Syren Modern Dance
Astoria Dance Troupe Springs To Life
Circle, from Abravanel
By Jennifer Polland
Modern dance is frequently misunderstood by those outside of the dance community. But it doesn’t have to be. One young, ambitious Queens-based modern dance group, Syren, is setting out to change the way people view modern dance.
The group was founded in 2002 by Artistic Directors Lynn Peterson and Kate Mehan. The two 26-year-olds met while studying dance at SUNY Purchase. After graduating, they moved to Astoria and decided to start a modern dance group, Syren Modern Dance.
“We felt pretty passionate about doing work we believed in,” Peterson said. “We wanted to broaden the modern dance audience and create something that was really worthwhile. So we decided to start our own dance company.”
Dance With A Mission
Syren’s mission is to create, produce and share dance with the public. Mehan and Peterson stress the importance of the accessibility of modern dance. Rather than alienating the audience with abstract, inaccessible work, they strive to create a type of conversation between the performers and the audience members.
“There is a lot of amazing abstract work out there, but a lot of times the audience ends up leaving because they don’t feel that the dancers were trying to communicate something to them,” Peterson said. “We want to make something that would help people understand modern dance. We want to reach out to people who don’t know much about modern dance without compromising the quality of the work.”
Developed in the early 20th century, modern dance is still a somewhat enigmatic form to many people outside of the dance community. Modern dance began as a type of rebellion again classical ballet and has evolved into a complex art form that encompasses elements of ballet, jazz, hip-hop, and any type of general free movement.
“Something that means a lot to us is the accessibility of our movement,” Mehan said. “We want to create dance that communicates on a human level—that tells a story.”
Pushlights, from Abravanel
Debut As A Journey
Mehan, who is originally from Connecticut, choreographed the troupe’s first full-length piece, called Abravanel, which premiered at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in February 2007. Abravanel tells the story of the persecution of the Sephardic Jewish community during the Middle Ages.
“I was originally inspired the thick, rich textures of the Sephardic music,” Mehan said. “Then I started learning about the history and culture of the Sephardic Jewish people, and I felt like I wanted to tell their story through dance.”
Performed to a haunting Sephardic melody, Abravanel features six dancers who are dressed in traditional costumes. Although Abravanel is not a hyper-narrative piece, the dancers’ movements convey elements of the journey that the Sephardic Jews underwent. For example, when the dancers roll on the floor in the dark, it seems that they feel lost or when they coalesce into a single unit and mimic each other’s movements, their connection to each other is almost tangible.
“Abravanel is about the journey and the strife that the Sephardic Jewish people went through,” Peterson said. “There are definitely parallel themes that we all could relate to as young dancers who are all struggling to try and find our way in New York City.”
|( Huntfly, from Abravanel.
Challenges & Pitfalls
It is difficult for a young dancer to make it in New York City, but it is even more difficult for a young dance troupe to attain success. Peterson, who has undertaken many of the financial responsibilities in the group, said that it has been difficult to secure enough funding for the group to survive. Syren is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization that is eligible for grants– but grants only get you so far.
“Building the organizational funding to match the creative side has been incredibly difficult,” Peterson said. “As the stakes keep rising artistically, the funding has to come in to back it. This is the point where groups can drop off, but we really need to just keep trudging through.”
The dancers in the group – there are currently eight dancers including Mehan and Peterson – get paid for each performance. But scrounging up the money to pay the dancers can be a major feat. Mehan and Peterson are so committed to rewarding the dancers for their work that sometimes the money for the dancers comes out of their own pockets (both women have part-time office jobs).
“We see everything we do as an investment in Syren, so we rarely pay ourselves for our work,” Peterson said.
No Home, No Worries
Syren does not have a studio of its own. The troupe rehearses and performs wherever it can find space throughout Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn in venues like the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. As Syren garners more attention, Peterson and Mehan are looking for new venues to rehearse and perform at in the future – and they are turning their attentions to Queens.
