I Wanna Hear You Be Brave: Mass Appeal’s Winter 2014 Concert


…we love singing all of our songs. It is often difficult to choose which songs we are not going to sing at a performance!”

Moments before the show began, the audience was buzzing. Mass Appeal, a Boston-based a cappella group, was about to kick off their first concert of the new year on January 12th in the mezzanine of The Armory. A faint pink light near the stage and the glow of fairy lights over the performance hall created a warm ambiance. Family members and friends conversed and mingled. All seats were filled, making it necessary for a handful of audience members to stand at the back of the room, a few steps away from the bar.

The Center for Arts at the Armory is a familiar setting for the women of Mass Appeal. Managing Director of the a cappella group, Jessica Roche said, “We love performing at The Armory because it is a center of community activity […] Each performance space at The Armory has character and a cozy atmosphere, so it is a comfortable and fun place for us to perform, and for our audience members to enjoy the show.” This concert was special for Mass Appeal because, “at this concert we debuted two new songs: Brave by Sara Bareilles, which was arranged by Tessie Snow and a medley of Macklemore songs arranged by Michelle Erickson. It was also the first major concert for our two new members and the first major concert back for a founding member who was on a yearlong sabbatical.”

The show began with an energetic performance of “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift, followed by mellow songs such as “The Chain” by Ingrid Michaelson and “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James. Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” introduced well-timed synchronized choreography and finger snaps. The first set ended with Sara Bareilles’ Grammy nominated anthem for self-expression and independence, “Brave.” As the women of Mass Appeal sang, “I wanna see you be brave,” the audience cheered.

After a ten-minute intermission, Mass Appeal kicked off their second set with Glee’s version of “Shake It Off” by Florence and the Machine. Maroon 5’s “Never Gonna Leave This Bed” roused emphatic encouragement from the audience. The most notable crowd-pleasers were “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, and a Macklemore Medley, which was a new addition to Mass Appeal’s repertoire. A playful change of Macklemore’s risqué lyrics to “wicked awesome” and “wicked cool harmony” was appropriate for ears of all ages and had the audience giggling.

Of their most popular songs at performances, Roche stated, “We have seen a very strong correlation between the songs we most enjoy performing and the audience’s reaction. “All I Could Do Was Cry” has always been a popular number for us, due to Michelle’s flawless vocals and Niki’s fantastic arrangement. Lydia Scheidler’s arrangement of “Hold On” is simply fun to sing as is the Macklemore Medley and Lydia and Michelle’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.” In general, though, we love singing all of our songs. It is often difficult to choose which songs we are not going to sing at a performance!”

Most of the women of Mass Appeal were members of a cappella groups in college. Unable to shake off the singing bug, they joined Mass Appeal to continue singing creatively arranged songs that range from Top 40 favorites to jazzy classics. It is, however, more than an opportunity to express their love for singing a cappella. The group performs at “nursing and retirement homes, schools,the Stepping Stone Foundation, farmer’s markets, and at some of the members’ work events” in an effort to be involved and give back to their community. Roche wrote, “Our group was created with the intention to be able to sing to a wide range of audiences and be able to offer music to people in any part of the community – hence our name ‘Mass Appeal’ – so we are always looking to reach new audiences who will enjoy our music!” Congratulations to Mass Appeal on a great start to 2014.

For tour dates and info, check out Mass Appeal’s website or look them up on Facebook.

One for All: How Women are Finding the Courage to Travel Alone in 2014

At long last there is a conversation being had involving people who are ‘coming out’ as introverted travelers.

solo female travel - lady at restaurantIt’s the new year and your sights are set on higher goals. You’re ready to begin afresh and discard your old habits, sort your socks into pairs, and find the nearest Boot Camp, Spinning or Cross-Fit class.

I’ll stop right there and fall into step with the rest of you. You’re probably praying that the bad weather doesn’t end so that you don’t have to leave the house.

Some kind relative just bought you a set of fluffy socks and you’re wearing them until such time as you can no longer ignore the sock-apocalypse. You’re convinced that Netflix is getting an uncanny handle on your personality, so you’re throwing in a decoy movie every now and again to keep them off the trail of the critically acclaimed indie chick flicks.

But even if you’re looking to the New Year with trepidation, there are things you can do without leaving the house or even getting out of your chair. Browsing the internet constructively may seem like a contradiction in terms, but if you’ve always wanted to travel the world, some casual research could give you the courage and inspriation to get going.

At the Solo Travel for Women event at Arts at the Armory in Somerville, hosted by Go-Girl Travel Network and presented by Maureen White, the atmosphere was enthusiastic but practical. Girls in the audience contributed anecdotes asolofemaletravelontheroadbout their own experiences as well as handy advice. Collectively, the group put together a neat little ring binder of tips and tricks, and nobody was wearing rose-colored glasses. A lot can go wrong out there on the trail, and the safety section of the talk was appropriately detailed, with lively exchange between Maureen, a seasoned traveler, and the ladies in the audience.

