Interview with Cristian Mungiu

Romanian film director Cristian Mungiu (photo © Dan Beleiu)

Romanian film director and Cannes award-winner Cristian Mungiu (photo © Dan Beleiu)

By Anita Malhotra

Romanian film director Cristian Mungiu has distinguished himself with a series of award-winning films that explore social issues in Romania in a highly realistic style. The best known of these is the riveting drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, about a young woman going to great lengths to help a friend obtain an illegal abortion during the late Communist era. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, the first time a Romanian film had won this prize.

He followed it with two more Cannes award-winners: Beyond the Hills (2012), based on a tragic incident that took place in 2005 in a Romanian monastery, and Graduation (2016), about a doctor who uses a corrupt system to ensure his daughter’s academic success.

Poster for Cristian Mungiu's film Bacalaureat (Graduation), which shared Best Director prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Poster for Mungiu’s film Bacalaureat (Graduation), which shared Best Director prize at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival

Mungiu, who was a writer before becoming a filmmaker, is also internationally known for the six-part black comedy Tales from the Golden Age (2009), which he wrote and produced.

Anita Malhotra interviewed Mungiu, who was at his office in Bucharest, by telephone on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2016.

Director Cristian Mungiu on the set of <em>Graduation</em> (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Mungiu on the set of Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

AM: I wanted to start by asking about your latest film, Graduation [Bacalaureat], which won a Best Director Award at Cannes this year and had its Canadian premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. What are the next steps for the film?

CM: The film was bought as a screenplay by many countries and was later sold during the Cannes Film Festival to some other territories. Now I’m in this period when I have to travel and accompany the film because the film starts theatrically in the 40-something countries where it was sold. I started doing this in August in Italy, and I was very happy to see that it was the best-performing art house film in Italy this year.

Still from Mungiu's 2016 film Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Still from Mungiu’s 2016 film Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

I will start tomorrow with a small trip accompanying the film to the London Film Festival and New York Film Festival screenings. And by the end of the year it will start theatrically in 15 to 20 countries and I will probably be present at 10 festivals.

AM: How has the number of screenings compared to that of your earlier films?

CM: I think that my last three films were all sold in more than 45 countries, but probably 4 Months performed best because it won the Palme d’Or. At the same time there’s something about this film – it’s somehow more accessible to spectators. It’s either the fact that it’s my third film in a row which got something in Cannes or because it’s not as difficult as 4 Months or Beyond the Hills. The response is really very good. I was very happy to see in Telluride, for example, that they added an extra screening.

Poster for Mungiu's film Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Poster for Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

AM: You have said that the film grew out of your experience of parenting. What is the connection between your experience of parenting and the subject of the film?

CM: I still live in Romania, so I need to make a decision about my children. I see many parents deciding early on about the education of their children because it’s not the same kind of education if you prepare them to stay and you imagine that they will live here, or if you prepare them to study abroad at the age of 18 and maybe have an international career.

Maria-Victoria Dragus in <em>Bacalaureat (Graduation)</em> (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Maria-Victoria Dragus in Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

And then there are a lot of small, practical things happening every day which place me in a position to consider what’s best to tell the children. Driving my children to school every day I have to decide if I respect the traffic rules and wait for the red light, and then there are 20 cars getting in front of me, or if I decide to be the first one to cross. Because this is the kind of competition that still exists here because things are not very well settled.

Mungiu in 2007 at the San Sebastian Film Festival (Flickr Creative Commons)

Mungiu on Sept. 20, 2007 at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain (photo by birasuegi, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: How many children do you have?

CM: I have a couple of boys.

AM: And how old are they?

CM: 11 and 6.

AM: Going back to the beginning of your career, why did you decide to become a filmmaker rather than a different kind of artist like a novelist or playwright?

CM: I don’t know – this is hard to say. I was attracted to film, but to be honest I first thought I was going to become a novelist, so I started expressing myself in writing. I was writing short stories and stuff like that.

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Still from Tales from the Golden Age (2009), written and co-produced by Mungiu  (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

And then I worked for a few years as a kind of journalist for a magazine where I was writing things which were quite close to fiction rather than reportage. Then I studied literature before deciding that it was time for me to go and study film. But I’ve always kept this idea that someday I will get to do what I really feel I know best, which is writing.

AM: How did you learn the craft of filmmaking?

CM: I went to film school, and because I was a bit older and had to pay for my studies because I had studied something before, they allowed me to work during my studies. So at the same time as film school I was working as an assistant director for foreign films being shot in Romania – American and French films. And that was like a second school which placed me in contact with the real world of filmmaking.

tales-the-legend-of-bughi-and-crina-7

Diana Cavallioti and Radu Iacoban in “The Legend of the Air Sellers” from Tales from the Golden Age (2009), a dark comedy featuring urban legends from Romania’s late Communist era (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

I was very fortunate that there was a new cinema law created right after I graduated, so I applied to this screenplay competition, and I won three competitions in a row. So for the first two or three years after film school I was practicing doing short films. I also practiced during my first film – a very complicated and intricate kind of structure.

Still from <em>Tales from the Golden Ag</em>e (2009) (photo courtesy of Mobra films)

Still from Tales from the Golden Age (2009) (photo courtesy of Mobra films)

AM: Was it hard to raise money for your first feature film, Occident?

CM: Yes. My first feature film was very complicated because there were no other resources in Romania except this pay fund. We got this fund, but it was too little to produce the film. By the end of the shooting we ran out of money, so I had to bring everything I had back home to finish the shooting.

Cristian Mungiu with actress Tania Popa on the set of his first feature, <em>Occident</em> (2002) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Cristian Mungiu with actress Tania Popa on the set of his first feature, Occident (2002) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

And then there was a very long process of trying to finance post-production, until the film was about to be screened in the Rotterdam film festival and was included in the catalogue. We couldn’t finish the film on time – we didn’t have the money. And we were lucky again. The lady selecting films for Quinzaine des réalisateurs saw the film in the catalogue. She called me, and with this promise of being in the Quinzaine, I got some money from our film fund and managed to finish the film. So it was a kind of a long and adventurous process, but also a very good experience.

Alexandru Papadopol and Anca Androne in Cristian Mungiu's 2002 film Occident (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Alexandru Papadopol and Anca-Ioana Androne in Cristian Mungiu’s 2002 film Occident (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

AM: Tell me about the founding of your production company, Mobra Films.

CM: I did this with a couple of friends – my cinematographer that I was working with and another friend, a director from the film school who was working with the same cinematographer. I had already done all these shorts and my first feature for different film companies. So it just made sense, since I was pretty much financing my films myself, to start this company.

Still from <em>Offset</em> (2006), directed by Didi Danquart, which was associate-produced by Mobra Films (photo courtesy of Mobra films)

Still from Offset (2006), directed by Didi Danquart, which was associate-produced by Mobra Films (photo courtesy of Mobra films)

We started by making a small film, which was screened in the Berlinale. And we managed to finance 4 Months with a very little budget, but to finance it entirely in Romania, and to be present in Cannes and to get the Palme d’Or without any kind of financial support from a producer. And of course, after that, things were easier.

And the company grew and now we are producing some other people as well. We developed a distribution company and other smaller companies that we use to organize a festival in Bucharest. It’s a very small industry here in Romania, so we are involved in everything. I release my own films, I release foreign titles, we organize this festival. I’m involved in education because the audience for this kind of filmmaking is really shrinking, so you have to invest in education a lot.

Anamaria Marinca in "4 Months, 3 Weeks 2 Days," which garnered Cristian Mungiu a Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won a Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

AM: For 4 Months, why did you choose this particular subject out of so many stories that you could have told?

CM: I knew that I wanted to make a very dramatic story happening in a very short time, like a couple of hours or days, and to speak about something that’s important for me. I had known about this story for a long time, and then I talked again to this girl, who was the protagonist of this story originally, and I had the revelation that that story matched the profile for the film I wanted to shoot. It was a difficult story for everybody to handle, but I thought it’s kind of therapeutic that we speak about it.

I think that all my films are connected somehow with the age that I was when I made them and with the things that were happening to me. I was becoming a father and I was considering some things differently from 15 years before.

Tania Popa, Anamaria Marinca and Vlad Ivanov in <em>4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days</em> (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Tania Popa, Anamaria Marinca and Vlad Ivanov in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

AM: Watching the film, I felt that I was inside the film with the characters – it felt so real. How did you achieve that feeling of reality?

CM: I don’t know. I think the best thing about the film is that for two hours you feel, rather than understand conceptually, how it is to live in this kind of oppressed society when people felt that they were followed and observed all the time.

Poster for Mungiu's 2007 Palme d'Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Poster for Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

I was trying first of all to find the right situations that would help me to position the viewer in that situation, and then I was trying to cut all the regular crap that you use when you make mainstream cinema – to have it very simple, very plain, just one shot per scene, close to the characters, follow them with the camera. If the characters are still, we are still; if they move, we move. Never do anything that would signal that there’s a filmmaker behind the camera. There is no music added. So it’s kind of simple and humble.

And then the story was very strong and there’s something good about the atmosphere. But to be honest, sometimes in filmmaking – on top of everything that you do – there’s something which just happens, which just makes the difference between a great film and a good film.

Mungiu on Sept. 20, 2007 at the San Sebastian Film Festival (photo by birasuegi, Flickr Creative Commons)

Mungiu on Sept. 20, 2007 at the San Sebastian Film Festival (photo by birasuegi, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: Were people in your country shocked by the subject matter?

CM: Not as much as I hoped. The public success of the film pretty much killed the polemic aspect in the sense that everybody was so happy that we got the Palme d’Or. People felt as if Romania got the gold medal in skating or whatever. I got the key to my home town and a medal from the president – these kinds of honors – but I really wish that people would consider more what the film has to say.

Still, it was watched by many people. It had a very good result in Romania and eventually managed to stir some memories. I had a lot of Q & As for that film, and people of my generation, especially women who had to undergo such very painful interruptions of pregnancy, experienced the film in a very personal way.

AM: The films of yours that I have seen portray a very bleak view of Romania, where characters are trapped in situations out of their control. Can you talk a bit about that?

Still from Tales from the Golden Age (2009), written and co-produced by Cristian Mungiu (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Still from Tales from the Golden Age (2009), written and co-produced by Cristian Mungiu (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

CM: I think that films are just films and we shouldn’t consider that the whole society is represented in somebody’s films. There’s a lot of bleakness, and when you watch Graduation you’ll see that. There’s a lot of corruption as well, but at the same time I never claimed that these stories, which are meant to heal the society, are fully representative of what happens in a country.

Of course there’s been a lot of progress in Romania, historically speaking, since the fall of Communism, but it’s just that people don’t live on a historical scale – they live on a human scale. So from a human perspective you tend to focus more on things which are not yet solved, and wished they would be solved 25 years after the fall of Communism.

Still from Mungiu's 2016 film Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Still from Mungiu’s 2016 film Bacalaureat (Graduation) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

And, this is what you sometimes expect to do with art – to speak about aspects of society which are not really functional because you hope that maybe this might change something. But of course there are funny little Friday evening comedies opening up here. I am not sure they are representative also.

Cosmina Stratan and Cristian Mungiu on the set of Mungiu's 2012 film <em>Beyond the Hills</em> (photo by Sebastian Enache)

Cosmina Stratan and Cristian Mungiu on the set of Mungiu’s 2012 film Beyond the Hills (photo by Sebastian Enache)

AM: Who are your major cinematic influences?

CM: I was always trying to get inspiration from life and to understand if there’s any kind of narration in life, what would be the rules of that narration. This is why I’m shooting like this – with just one shot per take. There are single, individual moments when we try to preserve the truth of what happens, and therefore it’s not that I’m influenced by a very unique, single, precise filmmaker or current or period.

Poster for Mungiu's 2012 film Beyond the Hills (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Poster for Mungiu’s 2012 film Beyond the Hills (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Films are already an interpretation of life, so I’m watching films and of course I feel close to Italian Neorealism and the films which got back to realism from time to time in the history of cinema, but I tried to never have a very precise strong filmmaker influence in me.

AM: You do a number of things – scriptwriting, directing and promoting your films. How do you juggle all these things, and are you doing other work as well?

CM: I spend most of my time with my children. That’s my life actually and I have this company, so it’s quite enough to make your own films and to write your own films and release your own films, to handle your children and to take the time to be with them every day and to handle your company. But I do make commercials from time to time. I do some teaching from time to time.

Still from Mungiu's <em>Beyond the Hills</em> (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Still from Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

And on top of this, we invest a lot of time in organizing film screenings in Romania, because we lost most of the cinemas that we had in this country 25 years ago. So it’s a very complicated process of organizing screenings and festivals and bringing the audience back to watching films in theatres. People got into the habit of watching everything on the computer and mobile by downloading films illegally from the Internet. And I’m very much involved in restructuring the legal system in which cinema works in Romania – in rewriting cinema law. Somebody needs to do this and I’m involved in this.

Still from Mungiu's <em>Beyond the Hills</em>, which won two acting awards at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival (photo by Sebastian Enache)

Still from Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, which won two acting awards at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival (photo by courtesy of Mobra Films)

AM: Do you have any idea what your next project will be?

