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All-male drag troupe revamps the classical ballet world

(02/20/20 5:05am)

In recent years, the world of ballet has been increasingly scrutinized for its inaccessibility and lack of diversity, but Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been keeping the art on its toes since the 1970s. Colloquially known as the Trocks, the all-male, comic drag ballet troupe will perform Saturday, Feb. 22 at the Carolina Theatre in a co-presentation with Duke Performances. The Trocks officially began in 1974 as an outgrowth of Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous in Greenwich Village, where the Stonewall riots took place. In the nearly half-century since, attitudes toward drag in the mainstream shifted greatly, but the troupe’s commitment to inclusion and joy have remained consistent. The troupe’s comedic performances include parodies of classical ballets such as “Don Quixote” and “The Nutcracker.” In traditional performances of these ballets, principal female roles are typically performed en pointe, a technique in which a dancers’ entire body weight rests upon the tips of the toes. Pointe training, even now, is often reserved for female dancers, but the Trocks are at the forefront of a growing movement of blurring the form’s gender expectations. “I think times have changed. It seems to be more common now that guys are trying [pointe], because it’s really good for your ballet training. It really helps you find your balance and your center,” said Duane Gosa, a seven-year veteran dancer in the company. “So I think a lot of schools and male dancers have decided to give it a shot.” Gosa first encountered pointe — and the Trocks — while studying dance at the University of Akron. Joining the dance world relatively “late” at age 16, the university’s dance program was Gosa’s first exposure to what a career in the field could look like for him. “I kind of got a better perspective of … the types of roles that a male dancer would do, and [they weren’t] as interesting to me as female roles,” Gosa said. “I remember putting on a pointe shoe and wanting to see what that felt like.” After he successfully convinced the program to allow him into pointe classes, Gosa’s faculty mentors pushed him to look into the Trocks. But burnout eventually turned him away from ballet near the end of his college career, and shortly after graduation, he found himself in a contemporary-modern dance company. “I was like, ‘You know what, I am much stronger at other things, and I think I’ll be happier if I don’t torture myself with ballet.’ And then I was kind of in a rut with what I was doing and where I was, and I kind of felt stuck,” Gosa said. “So then I looked online and [the Trocks] had an audition, and I thought, ‘Let me just give it a shot — why not?’” Joining the Trocks meant performing in drag, something Gosa had limited experience with prior to auditioning for the company. “I think every gay man thinks about what it’s like to have a pair of heels and a wig on, so of course I was intrigued by it,” Gosa said. “It really helps when you’re with a group of people. When everyone’s doing the same thing, you feel a little more supported and safe.” 

Waxing lyrical: How two local candle artisans are illuminating positive representations of Blackness

(02/06/20 5:04am)

