PhD sociologists, musicians, educators pushed on each other and themselves to place art in dialogue with dominant narratives told in the public, and within the self, to identify the parts of our tangled stories that we do and don’t share, and to consider how the process of creating a new story is like stitching together disparate wounds to emerge with a stronger whole.

And with seeds planted during the morning, afternoon breakout sessions took a deeper dive, pushing participants to examine intentionality, authorship and intersectionality; pursue the idea of “radical listening”; and discuss strategies for generating stories, both personal and communal.

Theatre artist Kaneza Schaal reminded Vanessa Ramon-Ibarra, a 16 year-old member of 826DC who is struggling to keep the oral histories of her family alive, that “the world is built of stories” and that in telling hers, she is “building an entire ecosystem.”

Earlonne Woods, formerly incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, and Bay Area artist Nigel Poor, started the podcast Ear Hustle when Earlonne was still within in the prison system. Woods encouraged the audience and his fellow panelists to let conversations happen: let stories emerge, let yourself tell your story. In essence, he told us, there is more than one side to every story, and there is more than one layer to every character.

James L. Knight Foundation’s Victoria Rogers questioned the role of patrons of the arts – if storytelling is a technology, who has access to it and who decides who gets that access?

And finally, Princeton sociologist Betsy Levy Paluck gave us scientific evidence for the power of storytelling. Stories, she says, can motivate war, but they can also drive its resolution. In a study that explored the rolls of mass media in the Rwandan genocide, Paluck showed just how intimately and biologically stories bind us on a deep neural level.

Ultimately, if we use that bond to do good, the art we create within and of ourselves can actually change the world.

The Kennedy Center Arts Summit is an annual one-day convening to investigate the power and potential of the arts, for more information visit here.

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

Photo: Ryan Scherb

Amanda Gookin Discusses Forward Music Project

Classical music is not generally associated with political activism, but that’s what Amanda Gookin hopes to change with her Forward Music Project at the Dupont Underground. The project presented by National Sawdust Projects is a part of Kennedy Center’s ongoing DIRECT CURRENT programming celebrating contemporary music. Removing the stuffy connotations of classical music, Forward Music Project seeks to make the genre more accessible and use it as a force for good. Commissioning works from all-female composers, Gookin incorporates music, storytelling, chanting, staging effects and projection art to create a stimulating and immersive experience.

On Tap: Can you tell me about the Forward Music Project and how it came to be?
Amanda Gookin: At the end 2015, I started to incubate the idea of commissioning work by women for solo cello. Women are very sorely underrepresented in classical and contemporary programs, and I just wanted to do my part in helping to contribute [a] new repertoire that could get out there and be performed more often. I also started to ask myself the question of involving identity politics in music and why we don’t use classical music as a platform more often to speak out about human issues, social justice and political issues. I always felt that in music programing, we were conservative and not really taking those kinds of risks. So, as somebody who is very dedicated to social justice and women’s issues and gender issues, and those who might not fall into the binary, I wanted to give a platform for women to not only write music, but also to use it as an opportunity to share their personal story or to highlight an issue they thought was important to them.

OT: What can people expect to see at your performance at the Dupont Underground?
AG: At the Dupont Underground, I will be performing the first iteration of Forward Music Project. It’s a commission project that is ongoing. In the first year, I commissioned seven works and along with that is projection art created by Katy Tucker, who is my collaborator. I will be performing those seven pieces that were in the original show that premiered at National Sawdust in March 2017.

OT: Forward Music Project aims to use classical music as a means of political activism. What kinds of issues do you focus on on?
AG: I think the project is really centered around issues of women and girls, although it is expanding to those who engage with femininity. I would say the pieces, in one form or another, tackle issues of women or girls. Some of the women wrote stories that are very personal to them about their family heritage or being assaulted. Others shared stories that they did not relate to directly, but felt were very important to bring to the table such as sex trafficking and child marriage.

OT: In your TEDx Talk, you mentioned a lack of diversity and a sense of elitism that is present in classical music. Do you think that is changing?
AG: It’s slowly changing. I think the rate at which things are charging is very slow for where we would want to be at this point. A very low percentage of American orchestras are comprised of black and latino musicians. If we consider conductors, an even smaller percentage are people of color or women. So, it is still true that there is a very low representation of diversity in our orchestras. In my TEDx Talk, I was referring to your typical classical music audience. When you conjure an image like that, to me, I conjure an image that is primarily white and privileged. If you go to a great hall, the tickets in the front row are extremely expensive, and just by shear cost, it already signifies that only a certain type of person can sit in these rows.

OT: Your style is far from traditional. You chant, play cello, and incorporate digital elements into your performance. How did discover your unique approach?
AG: I think that was an organic process. I’d always been interested in the avante garde, and I’d always been interested in pushing boundaries. I grew up in a pretty conservative environment, and I was always considered the subversive one, even though I was wearing pearls, khaki and such. There was something edgy that needed to come out. As I started my professional career, I was lost in terms of what I wanted to do. I got into the Mannes School of Music, which is a really great conservatory in New York City. When you graduate from a conservatory, you feel like you have three tracks: you can be an orchestral musician, a teacher or a soloist. I felt like I was destined to do something really different and so I started to experiment a little bit. I saw an ad that was looking for a female violinist or a string player to compose and perform music for an all-female Romeo and Juliet production. So I responded to the ad and met with the director and they hired me. I had to figure out how to write music and how to improvise. That led to writing music for even more plays, and I just kept going. I had to create modern sounds and I was getting experimental with objects to create sounds and other percussion instruments so it wasn’t just me with the cello. I had a tambourine at my foot, a symbol next to me, I had bells, I had bottles that I would scrape.

OT: Have you ever received backlash from classical music purists about your style?
AG: Oh yeah, for sure. I really haven’t received any backlash about my style per se because there’s nothing out of the ordinary in terms of contemporary music. I’ve seen some performances that are even way beyond what I’m doing. I think from a musical standpoint I haven’t received much backlash. I have mostly received backlash about content. Some people have pushed back against classical music or any sort of performance music art classical instrument being political – that we should just perform music for music’s sake, which I think is beautiful too. I don’t always perform music that is heavy handed in social justice, but when I’m very outspoken about it, that’s when some people start to get uncomfortable.

OT: What do you want your audience to take away from this project?
AG: Well, everyone is different and I feel like this conjures a wide range of emotional responses. It depends on how the person is entering into the performance. If it’s somebody who identifies with some of the content of the pieces, I hope that it’s a hand that reaches out and says, “I hear you and I’m here for you. You’re heard and understood. This is a safe space.” If it’s somebody who is super into feminist ideology, I hope they would feel even more empowered to go forward and do more good work. For somebody who may be skeptical, I would hope that they would at least have an open mind and hear the music and maybe begin to think about things they hadn’t considered before. I feel a lot of my project is about planting seeds. While I do receive a lot of great feedback in the moment, I do hope that it has a longer-lasting effect on the listeners.

Check out Amanda Gookin’s Forward Music Project at Dupont Underground on March 29 at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available here. Learn more about Forward Music Project here.

Dupont Underground: 19 Dupont Cir NW, DC; 202-846-1474; www.dupontunderground.org