CM: I’m always asking myself if I’m capable of making one more good film. I don’t plan this as a career. I don’t see further than my next film. I travel about six months after each film, so I will start thinking about my next project sometime in February next year. I wrote a screenplay before this one, but I’m not sure I’m going to make that one.

Still from <em>Tales from the Golden Age</em> (2009) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

Still from Tales from the Golden Age (2009) (photo courtesy of Mobra Films)

I have a lot of questions about making something in English, but I still live in Romania so it’s not clear to me if I can write something or not that would happen naturally in English. But I will think about this and I will think about what’s personal and important for me now and see what comes out of it.

For more information about Cristian Mungiu and his films, please visit Mobra Films.

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INTERVIEW WITH BENJAMIN VON WONG

Canadian photographer Benjamin Von Wong (photo by Ian Chang)

Canadian photographer Benjamin Von Wong (photo by Ian Chang)

Toronto-born, 29-year-old photographer Benjamin Von Wong pushes the technical and artistic limits of photography like few other photographers do. His elaborately staged, fantastical photographs – often set in unconventional locations – look like they were created using photo editing software but are the result of painstakingly planned and executed real-life shoots.

His photo shoots have featured people dressed as superheroes posing precariously on the edge of a skyscraper’s roof, a model dressed as a shepherdess in an underwater cave with sharks swimming nearby, and fire used for dramatic effect in a variety of settings. All his shoots are documented with behind-the-scene videos that are as fascinating as the photographs themselves.

"Salvation," a self-portrait by Benjamin Von Wong (courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Salvation,” a self-portrait by Benjamin Von Wong (courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

Von Wong (he added the “Von” when he discovered there was another photographer with his name) also has a strong interest in altruistic causes. In 2013, he produced a Go Fund Me video for a girl with a terminal genetic disease that brought in one million dollars in donations in a month, and he is currently using his unique style of photography to highlight environmental issues.

Anita Malhotra interviewed Benjamin Von Wong by Skype on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

"Home" by Benjamin Von Wong, featuring Ka Amorastreya (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Home” by Benjamin Von Wong, featuring Ka Amorastreya (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: Where are actually you Skyping from?

BVW: I’m currently in San Francisco. I recently decided that this was going to be my new home base. And I just got back from about six weeks of travel though Europe less than a week ago.

"Deadpool" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Deadpool” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: Why did you move to San Francisco?

BVW: I wanted to be surrounded by dreamers and entrepreneurs who are trying to make the world a better place. I used to be in Montreal, and as much as I love the city, my feeling was that every time I came back home nothing changed. Whereas I can go away for two months and come back to San Francisco and it’s a whole new world every single time. It’s only been about nine months now, half of which I’ve spent travelling, but it’s been an amazing choice for me to move here and have the opportunity to interact with all these different companies and corporations and individuals.

Benjamin Von Wong with Ka Amorastreya (photo by Carmine Di Donato)

Benjamin Von Wong with Ka Amorastreya (photo by Carmine Di Donato)

AM: What were you doing in Europe?

BVW: I had two projects. The first one was to shoot in a strip-mining museum where they had a couple of different mining machines. We got post-apocalyptic characters and smoke grenades, and the idea was to create a piece against coal-mining. I’m going to create as engaging of a piece as is possible, to appeal to the younger video-game style generation.

And then the other shoot was in Poland. We found an underwater excavator in Poland and got a dive crew together, got a model, tied her underwater in 14 degree Celsius waters, and had a little piece of coral. The idea was to raise awareness for dredging, which is a fairly big issue, especially in the fishing industry.

"Cormorant Fisherman," done in partnership with Ballantine's Whiskey, by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Cormorant Fisherman,” done in partnership with Ballantine’s Whiskey, by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: Where were you born and raised?

BVW: I’m Canadian. I was born in Toronto actually, and my parents are Chinese-Malaysian. I’ve been to 13 different schools in three different countries, so I travelled quite a little bit when I was young and I spent about half my life in Montreal.

Benjamin as a young man doing Taekwondo (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

Benjamin as a young man doing Taekwondo (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: What were some of those countries that you lived in?

BVW: It was just Canada, U.S. and China. In China I lived in Beijing for four years from eight to 12 years old, and while in the U.S. I lived in Dallas, Texas for a year and a half.  I also spent six months in California when I was a bit younger.

AM: Did you have any inclination towards visual images or photography when you were a kid?

"Portrait of Don MacKascill" by Benjamin Von Wong (courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Portrait of Don MacKascill” by Benjamin Von Wong (courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

BVW: I really liked comic books. I think that’s probably the closest to visual attraction that I had to anything. Photography was never something that I was particularly interested in. Even when I picked it up it was just a new hobby to take on with new technologies to try out, and it crept up on me throughout the years. When I quit my job in 2012, I didn’t necessarily want to become a photographer, I just didn’t want to be an engineer, and so I became a photographer by default.

AM: Was there any artistic influence from your family?

BVW: No, my family is not artsy at all. They did push us to try a lot of things out. I have a black belt in Taekwondo, I started playing violin when I was four, they put us through drawing lessons, painting lessons. We’ve tried everything from pottery to sculpting and just a little bit of everything.

AM: How did you get into photography?

Benjamin Von Wong at a workbench in his previous career as a mining engineer (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

Benjamin Von Wong at a workbench in his previous career as a mining engineer (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

BVW: I was studying mining engineering at the time, and my program involved a bunch of internships, and on one of these internships I ended up working in a mine in Winnemucca, Nevada. While I was there, a girl broke up with me and I needed to find something to keep myself busy.

I decided that taking pictures of the stars was an interesting thing to try out because the stars were really pretty there. I bought three cameras in the space of a week, and then I finally managed to take pictures of the stars. I remember sitting in Starbucks reading the manual, so I was really starting from nothing.

"Shark Shepherd" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Shark Shepherd” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: How did you develop your photography technique and style?

BVW: In the beginning photography was kind of travel companion. It gave me an excuse to do stuff at events when I didn’t really know what to do, something to keep myself busy and entertained regardless of where I went. And then over time I joined some photographer clubs, I started getting better at the craft. Eventually one day I got offered the opportunity to shoot an event for $250 that that one of my friends couldn’t make it to. It was a big turn of events because it was the first time that I was getting paid to do something that I enjoyed doing.

2014 promo shot for the Montreal metal band "The Agonist" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

2014 promo shot for the Montreal metal band “The Agonist” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

I started buying a bunch of equipment, and then focusing on events – weddings, cocktail parties, anything along those lines. About a year into that I started getting a little bit bored. So I dropped event photography and started focusing on doing creative projects. And that’s the beginnings of my photography style as you see it today, purely focused on doing things that were exciting and fun and entertaining.

Benjamin Von Wong (left) in 2007 visiting a mine (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

Benjamin Von Wong (left) in 2007 visiting a mine (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: At what point did you decide to quit your engineering job?

BVW: I woke up one morning and I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer for the rest of my life. I told my parents that I was going to do a GMAT to potentially get my MBA. But after passing my GMAT, I really wanted to travel, so I just started travelling and decided to try out what it would be like to be a photographer. I never really stopped since then.

AM: You’ve labeled your style as “epic.” Why do you use the word “epic” and how would you describe your style?

BVW: The word “epic” has got to be one of the most overused words on the Internet, but my stuff is, at least in the photography world, typically taken to the next level. It’s like “OK, we can shoot underwater, but we’re not just going to shoot underwater.  We’re going to shoot 30 meters under water, in a shipwreck.” It’s always taking things one step further and telling not just a story in the photographs themselves but in the whole journey. That’s why I have these behind-the-scene videos that explain to them the adventure.

As far as describing my work, if it had to be summarized in a single sentence it would be that “I create photographs that look like they’re photoshopped.” And so, people’s first impression is typically a question on whether it’s an illustration or CGI. And it’s only when they take the time to experience it a little further that they realize that what they’re looking at is part of a real adventure.

Benjamin Von Wong and his collaborators in his "Superheroes on Skyscrapers" shoot in San Francisco (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

Benjamin Von Wong and collaborators in his “Superheroes on Skyscrapers” shoot in San Francisco (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: Was there one particular photo shoot that was more “epic” than any of the others?

BVW: They are all so different. Every shoot has their epic components to it, like the shipwreck photo shoot that came together in less than a week. I got my dive certification the day before the shoot. It was during a family vacation – I was kind of dragged into vacation because I don’t like taking vacation – where I discovered that there was a shipwreck. I decided if there was a shipwreck I had to do a shoot. And it just kind of scaled from there into this amazing series of images that I think are still my most viral images possible.

But then, the other shoots have been equally crazy, from dangling people on the edge of a building to chasing storms, and putting people in front of these storms with less than 10 minutes to set everything up and tear down before we had to bail. So each one of them have their own unique story to them that I don’t know if one really trumps the other.

"Selfie - How it was Done" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Selfie – How it was Done” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

AM: It must take a lot of courage to work in the challenging and dangerous conditions that you do. How do you keep positive and how do you deal with the problems you encounter?

BVW: I get really excited about anything that requires some form of adrenaline rush, I don’t think I’m particularly brave – I just may be just a little bit naïve and slightly crazy. As far as the problem-solving and staying positive, I think that the engineering background has helped. I always take a step-by-step approach in terms of breaking down a problem into smaller elements that are a lot easier to tackle than one big problem.

AM: I know that you’re focusing on the environment now, but in the past you’ve also done projects that were trying to help other people. Can you tell me about some of those?

BVW: Yeah, I’ve had a couple “humanitarian-ish” projects if you will. One was to take photos of a lady who had cancer. She was diagnosed as terminal and wanted to have a photo shoot where she would be able to create an image that was personalized for her funeral. Another one was surprising one of my fans for his twenty-first birthday. I wrapped myself in a box, showed up at his doorstep and took him on a one-week road trip, just because I happened to be in the area.

I also made a video for a little girl, Eliza, who was diagnosed with a terminal degenerative brain disease. I stumbled on the project through word of mouth that they were looking for a videographer that could help make a video to help them raise a million dollars in about two months. I don’t consider myself a videographer, but I said that I’d love to help out. And so I did. And we raised a million dollars in a month.

So I’ve done I guess a couple of things along these lines that have always been very fun. But the problem with them is that they don’t necessarily fit my style of photography. And so, recently the move towards environmental has been trying to consolidate the Von Wong brand and this unique style of imagery that I’m capable of creating and consolidating that with the real world and trying to make myself the most useful possible.

AM: How do you fund your projects?

BVW: Historically, my projects have been funded by simply teaching. I would give a conference – a talk – and I would fly to somewhere, get some money. I’d use that money to do a shoot, fly to the next place, give another conference, do another shoot, and so on and so forth. And then along the way I would get paid for a couple of shoots here and there, which helped bring in some inconsistent income. And then lately the commercial jobs that I’ve been getting have increased in scale, meaning they’ve increased in revenue, which means that I’ve cut down on the teaching because I don’t need to do it as much anymore. I got a large global campaign last year and that’s been helping to fund my crazy adventures this year.

Benjamin Von Wong in a photo shoot at Stift Admont (Admont Abbey) in Austria (photo by Eva Creel)

Benjamin Von Wong in a photo shoot at Stift Admont (Admont Abbey) in Austria (photo by Eva Creel)

I guess when people look at my work they automatically associate it with an extremely large price-tag. And while they do have an extremely large value from a production standpoint, the fact that these are generally non-profit projects means that I have a lot of people and talents and favors that I can pull in order to pull them together.

AM: In your lectures you’ve talked about the three phases of your work – the pre-production, production and the post-production. Can you explain that to me?

Benjamin Von Wong in an underwater shoot (photo by Mike Veitch)

Benjamin Von Wong in an underwater shoot (photo by Mike Veitch)

BWV: If I take the underwater excavator shoot, for example, the pre-production phase of things involved, I was chatting with a dive master in Australia about what the environment needed. He brought up the subject of dredging, which I wasn’t particularly familiar with. I started doing some research, and realized the chances of me getting access to an underwater dredge was probably zero if it was going to be an environmental project. And so I posted on Facebook that I was looking for an underwater excavator, and this group of divers reached out to me and said, “Oh hey, is this what you’re looking for? It’s in Poland. If you come here we’ll help you put it together.” And that’s when the discussion started to figure out logistically what we needed, finding the costumes, finding the model.  I bought a little piece of coral and the props. And I bought a plane ticket.

"The Underwater Realm" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“The Underwater Realm” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

And then, the actual shooting is just figuring out how the team works, meeting a whole bunch of new people on set, going scouting, setting up the lights, preparing schedule, troubleshooting, and doing the best job you can to take the best shots possible during those couple days.

