Thursday, October 29, 2009

Harmonious Collaborations: Melodia Women's Choir of New York City Premieres New Work by Woman Composer

Melodia Women's Choir of New York City is an ensemble of 35 singers who perform an eclectic mix of women's choral music under Artistic Director Cynthia Powell, often shining the spotlight on women composers. This November 14, 2009 at Saint Peter's Church (Lexington Ave. at E. 54th St., NYC), the group will perform a new commissioned work by American composer Chris Lastovicka, who won the first Women Composers Commissioning Competition held by Melodia.

Lastovicka composed Notes Upon the Breeze specifically for Melodia, setting to music three poems by U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan. Powell, who has conducted the choir since its formation in 2003, describes Notes Upon the Breeze as "fresh and inspired...matched perfectly" to Ryan's poetry, which has been compared to the work of Emily Dickinson and Marianne Moore.

The evening promises to be a celebration of women's creativity and voices in a field in which women composers are still woefully underrpresented. By sponsoring a commissioning competition for women composers and sharing the resulting work with the pubic, Melodia provides a wonderful example of women in music taking the initiative to support and promote each other.

The concert will also feature Songs of the Lights by Imant Raminsh, Songs from "The Princess" by Gustav Holst, and selections from Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. The choir will be accompanied by pianist Taisiya Pushkar and the Transfiguration Quartet.

If you are in the New York City area, support many women artists by attending the premiere performance!

Concert Details:

Melodia Women's Choir, "Notes Upon the Breeze"
Saturday, November 14, 2009
8 pm
Saint Peter's Church, Citigroup Center
Lexington Ave. At E. 54th St.
New York City
T: (212) 252-4134

Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Two Inspiring Shows about Women Construction Workers

Two beautiful productions have focused on women construction workers in recent months. Shotgun Players in Berkeley is currently presenting This World in a Woman's Hands, which is about women who worked as ship-builders in Richmond, CA during World War II.  Over the summer, Flyaway Productions did a run at SOMArts in San Francisco of The Ballad of Polly Ann, about women who contributed to the construction of Bay Area bridges. Both productions told stories about women's lives that I had never heard before.

This Word In A Woman's Hands

Although "Rosie the Riveter" posters have become pop symbols of the power of women workers, we seldom hear any stories about the day-to-day lives of the 18 million women who worked in U.S. factories during World War II while the men were fighting overseas. This World in a Woman's Hands by Marcus Gardley points out that although all the "Rosies" in the posters are white, many women of color were working in the factories as well, struggling against racial as well as sexual discrimination.

With an inter-racial cast of nine women, This World in a Woman's Hands explores the complex relationships among the women at Henry J. Kaiser's shipyards in Richmond, California where 93,000 men and women worked around the clock in two shifts daily during World War II. The Richmond shipyards are famous for building 747 ships between 1941 and 1945, a feat not equalled anywhere else in the world, before or since.

The women of color were often placed in lower-paying jobs, and even when they got the better jobs, they were paid less than their white co-workers. At the plant in Richmond, the factory managers fought hard against efforts by the women of color to organize. The women eventually won equal pay, but their victory was brief.  Once the war was over, all of the women were laid off so that the returning soldiers could have their jobs.

Much of the play is sung - either a cappella or accompanied by one on-stage bass player. The composer, Molly Holm, performed for eight years with Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra and has worked with roots-music virtuoso, Linda Tillery, who is listed as a musical consultant for the show.  The show's music reflects those influences, and the jazzy style of Holm's compositions evokes the period of the piece as well as the sounds of the factory.  African-American spirituals also add to the emotional texture of the piece. All of the cast members have terrific voices, and there are moments when the music is simply breath-taking.

The Ballad of Polly Ann

The Ballad of Polly Ann
is a dance piece choreographed by Jo Kreiter with music by Pamela Z.   As research for the piece, Kreiter interviewed six women who worked on Bay Area bridges - women who were pile drivers, iron workers, laborers, carpenters and crane operators. Pamela Z integrated excerpts from those interviews with sounds of construction, cars, and the ocean to create rhythmic sound loops that serve as the music for the dancers.

The most remarkable thing about The Ballad of Polly Ann is the way it conveys both the exhilaration and the fear that the women experienced working on steel girders high above the water. Kreiter's company, Flyaway Productions, specializes in "off-the-ground dances that expose the range and power of female physicality," and much of this piece is performed on suspended girders and platforms and on a tall scaffolding around the edge of the stage. The YouTube clip below will give you a sense of the work.