When people confessed to what they’d been longing to do, surprisingly it often boiled down to the freedom NOT to do. Simply sitting on a park bench with a book, placing yourself in a beautiful place and allowing yourself to exist, eating when you’re hungry, going to bed when you’re tired… Traveling with a companion can be fun, but everyone’s rhythms are different and there are times when it might be good for the soul to avoid traveler’s gripe – that infamous tetchiness that can strike in a tedious museum or stressful market with a fellow traveling companion. It’s a cliché, but traveling alone really does help you rediscover the self that’s buried under the layers of dust.

For Maureen, traveling alone was “a skill that I needed to keep practicing and practicing and get my feet wet.” But if being a solo female traveler is ultimately about taking the plunge, there are ways to make that cold water feel a little less harsh. Here are a few tips to keep you safe and help you research the best trips of your life.


  • One obvious piece of gear that most travelers take for granted is the backpack. But, as Maureen points out, the US is one of the only places in the world where backpacks are commonplace. If you want to wear a label that says “tourist,” a backpack will single you out in ways you don’t necessarily want to deal with.
  • If you’re not sure where you’re going, avoid being one of those tourists who stands stock-still in the middle of a public thoroughfare checking out a map. It might be a little bit more discreet to duck into a store to get your bearings.
  • And when you’re in a strange neighborhood, look for the presence of women and children. Local women and children will congregate in spaces that are safe for them. Don’t be shy about asking women which places are safest to go.
  • This may seem like a radical step, but Maureen advises not paying in advance for a hotel, or to pay for one night only. That way if the hotel is somewhere you don’t feel secure you can leave immediately for somewhere safer and lose as little as possible. Other tips for arrival include planning your trip so you don’t arrive in a new place in the middle of the night.
  • Little purchases can come in handy: Maureen mentions a device that stops doors being opened from the outside in case you find yourself in a hotel room with unsecure locks.
  • It goes without saying that you should photocopy your documents and keep them in multiple places. You should also make sure that your loved ones at least have a rough idea of where you are at any given time.
  • Technology can be a savior or a curse. Sometimes it might pay to buy a local phone, rather than carrying around a conspicuous flashy smartphone. On the other hand, you can now download non 3G maps that have GPS, so your phone can be a handy map as well as a communication device.


It’s difficult to know where to start with planning your own trip. Will you be your own tour guide and plot your course down to the last detail? Are you more of an extrovert traveler who prefers to structure a trip through a work exchange or communal arrangement? Or do you prefer to just pick a destination and take a leap of faith?

  • At long last there is a conversation being had involving people who are ‘coming out’ as introverted travelers. A common misconception is that an adventurous person who likes traveling has to be an outgoing extrovert, but traveling solo bucks that assumption. Google “introvert traveler” and you’ll find many voices talking about this topic.
  • Having said that, it’s good to know where to seek out people when you feel like being social, and one clever recommendation from the group was to check out Expat Groups on Facebook or buy Expat newspapers which tell you what events are going on in the city you’re visiting.
  • For safety, solidarity, and tips, Go-Girl network are expanding and have a big network of women in Brazil you can meet for a coffee so you can get a feel for your destination.
  • For some inspirational reading, Maureen recommends The Female Nomad by Rita Goldman Gellman. Then of course there’s an LT favorite: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
  • If you’re planning your own trip in Europe, one audience member recommended checking out Sandemans, who offer free, tip-only tours throughout Europe.
  • Then there are the more official channels like the State Department Travel Advisory. It may be worth it to register with the US Embassy in the country you’re visiting, if you’re traveling somewhere less than safe.
  • It’s also worth pointing out that meeting with other female travelers is one of the most fruitful ways of getting information. Maureen’s experience and guidance made this a productive discussion, but many of the tips were provided by the women in the audience.

Even if it’s just on an internet forum, go to the fount of collective wisdom and seek your guide! Solo travelers may be alone on the trail, but with so many others choosing to do the same, you’ll always be in good company.

Frontwomen: Bellydancing Center-Stage at The Armory

Somerville Cafe Blog learns that nobody puts bellydancing in the corner

bellies dancing

Photo by Brendan Lally

“Bellydancing elevator music” is how Leilah Baila describes the view Americans have of Raqs Sharqui because of its restaurant cabaret associations. But Raqtoberfest, a day long festival of all things bellydance is here to put bellydancing upfront where it belongs. “We want to make people understand that they can count on us” says Leilah, of Urban Nomad. “We’re about putting the art at the forefront” adds Bevin Victoria, her co-founder and director of Urban Nomad, a Tribal Fusion dance company.

It may seem obvious to put the art center-stage, but, as Bevin tells me there still sadly exists “a cultural misunderstanding that is unfortunately precedent in the places where the culture is richest.” Raqs Sharqui’s history blends the educated female poet, the erotic dancer, the sassy street performer, burlesque, ballet and more. But it’s the erotic dancer part that most audiences have

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an Afghani defensive bracelet

focused on since the French colonial era of Orientalism, leaving little room for the dancers to own their art. Dancers in Egypt have to apply for a license and clearance from the morals committee to perform. They are appreciated as wedding performers and at clubs, but are expected to be seductive and are often in demand for their looks rather than their skill. Nevermind that bellydancing is a skillful dance that teaches precise muscular control, using the the torso in fluid ways unlike Western dances with their focus on lines in space. And that the Tribal Fusion dancers also practice the art of intricate – even intimidating – adornment.