"Climate change doesn't care what's on the news" from Stormchasing Portraits by Benjamin Von Wong (courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Climate change doesn’t care what’s on the news” from Stormchasing Portraits by Benjamin Von Wong (courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

And then it enters the post-production phase, which is just sitting down in front of a computer trying to figure out, “I have these images, they’re not perfect, how can I make them better?” I sent the photos to a couple of people, for example, and they’re like, “the excavator doesn’t look menacing,” so right now I’m trying to figure out how do I make it look like it’s less static. Maybe it’s a question of color, maybe it’s a question of composition, and then kind of play around with that.

In the post-production phase of things you also think about the marketing and the launch. How are the images going to tie into the behind-the-scene video, how are all these stories going to tie together to create the greatest impact? Just because you post a picture doesn’t mean that it’s going to resonate with people. You have to create a press kit around it so that it creates enough intrigue and interest. Because that’s what every website is designed around these days, views and clicks.

AM: How can people buy your photos or your prints?

BVW: My prints aren’t for sale. My work is non-profit based, which mean that the end goal of these photos isn’t to be sold. It doesn’t make sense to me that I would be the only person to profit off something that everybody else works for free for. The hope is to get commercial work out of these creative projects, but print sales traditionally don’t generate that much. And I think it would just kind of ruin the spirit of just creating beautiful, crazy things for the sake of creating beautiful, crazy things.

AM: Do you have any other projects planned?

BVW: In about three weeks I should be going to South Carolina to make a follow-up video of Eliza. She just got treated a month ago, which is really good, so I want to go and create a piece to encourage people, or just for the donors to get a proper update.

I’m hoping to do a project in Brazil, but the Zika virus is causing a little bit of problems in my plans. I wanted to a do a project on the cleanup of the Guanabara Bay. I’m hoping to work with a food bank here in San Francisco. We’re trying to do something that focuses on the issue of food rescue, and through that talk about the issue of overconsumption.

"Climate change doesn't care about what you wear" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo by Benjamin Von Wong)

“Climate change doesn’t care about what you wear” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo by Benjamin Von Wong)

I just got an email from this guy who interacts with indigenous tribes in Indonesia who are trying to protect their own lands through a variety of different activities. One of the projects I think would be very suited to my style is empowering and celebrating indigenous communities who are protecting their own lands, because they are one of the greatest lines of defense against deforestation.

"Fallen Angel" by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

“Fallen Angel” by Benjamin Von Wong (photo courtesy of Benjamin Von Wong)

I’m hoping to do something about coral bleaching. I would love to do something that addresses the overfishing issues as well as plastic pollution in the seas. But all these things are quite tough to get access to. I’m really hunting for a variety of environmental projects at this stage. I’m open to anyone who wants to collaborate, thinks that they have a problem, or needs visibility on an issue that could benefit from fantastical, epic photos.

For more information about Benjamin Von Wong or to contact him, please visit vonwong.com.

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INTERVIEW WITH HONJI WANG AND SÉBASTIEN RAMIREZ

By Anita Malhotra

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in their 2010 duo AP15 (photo © Nika Kramer)

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in their 2010 duo AP15 (photo © Nika Kramer)

In the six years that they have worked together, Europe-based dancers and choreographers Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez (Company Wang Ramirez) have created an innovative body of work that blends hip-hop with other dance styles while exploring themes like relationships and cultural identity with freshness and humor.

Frankfurt-born Wang is of Korean background and studied ballet before discovering hip-hop. Ramirez, an award-winning b-boy, has Spanish background but grew up in the south of France.

Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez interviewed on Feb. 27, 2016 at the Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, Canada (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez interviewed on Feb. 27, 2016 at the Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, Canada (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Starting with a short piece submitted to a hip-hop competition, they began creating larger scale works that established them in the contemporary dance scene. These include AP15 (2010), winner of a New York Bessie Award; Monchichi (2011), an exploration of their own relationship; Borderline (2013), featuring five dancers at times suspended from cables and a rigger; and Felahikum (2015), a collaboration with Rocío Molina that juxtaposes hip-hop and flamenco.

Frequently appearing in Europe, North America and South America, they were selected through auditions last year by Madonna to work on her 2015-2016 Rebel Heart Tour. Anita Malhotra spoke with Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez on Feb. 27, 2016 in Ottawa, where they were in town for three performances of Monchichi at the National Arts Centre.

AM: How did each of you get into dance and what were your first experiences?

SR: I started in ’95 as a self-taught dancer. I started in the south of France, and with year after year of training and being in the underground hip-hop scene, competing and battling, I got to know dance. I wanted to grow out of this and develop. I was interested in choreographic work, so I started to create my own work. I created my own company in 2007, and with this company I started to create more theatrical dance pieces.

Honji Wang in the 2011 duo Monchichi (photo © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance)

Honji Wang in the 2011 duo Monchichi (photo © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance)

AM: How old were you?

SR: I was about 13 in 1995, and I was involved in hip-hop culture. I liked it a lot – the spirit, the engagement. All this really spoke to me and I loved the style of music. I was searching for something physical because I was really into gymnastics and acrobatics, and I found the discipline of hip-hop dance. B-boying was really my discipline, so I dove into it.

HW: I actually had two phases when I was young. From six to 15 I did classical ballet at the conservatory in Frankfurt. But at 16, I quit and had a long break doing totally different things like athletics, Capoeira and stuff like that. But for me the real beginning of my dancing – the time when I felt like I was exploring and really developing something – was in my early 20s. I found the underground hip-hop scene. It’s not a school, it’s not an academic thing. It’s something that you find in hidden spots, and that attracted me a lot. It was a place where I found myself very free and at home.

I was very focused at the beginning on b-boying, which is breakdance, because I was very physical as well. I loved acrobatics and doing the impossible, like standing on my head or doing very complicated movements. When I found this it drove me into this intensive training. I trained voluntarily every day for three or four years intensively. And while you are training every day, you find and you search, because this is one objective in hip-hop dance: that you find your own style.

And this is actually how we came together and tried to find a balance and a mix between both of us. And we decided to participate in a hip-hop competition, a choreographic competition, and we created a little show together.

AM: Was it in Frankfurt that you became part of the hip-hop scene?

HW: No, it was in Berlin.

AM: What did your parents think of all this, given that they are from Korea?

Honji Wang (photo © Jan Van Endert)

Honji Wang (photo © Jan Van Endert)

HW: My parents never knew what I was doing. My parents are typical working class people so they were going out and working every day, coming home, and they just made sure that I was in school. So when I got out of school, I didn’t even let them know. I said, “Okay, I’m going to go to Berlin.” My parents trusted me. They said, “You know better. You know the language, you know Germany better, you know what to do here. But just do something.” So dance is something that I did in parallel because I never thought that I was going to be a professional dancer.

AM: Were you at university?

HW: No, I was working. I was registered in university but I was training and working at the same time.

Sébastien Ramirez (photo © Jan Van Endert)

Sébastien Ramirez (photo © Jan Van Endert)

AM: Sébastien, did you have any opposition from your family related to being in the hip-hop scene?

SR: No, my parents really supported me. They also didn’t know what it was exactly, because the same as her – they are more working class people. They don’t go to theatre, they don’t know what the dance scene is about. But they were happy to see me enjoying it and came to see me sometimes doing shows, and they liked it.

AM: How did you meet each other?

SR: We met in the training room.

HW: Yeah. In Berlin.

AM: Did your relationship precede your working relationship, or the other way around?

SR: We started with our relationship; then we went to a working relationship.

AM: What is it that attracted you to each other in terms of working together?

HW: I think for me it was basically that he was already totally developed in dance and I was very fascinated by the quality and the way he was “distributing” breakdance, or b-boying. I had never seen it done this way. It was not just trying to impress people by doing crazy movements. I saw something which was more subtle – speaking through his emotions – which really attracted me. As well, it’s so linked to the general character and person. The way you move, the way you search for your movements, the way you develop your movements. It’s all so linked to the personality and to the way you think.

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (photo © Jan Van Endert)

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (photo © Jan Van Endert)

SR: For me she was skillful, she was elegant, she had great potential. I was just amazed by her. I had always wanted to be able to develop my work as well, so I thought that was a great opportunity to do something together, and I was thinking we could do something interesting by mixing styles. And also, being a man and a woman says so many things and I wanted to explore this duet.

AM: Where do you live?

HW: We live in Berlin, but the company is based in Montpellier in the south of France. Sébastien’s home town is Perpignan, and we go back and forth a lot.

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in AP15 (photo © Nika Kramer)

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in AP15 (photo © Nika Kramer)

AM: There is a short piece of yours on YouTube called Amor & Psyche. Can you tell me about that?

HW: That was our first collaboration. That is the one that we did for the hip-hop competition.

SR: We made a film out of it and we did a competition where we got a prize in Japan, and other prizes.

HW: And then we continued to develop the 15-minute piece, the duet, which was the long version. With this we decided we would like to challenge ourselves and present it to a contemporary platform. And we won a prize with really contemporary dance companies, so that was a nice surprise for us.

AM: AP15 won quite a few awards for you. What is it about?

SR: This is the longer version of Amor & Psyche and is an excerpt of Monchichi. These three are linked because it was the evolution of what we established together.

AM: Monchichi seems very autobiographical

SR: It is. It is our identities, our culture, our situation, where we come from. It was a challenge for us to bring it on stage. And it was the beginning of our relationship as well, so it was kind of an important moment for us because we talked a lot about culture, about our identity.

AM: This piece has a lot of textual elements, spoken word. What made you decide to include this instead of having a pure dance performance?

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in Monchichi by Wang/Ramirez (photo © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance)

Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang in Monchichi (photo © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance)

HW: I liked this idea of talking into each other, so that you hear what everybody has to say, but you don’t hear it because they keep talking over each other. I imagined the situation of a psychologist standing in front and everybody trying to express their view of how a relationship functions. We were trying to improvise and we were making fun of it. We were sitting in a chair and starting to talk about him, about me, what I think, and about his parents, about the culture. And it felt good. At the beginning it was still very fragile because we respect the theatre, we know that it has a certain way of articulation. But we were not scared of doing it. We had nothing to lose.

SR: And I think text is another layer that the body cannot express. It’s very interesting to use text. It gives a more personal approach. It’s as close as we can bring people to who we are and what we feel at that moment.

AM: How do you both keep in shape and how do you have the endurance to get through a long show like Monchichi?

Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez in Monchichi (photo © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance)

Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez in Monchichi (photo © Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance)

SR: It’s not so easy to keep in shape and to keep regular training with the work we have because now with the company we have a lot of different shows running, so there’s a lot of touring. There’s a lot of creation time as well. It creates a “storm” – there are so many things happening at the same time. But we do as much as we can. Rehearsal time is the time when we do a lot of training.

HW: I have to say when I compare to traditional dances like ballet or flamenco or whatever, they have their traditional way of going to the barre and warming up. And in hip-hop that doesn’t exist. We are too freestyle in that way. With hip-hop it’s more like we’re dancing to the music, and it depends on how we feel. So that’s why I think it’s hard to keep up exercise or a fitness thing every day.

Borderline (2013), for six performers, choreographed by Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (photo © Frank Szafinski)

Borderline (2013), for six performers, choreographed by Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (photo © Frank Szafinski)

AM: Tell me a bit about your work Borderline, for six dancers.

SR: Borderline is actually for five dancers and one performer.

AM: What does the performer do?

Borderline (2013) by Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (photo © Frank Szafinski)

Borderline (2013) by Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang (photo © Frank Szafinski)

SR: He’s a rigger. We use a lot of wires and we fly a bit. At the same time he’s part of the performance – he’s on stage with us. He plays a role more than just being a technician. It’s an aspect which I think is very interesting because of the wires and all the scenography that moves around with us.

AM: What is the work about?

SR: Borderline is about the characters on stage. We got inspired by the dancers we worked with. A borderline is something that is at the edge – it’s something extreme. And we try to get out of every dancer their own borderline. So it’s a lot of small stories connected together.

AM: What about your 2015 piece, Felahikum?

SR: Felahikum is a duet with Honji and Rocío Molina, a flamenco dancer. We love to do collaborations and clash different aesthetics and different cultures together.

Flamenco dancer Rocío Molina and Honji Wang in Felahikum (photo © Ghostographic)

Flamenco dancer Rocío Molina and Honji Wang in Felahikum (photo © Ghostographic)

HW: It was a lot about the encounter between two women coming from different fields and trying to get to know each other during the creation. She is coming from flamenco, I’m coming from hip-hop, but have, of course, this contemporary influence. She’s a very avant-gardist flamenco dancer. She loves to break boundaries as well. So what first interested us was using our dance languages to express something new – a connection between two women. In April we will be touring Switzerland for two weeks with that piece.

AM: Your most recent work is Mise en scène. What is it about?

HW: Mise en scène has changed title. It’s now called EVERYNESS and it’s a piece with six dancers. And in this piece we try to explore the relationship between two people. So we are really trying to focus on the love relationship. Is it something that can last forever, is it something that is temporary? How to define it. But we question it more than rather tell a story.

AM: You both did some work with Madonna in preparation for her Rebel Heart Tour. Can you tell me about how you got involved with that?

SR: We simply did an audition in Paris because she was auditioning in Paris, London, New York and L.A. Honji was very interested in doing it just to challenge ourselves. We still have this hip-hop spirit of always competing in the scene. And they selected us and we were in New York for the final process of the creation. Madonna really gets to know every dancer that works with her and she really liked our work. We ended up choreographing four scenes. Honji didn’t accept to do the tour because it was one year of full touring.

Madonna in Zurich, Switzerland on December 12, 2015 during her Rebel Heart Tour (photo by chrisweger, Flickr Creative Commons)

Madonna in Zurich, Switzerland on December 12, 2015 during her Rebel Heart Tour (photo by chrisweger, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: What were your impressions of Madonna?

SR: She works very intensively. She’s really technical, very detailed, so we talked and exchanged a lot about the work.

HW: What surprised me a lot is the sensibility that she had to dance. For example, when we were doing improvisations, she really liked the way Sébastien was exposing his movements – that he took his time. In the hip-hop scene, we have to go fast and we want to impress. He was trained, now that we are doing our own work, that when you do one movement it’s sometimes enough to allow a little bit of air between each movement. So this is what she actually picked out. She said she would like to make a choreography or a solo for a dancer with this breath and this interpretation of movement, of feelings, for a particular song she had in mind.

AM: What projects do you have planned for the future?

Dancer Sara Mearns in the New York City Ballet production of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue on October 2, 2015 (photo by Kent G Becker, Flickr Creative Commons)

Dancer Sara Mearns in the New York City Ballet production of Slaughter on Tenth Avenue on October 2, 2015 (photo by Kent G Becker, Flickr Creative Commons)

HW: We have a lot of things coming up. One of the projects that really excites me is a collaboration with Sara Mearns, who is a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. We’re going to have a first meeting this summer. We would like to create a piece with Sébastien, but it’s going to be a duet with her and me on stage. So it will be an encounter of hip-hop and ballet. It’s more than just the styles of dance – it’s a meeting of two girls in a discipline of dance which is very competitive. Because if you’re not the best you will not be the prima ballerina. And in hip-hop it’s the same. You need to be the best and be able to work on your own work. It’s a constant fight. This is the theme that we would like to explore.

SR: After that we have a commissioned work from Sadler’s Wells, so we’re going to start another production in London, a big production. And this is happening at the end of 2017.

HW: This is a collaboration with a music composer Nitin Sawhney.

SR: He’s a very famous composer in the UK. And he works a lot with Akram Khan. He’s launching his new album, which is a very beautiful album, and we’re doing a collaboration together for this commissioned work. 

Company Wang Ramirez will perform Borderline in Paris (March 22-25), Monchichi in Belgium and the Netherlands (April 7-14), and Felahikum in Switzerland (April 19-30). For more information about Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez, please visit wangramirez.com.

 

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INTERVIEW WITH CYNTHIA HARVEY

Dancer, ballet stager and teacher Cynthia Harvey (photo by Ian Whalen)

Dancer, ballet stager and teacher Cynthia Harvey (photo by Ian Whalen)

By Anita Malhotra

Dancer, ballet stager and teacher Cynthia Harvey first distinguished herself in the ballet world as principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), where she performed with Mikhail Baryshnikov, among others, and appeared with Nureyev & Friends. She then moved to the U.K. to be a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet. Since the mid-‘90s, she has worked as a stager and teacher around the world, and in 2013 launched her foundation En Avant, which offers scholarships and master classes to young dancers. Recently, she was named the new artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, a post that starts in May.

Anita Malhotra interviewed Cynthia Harvey, who lives in eastern England, via Skype on February 14, 2016, a few weeks before three performances by the Hong Kong Ballet of her production of The Sleeping Beauty at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. 

AM: When did you first get interested in dance?

CH: I started when I saw Fonteyn and Nureyev on television on the Ed Sullivan Show. I thought she was a princess – she had a tiara – so I wanted to be her. I was very much the girly girl, so ballet was great.

My sister started taking a few lessons at the local place next door and I couldn’t reach the barre. I was always the smallest one.

Cynthia Harvey with her childhood ballet teacher, Christine Walton (photo courtesy of Cynthia Harvey)

Cynthia Harvey with her childhood ballet teacher, Christine Walton (photo courtesy of Cynthia Harvey)

But then we had to stop – I must have been five or six. I kept begging my mother, so she took me to a summer course. The teacher there recommended me to another teacher and said, “Mrs. Harvey, your daughter is bored. She learns the combinations faster than anyone.” I had an easy co-ordination and wanted to do it so badly, so that was the key.

Then I found this wonderful teacher, Christine Walton. She had two boys of her own, and she kind of adopted me as her daughter that she wished she had had. And because my mother was notoriously late collecting me after class, I would get an extra 40 minutes. She would work with me on little steps one thing at a time, so I benefited tremendously.

AM: Where were you living?

CH: It was Novato, just north of San Francisco. It’s Marin County but near the Sonoma border.

Cynthia Harvey as a young girl (photo courtesy of Cynthia Harvey)

Cynthia Harvey as a young girl (photo courtesy of Cynthia Harvey)

AM: I read that one of your parents was Mexican.

CH: My mom.

AM: Was she actually born in Mexico?

CH: In Yucatán, northern Mexico.

AM: Did your parents have any dance in their background?

CH: Not even a little indication. It was just me. I was a serious kid – very studious, very focused. When you want something badly, you apply yourself. I didn’t need to be told. I guess that’s what helped all on the way throughout my career, because I only took ballet for six years in California before I moved to New York. And then I did a summer at the National Ballet of Canada in ’73, and I went to New York straight from there and did nine months at the School for American Ballet Theatre before getting accepted to the company.

AM: You did not have that much formal training.

CH: No, my teacher was fantastic. She had three of us end up at ABT, so I give her all the credit. It’s a combination of everything – my mother and father’s genes, the support I got from them, and the scholarships I was able to get, because there was no way my parents could afford it.

Cynthia Harvey dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov in an American Ballet Theatre production of Don Quixote (photo by MIRA, American Ballet Theatre)

Cynthia Harvey dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov in an American Ballet Theatre production of Don Quixote (photo by MIRA, American Ballet Theatre)

AM: What qualities did you have that helped you become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre?

CH: Luck. I had a certain amount of co-ordination, but I was the right height. I am actually 5 foot 4, I’m not very tall, but people thought I looked taller, so they put me in the back when they needed somebody in the back, they put me in the front when they needed somebody in the front.  But at one point, when Baryshnikov was beginning to stage his Don Quixote, he asked a few of us during the summer if we wanted to work. This was on our break, it was no pay, and it was frowned upon because of union rules. But I kept saying, “It’s my summer holiday. I want to do this,” and never thought that we’d get anything out of it.

I remember very clearly he and the ballet mistress at the time, Elena Tchernicheva, said, “We never knew you could do this.” Because they could only see me standing on the sidelines with my arms crossed, you know, in various balletic positions – either a swan or Giselle or whatever. So I was getting noticed, and I had a good, natural jump, but for some of the other technical things I was very green.

I was four and a half years in the corps de ballet and then I spent another four years as a soloist before being promoted to principal. All along I was being given the one new full-length ballet a year or a couple in one year. I got thrown into a lot of things by accident. When there was somebody who’d go off, they’d all turn their head and say, “Cynthia will do it.” Reliable, professional, you know – all that stuff. Even when we did the Don Q [Don Quixote] telecast, I was seventh cast. I wasn’t first. It was again a question of people falling out and I was at the right place.

Cynthia Harvey in a ballet studio at American Ballet Theatre (photo by Paul B. Goode)

Cynthia Harvey in a ballet studio at American Ballet Theatre (photo by Paul B. Goode)

AM: Your dancing is so full of spirit. Where does that feeling come from?

CH: In that particular ballet, I would listen to all these fabulous flamenco and Spanish composers, and I would imagine that I was in Spain – you know sunshine, and getting out into the plaza. Just stepping out on the stage, I already had a nice warm feeling. But when you’ve got the company, and their choreographed clapping, it gives you a lot of energy. There’s a little in my blood, I suppose, of that sort of Spanish heritage – a little bit of that spice. So that helped a lot too.

AM: You have spoken about being very nervous before a performance, and Elizabeth Taylor helping to boost your confidence.

Cynthia Harvey in the dressing room (photo by Paul B. Goode)

Cynthia Harvey in the dressing room (photo by Paul B. Goode)

CH: It was Swan Lake. We were in Washington, D.C., and one of the dancers in our company, Jennet Zerbe, her father, Anthony Zerbe, is an actor. I was staying at this hotel called The Intrigue and I went down to have dinner. Anthony Zerbe knew that I was going to be premiering Swan Lake the very next day.

My partner was in another company and was auditioning, so he couldn’t come until he finished. So I was rehearsing the whole ballet on my own and was very anxious because I had never run it through. Anthony Zerbe came by, we had a chat, and then he went and sat with Elizabeth Taylor. I guess he told her I would be premiering Swan Lake. So she came over to the table and she sat down, and asked me how I felt about this. It was really sweet, very natural. And she said, “You’ve been preparing for this all your life. Why are you nervous?” It was true. After all, this is what we do this for – it’s to perform it. And then she sent me a bottle of champagne and a note. I must have the note in my old theatre cases upstairs.

Cynthia Harvey with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Swan Lake (photo by MIRA, American Ballet Theatre)

Cynthia Harvey with Mikhail Baryshnikov in Swan Lake (photo by MIRA, American Ballet Theatre)

AM: What was it like to work with Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre?

CH: He was not only Baryshnikov the star, but he was also my boss – he was directing the company. So every day was like an audition. You knew that he had the power to keep you or not keep you. We had minimal conversations, but that’s the way he danced as well. It was to the point, nothing extra. But then when you got on stage, you had all his attention. It was all about the standard and keeping that level high. He never put himself out there to be the commodity. He did what he did with a great deal of integrity, and it was always about being at the highest level possible. And that, for me, is the biggest lesson I could have had. Of course it spoiled me, because now I look at other things with a point of view that is a bit warped to a high standard.

AM: You also danced with Nureyev & Friends.

CH: At ABT he did a couple of things. I was green, but it was just a fantastic time. And when you consider the ‘80s in ballet, all these wonderful people came through our lives, and it set a standard for ballet that has not actually been topped, in my mind. You get the artistry, you get the technique, you get the physicality. It was a wonderful period in ballet, and I was so fortunate to have been part of it.

Cynthia Harvey as Aurora in a Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty (photo by Leslie Spatt)

Cynthia Harvey as Aurora in a Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty (photo by Leslie Spatt)

AM: In the ‘80s you relocated to the U.K. to join The Royal Ballet in London. How did that come about?

CH: It was because of Anthony Dowell, who danced as a guest at ABT in the late ‘70s. I did my first full-length ballet with him. Several years later, when he became the director of The Royal Ballet, he had kind of a gap. By now I was a principal, and he knew that I loved the English style and was very much an Anglophile, so he invited me. I remember saying to Baryshnikov, “I’ve always dreamt of doing this, and you of all people will understand what I mean when I say I want to try something new.”

So I went. And I probably would have stayed a bit longer, but I hurt myself in the Manon bedroom pas de deux. I broke my foot in a few places. And at that time the Royal Ballet’s physical therapy wasn’t as strong as it was in America and I had a hard time getting back in shape. I thought, “I’m in my 30s and this is supposed to be my prime time dancing. I need to go back where I have my support system.” So I returned to the United States. And then the year later I met my husband, or now my ex-husband, I’m afraid to say. I married a British man who was working in motor racing and Formula 1. And then I had a few more years left dancing, and I retired at the end of 1995 and had my son in 1998.

Cynthia Harvey with her son (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)

Cynthia Harvey with her son (photo by Rosalie O’Connor)

AM: You’ve mainly worked in teaching and restaging since then. What are some of the highlights of those activities?

CH: The first thing that came to me was Makarova asked me to help her with the staging of La Bayadère in Poland. I had been teaching in the village where I live here in England. My son was four and a half, so I took him with me to Poland and got an au pair during the daytime. I worked on the fourth floor and we were living inside the theatre on the fifth floor – it was very “Phantom of the Opera.” And then the next year the person she normally had staging things at La Scala was having an operation, so she asked me to do La Bayadère there. And then somehow the snowball effect happened, and people kept asking me to do things, which had me travelling quite a lot.

The next staging I did was in Oslo. In 2006 I went there to teach class while somebody else staged Sleeping Beauty. And then two years later, the ballet master whose staging it was left the company. So they asked if I would re-choreograph some of the extra parts. And then I realized there were some aspects of the ballet that didn’t make 100% sense to me. So I changed exits from one side of the stage to the other so that things flowed a little bit more to my liking.

A production of Giselle staged by Cynthia Harvey for the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo (photo by Erik Berg)

A production of Giselle staged by Cynthia Harvey for the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo (photo by Erik Berg)

Fast forward. Madeleine Onne asked me to do Sleeping Beauty in Hong Kong. It involved having to choose a designer and get that aspect of the vision of the production together, because in Oslo it was still the vision of the ballet master from before. So I was kind of starting from scratch. In between, I staged my own Giselle for Oslo. And I’ve now done Don Q on top of it, in Singapore.

