From Croutons to Contretemps: An Interview with Ayako Takahashi

Ayako's Head shot

*By Erica Furgiuele

Ayako Takahashi is one of Urbanity’s newest company dancers. She’s rejoining the company after taking time off to dance in Israel. Ayako started dancing when she was 23, and her hard work has led her to Boston and to Urbanity. 

Me: How did you know you needed to dance?

AT: I grew up watching a lot of videos of dancers. I always wanted to be one, but my environment wasn’t conducive to it. I went all over Japan and looked for a studio that would take me. But no one would, because I was too old to have never taken lessons. Eventually I found Peridance in New York, and they gave me a scholarship. The audition went horribly, but I was too excited to notice. The teacher would call out “Contretemps!” and I had no idea what she meant. I thought she was saying “crouton” so I danced like a crouton. I had to put my foot on a chair because I couldn’t put my foot on the barre. The next day, the teacher told me I should just give up. I asked her to give me six months and if she didn’t see me improve, she could take me out of the program. In those six months, I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I was dong tendus on the subway while reading my ballet terminology dictionary. I was incredibly focused. In the end, they didn’t let me into the performance corps, but they let me stay in the program.

Me: So you went from no formal training to working with a premiere contemporary dance company? That’s an incredible journey.

AT: When I first started dancing, I was so happy to be doing it I didn’t even know it should be hard. Now I struggle more, because I know what I’m doing wrong. A few years into my training, I started teaching adult beginner class and saw people who reminded me of how I used to be. They didn’t know any terminology–they were just busy having fun, and I realized how much I had lost that sense of joy since focusing on my technique alone. Dance is how we live, how we are. If your motivation isn’t in the right place, you will never move anyone with your art. It’s impossible to pretend. If you’re only in it for success and fame, then you look so ugly onstage.

Me: You’re licensed in Dance Movement Therapy. What is it like?

AT: When you talk about dance, people say, “Oh, I can’t dance.” But everyone dances when they communicate—body language is a form of dance. People say dance is a language with no barriers. The main thing that I love about dance is connecting people through movement. You would think that people just dance and feel better. But it’s about finding where they hold their tension and helping them release it, using my body language and movements to show them the way.

Me: How did you find Urbanity?

AT: I found Urbanity when I moved to Boston to pursue my degree in dance therapy. I still remember the audition where I met Betsi. I was so nervous. She put me in Underground to start off. Betsi and Urbanity changed my life.  I used to be embarrassed of the fact that I started dancing so late before, but now I’m proud that I started dancing when I was 23, because it’s inspiring to others.

Me: How did you find your choreographic style?

AT: Betsi was the one who said to me, “I think you should choreograph.” I had no idea where to start, but she had faith in me and kept pushing me to try it. It came more naturally to me than I thought. I think it’s because I view dance through a therapeutic lens. As humans, we put on different masks when we’re with different people; the way we move is part of who we are. When choreographing, I was inspired by the dancers’ personalities and how it informed their interactions. That was my jumping-off point. A lot of people say “Oh, [that style] is so you!” but I don’t think my way of choreographing is that unique. Being a choreographer allows me to travel to other countries, and so I get to see many different styles of dance. In Iceland, I saw a piece where they poked cow tongues for 13 minutes, then cut them up and served it to the audience at the end. It was confusing but really fascinating.

Me: Why did you take time off to go to Israel?

AT: I wanted a different experience, a real challenge. I wanted to feel like I was at the bottom of the heap. And that helped me grow a lot. In Israel, the focus of the movement is different: they tell you to imagine your bones and how they’re working to support you. In the U.S., it’s much more about the articulation of muscles and your physical strength.

Me: What is the Japanese dance scene like?