This adornment lands right in the middle of the conversation when Sasha Khetarpal-Vasser sweeps in wearing a 1920s style Orientalist costume of veil, crimped blonde wave and heavy kohl make up, carrying a giant ziploc bag of silver swag. Sasha, like many American bellydancers, has collected the jewelry from antique shops. I note that some of this spiky stuff could do double duty as weaponry. “Oh that’s an Afghani defensive bracelet” Sasha explains. Bevin laughs; “I wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere else wearing that amount of jewelry because I would do damage!”

For many Tribal Fusion dancers, items of jewelry are objects with spiritual significance. They signify a link between their dance’s archaic tradition and their personal history as dancers. “It’s deep man, deep” jokes Bevin. The “tribal” part of Tribal Fusion bellydance partly refers to the dance’s inspiration, the Ghawazi dancers, from a nomadic tribe within Egypt. Jewelry was significant for these bellydancers, representing a link with ancestors and tradition. To be part of a tribe is to declare solidarity on the fringe, and bellydancing at times has needed all the help it can get in this beaded, bedecked, bohemian fringe.

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Sasha and Bevin before the show

The modern, American tribe – American Tribal Style bellydance – came into existence on the West Coast in the 70s. It was born out of a dance revolution (which I was excited to learn could happen outside movies) when bellydancers, tired of being restricted to the role of erotic dancer, refused to show their bodies, covering up their legs, returning to their older traditions and exchanging sequins for coins.

It wasn’t easy: if a breakaway faction of adult dancers insisted on performing their dance on their own terms (and why not?), how would these girls gain respect as artists? How would they survive outside the straitjacket of their sexualized economy? Art doesn’t need approval to exist, but approval draws some practical benefits like respect and earning potential. It can be difficult enough for a regular artist to make the uneconomic choice to be true to their vision, without all the baggage associated with taking a misunderstood art-form out of the ghetto of sexual exploitation.

One thing is for sure: the dancers wear their baggage with style. Baggage, in a way, is part of their style. All their history – even the sexy, campy Orientalism of the 1920s – is still in the dress-up box to be rifled through. An admired, independent figure in the movement, Rachel Brice, channels the Theda Bara vampishness of the 1920s. Wear as much as you can carry seems to be the only rule. After my very serious talk with Bevin and Leilah, I was treated to a show that was part dance revue, part buddy dance story, part cabaret. The audience clapped, stamped and hissed. I learned that to be a spectator at a bellydancing show, you have to join the movement. Which, I can guarantee you, is worth it. If you can’t dance it’s still a revolution. And it’s a lot of fun.

Every Fourth Sunday there’s a chance to catch up with Tribal bellydancing at Cafe Raqs, the Armory’s monthly dance Revue.

Your Pound of Flesh: A Guide to Zombie Make-Up


Matt Martino, the producer of Chainsaw Maidens from Hell, will help you get ready for the Zombie Apocalypse

The Zombie undead are the overachievers of the Hallowe’en world. More than vampires and witches, sexy cats and bunnies, the undead have gone to great lengths to transform themselves beyond all recognition, peeling off features and piling on the bruises and layers of decay and trauma. There’s no doubletake involved in the zombie effect, no Eureka moment when you ‘get’ some clever visual pun, no shake of the head when you realize that’s yet another Miley Cyrus costume.

Zombies are the anti-hipsters of the Halloween world: they are not trying to express their quirky uniqueness – they are going incognito as agents of destruction. But how do you create destruction? Turning yourself into an undead monster would seem to call for advanced stage make-up skills. But Matt Martino, one half of the team behind Chainsaw Maidens from Hell, a low-budget experiment in 3D horror film-making, is here to show you how that it can be done easily and cheaply. On a TV show like The Walking Dead, a contingent of trained make-up artists churns out zombies on an industrial scale. But even on a successful AMC show, many of the ingredients used in making gruesome undead-flesh can be found in a CVS or a supermarket. Matt Martino’s tutorial will help you to use some of these everyday ingredients to make realistic blood that you can actually eat (if you so wish).

Matt has produced stage-plays, short films and also works as a stunt and fight co-ordinator on movie sets, so he is well placed to give advice about the right techniques for creating realistic-looking cuts and bruises. The Zombie Maker tutorial is billed as an “intro to horror make-up”, so it could be a prep-class just in time for Hallowe’en (the class takes place at the Armory on the 26th of October), or it could be a useful skill for budding stage or film directors. Either way, when the Zombies come, you will be prepared – to join them. See Arts at the Armory for details on how to get tickets.