Cynthia Harvey in front of a Hong Kong Ballet poster for Sleeping Beauty

Cynthia Harvey in front of a Hong Kong Ballet poster for Sleeping Beauty

AM:  Can you tell me a bit about your staging of The Sleeping Beauty, which will be performed by the Hong Kong Ballet in Ottawa?

CH: I have tried to make a thread and a through-line. They are doing a shortened version. What excites me the most is that the Hong Kong Ballet will be seen, because their dancers are gorgeous. I’m actually quite thrilled that they’ve chosen Sleeping Beauty to present. We took Louis XIV as the basis of the idea, so you’ll see some of the costumes have the shapes that belonged in that era. There’s a lot of gold, because you have to remember that it had to appeal to the Chinese audience first. I think everyone who sees them will be pleasantly surprised what a nice, beautiful refined company they are.

A Hong Kong Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, staged by Cynthia Harvey (photo by Conrad Escano Dy-Liacco)

A Hong Kong Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty, staged by Cynthia Harvey (photo by Conrad Escano Dy-Liacco)

AM: You have your own foundation called En Avant. Can you tell me about that?

CH: In 2013 I established a non-profit. I got caught up in this whole idea of having a foundation that appropriates scholarships for a couple of people and then holds master classes and coaches the classical ballets. People learn from YouTube and you’re getting ballerinas from Russia, and you’ve got some American girl who’s not built like that at all, and all she sees is this girl with her legs way up in the air – 180° extensions – and so she tries to emulate that, thinking that’s what it’s about.

Cynthia Harvey coaching a young dancer at the Prix de Lausanne, an international competition for young dancers (photo by Gregory Batardon)

Cynthia Harvey coaching a young dancer at the Prix de Lausanne, an international competition for young dancers (photo by Gregory Batardon)

And not to say that I was around when these pieces were created, but I’ve been taught by some of the best people – Makarova and Baryshnikov and Frederick Ashton and De Valois, and this information was handed down through them. For instance, last year we did Swan Lake. We did one in San Francisco, one in New York. And young girls between the ages of 15 and 18, if they’re doing the Black Swan they immediately think “evil.” But Black Swan isn’t just a one-dimensional character. You can be mysterious, you can be seductive, you can be all sorts of things. We’re not trying to change the way people have been taught things, but just to feed them the information that they may not ordinarily get, or even if they get it, if it comes from a different voice, often they will listen better.

AM: You’ve spoken quite a bit about the current state of ballet. Could you say a few words about that?

CH: The emphasis has shifted to quantity rather than quality. Art for me is something intangible – you can’t quantify it. And what I was seeing was quantifying things, like how many pirouettes can I get in, even if I have to pull the music out. I don’t think we need to count how many pirouettes or how fast somebody does something or how slow. I want to be moved, I want to be touched, I want to cry, I want to laugh – all the emotions.

Cynthia Harvey coaching a master class through the En Avant Foundation, which she created in 2013 to provide scholarships and master classes for ballet students (photo by Eric Tomesson@SFBS)

Cynthia Harvey coaching a master class through the En Avant Foundation, which she created in 2013 to provide scholarships and master classes for ballet students (photo by Eric Tomesson@SFBS)

For me that’s why I started the foundation, because I was hearing it from so many people. People were writing books about the decline of the ballet, it was going to become obsolete. It shouldn’t be any more obsolete than Mozart or Beethoven. I just heard a concert by Martha Argerich in Basel two weeks ago, and for me it was life-affirming. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that affected. This is what we need ballet to become again.

AM: You were recently appointed artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre’s JKO School. Are you still going to keep a base in England?

Cynthia Harvey as Manon in a Royal Ballet production (photo by Roy Round)

Cynthia Harvey as Manon in a Royal Ballet production (photo by Roy Round)

CH: I’m not going to take anything with me because I was on the point of retiring myself to Spain. I want to live in a warm climate. So I will start from scratch in New York like a teenager, with no furniture. If you’d said to me a year ago that this was in the cards I would have thought you were crazy.

But when Kevin McKenzie asked me, everything pointed to, “Why not?” My son was will be going to university starting in September – I’m kind of free to do it. I’ve always said that I’d like to contribute to the art form. How much better can it be than if I contribute by directing the school? And especially a school where I have my heart. When they brought me in to look, I got excited by what I saw – the potential is fantastic. When you’re running a school that’s that big, you learn about the different trends that are happening in the dance world. And I think that as my last hurrah it is not a bad thing to do – to be part of the dialogue about where dance is going. It’s a little adventure and I’m game for it.

Cynthia Harvey’s staging of The Sleeping Beauty will be performed by the Hong Kong Ballet at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre at 8 p.m. on March 3, 4 and 5, 2016. For more information about Cynthia Harvey or En Avant Foundation, please visit enavantfoundation.com.

 

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INTERVIEW WITH EMILIE-CLAIRE BARLOW

Emilie-Claire Barlow at the UpTown Waterloo Jazz Festival on July 20, 2012 (photo by Tabercil, Flickr Creative Commons)

Emilie-Claire Barlow at the UpTown Waterloo Jazz Festival on July 20, 2012 (photo by Tabercil, Flickr Creative Commons)

By Anita Malhotra

Growing up in a family of professional musicians, Toronto-based singer and arranger Emilie-Claire Barlow sang in commercials as a child and went on to release her debut album in 1998 at the age of 22. She followed this with 10 solo albums featuring arrangements of jazz standards, contemporary favorites, Brazilian songs and other repertoire. One of these, Seule ce soir, was sung entirely in French and won a Juno Award in 2013 for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.

Also a successful voice actress, Emilie-Claire Barlow has performed for such TV shows as Sailor Moon, Almost Naked Animals and Peg + Cat.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Barlow, who was at Toronto’s Pearson Airport en route to Montreal, on Dec. 4, 2015, a few weeks before a performance at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.

AM: I can’t help noticing that your name is half English and half French. Where did the French half come from?

ECB: It’s a very simple answer. The French half of my name, which is of course the first half of my name, is simply because my parents loved the name. They thought it was really pretty. My parents are Anglophone – there is no Francophone in my family at all. My mother is a Francophile. She loves the language, she loves all things French. And so here I am now with this name and trying to do my best to live up to it.

"The Beat Goes On," Emilie-Claire Barlow's eighth solo album, features songs from the '60s

“The Beat Goes On,” Emilie-Claire Barlow’s eighth solo album, features songs from the ’60s

AM: You did release one album that was entirely in French. How did you accomplish that considering French was not your native language?

ECB: It’s my second language and I took very basic French as a child, but it was quite minimal. It really came because I started touring a lot in Quebec seven or eight years ago and I wanted to be able to communicate with my audiences, both during the show and after when I’m meeting people. I also found myself immersed in the musical culture of Quebec and having opportunities to promote my music on various television and radio shows, which would feature other artists – Quebec artists. So this whole other songbook and repertoire started to open up to me.

I wanted to do a record all in French but I was afraid that I wasn’t at the level that I wanted to be with the language. So I wrestled with myself until I realized that the desire is there, and what better way of learning the language than through lyrics and through the process of doing this. So that’s how Seule ce soir came about.

AM: You grew up in a musical family. How did that influence your choice of vocation?

ECB: I think for me music was such an important part of my life, I didn’t even think of it as an important part of my life – it just was my life. I did take it for granted and I do even still to this day sometimes take it for granted. My mother’s a singer, my father’s a drummer and a percussionist, and I was surrounded by music growing up.

Emilie-Claire Barlow as a baby at the piano with her musician father, Brian Barlow (photo courtesy of Emilie-Claire Barlow)

Emilie-Claire Barlow as a baby at the piano with her musician father, Brian Barlow (photo courtesy of Emilie-Claire Barlow)

My parents were both first-call session players in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Toronto, and I spent a lot of my childhood in recording studios. And it was clear from a young age that singing was something that came very naturally to me. I made a conscious decision when I was at the end of high school that I was really pursuing it as a career. I was already working professionally in Toronto and I realized, “This is what I want to pursue. I’m on the right path.”

AM: You did some professional work as a child. What was that like?

ECB: I started singing on radio and television commercials when I was eight or nine years old. It evolved naturally from being in the studio while my mother was singing or my dad was playing. They knew I could sing in tune and I could learn things quickly. I also had an untrained sounding voice and I think that worked well for singing commercials, where advertisers wanted a kid that sounds like a kid, and not like a child whose voice is affected.

AM: You were quite young when you produced your first album. What led up to that?

ECB: I had decided after high school to go to Humber College to take the vocal program. There I met a bass player and arranger by the name of Shelly Berger. I was in his theory class and arranging class and it was a really “lightbulb moment,” to use Oprah’s phrase, because I realized then that was why I was there – to focus on musical theory and arranging.

Emilie-Claire Barlow performing at the Montreal Bistro in Toronto on July 18, 2003 (photo by Taku, Flickr Creative Commons)

Emilie-Claire Barlow performing at the Montreal Bistro in Toronto on July 18, 2003 (photo by Taku, Flickr Creative Commons)

So I started to write some arrangements, and my dad said, “let’s put a band together and let’s play some of these.” He also is an arranger and was writing some. So we put a band together, which was an incredible band because it was the “who’s who” of the Toronto jazz musician scene. We started playing in a local club – the Montreal Bistro in Toronto, which is unfortunately not there anymore. The album was an evolution of playing live. It really just kind of snowballed from there. I did my first three albums with my dad and then I broke out on my own.

AM: In selecting songs to feature on your albums, how do you choose from the vast repertoire of music available to you?

ECB: My earlier albums are definitely focused on the American Songbook – the standards from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Usually I do some Brazilian songs as well. The album that I put out in 2010 was a turning point for me. I wanted to do an album that had a really strong focus – to give myself some limitations. Because how can you possibly choose repertoire when you think about all the incredible songs that are floating around out there? So I decided to give myself the guideline that I was going to do songs just from the ‘60s. It didn’t matter if they were jazz songs or whatever. And I think that is one of the most creative of my albums “arrangementally.”

Clear Day, the new album, is also a very specific story. The album is a journal of a four-year period in my life that started in 2011 in the summer and pretty much brings us up to present day. It was a period in my life where I had an opportunity to go to the Arctic on an icebreaker. That really prompted me to reflect on my life and the path I was on, and what I wanted out of this one life I have. It prompted some major life changes. There was the end of a marriage and all of the trauma that goes along with that – the roller coaster of emotions. And then there was the feeling of liberation and unknown and uncertainty and finding new love.

Barlow performing at the UpTown Waterloo Jazz Festival on July 20, 2012 (photo by Tabercil, Flickr Creative Commons)

Barlow performing at the UpTown Waterloo Jazz Festival on July 20, 2012 (photo by Tabercil, Flickr Creative Commons)

The concept of the album was to create this narrative looking back on this story and decide what were the turning points along the way. I chose those and then set about finding a song that could score each of those moments. The idea was that I could choose from any style of music, any era of music. The most important thing was that I had to be able to tell the story through that song. So there’s also a tremendous amount of composition here, even though the songs are cover songs. The orchestration is written for a 70-piece orchestra. In some cases there were lyrics written where the songs were originally instrumental.

I collaborated with Steve Webster, who has had a very long, successful career as an electric bass player, as a composer, as an arranger. It was a scary experience for me to learn how to share ideas that were unformed. We demoed everything. We had a microphone set up all the time and we would play around with ideas, and for the first time in my life I took an extended period of time to just go away and work on music. It was a wonderfully creative time.

Emilie-Claire Barlow on March 11, 2015 (photo by Steve Webster)

Emilie-Claire Barlow on March 11, 2015 (photo by Steve Webster)

AM: And Steve is your boyfriend as well.

ECB: He’s my boyfriend, yes. We fell in love and that was part of the wonder of the experience as well. Some of the very early sparks of ideas for the arrangements were while we were falling in love. And they made it on to the record. One of them is called, “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” and is about the very beginning of a relationship where you know there’s something’s happening but you’re not entirely sure how the other person feels. And there was a long distance element to it so it’s very autobiographical.

Jules Buckley conducting a concert in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Feb. 4, 2011 (photo by Ben Houdijk, Flickr Creative Commons)

Jules Buckley conducting a concert in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on Feb. 4, 2011 (photo by Ben Houdijk, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: You collaborated with the Metropole Orkest on Clear Day. How did this collaboration start?

ECB: Steve had the idea to contact the Metropole Orkest. We wanted to use them because they are really well-established jazz orchestra and because they are very open musically. Their conductor, Jules Buckley, has a very inspired and eclectic batch of projects that he’s working on. They’ve got an incredible recording facility in Hilversum, which is just outside of Amsterdam. We went over there and recorded in this beautiful studio that can accommodate the whole orchestra, and we actually added almost 20 people. I’m going to be bringing Jules Buckley over from Europe to conduct the Massey Hall performance on February 10.

AM: What will you be singing at the NAC performance in Ottawa on December 18th?