There’s plenty of brilliance to be found in the Triangle’s local arts scene, but Bright Black Candles and Bougie Luminaries contribute more literally than most. The two companies, both Durham-based family businesses, are built on philosophies of imbuing great care and culture into each of their candles and drawing greater attention to the artistry of candle making. Bougie Luminaries’ founder and creative director Erika Parker-Smith’s affinity for the medium began during childhood, when her Girl Scouts troop made candles out of crayon wax. The spark, she said, ignited then and stuck with her into adulthood. As loved ones fell in love with the candles she’d make them as holiday presents, she saw an opportunity to merge her “eclectic” interests in pin-up art, cinema and fragrances into a full-fledged brand. “Certain fragrances conjure up happy memories, or make you think about a certain moment,” Parker-Smith said. ”When you light a candle, it speaks to your soul.” Each Bougie Luminaries candle is a work of art both visually and olfactorily. In creating fragrances, Parker-Smith is often heavily inspired by her favorite pieces of culture, from “The Wiz” to Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz. Illustrated by Parker-Smith’s husband, Jamaul Smith, much of the brand’s packaging is inspired by pin-up art she grew up loving. “I’ve always admired the illustrations of Norman Rockwell and [Gil] Elvgren, but there were never any women of color in them. And I was like, why is that?” Parker-Smith said. “African-American women particularly get a little beat up by the media, and so [I wanted to be able] to serve as a mirror … showing us in a way that’s loving and tender, or just in everyday life — ways that we don’t always get to see.” Bright Black Candles, co-owned and founded by Tiffany M. Griffin and husband Dariel Heron, upholds a similar mission. The roots of the company began as a date-night activity for Griffin and Heron, whose mutual love of hip hop and burgeoning love for each other gave them the idea to create candles based on hip hop love songs. But as their passion for candle making grew, they began to believe the medium had the capacity for a larger impact. “[Candles] are one of the oldest sources of light on the planet. They transcend cultures, language, geography, race and religion,” Griffin wrote in an email. “The presence of a candle can spark exchange or symbolize solidarity — think vigil, passion, security, warmth, hope, spirituality, new beginnings ... birthday candles, health, protection, blessing, memories, calm.” Griffin, who holds a PhD in social psychology, worked as a researcher and a policymaker in the federal government prior to starting Bright Black. In founding the company, she wanted to “challenge” herself to combine research, data and lived experiences to tell stories through scents — in particular, positive Black narratives. “On a super basic level, I'm creating a positive experience by just pairing the word ‘bright’ with ‘Black’ and then coupling that with beautifully blended scents,” Griffin wrote. “People are having a positive experience before I even say a word. Psychologically, that's triggering thousands of receptors, tapping into memories and creating an opening for dialogue and connection.” Bright Black’s Diaspora collection highlights cities of “Black greatness,” capturing the stories of everything from Ethiopian history in an Addis Ababa candle to the local history of Durham in a candle that blends scents of tobacco, cotton and whiskey. The company just released a Harlem Renaissance candle in honor of Black History Month. “My experiences of Blackness are quite positive and those are the stories I want to tell,” Griffin wrote. “Essentially, we’re telling [those] stories through scent. Scent artistry isn't well-recognized as art, but it should be. After all, what is art? It's sending messages and meaning through some sort of medium. Our medium is scent.” In the future, Griffin hopes to partner with museums to illuminate the potential and significance of scent artistry. Both Griffin and Parker-Smith emphasized a need for greater appreciation of the craft and science that goes into making candles. “People think [candle making is] really simple, but then you talk to them and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I tried to make candles and I could not get them to come out right,” Parker-Smith said. “There’s a lot more to it than it’s given credit [for] sometimes.” For now, though, their businesses will continue to serve as vanguards for the form’s power. Bougie Luminaries will soon expand their collection of film-inspired scents with upcoming candles inspired by “The Breakfast Club” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Bright Black, fresh off of a project commissioned by NorthStar Church of the Arts, will soon release a “Genres” collection in homage to Black music. Long-term, both hope their efforts will improve the narrative around both their artistic medium and Black culture. “Ultimately, I really am working towards a world where ‘Black’ ... doesn't inherently conjure up negativity,” Griffin wrote. “It took hundreds of years to get to this point, but I'm committed to doing my part in dismantling those cognitive associations, one beautiful and brilliant candle at a time.” 

Durham’s Mettlesome sets the stage for indie comedy in the Triangle

(01/30/20 5:05am)