Luminarium’s “Secrets in Motion”

“Three can keep a secret if two of them are are dead.”



“I don’t know. I’m afraid that they might kill me. Always” – the words buckled as Kimberleigh Holman projected them across the body of her dancer, emerging from the shadows, scratching unintelligible designs on the ground. The dancer’s compulsive need to write and her fear of something unknown – maybe her own secret – reminded us that secrets feed on open communication. If a secret is a form of possession, then the hoarding of information cannot exist without the willingness to share.

That was “Neck-Deep (and then some)”, one of the more jarring pieces on the program at Luminarium’s fall show “Secrets in Motion.” Merli Guerra’s “The One I Keep” was lighter but also very relevant in today’s world of oversharing and surveillance. And Merli wanted to make sure she had a personal stake in a piece about how we choose what we share. To visually represent this she blasted her dancer, Jess Chang, with words on paper, like swarms of tiny fighter jets.


Jess Chang performing “The One I Keep”

She could have used recycled paper, but instead she opted to mix a double-bluff punch of material stripped from her public blog combined with some very private personal revelations.

This video installation, the last piece on the program, ended with a strange twist that was also a very deliberate statement: The words, “I wasn’t asleep” were all that the audience saw of Merli’s secret as the piece of paper seemed to stick to Jess by chance before she popped it into her mouth and ate it. Merli and Kim felt a little awkward about making their poor dancer unpleasantly chew and swallow the piece of paper. But it was the most efficient way to get rid of that one secret that Merli never told. And you get the impression that Luminarium’s dancers are troopers who expect to be assigned strange missions every now and again. It’s part of the fun of working with a dance company who push the boundaries between dance and other art-forms.

As artists working within several disciplines themselves, Luminarium often collaborate with other creative types. This time Hannah Verlin’s “Veil” – a single sheet of translucent latex – was suspended from the ceiling of the Armory, inscribed with the words from the 1785 diary of Martha Ballard, a healer and midwife. There was also an exhibition of the work of Larry Pratt, a fine-art photographer who shot Luminarium’s dancers during production. But the biggest collaboration of the show was with the public, who submitted their secrets through Luminarium’s website.

Kim outdid Prism, mining reams of volunteer’s secrets for the purely benevolent purposes of gaining inspiration, and using the secrets to project anonymous fragments. For Merli, the project began earlier this year when she became fascinated with the Japanese O-bon festival and the ritual of floating lanterns containing messages for the souls of the dead. “I had regrets from about ten years’ ago” she said plainly of the ritual’s healing significance for her. The name was born after she discovered that the word “Hush” meant both to silence and to soothe. This summer “Hush” was performed at the Forest Hills Lantern Festival. At the Armory pairs of dancers inside and outside illuminated boxes seemed to guide each other through the phases of a dreamlike process. In an automatic trance, these groggy pairs helped each other out of their confined or sleeping states. The Chinese lantern theme explained the movements of dancers crouching low, who looked as if they were being borne away from their partners over a body of water.

For the deadly, political side of secrets, “A Secret in Three Phases” was a blackly comic piece that Kim framed with the Benjamin Franklin quote: “Three can keep a secret if two of them are are dead.” It began with what looked like a crime scene and ended in a cut-throat brawl. The three dancers conspired to steal important looking leather-bound notebooks from each other and the secret within these notebooks was as divisive as money. All three dancers flopped down at the end of the piece, like children worn out from playing. The secret had claimed three causalities but still no one knew what it was. Even the production team were in the dark – Kim never told – and Ariane in the box office became so obsessed with the mystery of the secret, that she wrote a short story about what it might be.

There were tormenting secrets, there were divisive secrets, there were healing secrets, but there were also sad secrets. Kim choreographed the duet “For You, I” for Merli and Melanie Diarbekirian, to make use of the dancers’ similar movements. Merli and Melanie are old friends who grew up dancing together, so the piece is a debate between two people who mirror each other’s movements and yet seem unable to reveal something important to each other.

During the process of making of “The One I Keep”, Merli found that words from sentences she didn’t recognize leaped out at her. She saw them for the first time, isolated from the thoughts she’d shared on her blog, and knew for sure that they were really ‘out there’- visible and defenseless.

And then one of those accidents happened in the creative process that some people call “just a coincidence.” But there are some coincidences that fit.

This particular revelation demanded little and gave just one instruction. A piece of paper accidentally stuck by Jess Chang’s eye. The piece of paper gave its 2 cents: “Look Up”, it said.

For More on the process behind making “The One I Keep”, read Merli’s blog. For past and future events, check out Luminarium Dance.

Labor of Love: the Perks of Prenatal Yoga

Yoga outdoors, with Emily Masnoon

Yoga outdoors, with Emily Masnoon

“He’s such a calm baby… even the nurses were commenting on it.”

“I’ve always had this fascination with pregnancy” says Emily Masnoon, in the reflective tone of a woman trying to remember a time when her passion wasn’t her job. From Pre-Med (en route to Ob/Gyn), to a Psych degree, to Yoga Teacher Training when she added Prenatal work to her examined subjects, her interest in pregnancy has been a theme that has dipped out of sight but always woven itself through her career.

