In memory of Matt “Guitar” Murphy, born in 1929 in Sunflower, Mississippi, dead at age 88. If you know him only from his great work with the Blues Brothers, you don’t know enough of him. May he rest in peace.
Last Saturday I sat down in an auditorium here in town to watch my daughter dance in her last recital of the season. The show was called “Back on Broadway” and all the music for the dance numbers (except the solo dances) was drawn from Broadway musicals. There are four dance companies in the studio where my daughter dances and each did several numbers over the course of the three-act show. There were tap dances, jazz dances, impressionistic lyrical dances, ballet influenced dances, and each fit nicely with music choices.
One thing you realize when you watch a long dance showcase (or a Broadway musical for that matter) is how challenging it is to be a creative choreographer. It’s difficult not to fall into designing multiple variations of the same steps, movements, and accents over the course of numerous dances, but that was largely avoided in this show. A couple of times during the numbers in which more than one company was involved, the number of dancers on stage risked becoming a detriment to the clarity of the choreography, but most of the time that challenge was managed smoothly.
The challenge of dance is to hit a perfect blend of choreography, music, and movement that allows an emotion to be conveyed. For this to happen, however, the music has to be good, the choreography has to be good, and most of all it has to be danced gracefully or at least effectively. Graceful movement in dance is the equivalent of lyrical playing of an instrument, or, in painting, the surety of brush stroke and line. Moving gracefully is like speaking eloquently: it’s something not often done these days and you don’t realize what it entails until you experience it. And while not everyone can do it, many of these dancers could. The costumes, which are always part of the visual impact of dance, were very nicely done and the lighting was simply the best I’ve seen in any production of this sort in town. In two of the dances, the studio’s two main instructors joined in to good effect. Most of the dancers did a good job with the often-tricky task of holding the final pose until the lights went completely black. Overall, a recital like this is one of the best ways to see what really makes dancing an art form, and what separates it from other actions of motion like gymnastics and cheerleading and whatnot—things that are often associated with or even equated to dance.
One happy side effect of this particular show was to be reminded that the Broadway musical is one of the most distinctive art forms to emerge in America, probably second only to jazz. One can trace a lineage of influences all the way back from the musicals of today (Hamilton, The Book of Mormon), to those of the “Golden Age” of Broadway musicals in the 1940s and 50’s (Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, The Music Man,The King and I, South Pacific, West Side Story, and on and on), back from there to the “light opera” of Gilbert and Sullivan, and then finally find it rooted in the full scale productions of what we usually think of as opera. Like classic opera, Broadway musicals are a complex amalgam of music, lyrics, dance, scenery, story—most of the art forms together in one package. All the pieces have to fit together to have a hit. A fair amount of the music one heard at this recital came from musicals whose position is secure in the cultural landscape and when one of those came along in the program, it was like a wave of energy swept the auditorium. “America,” from West Side Story, was a high point of the show.
So bravo to the Expressions Dance Company, which is not only doing an exemplary job of teaching dance, but also exposing new generations of young people to traditions of art that are well worth knowing, experiencing, and most of all, participating in.
Today is the 74th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of northern France during WWII. I spoke about it on News/Talk 710KNUS Denver this morning with host Peter Boyles, and it will surely come up later this morning when I talk to a Lifelong Learning Group down at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
It’s a day that should be remembered with gratitude & humility.
What was for years my weekly newspaper column is now going to be a weekly feature of about 3 minutes or so on KWBU-FM, Waco’s public radio station, airing on Monday mornings and Monday afternoons. Here is the first show, entitled “Changes.”
Jane Chu, the current chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is stepping down next week at the end of her first term. She was appointed in 2014 by President Barack Obama after his first Endowment chair, Rocco Landesman, abruptly resigned at the end of 2012, eight months before his term expired. But then for well over a year, Obama declined to name a successor, leaving the agency to function under an interim head and disappointing those who’d expected the President to pay closer attention to programs like the Endowment.
Now, however, one is tempted to say that the wait was worth it, because Chu proved to be a very good leader for an agency that often feels it has a target on its back. She came to the Endowment from being President and CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, then one of the newest such facilities in the country, and home to the city’s symphony, ballet company, and opera company. Her personal background is even more deeply rooted in the arts, particularly music. She has undergraduate degrees in music education and piano performance, along with graduate degrees in piano pedagogy. (She also has an MBA and a doctorate in philanthropic management.)
I thought that her experience running the Kauffman Center, and, even more, her deep interest in music in would serve her well, and it did. In listening to her talk about the NEA one always had the sense that this was an agency whose mission she took personally. Some previous Endowment heads had been in the art world before—Landesman and earlier, Roger Stevens had been successful Broadway producers, Dana Gioia a celebrated poet, Jane Alexander an actress, and Bill Ivey the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum—but such experience was no guarantee of smooth sailing. Jane Alexander had trouble moving the Endowment forward after the culture wars of the early 1990s in which it had been embroiled, and Landesman’s status as an insider in the theater world was more than offset by his tenure being strewn with controversy ranging from his disparaging remarks toward small and mid-level arts organizations to his determination to slash Endowment programs that enjoyed deep support in Congress.
In the four years she’s been at the helm, Chu has made no such missteps as she’s travelled all over the country to see NEA dollars in action and appeared before Congress as the face of the Endowment. I recently learned that not only is she an accomplished pianist, she’s also a very good visual artist and after every community visit, she made sketches of people and places that in her eye made them memorable.
The past two years have been particularly difficult as President Trump has made no secret of his desire to do away with the agency. His antagonism probably played into the decision by William Adams, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to announce his retirement a year ago just as the President released his budget zeroing out both endowments. I think some people suspected Chu would follow Adams out the door in protest—some even hoped that she would to make a point—but I was particularly relieved when she remained at the helm, providing a needed measure of stability to the embattled agency in a tough time. (In a rebuke to the president a short time later, Congress not only declined to cut the NEA’s budget, it boosted it.)
Chu also oversaw the creation of new programs designed to make the arts more accessible to more people throughout the country. Others, like the new “NEA Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge for High School Students,” about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, seek to nurture artistic creativity in young people. “We didn’t create these activities just to check something off of our list,” she explained just a few days ago. “We launched and expanded programs to create heartfelt meaning in the lives of others through the arts.”
“The National Endowment for the Arts is doing effective and meaningful work to help the arts thrive and connect to individuals and in communities large and small,” Chu said when she announced her plans to retire. Let’s hope that whomever the President nominates to take her place has a similarly serious view of the Endowment’s potential.