AT: There are a lot of ballet companies and commercial dance. People ask me when I’m going to dance in a music video with Madonna. Buto, or contemporary Japanese dance, is actually more popular in Europe. Japanese ballet is derivative of the Russian ballet school-you have to start when you’re three or no dice. The educational system is much stricter in Japan and you’re told what to do. I want to bring what I have experienced here in the U.S. to Japan—the concept that everyone can dance, and that dance is more than just ballet. To me, dance is like writing a love letter to the world.

Searching for Light: A Conversation with Meg Anderson

*by Erica Furgiuele

Meg Anderson, who is playing Anna in our upcoming performance of Seven Deadly Sins at Emmanuel Church, was able to take a break from her busy days teaching, choreographing, and performing to answer some questions about the rehearsal process. Be sure and get tickets here.

Me: How is this performance a unique experience for you personally?

Meg: This performance is really unique for me because I have a singer counterpart. While we work with live musicians a lot, I have never had a singer who is solely my counterpart. It has been really interesting to create this world with her, and I am excited to feed off of her energy in performance.

Me: What have been the biggest challenges of playing Anna?

Meg: There have certainly been a number of challenges, namely finding a story line for my character. For the majority of the rehearsal process we have been practicing without the Emmanuel singers and have been working off of a recording. Not having my singer counterpart in the space during rehearsals has made it hard to incorporate her presence into my role. Both her character and my character share a name (Anna) but are referred to as sisters who have separate experiences. Some people have speculated that they are really two sides of the same woman. Throughout the rehearsal process, I have developed my own theories. It wasn’t until this past Saturday that I met with my singer counterpart and realized we created the same story to work with–one in which we are the same woman, but I am her past self that she is reminiscing about.

It’s also been difficult rehearsing in a different space. This work is very site-specific and there are a number of stages being built within Emmanuel Church. Understanding the layout of the stages and where each piece of choreography takes place for me as a dancer has been a huge and exciting challenge. While I have seen the space, which is magical, we won’t actually be rehearsing there until show week, and I am really excited to see how the performance changes within the space.

Me: Do you agree with any of the pairs of city/sin that Brecht created?

Meg: Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to visit each of the cities Brecht has created in this piece. Having visited LA, I can say that I didn’t experience any anger there. However, in calling Boston home for the last several years I have certainly experienced love and lust here. I don’t, however, see Boston as an overtly lustful city.

Me: What do you hope the audience takes away from this performance?

Meg: I want each audience member to connect with the story and the performance. As an artist, if I can make even one audience member really experience an emotional journey, then I consider it a success.

Me: What has been the most rewarding part of this collaboration?

Meg: The music!!!! Working with these live musicians and singers is absolutely the most rewarding part. They each are so brilliantly talented, and their energy is contagious. We, as dancers, feed off of their energy and their characters the instant they begin singing and playing. It is a magical atmosphere when we are all in the same space.

Me: How do you think this piece is relevant today?

Meg: Brecht created a world of turmoil and distress for my character, Anna, to adventure through. Sadly, the world we live in today is completely wrought with turmoil and hate. My character is constantly searching for good in this world and trying to follow her heart in a world full of sin, but is constantly told that she needs to do the opposite, to go against her gut and to listen to the hypocritical word of the people around her, including her “sister”.  As a twenty-something year-old dancer creating a life for myself in this, at times, very scary and dark world, I am constantly searching for light and hope and trying to create it for others, much like my character.

Me: What’s your next dance project?

Meg: I am really looking forward to Urbanity’s Spring Revue in June, where we will be showcasing some amazing guest choreographers’ work as well as the work of one of our resident choreographers, Chantal Doucett. Some amazing things are happening for that show! Get tickets for the Spring Revue here.

Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts

This week, I’d like to yield the floor to Randy Cohen, an award-winning blogger who recently wrote an article entitled “The Top 10 Reasons to Support the Arts.” To-the-point and well-argued, it speaks volumes about the value of arts engagement and education in just a few bullet points. At the end, Cohen asks, “What’s your number 11?” Please comment/tweet/Facebook or blog your number 11 reason to support the arts with #mynumber11reason, and don’t forget to tag Urbanity!