Prenatal classes beckon all kinds of women for different reasons, and Emily Masnoon speaks with laid-back familiarity about the groups who attend her classes: absolute beginners and Yoga diehards (pregnant or otherwise), women who simply want to participate in a slower modified class and new mothers. Some women even investigate Prenatal Yoga when they are trying for a baby as a way of “setting the space, setting the attention.”

One of the first things that people might be wondering is when to begin and end a course. Emily suggests that there is no ideal schedule, though there are patterns of attendance: “Some people come halfway through… Some people early on have nausea…so they disappear for a few months.” “People come up to 40/41 weeks.” Though Emily offers packages, her Armory sessions are drop-in classes.

Emily tells me that the number one rule of Prenatal and all Yoga holds sway: listen to your body, and if a pose doesn’t feel right, don’t continue it. There are some practices that she would not personally recommend, such as Hot Yoga, and many Doctors would agree, but there are dissenting voices who say that a year’s Hot Yoga practice before becoming pregnant can prepare the body to continue during pregnancy. Hot Yoga is a risk that some women are prepared to take, but Prenatal Yoga is specifically tailored to pregnancy, and is often recommended by Doctors for women who need some form of exercise during pregnancy.

In general, experienced Yogis can often continue their high-powered practice for as long as they are comfortable – with slight modifications. Sometimes they use Prenatal Yoga tips to scale down their regular classes. They might not be back to Prenatal classes until the later stages of their pregnancy or they might be “the ones doing the extra stuff that they’ll hold for longer, or they might throw in some other things, which is perfectly fine.”

And if you’re wondering whether you will still be still doing Yoga at Prenatal classes, the answer is yes. Prenatal is not some new sect of Yoga with its own rules; usually it is shaped by the style of Yoga that the Teacher offers outside it, which in Emily’s case is a flowing Vinyasa style of Power Yoga. But it is not just a gentle form of Yoga either. Emily shares advice and tips on the process of pregnancy throughout the class.

So how do the mechanics of a Prenatal Yoga class differ from regular Yoga? “We do a lot of grounding poses, poses that are really good for the lower back, and all fours stuff: hands and knees, arms and knees and other types of poses that are not only relieving for the back and for certain ailments that can happen during pregnancy but also really stable and really good for getting the baby into an optimal position”, Emily explains. “Things like squats are super important for the birth.” “We do our twists in a different way so that they’re not closed twists that are scrunched.” “We still do sun salutations, we just do them in a different way” In addition to the poses, Emily says: “There’s a lot of talking points that I bring to class” Emily also offers doula services outside the classes.

Despite the virtue that is attached to practicing Yoga for its own sake, the question that many women will be secretly asking is what is the payoff for all your effort? “You never know because of so many factors” says Emily “but it definitely has an effect on how the labor can go, the temperament of the baby maybe even… One woman said: you know I can tell, he’s such a calm baby… even the nurses were commenting on it.”

Giving birth to a contented little Buddha might seem like the best karma an expecting mother could ask for. But the women who have emailed to thank Emily after their births have found benefits in different ways. And the benefits have filtered down into her other classes where Emily finds that “it’s nice to have a more restful version of something that people haven’t really seen before.”

Men are not admitted to Emily’s Prenatal Yoga classes, to promote an atmosphere of safety and security for women who might feel uncomfortable sharing issues of their pregnancy in front of them. But the good news for expecting partners is that Emily will soon be offering Partner Prenatal Yoga. Emily also offers postnatal classes on Friday at the Armory at 2pm.

Even if you hate the adjective ‘blooming’ and are of the opinion that nine months of pregnancy is one of nature’s chores to be got through, nine months is at least long enough to try something new. Prenatal Yoga could be that thing, whether you’re an absolute beginner or a Yogi who has seen it all.

For more information on Emily’s Class Pre and Postnatal Class Schedule, check out her website.

Making the Simple Tweet go Further

It’s time to stage your social media takeover – in a natural, radiant manner that reflects your true self…

Photo by Mattias Ӧstmar

Photo by Mattias Ӧstmar

The last time Matt Martino was at the Armory, he taught us how to fight for film. This week he’s back to give us some inside tips on social networking. Matt should know, as he has accumulated 76, 000 followers on his fan page, and a handy couple of thousand fans and Twitter followers for his next movie – without expending too much effort.
Unlike film violence (which is definitely fake, for safety’s sake), on Social Media we are advised to “be real”, “just be yourself”, and let the chips fall where they may. But in this world of microtasks where each point of contact is a capillary that keeps a business’s lifeblood flowing, how long should you spend on a single tweet or a Facebook post? And what’s the best time of day to tweet? Does it have to be a dawn chorus?
Most of us never really make a decision about these small, yet vital tasks, and so we stumble on ineffectively when we should be stepping up our military takeover of the internet (in an entirely natural, radiant manner that reflects our true selves of course).
Matt’s two classes at The Armory this week cover the long and short of social networking. The first class deals with the short: how to grow your followers on Twitter and Facebook. The second class deals with the longer form of blogging. One of Matt’s teasers is “how to unlearn what you learned in school.” This is a common problem – throughout their career, bloggers must unlearn how to unravel the urge to write an essay. Blogging is all about the gentle art of persuasion – in a way that gets attention.
Classes are 25 dollars each, and for more information, see the Armory website and get in touch with Matt about getting both classes for 40 dollars. Learn how to unlearn what you already know and upcycle the simple tweet @The Armory.