ECB: Being able to bring this show to orchestras across the country is a dream. And so we’re going to be bringing some material from Clear Day to the NAC. We are also going to have a nice healthy dose of holiday songs – Christmas songs. I released a record almost 10 years ago, Winter Wonderland. I took some of those arrangements and orchestrated them for this show. And I’ve also got a special guest, David Myles, who is a very talented singer, songwriter. He’s going to be doing some of his Christmas material and then he’s going to join me for a duet. And I’ve got a couple of my songs from earlier records in there as well. So it’s a nice mix.

Emilie-Claire Barlow on December 11, 2006 giving a Christmas concert at the Old Mill in Toronto (photo by Taku, Flickr Creative Commons)

Emilie-Claire Barlow on December 11, 2006 giving a Christmas concert at the Old Mill in Toronto (photo by Taku, Flickr Creative Commons)

AM: You’re also a voice actor. How do you divide your time between the singing, the arranging, the voice acting and the business side of what you do?

ECB: Yesterday was an amazing day and it was a good example of how my life goes. I woke up really early and put a lot of makeup on, and I did an afternoon concert in Toronto at the First Canadian Place. Then I went to a studio and I had a two-hour voice session where I was doing the voice of a character called “Mermaid” on a kid’s show called Peg + Cat. It’s a really sweet animated show for little kids. it’s all about learning counting, shapes and colors, and it’s really well-written It actually won an Emmy last year. So I did that and then I raced off to a rehearsal with my band.

Emilie-Claire Barlow performing at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on June 30, 2014 (photo titled "Blue Mood" by Doug, Flickr Creative Commons)

Emilie-Claire Barlow performing at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on June 30, 2014 (photo titled “Blue Mood” by Doug, Flickr Creative Commons)

It’s busy but it’s so wonderful. There’s a lot of administrative work to do, but it’s all about facilitating the music. A large portion of my job is creating opportunities for myself to do what I love to do best. I travel usually with a portable studio and I do a lot of work remotely as well. I’ve worked on other people’s albums that way. They send me the track, I’ll sing on it and send it back. I’ll do voice work that way too. If they’re open to doing it, then I can record myself wherever I am. The car is actually a really good recording environment.

Barlow's 10th solo album, "Live in Tokyo," was released in 2014

Barlow’s 10th solo album, “Live in Tokyo,” was released in 2014

AM: You have released an album called Live in Tokyo. Do you have a particular connection with Japan?

ECB: I started going there almost 10 years ago when I released my Christmas album. And I’ve been going usually about once every year and a half or two years. We’re actually heading back there at the end of January. There are wonderful audiences there who really have a strong appreciation for music – for jazz, bossa nova. There’s an openness there musically. We usually go and play at the Cotton Club in Tokyo. As a band, it’s a luxury to play in the same place for some nights in a row, because that doesn’t happen very often. And it’s a really great opportunity to develop chemistry between band mates and for the material to really evolve. And to be able to travel with people who I consider my friends, making music. It’s a really wonderful thing.

Emilie-Claire Barlow will be performing at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on December 18, 2015; Tokyo’s Cotton Club on January 22-24; Toronto’s Massey Hall on February 10; and in various locations in Quebec in February 2016. For more information about her music, please visit emilieclairebarlow.com.

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INTERVIEW WITH ALBERTO VEIGA (BAROZZI/VEIGA)

Alberto Veiga (L) and Fabrizio Barozzi (R), founders of the award-winning architecture firm Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

Alberto Veiga (L) and Fabrizio Barozzi (R), founders of the award-winning architecture firm Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

By Anita Malhotra

Spanish architect Alberto Veiga and Italian architect Fabrizio Barozzi began collaborating in 2004, making a name for themselves with a series of award-winning submissions to architectural competitions in Europe. Their unique and strikingly beautiful buildings and designs, often inspired by the surrounding environment, embody their philosophy of a simple architecture based on fundamental principles like light and scale.

Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin, Poland by Barozzi/Veiga, which won the 2015 Mies van der Rohe Award (photo courtesy of B/V)

Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin, Poland by Barozzi/Veiga, which won the 2015 Mies van der Rohe Award (photo courtesy of B/V)

 Their works include an auditorium in Águilas, Spain that echoes the shape of a nearby rock; a dance school in Zurich, Switzerland featuring a series of inverted triangles; and a symphony hall in Szczecin, Poland that is inspired by the verticality of the surrounding buildings. The latter, completed in 2014, has won numerous prizes, including the prestigious 2015 Mies van der Rohe Award.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Alberto Veiga about the work of Barozzi/Veiga at their office in Barcelona on September 3, 2015.

Alberto Veiga at his office on Sept. 3, 2015 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Alberto Veiga at his office on Sept. 3, 2015 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: What is your background in architecture?

AV: I studied architecture in a small city in the north of the country – in Pamplona. After I worked there for 5 or 6 years, I decided to move to the south – to Sevilla. And in Sevilla I met Fabrizio. We were working there together in an office. He studied architecture in Venice, but he moved because of the Erasmus Programme, this European exchange program that permits students to move around the continent.

Our background was the approach of a student trying to learn as much as possible of the classical view of the architectural office. Of course, our studies were different. What Italian architects understand by architecture is something more linked with history, the past. It’s more rhetoric, more narrative. I studied in the north of Spain, in a small city. The vision is more technical, it’s more functional. But we had a similar approach about what we wanted to do from the beginning.

Architectural rendering of a dance school in Zurich, Switzerland designed by Barozzi/Veiga and currently under construction (photo courtesy of B/V)

Architectural rendering of a dance school in Zurich, Switzerland designed by Barozzi/Veiga and currently under construction (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: Was that approach one that was against the classical view of architecture?

AV: The approach was not against the former generation or against the classical vision of architecture. It was more like the feeling that we have with things we like. When you start to work with somebody, this is what you can test: “Do you like this or not?” And that’s why we started to feel comfortable speaking about architecture together. And then, in these 10 years, the approach has changed because we didn’t know exactly what kind of architecture we wanted to do from the beginning.

Architectural rendering of the interior of a Neanderthal Museum in Piloña, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

Architectural rendering of the interior of a Neanderthal Museum in Piloña, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: What types of architecture did you both like?

AV: From the beginning, we were both interested in this kind of honest architecture, an architecture based from the essence of the discipline – very, very simple things. We wanted to transmit simple messages to the users. We were not very interested in the adjectives of architecture. We were not green, we were not technical architects. From the beginning we tried to focus on the fundamental elements of what architecture means – the scale, the light, the proportion, how to transmit something in a simple way.

Headquarters of the Regulatory Council for the D.O. Ribera del Duero in Roa, Spain, designed by Barozzi/Veiga and completed in 2011 (photo courtesy of B/V)

Headquarters of the Regulatory Council for the D.O. Ribera del Duero in Roa, Spain, designed by Barozzi/Veiga and completed in 2011 (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: You mentioned “messages to the user.” What do you mean by that?

AV: Well, it’s not a message, but what we try to do is to always transmit something. We don’t believe that you can change the world with architecture. But you have to try to transmit something, at least so that the people who are going to use the building feel something – in terms of feeling comfortable, feeling the beauty of something or the light inside. Or just starting a reflection about why they did this in this way, why the light comes in in this way. Or try to activate the memory of people by linking the building with some context or some tradition that they can experience inside.

Fabrizio Barozzi (L) and Alberto Veiga (R) at work in their office in Barcelona (photo courtesy of B/V)

Fabrizio Barozzi (L) and Alberto Veiga (R) at work in their office in Barcelona (photo courtesy of B/V)

That’s the difference between being an architect and being just an engineer that tries to solve problems. The power of architecture is to transmit feelings – feelings about beauty, feelings about memory, feelings about feeling comfortable inside. That’s what we try to do.

AM: Why did you choose Barcelona as the city to establish your firm?

AV: We had no roots in Barcelona, but it was more personal factors. My wife now was living here in Barcelona, and Fabrizio’s wife was in the States but she wanted to move here too. So we decided to move to Barcelona. And then because it was more linked in terms of connections with Italy, with France.

Exterior of the building in Eixample, Barcelona where the office of Barozzi/Veiga is located (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Exterior of the building in Eixample, Barcelona where the office of Barozzi/Veiga is located (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: Are there any particular architects that influenced you?

AV: We admire a lot of architects. We admire Siza’s work and we admire Peter Zumthor. But if you ask me for just one influence I can’t tell you just one. And even nowadays you can access a lot of references from all around the world. But I think that we always liked this kind of classical approach to the work.

AM: One of your early works is the auditorium in Spain that is next to the sea. What thought process went into the design of this building?

AV: That was the first building we did. It’s in the south of Spain – Águilas – and it’s just in front of the beach facing the south. It is an interpretation of what we thought the place needed. It is like a rock. The natural end of the bay is a huge rock, so the building is a reflection of this element. It is a massive volume worked with these curved surfaces that try to transmit to the citizens there how the shadow moves around the curved surface. You can see the sunlight over the building during the whole day, so you can see how the sea changes during the day, and you can see how the light changes over the building.

Exterior of the auditorium and congress center in Águilas, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga and completed in 2011 (photo courtesy of B/V)

Exterior of the auditorium and congress center in Águilas, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga and completed in 2011 (photo courtesy of B/V)

And then it’s solved in a traditional way with the traditional finish of mortar. And it’s white because the traditional architecture of the south of Spain is white. It is a work that we tried to solve without vanity, because when you are young, when you can do an auditorium – a huge building – you always try to do everything you know. And here we tried to avoid that. We wanted to do it in a simple way but in a very expressive way.

Interior of the auditorium and congress center in Águilas, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

Interior of the auditorium and congress center in Águilas, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: Your most awarded work is the Philharmonic Hall in Szczecin. How did you arrive at that design?

AV: Usually we go to sites a couple of times during the competition. We always try to feel the key points of the site, sometimes with a tourist’s vision. And of course we didn’t know anything about Poland – it was our first time there. In Szczecin, we discovered this influence of Germanic architecture because this is West Pomerania. So you can see these massive volumes, these steep roofs in the houses. You can see this verticality in all the main monuments and the churches.

Szczecin Philharmonic Hall and surrounding buildings (photo courtesy of B/V)

Szczecin Philharmonic Hall and surrounding buildings (photo courtesy of B/V)

And then you have the Philharmonic Hall – something devoted to classical music. So we started to play with how to compose something with elements that could reflect the memory of the site in terms of architecture. And we started to work with this idea of repetition with the volume.

Inside Szczecin Philharmonic Hall (photo courtesy of B/V)

Inside Szczecin Philharmonic Hall (photo courtesy of B/V)

Inside, the idea was to work with the light, with the scale of the space – to transmit why when the scale changes something is going to happen or not, what a public space means inside the building, what the idea of movement means inside the hall, because when you go to a performance everyone wants to see who’s going to come, who’s crossing the hall.

And then inside the concert hall it is a special space so we knew that the contrast between the concert hall and exterior should be huge because outside the actor is the user; inside the actor is the music. The outside is glass; inside in the public space it’s just plasterboard – something very simple. We did the concert hall with fake gold leaf so you can perceive how it is linked with the tradition.

The auditorium of Szczecin Philharmonic Hall (photo courtesy of B/V)

The auditorium of Szczecin Philharmonic Hall (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: Was this building built on the site of another concert hall?

AV: Yes – formerly on the same site there was a Philharmonic Hall that was destroyed during the war. And we tried to mix all these things. Of course you always filter through your eyes, through your obsessions and through your feelings about the place. It is something very subjective. It is complex, of course, but the secret is to achieve a good relationship with the place and with the users.

Alberto Veiga (photo courtesy of Barozzi/Veiga)

Alberto Veiga (photo courtesy of Barozzi/Veiga)

AM: What are you working on now?

AV: At the office we mainly do public competitions. The way to get jobs in Spain and in Italy is through competitions. It is hard to do them, but if you have success then it is a very good way to propose the kind of architecture that you like. So now we are doing a couple of competitions – one in Switzerland and one in Denmark. And at the same time we are developing the projects that we have in Switzerland. And then we are starting building on-site in Brunico – a city in the north of Italy – a music school that we won a couple of years ago.

Architectural rendering of a music school in Brunico, Italy designed by Barozzi/Veiga and currently under construction (photo courtesy of B/V)

Architectural rendering of a music school in Brunico, Italy designed by Barozzi/Veiga and currently under construction (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: How does an architectural competition work?

AV: If you win competitions, most of the time you have control of the whole process from the beginning until the opening of the place. The control that you have is much bigger here probably than in the United States because in the United States there are more companies, more contractors, more things in the middle, and you are just another actor. The building is just an idea, and the architect is another player, and sometimes you have to work against the rest of the players. Here, in Europe, you are still the main actor in terms of architecture. That’s why you can see more personal works.

Architectural rendering of a design by Barozzi/Veiga for the Cantonal Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland (photo courtesy of B/V)

Architectural rendering of a design by Barozzi/Veiga for the Cantonal Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: How do you see your work and its impact on future generations?

