Theater & Dance

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Lila'Angelique, left, and S. K. Thoth of Tribal Baroque perform at the Union Chapel on Sunday, August 31.

One of New York City’s most often witnessed and most talked-about performances is coming to the Vineyard this weekend. New York-based street performers S. K. Thoth and Lila’Angelique are known throughout the world for their unique brand of opera, though they tend to operate somewhat under the radar, so it’s only the lucky few who are in the right place at the right time who get to witness their colorful and emotionally charged act.

On Sunday, the two will present their very unique music and dance show Tribal Baroque at the Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for one performance (or “prayformance,” as they refer to their concerts). The show is a Wendy Taucher Dance Opera Theater production.

It’s a bit challenging to describe exactly what Tribal Baroque is. To begin with, there are the costumes. Thoth has a look that’s both androgynous (he tends to wear a skirt or apron/loincloth) and a blend of ethnic elements. His shaved head and facial adornments suggest a Tibetan monk, but he also incorporates a number of other cultures in his look with extreme eye makeup, fur, silver jewelry, and other adornments. His look, like that of his partner and wife Lila’Angelique, changes from performance to performance. Lila is partial to pink and white, and in hair, makeup, and clothing and she favors feathers, flowers, and elaborately bejeweled facial art. While Thoth embodies sort of a savage virility, Lila is pure feminine with more than a touch of the Romantic era of periwigs and frills.

Despite what might be seen as an outlandish look, the husband and wife duo are very serious musicians and vocal technicians. Lila sings in a beautiful coloratura soprano voice. Thoth is an accomplished countertenor and classically trained violinist whose mother played timpani for the New York Philharmonic. Both performers play violin expertly while providing percussion through multiple rows of ankle bells.

The performances are mini operas based on a fable of Thoth’s own imagining. In his days as a solo act, Thoth created a country, language, and mythology around which he based a complex series of song and dance pieces. Lila joined him in 2009, adding another element and a great deal of depth to the story and performance.

“It’s changed everything,” Lila said of their collaboration in a recent Skype interview. Thoth had his own energy — the male. Now it’s very much yin and yang with both of us both feeding off each other. There’s a lot more energy to work with. The performance is more fleshed out.”

The music is unusual for its invented language, but the compositions are classically structured and quite beautiful and very rhythmic. The music incorporates classical sensibilities and elements from a number of ethnicities including gypsy and other folk music and chanting that resembles both the Gregorian and the muezzin call to worship. It’s a fascinating mix that somehow works really well and highlights the two disparate and equally virtuosic vocalists.  Despite the language barrier it’s easy to absorb the themes of yearning, devotion, love, and valor, the basis of any great opera — or myth, for that matter.

In 2002, before Lila and Thoth had joined forces, filmmaker Sarah Kernochan made a documentary about Thoth that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Ms. Kernochan, who has written a number of screenplays and won two Oscars, spends her summers at her home in Edgartown.

Thoth and Ms. Kernochan have maintained a friendship ever since the making of the film. During the Skype interview, Thoth said, “We’re really good friends. We’ve kept in touch over the years and got closer in fact after the film.” Thoth explained that he has some issues around trust and added, “She’s one of my only friends.”

Ms. Kernochan discovered Thoth at his regular haunt, the vaulted Angel Tunnel in New York City’s Central Park. That is still the couple’s preferred street performance space. Tribal Baroque “prayforms” up to five times a week, although they try to do no more in order to give their much strained voices a break.

“We perform all over the world,” said Lila. “We just performed on the Royal Mile [in Edinburgh] for a couple of months. We went to Amsterdam and performed outdoors at the Rijksmuseum.” The couple arrives straight from an extended European tour when they appear here. After this show they will return to New York City.

Although they rarely perform by invitation, the members of Tribal Baroque are often approached during their informal shows and recruited to appear at venues or private parties. Joe Ashcroft and Mollie Whalen of Vineyard Haven chanced upon a performance in San Diego and arranged, through Wendy Taucher, to bring the couple to the Vineyard.

Interestingly, both Thoth and Lila’Angelique have Island connections. He visited the Island with his mother once while his mother was touring with the musical “Showboat.” He recalls having a small part in that show and even remembers his one line. Lila’s mother’s godfather was the late author William Styron, who spent summers here. She hopes to have the chance to meet Styron’s widow Rose, who she last saw when she was a child.