Dance for Parkinson’s at Urbanity: Nurturing creativity and enhancing mobility

*written by Hannah Chanatry

In May 2013 Urbanity launched Dance for Parkinson’s, based on a program developed by the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group and Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) to support individuals and caregivers affected by Parkinson’s disease. Through weekly dance classes, this program addresses three primary issues within this population: the function and mobility challenges of PD, the individual and caregiver quality of life, as well as the need for a community network for people with PD to socially interact.

“Urbanity has helped me restructure myself,” says Bobbie, one of Urbanity’s participants affected by Parkinson’s disease, “and say yes, I can get out and I can be happy and I can reach for the stars.”

Bobbie has dedicated her life to caring for others. She has worked with premature infant twins with medical issues and been involved in geriatric work with children in local hospitals, all while working a third job as hostess and bartender at Copperfield’s in Kenmore Square. Once a successful multi-tasker, Bobbie now faces physical inhibitions that have forced her to discontinue these jobs.

“This made me very sad,” Bobbie remarks, “because I’ve always been an outgoing and happy person that helped others.”

But now Bobbie seeks enjoyment in activities that get her moving and is working to gain her strength back. She thoroughly enjoys the positive atmosphere at Urbanity and is already seeing improvements in her movement and mobility.

Classes are led by Artistic Director Betsi Graves, assisted by physical therapists and occupational therapists. Live musical accompaniment provided by a charismatic pianist keeps the energy high as participants delight in compositions from throughout the decades. The classes focus heavily on practicing proper alignment of the body, strengthening the core and lengthening the torso and limbs. Multiple dance styles are explored including tap, tango, flamenco, the Virginia reel, and ballet. More theatrical exercises call for improvisation and creativity. This truly allows participants to take ownership of their bodies and embrace the ability to express themselves freely.

Bobbie comments, “It’s about reaching out to your spirit and finding your own stability.”

Dance for Parkinson’s has also blossomed new relationships that will further strengthen this community. The joy and laughter is contagious as participants and volunteers work together, dance, and share stories about their lives.

“Urbanity dance has become much more than just dance,” says Bobbie, “it’s been building relationships and communicating with other people in a music and movement atmosphere.”

Bobbie shares Urbanity’s belief that this program is a great healer for those affected by Parkinson’s disease. She eagerly offers her support in contributing to its growth and sustainability.

“I think that if more people could come, I would even offer them a ride to get them here so that they can feel what I feel and experience what I’ve experienced,” she claims. “They’ll be able to open up and feel better about themselves like I did.”

Get a glimpse of our Dance for Parkinson’s program featuring Bobbie herself:

Soon we’ll be celebrating Dance with Parkinson’s three-year anniversary. As Urbanity continues to push for the expansion of its community programs, it seeks help from volunteers and donors. If you are interested in working with Urbanity on community projects, don’t hesitate to contact us. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the support of the community at large!

What makes a cake a cake?: An Interview with Leilani Riccardo

image1*By Erica Furgiuele

This week, I conversed with Urbanity teacher Leilani Riccardo over chai lattes and grilled cheese. Leilani was named Urbanity’s Teacher of the Month in February. We talked about her thoughts on arts education, college debt, and chocolate cake.

MeHow did you come to be part of the Urbanity family?

Leilani: Jamie Lovell and Meg Anderson dance for Urbanity, and I went to school with them. Two of my classmates were also Urbanity interns, so it was on my radar. A little less than a year after graduation, I was working for the Boston Ballet and looking to transition to full-time teaching/performing. I found the job posting on Hire Culture, and when I saw it, I said, “I’m doing this.” 

Me: Were you happy with your choice? 

Leilani: It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I was actually making better money. I was also working more hours, but those hours were more valuable, both to me and to the people with whom I was working. It gave me the freedom to supplement teaching with rehearsals and performance, which meant I was a happier and more energetic person when I was teaching. 