Durham’s creative collective Mettlesome specializes in improv comedy, but they’re certainly no joke. In three years, Mettlesome has evolved from a small group of comedians performing in the garage of founding stakeholders Ashley Melzer and Jack Reitz to a full-fledged company producing a myriad of local comedy shows. Currently run by six stakeholders — all accomplished improv performers themselves — Mettlesome was born out of  frustration with the lack of autonomy within the local improv scene. “Six years ago, the way it worked was you would sign up at a theatre and then you would just do whatever they told you to do,” Reitz said. “You were either affiliated with a theatre or you didn’t exist. That model still exists right now, but we [at Mettlesome] are really trying to reward people who want to make cool shit.” Living up to the spirit of their name, Mettlesome’s calendar is brimming with their various endeavors, from regular improv comedy classes to a weekly live show based on secrets submitted by audience members. Much of the group’s programming involves a form of collaboration with other creatives, best exemplified by their biweekly project Golden Age. According to Reitz, the performance is “part talk show, part art exhibition, part comedy show” and features a new local maker each time. “Comedians interview [the artists] about who they are and what brought them to their work, and then there’s a comedy show based on that,” Reitz said. “I love the way that Golden Age is a show where art inspires other art. It’s a great way of reaching out to other artistic communities.” Reitz’s journey in improv began in high school, parlaying into a stint performing with UNC’s improv and sketch comedy group CHiPs and eventually a professional career in the industry. A native of Chapel Hill, he returned to the area after several years spent studying theatre and comedy in New York City. “In New York,  I learned to respect [improv] as an art form that is both fun and also really challenging. The improv that we teach at Mettlesome is specifically focused on the art of improv comedy, and not just the art of improv,” Reitz said. “The work that we do and rehearsals that we run are drilling our performers to be better comedians. Though we’re improvising, we try to be smart and deliberate about the comedy that we make.” The fundamentals of improv comedy that Mettlesome teaches transcend pure silliness — the group regularly facilitates professional workshops for corporate clients, emphasizing principles of team building and communication. “It’s very easy to think comedians just get on stage and act goofy … but it’s not just that,” said Hillary Yonce, one of Mettlesome’s stakeholders. “When we do those workshops …  you see this ‘a-ha’ moment where people are like ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this is something that could be helpful to my life.” Yonce, also a professional hydrologist, touts her 12 years of improv experience on her academic resume. After finding her way into improv during college as a member of CHiPs, she encountered a local comedy community rich with multi-faceted performers. Fellow members of CHiPs, she recalled, included statistics and music majors. Yonce herself earned a degree in environmental science. “Of course I wish I could be doing comedy full-time … but I also love my job as a scientist. I think the fact that everybody [in the Triangle] is wearing multiple hats is what makes it so interesting,” Yonce said. “Everyone here is so smart … that when you bring them into a room, you’re just going to get such explosive energy.” Alongside her husband Tristan, Yonce produces and performs in the project Vaudeville Varieties, the latest iteration of which will take place this weekend from Jan. 30 to Feb. 2. The project, a “hodgepodge of music, comedy, clowning and ‘feats of amazement,’” was created to showcase the varied talents of the couples’ friends and creatives in the community. “I think if you ask the average Joe outside of [the state], ‘Does North Carolina have a good improv comedy scene?’, they probably would be like ‘I have no idea,’” Yonce said. “But the answer is yes … we have some really amazing talent here.” Belief in the Triangle’s creative, independent spirit drove the inception of Mettlesome and continues to drive it today. According to Reitz, the level of talent in the area rivals that in bigger creative communities like New York and Los Angeles. “There wasn’t a doubt that there was a capacity for independent comedy [here] — I think it just took a couple of talented folks to start doing something,” Reitz said. “In New York, nobody’s going to give you stage time, so you have to make it yourself. I took that lesson with me when I moved back to Durham. That’s a lot of what Mettlesome is about — if you have something that you want to make, Mettlesome’s goal is to help you make that thing. We want to help you take your vision and make it into a reality.”

About face: ‘Amending American Art’ interrogates history of representation

(01/16/20 5:07am)

In Titus Kaphar’s “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” Thomas Jefferson exists on a five-foot canvas, but the black woman seated behind his likeness indicates a bigger picture. Kaphar, a New Haven-based artist and 2018 MacArthur Fellow, will hold a public conversation Thursday, Jan. 16 entitled “Amending American Art, Making Space for Black History” with Dr. Jasmine Nichole Cobb at the Nasher auditorium. The free event, co-sponsored by the From Slavery to Freedom Lab at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, is the keynote of “Black Images, Black Histories,” a two-day conference examining cultural representations of blackness. “The role of images in popular culture, to me, is that images grab people in a way that books don’t always do,” Cobb said. “If you’re just with your family killing time at a museum and you see an image, it can spark a curiosity about something you never would’ve picked up a book on.” As a professor of African & African American Studies and art history at Duke, Cobb became a fan of Kaphar’s work while using it to supplement “African Americans & the U.S. Presidency,” a project that originated in her Fall 2018 “Introduction to African & African American Studies” course. Many of Kaphar’s works examine past representations of glorified American historical figures by portraying the often-ignored problematic aspects of their legacies, such as “Benevolence” and “The Cost of Removal,” an altered portrait of Andrew Jackson juxtaposed with his oppressive Indian Removal Act. “[Kaphar] is interested in amending the history of art. He makes us think of the history of all these great men with portraits and what the life they were living was while [those portraits] were being created,” Cobb said. “We can think about that as relevant to any ‘great’ man, whether it be Thomas Jefferson or James B. Duke — who are they besides this individual immortalized in a piece of art?” Many storied American universities and their founders — almost ubiquitously upper-class white men — have roots in racism that their modern-day communities must reckon with. Several of Kaphar’s projects have confronted these histories, such as “Impressions of Liberty,” an installation at Princeton University responding to records of slaves sold on its campus by former president Samuel Finley. For his own alma mater, Yale University, Kaphar created “Enough About You,” a painting that sheds light on the life of a young boy once enslaved by the school’s namesake, Elihu Yale. Concerning public art associated with slavery, Kaphar “has some interesting ideas that I think people in the Triangle could benefit from hearing about, given Silent Sam and UNC giving 2.5 million to the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” Cobb said. “I think his work is timely and relevant to Triangle audiences.” Duke itself is no stranger to reckoning with controversies surrounding its own monuments. The university removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from campus in 2017 after it was vandalized following white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of another monument to Lee on the University of Virginia’s campus. In early 2019, the university installed a stone plaque in Abele Quad honoring Julian Abele, a black architect who designed much of West Campus in the 1920s. The commemoration was the result of decades of dedicated efforts to bring Abele’s legacy to light after his contributions were publicized by his great-grandniece in 1986. Duke arts stalwarts Sarah Schroth, director of the Nasher Museum, and Scott Lindroth, vice provost for the arts, will both retire at the end of the 2019-20 academic year. According to Cobb, the need to bring in new blood allows for an “exciting” opportunity to jolt the university’s current arts culture, particularly by expanding the variety of black artists featured on campus. “I’ve seen a number of prominent black artists and works by artists of color come through the Nasher in my time here, but I think there’s always room for more,” Cobb said. “There’s always room for growth.” The necessity for more diverse art on campus and in the world is what the conversation aims to elucidate for the Duke community. On Thursday, doors will open at 5 p.m. for a reception prior to the event, which will take place from 6 to 7 p.m. “By coming to the event, there’s a chance for people to think about their own relationship to images and put images in context,” Cobb said. “I hope they’re inspired to … think more deeply about images that they think they know well. To not just look at a portrait of a significant figure, but consider what it means to be thought of as significant enough to get a portrait at all.” 