The Tribal Baroque show is sure to prove one of the more unusual events of the summer season. But, surprisingly, the group’s appeal seems to be universal as witnessed by the variety — from hipsters to Park Avenue matrons — among the spectators who tend to stick around enthralled by the duo’s street appearances.

Musicians and music lovers will enjoy the original compositions and virtuosity of the players. Others will appreciate the spectacle as much as the stories and the music.

Thoth and Lila will be on hand at a reception at the A Gallery in Oak Bluffs following the performance.

Tribal Baroque performance, Sunday, August 31, 6 pm, Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. $25; $20 general in advance; $50 front row in advance. Meet the Performers reception follows at A Gallery. For more information and tickets, visit wendytaucherdanceoperatheater.com or call 646-872-7249.

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Aparna Ramaswamy of the Ragamala Dance Company performed at The Yard last weekend. Photo by Sally Cohn

Like a Hindu goddess come to life, Aparna Ramaswamy of the Ragamala Dance Company enchanted a sold-out house at The Yard this past Saturday night. In two weekend performances, the master of Bharatanatyam dance presented four intricate dances each with a different theme — the Divine Feminine, the Ganges River, a love poem, and a celebration of life.

Dressed in traditional costume comprising a sort of sari/pants/pleated skirt combination, with a jeweled headdress, belled ankle cuffs, and eyes made up in an exaggerated cat eye style, Ms. Ramaswamy expertly combined a series of statuesque poses with fluid dance moves and mimed actions. Accompanied by a singer, a chanter, and two musicians (all female), the accomplished dancer utilized every part of her body — from her eyes, head, and neck to her very supple fingers — to achieve a program that was in equal parts a spectacular display of dance and a very moving and spiritual experience.

Ms. Ramaswamy, along with her mother and co-choreographer Ranee, her musical accompanists, and a small troupe of dancers were in residency at The Yard in Chilmark for two weeks before presenting their work Sannidhi (Sacred Space) to the public on Thursday and Saturday nights.

Aparna Ramaswamy.

Aparna Ramaswamy. Photo by Sally Cohn — Sally Cohn

The Minneapolis based Ragamala Dance Company was founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992. The mother and daughter are co-artistic directors and choreographers. Their work has been performed at venues all over the world and they have received commissions from a number of prestigious organizations including, most recently, Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

The New York Times gave a rave review to that performance of Ragamala’s Song of the Jasmine, which featured five dancers in a music/dance collaboration, calling it, “a soulful, imaginative and rhythmically contagious collaboration with the superb jazz composer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.”

Bharatanatyam is a classical form of Indian dance that dates back to ancient times when it was performed as a form of devotion to the gods in the Hindu temples. Since enjoying a revival in the 19th and 20th centuries, Bharatanatyam has become very popular throughout India and elsewhere. The music — called Carnatic music — is an integral part of the dance. As the younger Ms. Ramaswamy explained in a Q&A after Saturday evening’s performance, the Ragamala musicians work very closely with the choreography team in creating the dances. Bharatanatyam is said to be the embodiment of music in visual form.

The musicians, who also performed an intro and an interlude unaccompanied by dance, were fascinating to watch. Sitting on the floor to the side of the stage, along with Ranee who at times read from classical Indian poetry and chanted, were vocalist Ramya Sunderesan Kapadia and sisters Anjna (violin) and Rajna (percussion) Swaminathan. Both highly skilled, the sisters improvised a good deal, demonstrating both their prowess and the level of connectedness they have attained in the years spent performing together.

Ms. Ramaswamy stressed the amount of training that each of the members has gone through. Although the younger troupe members, including Aparna, were born in the U.S., they have all spent years studying under masters in India.

“Each of us comes from a very well known, well respected teacher in India,” said Ms. Ramaswamy. She and her mother both studied under one of the world’s greatest living Bharatanatyam dancers.

However, as Ms. Ramaswamy explained to the Saturday audience in a knowledgeable and articulate manner, the Ragamala dancer’s work is very much a product of the member’s experience living in this country as well as their roots in India.

According to the Ragamala website (ragamaladance.org), “We draw from the myth and spirituality of our South Indian heritage to make dance landscapes that dwell in opposition — secular and spiritual life, inner and outer worlds, human and natural concerns, rhythm and stillness — to find the transcendence that lies in between. Together we craft every moment to create intricate and complex worlds that convey a sense of reverence, of unfolding mystery, of universal celebration.”

The quartet of dances enjoyed by Yard audiences last weekend were both aesthetically pleasing and emotionally gratifying. There was something mesmerizing about watching the fluid movements and marveling at Ms. Ramaswamy’s grace and strength that provided a soothing, meditative experience. Although the lyrics would have been unintelligible to most Western audiences, the poems were read by Ranee in English and the stories and themes of each dance were obvious. In particular, the dance that dealt with the relationship that Indians enjoy with the sacred river, the Ganges, was very literate and beautiful as Ms. Ramaswamy used her expressive hand movements and postures to full effect.

Both informative and exhilarating to watch, the Ragamala performances were a great example of the spectrum of dance that The Yard brings to Vineyard audiences every summer.

“This summer we’ve had an overarching theme of artists who have clearly dedicated themselves to the past but are not trapped by the past,” said David White, in his introduction to Saturday’s performance.

After the performance, Mr. White said that he hopes to have a continuing relationship with the Ragamala dance troupe.

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A drum circle precedes each Built on Stilts performance.

The homegrown dance festival Built on Stilts turns 18 this year with performances from Thursday to Sunday, August 7-10, and Wednesday to Saturday, August 16-19, at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs. Each evening, the festival opens with a drum circle at 7:30 pm, which anyone can join, while dancers warm up. Self-choreographed dance pieces by local, national, and international performers follow at 8 pm. The lineup is different for each show. Admission is free, though donations are recommended. Visit builtonstilts.org for a detailed performance schedule.

Seated front row left to right: Grant Meacham, Mikayla Tinus, Sam Permar, Sarah Ortlip-Sommers. Standing next row left to right: Barbara Binder, Joe Mendick, Sophia Nelson, Darby Patterson, Garrett James, Bob Dutton. Standing last row left to right: Rykerr Maynard, Kenon Veno, Sydney Johnson.

Young Island actors bring the Tony Award winning musical “Spring Awakening” to the stage of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center this Thursday and Friday, July 31 and August 1, at 8 pm. The musical, a dynamic coming of age story set in late 19th century Germany, is rated PG. Proceeds from the show benefit the Island Wide Youth Collaborative. Tickets are $20 and can be found at ticketsmv.com, Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury, or at the door.

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Da'African Village performed at the Union Chapel last Saturday.

Of all of the performers that have visited the Vineyard this summer, possibly the ones that travelled the farthest to bring a taste of another culture to the Island were the members of Les Enfants Du Soleil (Sons of the Sun). A group of eight dancers and four drummers from Senegal, the group presented two high-energy, colorful, and informative shows at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs last Saturday.

The musicians and dancers, part of the cultural exchange and sustainability organization Da’African Village, are currently touring the U.S. and Canada with stops in a number of cities, including Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York where they performed at Symphony Space.

Fortunately, the troupe took a side trip to the Vineyard where they helped raise money for the local chapter of the NAACP Youth Empowerment Program.

Master of ceremonies Mara Diakhate introduced the evening show by saying, “It’s going to be really hot in here.” And the performers certainly did turn up the heat with six sets of traditional dances featuring rapid fire drumming and adrenalized dance. The dancers changed their look for each set and the spectacle of the brilliantly hued costumes was only rivaled by the talent, energy, and joyous exuberance of the dancers, each of whom took solo turns displaying their unique styles and acrobatic skills.

In between sets, Mr. Diakhate explained the background and significance of each dance and talked about the differences among the dozens of African ethnic groups, making the shows as informative as they were entertaining. The organizers of the show hope to make the performances an annual summer event.

For more information about Da’African Village, visit daafricanvillage.com.

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Some members of Rise on stage in Beliingham. Back row, from left: Sequoia Ahren, Simone Solon, Caroline Woodard, Erin DeBettencourt, Cassie Casey, Imani Hall, Annabelle Cutrer, Alison Custer, Ava Vought; front row, from left: Arden Bezahler, Sabrina Reppert, Emma Caron, Amelia Craig, Taylor Jackson, Bailey Moreis, Chloe Combra, Ellie Thomas.

Members of the RISE Vineyard Performing Arts group traveled to Bellingham High School on Saturday, April 12, to participate in the Turn It Up Challenge, a competition with participants from across the state.

The Island dancers returned with a total of 10 Platinum awards, 22 High Gold awards and four National Invites.

The dancers who participated in the the competition are as follows:

Sequoia Ahren, Pandora Bassett, Susanna Becchio, Arden Bezahler, Ashley Biggs, Addison Blake, Maggie Burke, Emma Caron, Colleen Carroll, Cassie Casey, Chloe Combra, Lily Combra, Amelia Craig, Isabelle Custer, Alison Custer, Annabelle Cutrer, Teagan D’Arcy, Erin DeBettencourt, Ellie Dolby, Lucie Dougherty-Soares, Kayla Eddy, Skylar Eddy, Alley Ellis, Imani Hall, Chloe Hoff, Taylor Jackson, Mia Jeffers, Abbie Lively, Bailey Moreis, Anna Nitardy, Sabrina Reppert, Emma Searle, Simone Solon, Josey Sylva, Ellie Thomas, Ava Vought, Lizzie Williamson, and Caroline Woodard.

A list of the dance piece, choreographer’s name, and award follows: Time After Time, Jil Matrisciano, Platinum; Candyman, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; Macavity, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; My Truth, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; Rhiannon, Claire Baione, High Gold; In the Navy, Claire Baione, High Gold; Hot Honey Rag, Jil Matrisciano, High Gold; Addicted to Love, Claire Baione, High Gold; The Riverside, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; People Get Ready, Claire Baione, High Gold; Big Noise, Claire Baione, High Gold; Push It, Danielle Reynolds, High Gold; Can’t Turn You Loose, Jil Matrisciano, High Gold; Rowboats, Claire Baione, Platinum; Dropped Call, Julie Chapnick, High Gold; Whip It, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; Rainbow Connection, Claire Baione, Platinum; Mack the Knife, Claire Baione, Platinum; Bravado, Claire Baione, Platinum; Goodnight Saigon, Claire Baione, Platinum; Dance, Dance, Dance, Danielle Reynolds, High Gold; Don’t Play That Song, Danielle Reynolds, High Gold; Take Me River, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; Flashdance, Jil Matrisciano, High Gold; Ground Control; Julie Chapnick, High Gold; Empty Garden, Jil Matrisciano, Platinum; Fright Train, Maggie Sarmiento, High Gold; The Haunting, Jil Matrisciano, Platinum; Brave, Julie Chapnick, High Gold; Voyage, Claire Baione, High Gold; Optimist, Claire Baione, Platinum; Devil Went Down to Georgia, Jil Matrisciano, Platinum.

For more information, email info@risevpa.com or call 508-693-2262.

Dancing frees the body and the mind at "Group Dance Group" each Thursday night.

The room is dimly lit — almost completely dark but for some ambient brightness from the streetlights outside. The music is pulsating, but not heavy or jarring. A small group of sock-footed women are moving to the music — each seemingly in her own world but also picking up on the energy of the room. Each dancer has her own style, but all are energetic, not merely swaying back and forth, but really exerting themselves. It’s Thursday evening and the group has gathered to participate in “Group Dance Group,” a new event hosted by Rebecca Brown and Noavakay Knight.

Noavakay Knight, left, and Rebecca Brown, hostesses of "Group Dance Group."

Noavakay Knight, left, and Rebecca Brown, hostesses of “Group Dance Group.” — Photo by Jennifer Coito, Stella

The weekly event, which was launched in January, is focused on freestyle dance that is as much about having fun and letting loose as it is about enjoying a meditative and aerobic experience. “It’s focused on health,” said Ms. Brown, who was leading the group on this particular Thursday. “It’s morphed into meditation as well.”

As Ms. Brown describes it, dancing in its purest form — distanced from the attitude, distractions, and self-consciousness of a club experience — lends itself to freeing the body and the mind. “I have a couple of friends who would say they can’t dance when they’re not drunk,” she said. “Why can’t music be a bridge into having that meditative silence that happens when you’re not thinking? I just find that dancing is a really natural, easy way to ‘cheat’ at meditation without drugs or alcohol.”

The evening starts out with group warmup time and a short reading from a spiritually related source. Shifting colorful images are projected on the walls to add to the pulsing, hypnotic atmosphere. There’s no instruction or even suggestions from the hosts to focus on a mind/body type experience. The group’s only rules: no shoes, no talking, no structure, set the stage.

“We try not to talk at all so as not to break concentration,” said Ms. Knight. “It’s all about meditation dance. You’re going into yourself, creating whatever it is you’re creating. Either you’re standing still and creating, or you’re moving and creating.”

The beauty of the experience is that there’s really no one paying attention to what the others are doing, and no jockeying for personal space. This non-judgmental atmosphere lends itself to letting go of inhibitions and allowing oneself to experiment with different movements while attaining a trance-like state.

The digital projections are provided by Ms. Knight. She also recently purchased a more powerful speaker and is hoping to bring a disco ball into the mix. Of the visuals, she said: “it really helps to create the kind of vibe to relax and go with it and enjoy yourself.”

The playlist is put together by Ms. Brown, who is a fan of electronic dance club music. “It’s not trendy,” she said. “It’s mostly dubstep with a heavy emphasis on trap (a form of electronic hiphop/rap music) that  really helps to feel the music because there’s so much bass in it.” The playlist switches around from heavy, pulsing beats to tunes with more of an ’80s electronica feel. “The music fills the quietness inside,” said Ms. Brown. “The undertone of the whole experience is to be at one with yourself.”

After the freestyle dance, there might be some structured exercise or something a little more experimental. “Then we do something totally different,” said Ms. Knight. “We do some abs or dance to Youtube videos that have choreography attached to them. It makes it a little more grounded. It’s nice to be able to do free dance, but it helps build connections to learn movements that you wouldn’t necessarily do on your own.”

Ms. Knight is responsible for launching the group. She wanted to find something to replace the hiphop class she had attended the previous winter but was no longer available. (Since then, another hiphop class has begun at Rise). She also wanted to fill a void on the Vineyard.  “I just really love to dance,” Ms. Knight said. “You don’t get much opportunity, especially here in the winter. You don’t have to stay out late at night drinking to have this wonderful experience of just dancing.”

Ms. Knight created a “Group Dance Group” Facebook page just to see who else might be interested. Through that listing, she met Ms. Brown, and they proved to be perfect partners for the experiment. “She found a space; I had the contact list,” said Ms. Knight.

The first event took place at the Anchors in Edgartown. Then, the group moved to the studio at Yoga Haven before settling in the dojo space at Decca. It’s a large room with a lot more space than either of the group’s previous venues. “It has really great energy,” said Ms. Knight. “It reminds me of being in high school and all the bands used to play there.”

The group is evolving as things progress. There are a few regulars, but new people show up each time. They are mostly women, but according to Ms. Knight, there’s always at least one guy. The age range has been from 20s to 40s, but the co-founders hope to attract some older people as well as high schoolers.

The dynamics of the group will most likely influence future additions and adjustments to the program. “We’ve just been fine-tuning it,” said Ms. Knight. “We’ve never done this before. People really enjoy that part of it. We don’t know what we’re doing, so it’s okay for them to not know what they’re doing.”

This open-minded attitude really adds to the experience. Judging by the crowd on a recent Thursday night, everyone seemed to be completely comfortable and finding their own groove.

With “Group Dance Group,” there’s no wrong or right, no better or fitter or more coordinated. It’s all about moving and getting what you want out of the experience. It’s the perfect way to give yourself a psychic boost on a cold dark winter’s night.

“Group Dance Group” meets every Thursday, 6:30-–8 pm, at Decca on Peacegate Way, Vineyard Haven. $7 admission goes toward renting the space.

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Currently meeting at Fanny Blair Hall in Vineyard Haven, the Ballroom Dance group also meets at the P-A Club in Oak Bluffs in the summer.

Ballroom Dance Martha’s Vineyard, a group that hosts weekly lessons and dances on Sunday evenings, meets this week for a Merengue lesson and open dancing. Held at Fanny Blair Hall on North William Street in Vineyard Haven, the weekly sessions are from 6 to 9 pm, with the lesson from 7 to 7:30 pm. All are welcome, both singles and couples, and admission is $3. For more information, call 508-696-8428.

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Imani Hall, center, leaps in "Something About Christmas Time."

Students of RISE Vineyard Performing Arts presented two holiday-spirited shows on Sunday, Dec. 8, at the Oak Bluffs School. More than 100 students performed numbers such as “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Hey Santa!” to delighted audiences. For more information about the group, based in Vineyard Haven, visit risevpa.com.

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The RISE holiday show will be performed by dancers ages 4-16.

The Season’s Greetings Dance Extravaganza, the annual holiday show of RISE Vineyard Performing Arts, will take place on Sunday, December 8, at the Oak Bluffs School Auditorium. There will be a 2 pm matinee show, as well as a 6 pm evening show. Doors open half an hour before showtime. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for children 10 and under. All proceeds from ticket sales will benefit the RISE Access Program, which helps cover tuition fees for dancers who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford classes. For more information, call 508-693-2262.