Me: What classes do you teach for Urbanity?

Leilani: At the moment I’m teaching two community programs at Fenway High School and at the Boys and Girls’ Club in South Boston. I also teach at Urbanity’s Dance School. 

Me: What are the biggest challenges of teaching in Boston’s Public Schools?

Leilani: Space. Sometimes we’re stacking desks in the classroom, other times we’re using classrooms on basement-level floors that have a hard surface. The schools or communities where we work sometimes don’t take us seriously–for example, teachers assume they can pull kids out for special meetings or testing because it’s “just” dance class. That can be really hard, and it’s often unintentional. It’s really disheartening to know that to some of them, it’s second tier. It demonstrates how much pressure is put on these teachers regarding their students’ performance on standardized tests. There’s no standardized test for tendues. Not to mention there are a lot of stereotypes about dance–it’s girly, it’s stuffy, it’s only for tall, skinny people–that prevent kids from opening up to it. Boys usually resist hard at first, which shows the internalized biases of masculinity and the male gender expression. What they don’t realize is there’s no gender to a pirouette. And a lot of the time they start to have fun until they remember they’re not supposed to.

Me: How do you address this resistance?

Leilani: When I’m introducing  a dance, I make the example materials as diverse as possible. I want the kids to see people of different ages, abilities, races, genders, and body types enjoying dance. And then I start a conversation with them: why do you think ballet is girly? Ok, well I’m not going to make you wear a tutu…Dancer tights are actually made of the same material as the leggings that football players wear…No,  you don’t have to wear pink. Or, What do you think of when you visualize contemporary dance? Ok, well it’s not always about grabbing your heart and rolling around on the floor to a Vanessa Carlton song; it’s about finding an expressive and poignant way to translate your emotional journey into a physical one. 

Me: Does that work?

Leilani: Usually if I can get them to try the movement, they end up having a great time. One of my biggest successes was last year–every single boy in my class liked ballet. They had been really resistant going in, but by the end of the year they all said they wanted to take more ballet and contemporary classes. 

Me: How else do you see Urbanity’s programs making a difference in these kids’ lives? 

Leilani: Last year, I taught a student who had a lot of difficulty staying on track academically. He was dealing with a lot of suspensions and was in danger of getting a criminal record. He was put into my class as a last resort because he had been rejected from all of the other electives. He decided that he might as well try it, and he was great in class. He said he liked me because I didn’t yell at him all the time, but he also couldn’t get away with much. He naturally had a good sense of rhythm and body control. When we did our end-of-year reflection, he said: “The person I am in dance class is the person I think I really am. I’m respectful, I have my shit together, I put in effort, and I’m okay with doing ballet, even when other people laugh at me.” I promptly cried.

These kids spend all day long being told: “hands to yourself, stay in your seat, raise your hand, indoor voices, the baby is sleeping, I’m on the phone, I’m watching this.” The time they get to be active and to experience sensory joy is so reduced. So when they come into dance class, they get to do all these delicious and fun action verbs: jump, twist, spin, stomp, reach, turn, bend. 

Me: Boston has some of the lowest government funding for arts programs in the country. But other than simply more funding, how can schools and local governments help make your job easier?

Leilani: By simply treating the arts as something deserving of respect and focus, the same way other subjects are treated. If a kid isn’t great at playing the trumpet or painting, they’re told, “It’s okay, there’ll be something else for you,” whereas kids who aren’t great at math or science but are phenomenal at trumpet or painting are told to work harder at academics. We have to integrate the arts into our learning more–it’s essential to human history; it’s shifted how we sell things, how we buy things, our view of Capitalism. You rarely learn in school that Paul Revere and other founding fathers were silver smiths. It’s a sentence in a lengthy paragraph in an addendum somewhere in the back of the textbook. We have to give kids who make art the same resources as athletes so that during tech week, the lead in the play is given the same respect as a football quarterback in the lead-up to the big game. 