The Ballad of Polly Ann takes its title from the 1870's ballad about John Henry, "the steel driving man", whose wife, Polly Ann, takes up his hammer when John Henry dies. The dancers perform a series of scenes that focus on specific aspects of the women's work experiences, such as their responses to the jeers of male co-workers, the sense of autonomy they get from their paychecks, and the thrill of looking at the ocean from a great height.

The fact that the dancers are often suspended in air or manipulating large beams is a constant reminder to the audience of the sheer physical strength of the women.  Kreiter says, "We experiment with height, speed and gravity, dancing on steel objects that are both architectural and fabricated. We place dancers anywhere from two to one hundred feet off the ground . . .  At its core, our work explores the female body-- its tumultuous expressions of strength and fragility."

Both of these productions show women workers taking tremendous pride in working on challenging, large-scale projects. There is a Rosie the Riveter Monument on the site of one of the Richmond shipyards. The monument is the length of one of the Liberty ships that the women were building, and it visually makes the point that those ships were huge. Similarly, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge are both amazing construction feats. The Golden Gate Bridge was the longest span in the world when it was built, and cynics believed that the Bay Bridge would be impossible to build due to the potential impact of turbulent waters and gusty winds.

The ability of the women portrayed in these productions to do their jobs in the face of severe discrimination and physical danger is a triumph of women's hearts, minds, and bodies. Thanks so much to everyone involved in these two productions for shining a light on this important piece of women's history. In a world where men generally get all the credit for large public construction projects, it is refreshing to see these two tributes to courageous women pioneers.

This World in a Woman's Hands runs through October 18, 2009 at Shotgun Players in Berkeley, CA. There is more information at:

For more information about The Ballad of Polly Ann, please visit the website of FlyAway Productions at: On October 24, 2009, they will be honoring ten women who are building bridges between women in the arts and civic life. The evening will include performances by Flyaway Productions and various guest artists as well as intimate, personal acceptance speeches by each of the awardees.  For more information, see The 10 Women Campaign on their website.

WomenArts Mourns the Passing of Suzanne Fiol, Photographer, Curator, and Founder of New York City's ISSUE Project Room

WomenArts joins avant-garde artists and appreciators in mourning the death of Suzanne Fiol, photographer, curator, and founder of ISSUE Project Room, one of New York's most important performance spaces devoted to experimental culture. Fiol passed away on Monday, October 5, 2009, at the age of 49, of cancer.

A respected photographer whose work was exhibited nationally and internationally and appears in the permanent collections at The Art Institute of Chicago, The Brooklyn Museum, The Queens Museum, and the Milwaukee Art Museum, Fiol was also a curator and producer who devoted her life to the promotion of experimental culture. She founded ISSUE Project Room in 2003 as an interdisciplinary space to promote the creation of new avant-garde works. Fiol's goal was to create a dynamic environment for music, performance, readings, and the development of new work, and she succeeded; the organization has become a reference for experimental art in New York City. Fiol was known for her innovative transformation of unlikely spaces into performance spaces recognized for their warmth and great sound: IPR, whose first home was a converted garage in the East Village, has moved twice - first to a former oil silo on the Gowanus Canal, then to The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, where it currently operates. The space will move yet again in 2010 or 2011, this time to a historic theatre at 110 Livingston in downtown Brooklyn, for which Fiol secured a 20-year lease last year. Major renovations are necessary before IPR can move into its (more) permanent home, for which Fiol had big plans, including the creation of a living digital and video library of contemporary avant-garde work.

ISSUE Project Room will continue moving forward, fundraising for the renovation of their new space and showcasing a diverse selection of national and international talent, inspired by Fiol's work and her passion for the arts. Both The New York Times and The Village Voice have published articles mourning Fiol's loss and celebrating her life.

WomenArts honors the life of this woman artist who exemplified our values by building community amongst artists, creating a forum in which to share the arts with her larger community, and providing a space in which experimental artists - who often fall outside the scope of mainstream funding and recognition - could showcase their work. We thank Suzanne Fiol for dedicating her life to supporting and promoting cutting-edge art.