‘Celebrating Queerness in Modern Turkey’ brings drag to campus

(12/04/19 8:01pm)

Amid exams and final papers, Duke still has something to celebrate this week. From Wednesday, Dec. 4 to Friday, Dec. 6, “Celebrating Queerness in Modern Turkey” is bringing Istanbul-based queer artists-in-residence Madir Öktis, Ceytengri and Lütfi Urfali to campus for a discussion panel on Wednesday, a drag workshop and show on Friday and class visits throughout the week. 

Escape artists: Duke Sleight Club promotes magic mindfulness on campus

(11/01/19 4:03am)

In fostering holistic wellness within the Duke community, the Duke Sleight Club has a magic touch. Founded in April 2018 by junior and current president Wesley Pritzlaff, Duke Sleight Club facilitates performance and teaching sessions every Monday from 5 to 5:50 p.m. at the Student Wellness Center as part of the center’s “Moments of Mindfulness” series, as well as performing bi-weekly on the BC Plaza.

The same sky: ‘Museum of the Moon’ exhibition encourages community engagement

(10/24/19 4:03am)

One small step for man, one giant inflatable moon balloon for Durham. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, Luke Jerram’s “Museum of the Moon” exhibition will illuminate CCB Plaza as part of Bull Moon Rising, a community event celebrating the intersection of history, science and art. The event is part of Durham 150, the 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation, as well as the statewide Lift Off NC: Apollo + Beyond campaign, aimed at exposing newer generations to the space-based programs fifty years after Apollo 11.

Printed matter matters: Zine Machine Fest comes to Durham

(10/10/19 4:03am)

From “Friends” to scrunchies, our obsession with ‘90s popular culture is no secret, but the steady rise of zine festivals in the past few years suggests that the era’s counterculture is in resurgence, too. Triangle residents need look no further than Durham’s fifth annual Zine Machine Fest, taking place Sunday at the Durham Armory.

Art, community and ‘radical hospitality’ drive downtown makerspace The Mothership

(10/03/19 4:03am)

For many of us, home is our mothers. For makers in the Durham area, home is The Mothership. Located less than a mile off East Campus, the gift shop, co-working facility and event space sells exclusively North Carolinian artisan goods running the gamut from vintage clothing to zines and hosts workers from photographers to consultants. 

Sanford’s ‘RefugiARTE’ exhibit reflects on the implications of the global refugee crisis

(09/26/19 4:02am)

The Spanish verb refugiarse is reflexive, which means it is a verb done to oneself — in this case, seeking shelter or refuge for oneself. But “RefugiARTE,” an exhibit on display at the Sanford School of Public Policy’s Rubenstein Hall until Dec. 12, is also reflective, imploring the viewer to examine the current global refugee crisis and its humanitarian implications. 

‘It’s like breathing’: Duke electrician Jimmie Banks reflects on his passion for art

(09/12/19 4:05am)

Fittingly enough for a modern-day Renaissance man, Jimmie Banks lists Leonardo da Vinci among his chief artistic heroes. In addition to being an exhibiting artist at the Rubenstein Arts Center, Banks is a Duke Facilities Management electrician of 22 years, a former head cook of a barbecue restaurant, a breakdancer and a friend to everyone he meets along the way.