Me: In your opinion, what’s behind this disrespect for artistic subjects?

Leilani: It’s almost impossible to create a standardized test around them. Art is innately un-quantifiable. Yes, there are elements of science and math in it, but it is not measurable empirically, and it’s not always understood. If you can’t test for it, it’s easily cut. Whether it’s a B, or 92%, or 4.0, it’s easier to evaluate whether a student is academically successful than artistically fulfilled. And we as a society put more emphasis on success than joy. When you meet someone, you ask them, “What’s your name? What do you do?” instead of asking, “Who are you? What do you love?”Art helps us answer the latter questions, but if you were to ask that of someone, most people would be at a loss for an answer. And that’s really heartbreaking. 

Me: How would you convince a given audience of the value of arts education? 

Leilani: When we study great civilizations, we measure them in terms of their artists, their writers, their architects. Shakespeare, Picasso, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Michelangelo–we invoke these names as markers of genius. The most telling information we have about our human ancestors is the red paint they smeared on cave walls as they celebrated their discovery of fire. Even today, with our greatest scientific advancements come our greatest artistic expressions; and if you want to continue advancing scientifically, you have to keep advancing artistically.

Me: You do site-specific work with the Kat Nasti Dance Company. What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever danced?

Leilani: It wasn’t weird as much as it was unexpected for the audience. I was in the front lobby of the dance complex, standing on a round table covered by a tablecloth and Christmas lights. I was wearing an apron, a nude tank top, Victory Rolls, and bright red lipstick. I had a bowl of flour that I was beating with an electric mixer–clouds of flour were going everywhere. And as all of this was happening, I recited an original monologue comparing my grandmother’s recipe for chocolate cake with the ingredients it takes to make a Leilani. The audience didn’t expect to be confronted with all that as soon as they entered the building.

Me: What do you think the audience got out of that performance?

Leilani: It was one of several pieces that evening. I was interested in asking: at what point do these ingredients become a chocolate cake? At what point do the traits that comprise me make me Leilani?  By asking these questions, the audience members project these dilemmas onto themselves, and hopefully by doing that they gain some insight. Kat enjoys exploring the complexities of identity–how it shapes our interactions with the world and our own self-image. She works with a very diverse group of individuals, and so there are always new topics to explore. 

Me: Is she hiring?

Leilani: No, not at the moment. 

Me: What advice do you have for other people who love making art but are afraid to pursue it full-time, or even at all?

Leilani: You only have one shot. And if you don’t take advantage of it, you’re throwing it away. Yes, it’s difficult to make ends meet. Yes, you need to pay off your debts and be responsible. But if you lie to yourself about who you are and what you love, you create a debt within yourself that you can’t repay. People move, people die, people leave you; the only person who’s with you from conception to death is you yourself. If you don’t work hard at befriending and fulfilling that person, then your best friend in the world is going to be mad at you. And that’s impossible to live with. A certain playwright knew this very well. He wrote: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.” 




Reinventing Bach with Ryan Turner

*by Erica FurgiueleIMG_20160229_135543

Last week, I sat down with Ryan Turner, the Artistic Director of Emmanuel Music, to get his insights on Bach, Boston, and what real Bluegrass is, in anticipation of our collaboration, Bach Reinvented, at Emmanuel Church, on April 9th, 7:30 pm.

Get tickets here.

Me: How did Urbanity and Emmanuel come to collaborate on this work?

Ryan: We found each other because of [the Urbanity show] Far Cry. A number of people at Emmanuel had seen Urbanity perform, even our board president. And then I found out that Betsi was a student at Boston College when I was teaching there. I sought her out, we met, we talked…

Me: How do you think dance enriches these particular pieces?