If you are in New York City, honor Suzanne Fiol's memory tonight, Friday, October 8, 2009, by attending "Poetry to the Infinitive Power(s)," a fundraiser for ISSUE Project Room that Fiol co-curated, which will feature readings by poets Bob Holman, Jonas Mekas, and Anne Waldman, among many others, as well as a musical performance and video premiere by These Are Powers. More information about tonight's event, as well as the future home of IPR, can be found on the ISSUE Project Room website.

Photo Credit: Joe Holmes

Thursday, October 8, 2009

San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Proves People Want Art - and Does Right By Women

Last weekend, music lovers in San Francisco enjoyed what has become a much-anticipated annual event: the free - yes, FREE - Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. Friday, October 2 through Sunday, October 4, 2009, more than 80 musical acts performed on 6 stages for a crowd the San Francisco Chronicle estimates at 750,000 or more. In its ninth year, HSB, which is put on by billionaire investment banker Warren Hellman, featured a stellar line-up of artists that included a large representation of women. Mavis Staples, Marianne Faithfull, Emmylou Harris, Neko Case, Gillian Welch, Dar Williams, and Aimee Mann were only some of the best-known female talents who delighted audiences over the course of the weekend.

The WomenArts staff was, of course, thrilled to see a program that featured such a large percentage of women - not always the case at large music festivals. What possibly thrilled us even more as we lounged on the grass and wandered through thick crowds of relaxed, happy people, was the fact that so many people turned out for this free event. The popularity of HSB clearly demonstrates that all types of people - from families with babies to older folks who brought their own lawn chairs to young barefoot hippies to cowboy-hat-wearing bluegrass die-hards and everyone in between - enjoy the arts and will take advantage of arts events, especially when they are free. If arts events are suffering a lack of attendance, it would appear that this is not due to a lack of interest, but to a lack of cash to pay admission fees, confirming what we've long suspected: Americans want and need the arts.

The unemployment rate in California is currently over 12%, which means that over one in ten people at the festival might be unemployed. It was a wonderful thing indeed to look around and see smiling faces enjoying great music, forgetting for a few hours or a few days whatever financial or material problems they face. It is essential, especially during hard times, for communities to continue coming together and celebrating the power of art to provide solace, inspire peace and camaraderie, and simply to bring us moments of joy. WomenArts salutes HSB for doing all that, and for giving women artists their place on the stage.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mourning Mercedes Sosa, Legendary Argentine Folk Singer

WomenArts joins fans around the world in mourning the death of the legendary Argentine folk singer and human rights activist, Mercedes Sosa. Sosa was forced into exile in the 1970's by the military dictatorship, but she never backed down. She outlived the dictatorship and was able to return to Argentina in 1982. She recorded more than 70 albums and was a three-time Latin Grammy winner.

Her relatives have asked fans to honor her memory by singing. In that spirit, we have pasted the clip below that shows her singing one of her most popular songs, "Gracias A La Vida", or "Thanks to Life." The song is from a 1972 album that honored the late Chilean poet and singer Violeta Parra with interpretations of some of her poems. 

You can read more about Sosa and find a translation of this song by clicking here>>  There are numerous articles online about her funeral (like this New York Daily News article or this AFP article). Here is a link to an article about her in Wikipedia.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Nonprofits and the Corporate Model: Bad for Social Change?

Can truly radical social movements bring about change when they work within a nonprofit structure modeled on a corporate capitalist model? Brandi Rose, a graduate student in the Arts in Youth and Community Development program at Columbia College Chicago, examines the ways in which the structures that legitimize and facilitate the work of social change organizations may reduce their effectiveness by requiring them to work within, rather than outside of, the status quo.

Read her insightful article:

What do you think?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Looking for Feminist Arts Bloggers

WomenArts is compiling a list of feminist arts bloggers for our website. We are looking for women who write reviews of other people's work or who write commentary on arts issues from a feminist perspective. We are especially interested in finding more women of color and more women who write about arts events and issues outside the U.S.

If you are interested in being included in our list, please send your full name, a link to your blog and a short description of the topics you cover to Deborah Steinberg at

WomenArts Theatre & Film Funding Newsletters for October Are Now Online

WomenArts posts free monthly newsletters listing upcoming funding, festival and other opportunities for theatre and film/video artists. The newsletters place an emphasis on listings for women, people of color, and socially-engaged artists. Check out the October 2009 issues at the links below: