Performing Arts

American Fusion brings fine arts from Juilliard to the flatlands

The artists of the American Fusion Project (from left): Kristen Doering, piano; Taylor Hansen, dance; Maria Im, violin; Cleo Person, dance; Colin Stokes, cello; Jake Alan Nelson, baritone; Gabriel Medina, composer; Kyle Weiler, dance.
The artists of the American Fusion Project (from left): Kristen Doering, piano; Taylor Hansen, dance; Maria Im, violin; Cleo Person, dance; Colin Stokes, cello; Jake Alan Nelson, baritone; Gabriel Medina, composer; Kyle Weiler, dance.

Kristen Doering wanted to give back to the Sunflower State.

“Kansas is the community that supported me my whole life,” said the native of Garden City, Kan. “This is my attempt to build a bridge from my world now in New York back to Kansas.”

Her world is New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in music and collaborative piano. This week she is presenting a unique multi-disciplinary performance treat, “American Fusion Project Presents Into the Sun.”

Playing in Kansas at the Lawrence Arts Center on Thursday, and here at the Folly Theater on Saturday, the hourlong show offers the rare opportunity to see a collaboratively devised concert incorporating music, dance and drama performed by a cast of all Juilliard-trained artists.

Not only is it unusual to see such a production touring outside the walls of the renowned conservatory, but the whole Arts Fusion Initiative, the enterprise established by Doering to produce such shows annually, involves no supervision from Juilliard faculty nor counts for any kind of academic credit.

“I want to inspire the next generation just like I was inspired by artists who came in and shared their work with us when I was growing up,” she said.

In addition to performing in cities and towns throughout Kansas and other states, at each tour stop the artists are offering educational outreach workshops for local youngsters.

A company is born

In this first year of her initiative, Doering is establishing her “brand,” the concept upon which all of her organization’s future programs will be structured. It involves her choosing a stimulating poem and assembling a group of Juilliard-educated artists who together design an integrated performance of music and dance pieces based on or reflective of the poem.

“Some people shy away from poetry so I want to present it to them in a non-frightening way,” she said. “Instead of making it super-intellectual, this gives life to it and allows audiences to see how different artists connect to the same piece of poetry.”

As the spark for this inaugural production, Doering selected American poet Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island.” It relates a humorous, heartening dialogue between the Sun and a poet.

Doering then invited a violinist (Maria Im), a cellist (Colin Stokes), a composer (Gabriel Medina), an actor-singer (Jake Alan Nelson) and three dancer-choreographers (Kyle Weiler, Taylor Hansen and Cleo Person) to form a company, the American Fusion Project.

Each performer, with the exception of the actor-singer, was tasked with selecting a piece of American music to either play or choreograph to, while the composer was asked to write music of his own.

The group then met for a series of rehearsals and figured out how to interweave their selections and the poem into a staged performance.

“This is one of the most inspiring processes I’ve ever been involved in,” Stokes said. “Everyone came at it very humbly and very open to all ideas. It was a true collaboration. There was no one director.”

Doering’s project is giving the artists opportunities to stretch beyond what they normally do at Juilliard.

“The focus there is on concert music, creating pieces with a concrete structure that can stand on its own and has its own narrative arc,” Medina said. “But there’s a sort of high-brow attitude about what you’re supposed to be writing as concert music. Everything has to be really ‘interesting’ or over-complicated. In school I sometimes found myself writing music I didn’t necessarily want to be writing. When you approach composing without those pressures, you’re just writing music that’s honest.”

Nelson, an operatic baritone, is enjoying the opportunity this show is giving him to utilize his extensive background in theater production. In addition to performing, Nelson is designing the lighting and doing all of the show’s technical-theater work.

Music, words and motion

The performance begins with a dramatic reading of the poem’s opening lines that creatively segues into the third movement of Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata.

“We purposely do not give a full performance of any single work, like a whole sonata, because I didn’t want any one type of music to go on too long,” Doering said. “We want the show to serve as an introduction to the arts for young people or for those who have little experience with dance or classical music. We want it to be accessible, so there’s lots of musical variety.”

The Copland piece is followed by a cello and piano adaptation of Samuel Barber’s Nocturne for Voice and Piano; the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Trio for Cello, Violin, and Piano; the Andantino from John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano; two piano solos by Jazz Age stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith; and George Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2 for Piano.

The Bernstein, Smith and Gershwin selections serve as accompaniment for original choreography by Weiler, Person and Hansen, respectively. Weiler gave me a sneak peek at video footage from a rehearsal of his dance to the Bernstein trio. I was struck by his choreography’s keen kinship with the music’s jaunty rhythms and whimsical qualities.

The centerpiece of the show is the Sun’s aria. Composed by Medina and sung by Nelson, it’s a musical setting of the Sun character’s monologue. It’s the most encouraging part of the poem and the only lines in the show that are sung.

“It’s when the Sun starts passing on his wisdom to the poet,” said Medina.

For Nelson, this aria was a gift.

“Gabe tailor-made it for my voice,” he said. “When he was writing he asked me what notes he should use if he wanted certain words to come out really bright or forte. I said E-flat, F, and the scale downwards, and that’s what he wrote.”

The show ends with a cello and piano adaptation of a vocalese composed by Juilliard professor Philip Lasser.

“It’s perfect for the ending of this poem, when the Sun tells the poet to go back to sleep. It’s kind of unsettled and sad, but it ends in the most beautiful way — it ascends by perfect intervals,” Stokes said.

Medina, who suggested that Doering use the O’Hara poem in the first place, finds continual inspiration in it and hopes that audiences will respond similarly to the show.

“I suggested it because it always made me feel good about continuing my art,” Medina said, “staying confident, and sticking to it.”

Thursday and Saturday

“American Fusion Project Presents Into the Sun” will be performed twice in the area this week.

Thursday: 7:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors through lawrenceartscenter.org.

Saturday: 8 p.m. at the Folly Theater. Tickets are $25 and $17 ($8 for students with an ID) through follytheater.org.

For more info, go to American Fusion Project’s page on Facebook.

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