The Ties That Bind and Unbind
Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez will be in residence at Stanford this fall.
Stanford Live’s upcoming 2018-19 lineup showcases the universal aspects of our shared humanity.
By Natalie Jabbar
In her poem “Human Family,” the late writer and activist Maya Angelou recounts the vast differences that divide us, only to conclude with the following refrain:
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
Steeped in a media landscape replete with discord and downright divisiveness, we may find it difficult to grasp, let alone believe, Angelou’s sentiment on our bleakest days. But it is precisely this vital recognition of our human togetherness that inspired the themes Stanford Live explores in its 2018–19 season: Life, Love, and Loss.
In its past season, Stanford Live focused on how America and Canada define themselves—for better and for worse—through their artistic voices. From Taylor Mac’s American pop odyssey to poet Claudia Rankine’s conversation about race in the American imagination, more than 100 artists unpacked notions of nationhood, identity, and nostalgia.
Emerging from that exploration, the upcoming season seeks to transcend national borders and the rifts dividing daily across the seams of our globe by harnessing the power of live performance to showcase the universal aspects of our shared humanity.
“It makes sense that one of the only ways we can break down these political divides is to get to know each other better and to take away the mythology of ‘the other,’” says Stanford Live executive director Chris Lorway. “How can we cultivate a collective sense of empathy toward all sides?”
That quest for sincere engagement and deep empathy is at the root of the new season Life, Love, and Loss. What does it mean to chart a life? How do we form bonds of affection? What happens when we lose people important to us? No matter who we are or where we are from, these questions are central to our existence, though we may answer them in astonishingly different ways. And these are the questions that artists from around the world will illuminate on stage this year through music, movement, theater, conversation, film, and more.
New Orleans native Branford Marsalis celebrates the Crescent City's 300th birthday.
Travel to New Orleans, a vibrant city teeming with different culture and peoples, where the sounds of jazz from the likes of the Branford Marsalis Quartet fill the electric air. Follow the bodies of Circa, a human circus from Australia, as they twist their limbs beyond comprehension. Listen to Catalan musician and composer Jordi Savall and a global array of artists as they pay musical tribute to the historic routes of slavery. Experience an immersive audio-visual performance from Sō Percussion as the group reveals the complex layers of Britain’s coal mining industry. Imagine navigating the New York dating scene as a queer man with cerebral palsy during Ryan Haddad’s one-man show Hi, Are You Single?
As they weave together ideas like migration, solace, lineage, rituals, and community into the larger themes of life, love, and loss, this season’s artists invite us to witness how multifaceted but also how connected we as humans are. Whether they are choir singers or writers, violin players or contemporary dancers, they are all storytellers as well. If, as the late great political philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it,” then each of these live performances tells a story that unveils some aspect of a culture or a history without reducing it to a mere data point. And that complex story, in this era of distilled, distorted, and simplified sound bites, is an incomparable gift.
To support the next generation of such vital storytelling and art making, Stanford Live and the university at large are also now making an investment in supporting cutting-edge artists and bringing them to campus. Through the newly established Stanford Presidential Residencies on the Future of the Arts, the university can invite a number of artists who will spend extended periods of time on campus, interacting with faculty, students, and the community.
Wang Ramirez returns after their appearance in Monchichi last season. (Image credit: Azar Kafaei)
“One of our major goals for the arts at Stanford is to make our university a vibrant home for arts and artists. We see artists’ residencies as a vital component of this strategy. Next year’s Presidential Residencies with Nitin Sawhney and Wang Ramirez will be an opportunity for these artists to interact more closely with Stanford students, particularly, and with the Stanford community more generally,” says Harry Elam, vice president for the arts and senior vice provost for education.
“The residencies also are about helping the artists in ways that only Stanford can. The intellectual possibilities of this university will be open to these artists so that they can use Stanford to inform their own arts practice,” Elam continues. “This is one of the first steps for truly making Stanford a destination for the arts.”
Residencies like these can be transformative for the artist, audience, and students alike. Stanford political science PhD candidate and lifelong ballet and contemporary dancer Glory Liu took a master class from visiting international hip-hop duo Wang Ramirez (Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez) last year. She says working intensely with Honji Wang, learning the duo’s stories, and then ultimately seeing them perform was both enriching and unforgettable: “To have them come to us and bring a different set of traditions, languages, and stories opened our eyes to the much larger world of dance.
As a scholar who focuses on political theory and American politics who is also passionate about movement, Liu says dance—and the arts more broadly—is an essential language that offers us a way to express ideas that may otherwise be difficult to communicate.
“A large part of the national conversation that’s happening now is referred to as that empathy wall— ‘we don’t understand the people in Louisiana’ and so forth,” she explains. “But a lot of dancers are using art as an empathy vehicle. Artists like Wang Ramirez are using dance as a conversation to transcend ethnic and national boundaries.”
Inua Ellams' hit play Barber Shop Chronicles is a key performance in the fall. (Image credit: Marc Brenner)
Nitin Sawhney, a British Indian musician, composer, and producer, will be in residence at Stanford this fall as part of the new Stanford Presidential Residencies on the Future of the Arts. Sawhney will collaborate with the returning dancers Wang Ramirez to produce Dystopian Dream, a surreal and transcendent journey about loss, surrender, and continuity. In addition, Inua Ellams’ acclaimed play Barber Shop Chronicles is supported through this initiative. Ellams, a writer who immigrated from Nigeria to London as a teenager, takes audiences into the intimate space of African barbershops in Johannesburg, Kampala, Accra, and London where they will witness stories unravel with every strand of hair shorn.
Whether in the artistic residencies or the full range of the 2018–19 offerings, the curators of Stanford Live’s season wanted to ensure that each cross-cultural voice or expression had emanated from an informed, experiential representation.
“We’ve become a society of talking heads, a lot of whom are not coming from the experience they are talking about,” says Chris Lorway. “The artists we bring to the stage here are authentic—their voices are coming from their own experience.”
And perhaps by listening to these genuine voices as they embody and perform love, life, and loss—and by engaging in that magical dialogue that happens during the performance between the artist and each of us—we might remember that we are, as Maya Angelou suggested, more alike than we are unalike.
Natalie Jabbar is a writer in northern California, and one of her specialties is storytelling about the humanities and liberal arts.
Related Event: Oct 4 & 5
Nitin Sawhney and Wang Ramirez
Related Event: Nov 8–10
Roble Studio Theater
Barber Shop Chronicles