More Cowbell: Acrocats, The Musical

I’ve got a feline… that tonight’s gonna be a good night

Oz on guitar

Oz on guitar

Cats, cats and more cats! was all I could think as I walked into the Armory on a rainy Thursday evening. I expected “Acrocats” to be close to empty – I didn’t think people would want to leave their homes in the down-pouring rain to watch cats jump through hoops. Boy, was I wrong. Not only was the event standing room only, people were packed into the mezzanine, leaving little room for me to get anywhere near the cats. As I managed to sneak closer to the stage, a thought occurred to me. What was it with people and cats?

From experience, I know cats have a certain magical, enigmatic quality about them. They are finicky, snobby and extremely temperamental. One day they like belly rubs, the next day they don’t. One day they won’t leave your lap, the next day they won’t come near you.

Dakota on Drums

Dakota on Drums

Such is the life of a cat. But people still can’t seem to get enough. And after watching these circus cats, I think I have an even better understanding of why that is.

Samantha Martin, head trainer and founder of “The Amazing Acro-Cats” has dedicated her life to animals. She has an associate’s degree in animal husbandry and services, internships with the Brookfield Zoo and is a leading advocate of clicker training techniques. She has worked with a multitude of media outlets as an animal handler, including Wal-Mart, PetCo and Pet Smart and has devoted her life to educating the public about feline behavior. And she’s charming. Samantha keeps the show moving with witty, sometimes self-deprecating comments, aimed at the adults in the crowd. Her costume, complete with cats ears, is a draw for the kids.
While the show itself was fairly predictable, a bunch of cats doing moderate tricks, there was a few show-stopping moments. The first came with the introduction of another performing animal, a chicken, named Gregory Peck. Gregory Peck was released from his cage and asked to participate in a bowling tournament with Tuna, the star of the “Amazing Acro-Cats.” Gregory Peck did very well, knocking down all but one pin. As Tuna was released from her cage, I couldn’t help but get a little nervous about Tuna’s feelings toward Gregory Peck. Was she going to think of him as a dinner option? I was hoping not. Turns out, Tuna is great friends with all her fellow cast mates so they got along just fine. Tuna bowled a strike and won the contest!

Gregory Peck the chicken

Gregory Peck the chicken

The grand finale came with the introduction of all the band members. Yes, there was a band. It was called “The Rock-Cats.” Each cat had a role: one played the drums, one played guitar, one played the chimes, one played the synthesizer and one played…..cowbell. As the audience left the Armory, I couldn’t help but think I would have loved to see a few less tricks and a lot more cowbell.

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Keeping it Reel, Not Real

“Stunt-men are not adrenalin junkies, they are safety Nazis”

Photo by Michael Wheet

Photo by Michael Wheet

“So what are you, the fighting Irish?” my opponent taunts. My fist shoots out, but connects only with air. The more personal and wacky my opponent’s insults get – “so what are you gonna write a blog post about this?” – the more I am supposed to grit my teeth, keep a straight face and aim for the place by his ear. Stage fighting is artificial. It has to be for safety’s sake.

According to Matt Martino, a recognized Actor Combatant who is teaching this group on “Fighting for Film”, I “punch good”. One of the cardinal rules of stage-fighting is to punch far enough to cover the other actor’s face. If the fist doesn’t cross your ersatz opponent’s face neither the camera nor the audience is fooled. But far more difficult than hitting is not to swivel your body away when the fist is coming towards you. Stage fighters are supposed to whip their heads rather than bodies, in response to a fake punch. In a barfight, my instincts would serve me well. As a pretend-fighter, only one of my instincts helps. As well as acting the punch, I also have to act the hit, which means not swerving out of shot to avoid the fist coming towards me. Controlling the reaction – as always – is much harder than taking the initial action.

Once, Matt Martino told us, he spent a whole day working on the basic stage punch with students. And even though he has been practicing martial arts since he was 9, he doesn’t think that real fighting gives a person an advantage, because stage fighting is a totally different discipline from martial arts.

“It’s easier to take a really good actor and teach them stage fighting then it is to take a martial artist and to teach them acting. Acting and being believable is a lot of hard work. Much of the ethos of real martial arts is rejected in stage combat in order to put safety and believability first. The techniques are designed to miss, to minimize impact and to allow story-telling by the actor” says Martino.

“The goal of stage fighting is to let your partner know exactly what you are doing so he can safely react and perform. There is no winning side in stage combat. Both party members win when the fighting looks real enough and the audience believes they are really fighting.”