AV: Well, we live in such a complex world that it is difficult for us to think about the future in terms of being an architect in the next ten years. Because the market is so complex, nobody knows if you are going to survive being an architect.

Architectural rendering of the exterior of a Neanderthal Museum in Piloña, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

Architectural rendering of the exterior of a Neanderthal Museum in Piloña, Spain designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

I think that in every work we try to do something that is a personal vision, but is something that can at least survive. And that sounds a little bit dramatic, but it’s true. You can only survive if you somehow achieve the beauty of something, or if you achieve something that can be atemporal: that is not linked with the passage of time, that people can understand. And if you achieve that, you can be universal like a painter. To use the word “beauty” in architecture nowadays is dangerous. But finally it’s what permits you to survive: to achieve the beauty of something and try to be atemporal with it.

Panoramic shot of Barcelona (photo by Ferran Legaz, Flickr Creative Commons, August 20, 2014)

Panoramic shot of Barcelona (photo by Ferran Legaz, Flickr Creative Commons, August 20, 2014)

AM: What are your favorite places in Barcelona?

AV: Barcelona is a very nice place to live, and this neighborhood, Eixample, is very, very nice because everything happens in just 100 metres. You have a supermarket, a bar, an office, a house – the density of the place is very nice. But the main references for me here in Barcelona are the markets. Because if you go to a market, you understand how the neighborhood works. This open space permits organization of not just the market but the social life around it.

El Mercat de la Concepció, a market in the district of Eixample built in 1888 (photo by Anselm Pallas, Flickr Creative Commons, March 18, 2015)

El Mercat de la Concepció, a market in the district of Eixample built in 1888 (photo by Anselm Pallas, Flickr Creative Commons, March 18, 2015)

Of course, there are very good examples of architecture. Gaudi is a good example – not the Sagrada Família, because that’s not Gaudi – that’s a mix now of a lot of things. I understand that people want to come to Barcelona to see Gaudi’s work, but for me it’s more interesting just to experience this idea of the neighborhood markets – the social life that you can have here. Because here everything happens on the street – in the market and in front of your house. And that’s very nice in Barcelona because the weather is fantastic the whole year. You can go to the market, have a coffee outside, cross the street and go to another place. And you can do it in December.

Commissioned private residence in Ordos, China (2008) designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

Commissioned private residence in Ordos, China (2008) designed by Barozzi/Veiga (photo courtesy of B/V)

AM: Do you have a dream building or a dream project?

AV: Not really. We have done public buildings, but I think if you are an architect you need to enjoy doing just the simple house or a church. And even the place is not so important. That’s why we try to work in any place, because the place is not important and the kind of building is not important. What matters is your attitude to the work.

For more information about Alberto Veiga and Barozzi/Veiga, please visit barozziveiga.com.

 

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INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS LAUDERDALE (PINK MARTINI)

Thomas Lauderdale, pianist and founder of Pink Martini (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

Thomas Lauderdale, pianist and founder of Pink Martini (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

By Anita Malhotra

Few people can say they have appeared as a soloist with a major symphony orchestra, aspired to be mayor, founded a band whose albums have sold more than three million copies, and worn a cocktail dress in public. Portland-based pianist and composer Thomas Lauderdale, who launched Pink Martini in 1994, has done all these things and more.

Under his direction, Pink Martini has released eight best-selling albums of tuneful, sultry songs in 25 languages that blend world, jazz, pop, lounge and classical styles. From its origins as a four-member band playing Portland parties for progressive causes, it has grown to 12+ members, including vocalist China Forbes, who co-writes many of the songs with Lauderdale. In the process, the “little orchestra” has toured much of the world, played with more than 50 symphony orchestras, and appeared at such venues as the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, L’Olympia theatre in Paris and Royal Albert Hall.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Thomas Lauderdale, who was in Portland, on June 17, 2015.

Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale (photo by Holly Andres)

Pink Martini founder Thomas Lauderdale (photo by Holly Andres)

AM: What are your earliest memories of music?

TL: I was born in Oakland, California and my family moved when I was two to Indiana. My parents were from the earnest side of the ‘60s. They had a reel-to-reel tape machine and there were six things that made up my childhood in terms of music. They were: Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, the New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. In addition, my father was a Church of the Brethren minister – one of the three peace denominations along with the Quakers and Mennonites. I was deeply affected by the hymns that were played during church – the bloody hymns of the 1880s, 1890s. So those were my biggest influences.

What all of this had in common was beautiful melodies. I never paid attention to lyrics until we started writing songs for the band. It was always about melody for me. Because the lyrics are in 25 different languages, the common thing holding them all together are the melodies. So one doesn’t necessarily have to speak the language to understand or to appreciate the beauty of the melody.

AM: When did you start playing music?

TL: I started when I was six. I would go up to the piano after church and my parents thought I should start piano lessons, so I started when I was six. I’m still studying with my piano teacher – classical, mostly. I didn’t really play pop. I liked Hollywood musicals and things like that, but in terms of playing piano, it was mostly classical.

Thomas Lauderdale as a high school student at a City Council meeting with Portland Mayor Bud Clark on "Government Day" (photo courtesy of Thomas Lauderdale and Heinz Records)

Thomas Lauderdale as a high school student at a City Council meeting with Portland Mayor Bud Clark on “Government Day” (photo courtesy of Thomas Lauderdale and Heinz Records)

AM: How did Pink Martini get started?

TL: I was working in politics when I got back to town from Harvard. I really wanted to become Mayor of Portland. And there was a very nasty attempt to amend the Oregon State Constitution to illegalize homosexuality in the state of Oregon. So I was on the campaign in opposition to Measure 13 in 1994. I had just seen Pee-wee Herman’s Christmas special, which has 25 different stars in it in 45 minutes: k.d. Lang, Dinah Shore, Little Richard, Magic Johnson, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Cher, Charo, Grace Jones, and The Del Rubio Triplets – three gals, three guitarists, who were somewhere between the ages of 70 and 80. They wore little mini-skirts, little booties, and they looked exactly alike – big hair. And they played guitar and warbled covers of “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “Whip It.”

So I decided that I should bring them to town to do a series of mini-concerts in retirement homes and nursing homes and hospitals and rotary meetings. And then at the end of the set they would say, “Vote No on Measure 13.” At the end of the week we had a big community concert at a local theatre and I needed an opening act. I was trying to get a hold of a surf band called Satan’s Pilgrims, but they weren’t answering, so I threw on a cocktail dress and started Pink Martini.

Pink Martini in 2001 (photo by Adam Levey)

Pink Martini in 2001 (photo by Adam Levey)

It was just going to be a one-time thing, but pretty soon thereafter we became kind of like a house band for parties for progressive causes – affordable housing, public broadcasting, libraries, music education, civil rights, the environment. And if there was a benefit for you-name-it, we probably played it. The first four or five years we never travelled beyond the Portland city limits. And then we made our first record, Sympathique, with the song “Je ne veux pas travailler,” which crazily and much to our surprise caught on in France and became a big hit. So we developed a career in Europe before we ever had one in the U.S.

AM: What were some of your musical activities before you founded Pink Martini?

Thomas Lauderdale as a youth with conductor and composer Norman Leyden (1917-2014) (photo courtesy of Thomas Lauderdale and Heinz Records)

Thomas Lauderdale as a youth with conductor and composer Norman Leyden (1917-2014) (photo courtesy of Thomas Lauderdale and Heinz Records)

TL: I did a lot of playing with orchestras – concerti. When I was 13 I won a piano competition that gave me the opportunity to play with the Oregon Symphony. And then did a lot of concertos throughout high school and beyond. In fact, the reason why I came back to Portland after graduating from Harvard was I got a contract to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Oregon Symphony in 1992. The man who gave me the opportunity to play with the orchestra was Norman Leyden, who was Glenn Miller’s last arranger, and associate conductor of the Oregon Symphony.

Eventually, when the band started, he gave us the first opportunity to play with orchestra, and that launched our career. Between the orchestras and National Public Radio – NPR – we were able to actually develop a career in the U.S. There wasn’t a big label behind us – we created our own label – and it’s not like radio stations in North America play Pink Martini except for NPR. So I think those elements made it possible for us to make appearances for the first time in different parts of the country and not go entirely broke.

Pink Martini posing at Pittock Mansion, a Renaissance-style château in Portland, Oregon (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

Pink Martini posing at Pittock Mansion, a Renaissance-style château in Portland, Oregon (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

AM: You mentioned your background in politics. Has that influenced the direction of the band?

TL: I think there’s a diplomatic, ambassadorial element to the band. We’re an American band who’s singing songs in 25 different languages. For example, when George W. Bush was in office, we were kind of a counter to that, especially abroad. I felt like we were sort of ambassadors for a larger, more inclusive, more accurate America. And we anticipated the message of Obama before Obama gave the message. I still think the band has this great impact of appealing to people who are very different from each other. We’ve got very conservative fans, very liberal fans, very young fans and older fans. And because there are so few places where people cross-pollinate, at least in this country, our music brings together people who normally wouldn’t stand next to each other. And that’s one of the very best elements of the band. I think the music’s really beautiful, but actually what’s more beautiful to me is just looking at the insane cross-section of people that are in the audience.

AM: Tell me about your collaboration with China Forbes.

TL: China I met in college in 1988. She was queen of the dining hall. We lived in the same college dormitory and she would entertain all of us with her accents and her voices and stories, and she and I would break into one of those practice rooms late at night and she would sing opera arias and I would be her accompanist at three a.m.

Pink Martini singer and songwriter China Forbes (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

Pink Martini singer and songwriter China Forbes (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

When the band first started, there was a different singer and I didn’t really get along with this singer. I thought about China and discovered that she was in New York City. So I called her up and tricked her into flying to Portland, Oregon, and I kept doing that every other weekend, and finally she moved to Portland three years later. It’s like a marriage. There are good days and there are less than fantastic days. In fact, she and I are actually doing a program today at her son’s French American school this afternoon. So we’ll do everything from “Je ne veux pas travailler,” which is a great message for kids, to “Alouette” and “Frère Jacques.”

Thomas Lauderdale with his parents at his graduation from Harvard University, where he graduated Cum Laude with a degree in history and literature (photo courtesy of Thomas

Thomas Lauderdale with his parents at his graduation from Harvard University, where he graduated Cum Laude with a degree in history and literature (photo courtesy of Thomas Lauderdale and Heinz Records)

AM: What kinds of activities did you do in your university days that would have prepared you for having a band?

TL: I went to a lot of parties. I was sort of the cruise director of the Harvard campus for four years, so I really learned how to throw a party. More so than studying. I think that in many ways it is like my college dormitory on the road. It helped with that sense of fun and fabulousness. China and I lived in Adams House, which was the dormitory that was known as the artsy, intellectual, freak, theatre, international house. I think that was very liberating because all of our friends were really smart but they were really artsy and out-there, and so I think if I had lived in another dormitory at Harvard or gone to a different school, I would have maybe been more conservative. Living at Adams House helped prepare me for thinking big and thinking impossible. You know, I love the whole mantra of Lawrence of Arabia. “Nothing is impossible.”

Pink Martini in a photo shoot for their album "Dream a Little Dream" (2014), which features members of the von Trapp family (photo by Chris Hornbecker)

Pink Martini in a photo shoot for their album “Dream a Little Dream” (2014), which features members of the von Trapp family (photo by Chris Hornbecker)

AM: How much touring does Pink Martini do, and what have some of the highlights been?

TL: We play maybe 150 days out of the year and we’ve travelled to almost every continent. But highlights – I think that we loved playing at the Hollywood Bowl because it’s at once huge, with 18,000 people, but also feels intimate. I think that the band really enjoys its time in Turkey because we have a great promoter there. And of course, France. Our time in Canada has actually always been great because the audiences are totally boisterous and on fire. It’s like America but more earnest and less self-conscious.

AM: Tell me about the material will you be performing at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

TL: There will be something from every album, except probably the holiday album. It’s too early for Christmas, I think, or Hanukkah, or even Chinese New Year.

Thomas Lauderdale (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

Thomas Lauderdale (photo by Autumn de Wilde)

AM: What are your future plans?

TL: We’re working on the soundtrack for a Belgian-produced film which will be in the French language called Souvenir with a filmmaker named Bavo Defurne, who made a film called North Sea Texas. What else? Probably trying to write a few more songs.

Pink Martini performs at the Ottawa Jazz Festival on Monday, June 29, 2015.  For more information about Thomas Lauderdale or Pink Martini, please visit pinkmartini.com.

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INTERVIEW WITH EMIL VIKLICKÝ

Czech jazz pianist and composer Emil Viklický (photo by Tomáš Krist)

Czech jazz pianist and composer Emil Viklický (photo by Tomáš Krist)

By Anita Malhotra

Often described as the “Patriarch of Czech jazz piano,” pianist and composer Emil Viklický was born in 1948 in Olomouc, Moravia and later moved to Prague. Although his formal training was in mathematics, in the ‘70s he won awards for his jazz improvisation skills and music compositions, and in 1977 he received a scholarship to study for a year at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

As a jazz pianist, he has performed in the USA, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Israel, and Europe with various artists and ensembles, including with his own trio.