Ryan: Well, it’s Baroque music, so it’s all based on Baroque dance forms. You look at the first two bars of the music and ask, “Why aren’t we dancing?” I knew most ballet choreographers would shy away from the Weill Seven Deadly Sins because it had Balanchine all over it. So I thought, why not do it with modern dance? Telling this story through dance only enhances the audience’s experience and makes it even more multi-dimensional. I didn’t want our audience looking at a translation in their program the whole time. A singer tells a story with her own words, color, with her own expression and body, and then next to it you have another layer of a dancer. In singing–you are the instrument. In dancing–you are the instrument. That crossover between these two art forms is what makes this collaboration so significant.

Me: I know you looked at several venues for this performance before you settled on Emmanuel.

Ryan: That’s true. We were looking at Jordan Hall, Sanders Theater, the Strand…Emmanuel was actually our last resort effort to make this happen, but Betsi walked in and was like, “Yes.” And I said, “Are you crazy? Can we make this work?” She lit up. She said, “This is magical.” She immediately saw the space from every angle and saw every ounce of its potential. And that’s when I said, “Ok, I’m clearly with the right group.”

Me: The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan is the story of two Greek Gods in a competition for musical dominance. Do you have a preference for one singer’s style over the other?

Ryan: Let me put it this way. Bach never wrote opera. In relation to vocal music, he was a secular church musician. He didn’t travel and have this exposure to what else was happening in Europe or even the rest of Germany. The amazing thing is that as isolated and provincial as he was, his music was more forward-looking and cutting-edge than anyone else’s. You take away the text and you know what’s happening in the music. It’s all there. The textures in Phoebus’s aria are layered and nuanced, like a tapestry. On the contrary, you couldn’t a simpler musical pattern than Pan’s music. But whether I prefer one over the other?…

Me: Do you believe Bach’s platitude that those who are ignorant should not judge art?

Ryan: No, I don’t. Enjoying music is an emotional response. You can’t judge emotions.

Me: Where are the battles between high art and low art being fought in today’s world?

Ryan: Well, you could make a list and go genre by genre. For example, John Harbison wrote The Great Gatsby. There’s an incredibly erudite, brilliant composer. Compare that to Little Women by Mark Adamos. For me, Gatsby is a far more complex and nuanced piece than Adamos’s. But they both tell the story. You could look at what’s happening with modern music in the Catholic Church today versus what’s happening in the Anglican Church. They couldn’t be further apart. Or, in Bluegrass, Nickel Creek versus a traditionalist like Ricky Scaggs.

Me: Or 2006 Taylor Swift versus 2016 Taylor Swift.

Ryan: Right.

Me: What has been the most challenging part of preparing these pieces?

Ryan: It’s the challenge but it’s also the anticipation of the unknown. This is completely unknown territory for Emmanuel. Betsi and I have never worked together. There’s the challenge of the acoustical logistics of our space and how they are at odds or in sync with our artistic vision. There’s the excitement that our audiences couldn’t be more different. For example, in our initial sing through, the dancers were clapping before the piece was over. That was so refreshing. Classical music comes with a lot of rules and etiquette. But I would much rather wait for the audience to finish clapping at the end of an aria if it means they’re having a true, visceral reaction to what they’re hearing. That’s the exciting part.

Me: Do you think this coming-together of our audiences will carry over into future events for both Emmanuel and Urbanity?

Ryan: It’s hard to say. I think it’s great if we get our audience to see people dancing. If there’s carryover, we’d love it. But that’s not the goal. It’s a byproduct.

Ryan Turner joined Emmanuel Music in 1997 as a tenor soloist and chorus member, making his debut as a guest conductor in 2006. Since his appointment as Artistic Director, Mr. Turner has programmed and conducted over one hundred fifty Bach cantatas, the Bach St John Passion, B Minor Mass and Christmas Oratorio, and major works and operas by Stravinsky, Mozart, Handel, and John Harbison. A champion of new music, Ryan Turner has programmed and premiered the works of composers John Harbison, James Primosch, Brett Johnson, and Ben Hogue.