Matt tells us how the only female fightmaster recognized by the Society of American Fight Directors (out of 18 others), k. Jenny Jones, got into the business because she suffered hearing loss after a stage-fight went wrong. She became professionally dedicated to combating this kind of mishap, because a stage fight goes wrong when someone loses for real and gets hurt.

Some Actors unions, like Actor’s Equity and SAG, specify that there has to be someone on a film shoot qualified to co-ordinate violence. As stunt co-ordinator on a movie, Matt gets to offer options, but it is he who dictates the choreography of fight scenes. As the safety expert he has the final say on how things are choreographed. He recalls how once a director suggested that it would be OK for an actor to slap an actress for real – but he put his foot down. “Stunt-men are not adrenalin junkies, they are safety Nazis”, he insists.

One of the strangest things about the crossover between stage fighting and real fighting is the law surrounding weapons in a staged fight. In Massachusetts anything that looks like a gun is considered a gun – so bank robbers who fake guns under their sweaters are guilty of committing armed robbery.

This means that on film, there must be a licensed gun handler to oversee gun usage for film, television and theatre events. Even if the firearm is a toy, you may have to go through a process of getting a license, which requires six hours training under a certified teacher and a criminal background check.

“The attitude to the weapon is important” he says, of the use of weapons in movies. Gangsters might keep their fingers on the trigger of their weapon, but police officers would be trained to “keep the gun in register” – to keep the index finger straight on the gun.

It’s a fine point, as action movies can be just as gripping when these details are slightly off. Matt admits that there is a lot of room for maneuver in a scene that only has to have the appearance of reality.

But if even a toy weapon is considered powerful enough by law to extort a reaction out of people, then it seems like a good thing that behind every slick representation of violence there is a “safety nazi” trained to respect the difference between reality and play.

“Can we have a bar brawl later?” asks one of the students at the Fighting for Film Class. Matt puts his foot down. Not because it can’t be done but because we haven’t yet got through lesson one – learning how NOT to fight.

Cosmic Dancers: Luminarium talk Light

“Perhaps someday you will see our company members falling out of the sky in formation with internally-lit parachutes…”

Luminarium quilt Cynthia star

Dancer Jess Chang interpreting “Cynthia Star” by Janet Elwin

“There are no lines in nature”, Eduoard Manet said, “only areas of color.”  This may be true, but as a writer I am sympathetic to lines; they are directional, like nerves in the human body. They keep things neat, and they illustrate the energy and definition of a form. Quilter and Dancer Merli Guerra tested this statement at the coalface, reverse-engineering Manet’s statement in real life by translating two dimensions into three, when she attempted  to “show the movement of a quilt” by representing the quilts’ spectral arrangements using the linear orientation of her dancers’ muscles, nerves and bones. She partnered with the New England Quilt Museum and curator Pam Weeks to project six of the quilts at NEQM’s Silk! exhibition onto her dancers’ bodies for Threading Motion Project, and somehow managed to give the quilts a sinuous life and movement of their own.

Luminarium is now three years old, and Merli and her co-founder Kimberleigh Holman, two young graduates of Holyoke dance school, still playfully push boundaries by blending dance, video and other forms of art in projects that center around light. It was a supermoon solstice the weekend of Luminarium’s Gala and I knew that their previous show Mythos Pathos had mysteriously escaped the power outage that affected many parts of Cambridge. “There might be something in that” said Merli, on the connection between the two. After the show I caught up with Kim and Merli to talk about choreography, breaking a company curse and some cryptic spoilers for a September performance called Secrets and Motion:

Luminarium quilt Gilding_the_Arbor

Luminarium interpreting “Gilding the Arbor” by Bethanne Nemeshand

What’s the reason that you both decided on Luminarium as a name for the company?

At the point of our founding, it became obvious to us that calling our company Holman & Guerra would sound far more like a law firm than a dance company. At that early stage, when we looked at the many mediums through which the two of us work, and considered the overlap between them, we recognized that our company’s underlying mission was to combine dance and light in a more integral way than most dance companies currently do. The hunt then turned to finding a name that would embody that presence of light in our work, and one long thread of emails later, the name “Luminarium” became a favorite among our early collaborators. The second half of the word Luminarium also alludes to a place, like in a locational sense. We like to think of our audience as being this place- we present a venue filled with dance, light, illuminated ideas for viewers to mull over and consider as a part of their audience experience. Over the years, these meanings continue to be a grounding focus of our work, and we’re thrilled to consistently receive glowing feedback (no puns intended) on the name and its relationship to our work!

What forms of dance do you incorporate in your choreography? Is it anything goes or is there some special ingredient that sets Luminarium apart from other companies?

Luminarium quilt Merli

Merli interpreting “Chasm” by Judith Content

“At the point of our founding, it became obvious to us that calling our company Holman & Guerra would sound far more like a law firm than a dance company.”

This is a great question. All previous dance training finds a way into our work at various times, be it intentional or subconscious. Merli has a background in ballet, modern, and Classical Indian Dance (Odissi style). As a result, her work often incorporates extensive use of the hands and face, creating an almost gestural component to the work. Kim merges her background in modern and various styles of jazz dance with a love for being off balance or upside down and the feeling of adrenaline. This combination leads to work that is constantly unravelling through the stage space in a large and ever-shifting way. We also have fantastic dancers with widely varied backgrounds of their own, and we enjoy working to their strengths to highlight Luminarium choreography.

In some of your pieces there is a delightful element of physical comedy, as if you are parodying some of the traditional interactions between male and female dancers – the lifts are done in a really unexpected way, I’m thinking particularly of your pieces It was 4am… or “Everything but Blue” when the lifts seem to have a “ta-da” quality to them. How much of this is intentional, and how much do you find inspiration in comedy and the comic potential of dance itself?

It all depends on the piece. There are many moments in our more serious work in which a difficult lift is accomplished seamlessly so that the audience merely enjoys the bodies in motion. Yet in the world of comedy, an easy lift can suddenly have a hilarious turn when giving our dancers the freedom of exaggeration. In the case of “It was 4am…”, the piece was as fun and comedic to make as it was to perform and watch. In “Everything but Blue’ there is a sort of comedy showcased, but it is borderline unintentional. Kim originally created this work for the stage (it was made into a film soon after), and the piece was intended as an eight minute escape from the confines of everyday life and the typical theatrical viewing experience. Party dresses, ridiculous movement, trippy abstract jazz were paired together with serious intent, the humor was an accepted side effect. No one is immune from taking themselves too seriously, and every now and then it’s nice to create with no mental inhibitions or worries.

What sparked the idea of choreographing dances for the Quilt Museum?

Kim and Merli

Merli V. Guerra and Kimberleigh Holman

Merli actually just wrote a short blog entry for the Quilt Alliance answering this very question. To complement the filmed Quilt Vignettes, Kim decided to present a live piece in the museum space. While Merli was inspired by beautiful individual quilts, Kim found a broad sense of inspiration with similarities in creative process. She set three dancers, a trumpet player and a bassist, original poems and sixty feet of teal silk amidst the quilts in the museum, exploring the phases of preparation, process and product.

You seem to be attempting to bridge a lot of mediums in your shows – between video, sound and light – is there anything totally crazy that you’ve done or want to do that has never been attempted? I know the Andromeda piece (wearable lighting) seems to have been quite an undertaking…

Honestly, while we blend together a variety of mediums, things are typically created fairly organically. We don’t go out of our way to dream up elaborate schemes, as this could get gimmicky quite fast, but if a new piece lends itself to something outrageously beyond the norm we aren’t afraid to pursue it. In this sense, some of our ideas aren’t derived initially from dance. Perhaps we work off of a lighting idea or effect, a technical concept for a film, or a visual, sound or piece of music and then we create choreography that fits. Every piece has its own process and its own elements, and while we can’t predict where the future will take our work, perhaps someday you will see our company members falling out of the sky in formation with internally-lit parachutes… perhaps….!

What is the curse of the Urns Piece and how did Katie break it?

This would probably be too hard to explain in writing. Or, it would sound too ridiculous. We encourage anyone reading this to attend one of our shows and ask us in person… perhaps we will let you in on the tale!

You do a lot of outreach with Luminarium. How do you feel that dance can benefit kids and non-dancers? One of the teachers in a school you worked with mentioned something about the healing power of dance. What is this? How can we avail of it ourselves?

Most people don’t realize dance is more than a final product or a moment on stage. To dance is to express the inner thoughts, feelings and impulses of your body (to perform choreography is, of course, another thing entirely), and everyone should have the opportunity to do this. Dancing can allow you to process events in a nonverbal fashion, lead to self-discovery, and at minimum provide a great physical release. Part of our mission as an organization is to constantly give back to our community, especially to give youth the chance to try dance in a ‘safe’ environment and the opportunity to create movement themselves. Beyond learning how to move in new ways, we strive to let our participants know that the world isn’t so rigid; answers aren’t right or wrong. If you don’t have the opportunity to pop into a dance class or try your hand at a composition class, block off a moment to sit, lay or stand in your living room, close your eyes, and let your body dictate what it wants to do.

I don’t want to give away – ahem – too many spoilers on your upcoming show Secrets and Motion, but can you tell us a little bit about it?

We can divulge a bit! Secrets & Motion is our large fall production: it will consist of several brand new pieces that have been carefully woven together. The show is obviously based on secrets but these are used in many different ways. Without giving away too much, we can say that you might see anything from historical secrets to contemporary secrets (some donated from this very community), written to whispered, or even depictions of how secrets are used as communication or affect those affiliated with them. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll marvel at our intriguing visual elements… you get the point! We are excited for the production’s debut at the Armory, September 13-15. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and various social media profiles, website and blog for more details and opportunities to get intimately involved with the show! For now, check out www.LuminariumDance.org/secrets