As a composer, he has worked in a wide range of styles, including jazz, contemporary classical, electroacoustic, and in an original style combining jazz with Moravian folk music. His works include three operas, full-length film scores, television music and incidental music for theatre, as well as numerous orchestral and ensemble pieces. He has won many awards for his compositions, and in 2004 was commissioned by Wynton Marsalis to write a melodrama for jazz band based on the prison letters of Václav Havel. In 2011 Viklický was honored with the Czech Republic’s prestigious Medal of Merit.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Emil Viklický, who was at his home in Prague, by telephone on June 14, 2015.

Emil Viklický

Emil Viklický

AM: What first attracted you to music?

EV: I grew up in a painter’s family. My father and my uncle were both painters. And my grandfather was a railway engineer in Vienna, so we had a grand piano at home. So I guess I started banging on it when I was two or three.

AM: How did you embark on a career in music?

EV: When it was time for me to decide what to do, I decided I wanted to be a composer. But my father said, “Are you crazy? Do you want another artist in the family?” My father was referring to his older brother, the painter Victor Viklický. The Communists came into power in the country in ’48, and Victor was put in labour camp in southern Slovakia. So he was just gone. My father said “Look, you have a talent for mathematics, so why don’t you go for maths and have music as a hobby?” I was an obedient boy, so I agreed. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH KENNY WERNER

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Jazz pianist, composer and educator Kenny Werner (photo courtesy of Kenny Werner)

By Anita Malhotra

Brooklyn-born jazz pianist, composer and educator Kenny Werner studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music and jazz improvisation at the Berklee Institute. Greatly influenced by the Boston piano teacher Madame Chaloff and the Brazilian concert pianist Joao Assis Brasil, he developed a paradigm-shifting approach to performance that led to the publication in 1995 of his best-selling book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.

As a performer, Werner has appeared extensively throughout North America and Europe. He has also composed many works for small ensembles and orchestra, and received the 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship Award for his orchestral piece No Beginning, No End. Werner recently became artistic director of Berklee’s Effortless Mastery Institute (formerly the Performance Wellness Institute), which helps students develop and maintain healthy performances practices.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Kenny Werner, who lives in Monticello, New York, by telephone on June 13, 2015, a week before his performance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Kenny Werner performing with his quartet and with Toots Thielemans in Antwerp, Belgium in 2008 (photo by Bruno Bollaert, Flickr Creative Commons, Aug. 15, 2008)

Kenny Werner performing with his quartet and with Toots Thielemans in Antwerp, Belgium in 2008 (photo by Bruno Bollaert, Flickr Creative Commons, Aug. 15, 2008)

AM: You just came back from Europe. What were you up to there?

KW: I was playing in different configurations with someone who in the last seven years has become a very deep music partner of mine – Benjamin Koppel. He’s a brilliant alto player and composer, and his whole family is a kind of royal musical family in Denmark. So we just spent about two weeks doing about five or six countries – Denmark, Spain, Germany, France and Austria – some duo, and some with rhythm section. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH BRUCE COCKBURN

By Anita Malhotra

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn (photo by Kevin Kelly)

Singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn (photo by Kevin Kelly)

In his 45-year career as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, Ottawa-born Bruce Cockburn has produced 31 albums of passionate, evocative songs based on his personal experiences and his observations while travelling, often in war-torn countries and in a humanitarian role.

With more than seven million records sold, he has been honoured with 13 Juno Awards, 21 gold and platinum certifications, membership in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. In 1982, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada, and in 2002 was promoted to Officer.

Last year, Cockburn published the extensive, very personal memoir Rumours of Glory, which details his childhood, travels, humanitarian work, personal relationships and spiritual search as well as the stories behind many of his songs.

Anita Malhotra spoke to Bruce Cockburn, who now lives in San Francisco, by telephone about his life and music on June 12, 2015.

Bruce Cockburn (photo by Kevin Kelly)

Bruce Cockburn (photo by Kevin Kelly)

AM: You turned 70 a few weeks ago. Was turning 70 any particular cause for reflection?

BC: It’s cause for alarm more than reflection! I put so much reflection into writing the book that it wasn’t, really. It’s like, “Okay I’m 70 now,” and I wrote this book and the book has all this stuff in it, but I think that that kind of superseded any information to be overly reflective of on my birthday. A bunch of us were gathered in a little resort town in Delaware at the end of the northeastern U.S. tour that I was doing through the month of May, and there was a lot of eating, drinking and merriment, and that’s what I was thinking about. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH BRIA SKONBERG

Jazz trumpet player and singer Bria Skonberg (photo by Thomas Concordia)

Jazz trumpet player and singer Bria Skonberg (photo by Thomas Concordia)

By Anita Malhotra

Born in 1983 in Chilliwack, British Columbia, trumpet player, singer and composer Bria Skonberg has been featured as a bandleader and guest artist at more than 50 jazz festivals in North America, Europe, China and Japan.

In 2010, she relocated from Vancouver to New York, where she has headlined at Symphony Space, Birdland, The Iridium and Dizzy’s. She has released three albums, one of which peaked at #7 on the U.S. National jazz charts. In addition, she has earned a New York Bistro Award for Outstanding Jazz Artist, four Hot House Jazz Magazine Awards and is a 2015 recipient of the Swing! award from Jazz At Lincoln Center.

Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Skonberg, who was at her home in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 10, 2015.

The cover of

The cover of “Into Your Own,” Bria Skonberg’s third album, released in 2014 (photo by Seth Cashman)

AM: Where did your love of jazz come from?

BS: I was introduced to jazz through the school big band and the local Dixieland jazz festival. Chilliwack had a jazz festival for over 20 years and they did a really good job of incorporating the youth bands of the district into the festival. So we’d get our set and then we’d get passes for the whole weekend to go and watch professional players do their thing. That was a much more organic introduction to jazz as opposed to listening to it because the old-style scratchy recordings don’t always translate to young listeners. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN BULGER

Stephen Bulger in the office of his gallery after his Artsmania interview on February 27, 2015 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Stephen Bulger in the office of his gallery after his Artsmania interview on February 27, 2015 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

By Anita Malhotra

Photographic art dealer, curator and appraiser Stephen Bulger opened his photo gallery in 1995 at a time when Toronto’s photography scene was relatively quiet. Since then, the Stephen Bulger Gallery has played a leading role in cultivating Toronto’s now-flourishing photo scene by hosting more than 150 photography exhibits, representing over 50 Canadian and international photographers, and building an inventory of approximately 50,000 prints and negatives that includes the work of Vivian Maier, the prolific street photographer who became famous after her death in 2009. 

Anita Malhotra spoke with Stephen Bulger at his gallery at 1026 Queen St. West on February 27, 2015 during his group exhibit “Subway.”

"Subway Tunnel Construction, N.Y," February 22, 1932, by Ewing Galloway (1881-1953), from the 2015 show "Subway" at the Stephen Bulger Gallery (© Ewing Galloway / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery)

“Subway Tunnel Construction, N.Y,” February 22, 1932, by Ewing Galloway (1881-1953), from the 2015 show “Subway” at the Stephen Bulger Gallery (© Ewing Galloway / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery)

AM: Where did your love of photography come from?

SB: It started in childhood, probably when I was seven or eight years old. It became a bit of a hobby to take snapshots. My mom used a camera to take pictures that she would later make paintings from, so she had an active use of photography that intrigued me. So I think from a young age I started recognizing photography as being something more than just snapping pictures. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH CARLOS LUNA

By Anita Malhotra

Cuban-American artist Carlos Luna posing in front of his painting "Empingated" ("Freaking Awesome") on October 11, 2014 in Miami, Florida (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Cuban-American artist Carlos Luna posing in front of his painting “Empingated” (“Freaking Awesome”) on October 11, 2014 in Miami, Florida (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Born in Cuba in 1969, Carlos Luna has built a flourishing career as a painter, sculptor and ceramicist in Mexico, where he relocated in 1991, and in the United States, where he immigrated in 2002 under a visa for extraordinary ability.

His striking, intense works, replete with symbolism and autobiographical elements, have been exhibited in more than 60 galleries and institutions around the world. Highlights include solo exhibits at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach, and the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, where his paintings were shown with the ceramics of Picasso. Ten books of his art have been published, and many of his works are in private collections.

"Flowers from the Sea" by Carlos Luna (oil on canvas, 47" x 58 1/2") ©2002 Carlos Luna. All Rights Reserved.

“Flowers from the Sea” by Carlos Luna (oil on canvas, 47″ x 58 1/2″) ©2002 Carlos Luna. All Rights Reserved.

Anita Malhotra interviewed Carlos Luna on October 11, 2014 at his home in South Miami, where he lives with his wife and three children. Parts of the interview were in Spanish with translation by his daughter, Camila, and son Carlos.

Carlos Luna at his studio in 2013 (photo by Ignacio Barrios)

Carlos Luna at his studio in 2013 (photo by Ignacio Barrios)

AM: Where did you grow up in Cuba?

CL: I was born in Pinar del Río but I grew up in San Luis. San Luis is a small town that is famous for making the best Havana cigars in the world. My family and I are simple people, but at the same time we are very rich-minded with a great imagination. My father liked to play the guitar and to improvise on Sundays. My two grandmothers liked to dance and sing, and we listened to music in my house all the time.

AM: Tell me a little bit more about your ancestors – when did they come to Cuba?

CL: I have a lot of mixed blood in my heritage. My father’s side of the family came from Northern Spain – Basque and Jewish Sephardic people. My mother’s father came from Andalusia, and all the Andalusians have Arabian blood. But on my mother’s family, my grandfather – his grandfather was Chinese and his grandmother was Japanese. I am proud of my heritage. I believe it is very rich. I respect where I come from because I think a man without a past is a man without a future. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH MAXWELL TAYLOR

Maxwell Taylor with two of his works (photo courtesy of Maxwell and Therese Taylor)

Maxwell Taylor with two of his works (photo courtesy of Maxwell and Therese Taylor)

By Anita Malhotra

Born and raised in Nassau, Bahamian artist Maxwell Taylor trained as a ceramicist while in his teens and held his first solo exhibit as a painter in the early ‘60s. In 1968 he moved to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League, the Pratt Graphic Center and the Printmaking Workshop. There, he made a name for himself with striking woodcuts, prints and paintings that focused on the struggles of the disadvantaged, particularly women.

His works were featured at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico and have been exhibited extensively in the United States, the Caribbean and in South and Central America. His awards have included the Southern Arts Federation Fellowship Award.

Taylor divides his time between West Palm Beach, Florida, where he has a ceramics studio, and Nassau. Anita Malhotra spoke with him on October 8, 2014 at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

Maxwell Taylor at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas on Oct. 8, 2014 with his 1982 linocut reduction "Damn Politics" (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Maxwell Taylor at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas on Oct. 8, 2014 with his 1982 linocut reduction “Damn Politics” (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: What was your childhood like growing up in the Bahamas?

MT: I grew up without a father. My mother was instrumental in bringing up me and my sister. She had four kids. She was a seamstress so she would get up in the morning round about seven, eight o’clock, and the first thing she would do she’d go down to the shop. I used to hit the streets – just went from one neighborhood to the next neighborhood. And then at a very early age I had to work. I didn’t have anybody to give me anything. I used to do things like shoeshine, you know, and I had a job taking care of a horse. Continue reading

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INTERVIEW WITH NATALIE MACMASTER

Natalie MacMaster (photo by Rebekah Littlejohn Photography)

Natalie MacMaster (photo by Rebekah Littlejohn Photography)

By Anita Malhotra

A consummate Celtic fiddler with an exuberant stage presence, Natalie MacMaster has been playing the music of her beloved homeland, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, since the age of nine.

She released her debut album at age 16 and followed that with 10 more albums: three went gold in Canada and one (In My Hands, 1999) garnered a Juno award. She has also collaborated with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Alison Kraus and Béla Fleck, starred in her own one-hour CBC television special, and appeared on major U.S. television networks.

In 2006, MacMaster was named to the Order of Canada, and she has also been awarded several honorary degrees, including a Doctor of Divinity. A veteran stage performer who has performed up to 100 times a year, she still keeps up a demanding performing schedule while she and her husband, fiddler Donnell Leahy, raise their six young children in rural Ontario.

Anita Malhotra spoke with Natalie MacMaster about her music, family and faith on June 30, 2014, while she was preparing to perform that evening at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Natalie MacMaster performing at the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 30, 2014 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

Natalie MacMaster performing at the Ottawa Jazz Festival on June 30, 2014 (photo by Anita Malhotra)

AM: You have six children now, you have a newborn baby, you’re touring. How do you manage it all?

NM: Well, it is kind of crazy and weird. It’s certainly nothing that I necessarily planned on doing. It’s just something that’s slowly built – much the same as my career, you know. I was just playing music, and gig after gig after gig, and before you know it you need a manager, and before you know it you need a record company, and before you know it there’s awards and there’s traveling. And then marriage came and babies, and it just starts with one and it just gradually builds. Continue reading

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