“We’d love to get another gig in Queens,” Mehan said, referring to the company’s participation in Queens Theatre in the Park’s 2004 LEAP! Festival. “We’ve talked about digging our heels back into Queens and opening the door to more performances in our own backyard. But it’s hard because there aren’t a lot of mid-size spaces in Queens that would work for our group.”
“We would love to have a space, a studio of our own, ideally in Queens so that our group wouldn’t have to shuttle around the city like we do now,” Peterson added.
As Syren marches forward into its fifth season, Peterson is actively applying for grants to secure funding for the company and Mehan is in the midst of choreographing the group’s next full-length piece, a dance that is inspired by ancient Egypt and the story of Exodus.
“We hope to have a good healthy repertory and a financially stable organization in the future,” Mehan said. “We want to become a well-known artistic force.”
For more information on Syren Mod
Ready For Their Close-Up
Aging Stars Shine In Senior Acting Troupe
| Michael Hadley (l.) rehearses his role as a waiter for the scene “A la Carte.”
By Juliet Werner
On a recent Friday morning the Senior Theater Acting Repertory, or STAR, gathered in the Queens Village Library basement for its biweekly rehearsal. Three actresses quickly ran through a scene from the play “Cemetery Club.” Director Juan Ovallie sat in a metal folding chair near the front, legs crossed, choosing his laughs carefully; the women were nailing every punchline.
Ovallie, a veteran summer stock and off-Broadway director, joined STAR two years ago after coming across a newspaper ad. His wife recommended it simply as a way to “get out of the house,” but once he attended a rehearsal he was immediately impressed.
“I know how hard it is to memorize at the age we’re in,” Ovallie said, adding that he signed on as an actor, but naturally fell into directing.
Keeping The Light On
For years the group had been sponsored by the library, which provided a director and various supplies including curtains for the stage. In recent years library budget cuts have hit the acting company, and STAR lost its paid director and access to rehearsal space. The determined thespians continued meeting in a member’s apartment and once the library received a slight funding increase they were invited to return.
The current members of STAR, ranging from 50 to 94, spend hours at home memorizing, then call each other to review.
“We have a good and very demanding director,” Assistant Director Natalie Cooper said.
“This is a special group,” Ovallie said. “Sometimes I get carried away and want them to be professional.”
STAR, now in existence for 20 years, takes its repertoire of scenes to temples, churches and assisted living facilities.
“We put a little sunshine into their boring existences,” President Stan Guttman said of their aging audience, adding that they’ve had spectators fall asleep.
In 1996, STAR performed a musical “Stop the World - I Want To Get Off” at Queens Theatre in the Park. Following their appearance, QTIP Executive Director Jeffery Rosenstock called the performance “inspiring,” and wrote the group a letter, which read in part, “We’d like to thank you for filling up the theatre two times with many new people who are visiting our facility for the first time.”
Although the group easily attracts audiences, and frequently earns grants from the Queens Council on the Arts, it has struggled with membership and attendance. At 50, recently retired Michael Hadley is STAR’s youngest and newest member.
“It’s been a lifelong dream to begin to act,” Hadley said. “And with the positive and friendly support that’s been given to me it’s been a truly wonderful experience.”
Hadley was cast as the waiter in a scene called “A la Carte.” According to longtime member Marcia Gittelman, Hadley has re-imagined the role.
“The waiter went from being Jewish to Jamaican,” Gittelman said.
The group, it seems, applauds his artistic choice.
For more information regarding joining and/or Fall 2007 performances call Natalie Cooper at (718) 776-0529.
Pick A Language
Thalia Spanish Theatre Offers Billingual Beauty
Some of the best Flamenco in the city comes to Sunnyside.
By Samantha Schoenfeld
Although the United States is known as the “melting pot” because of the significant number of citizens have lived here for so few generations, no county in the country is more ethnically diverse then Queens.
With so many cultures colliding daily and living together in such a small space it is some times hard to preserve ones identity and traditions. Many people are forced unceremoniously to assimilate into the American lifestyle by learning English and adjusting to the norms of American society making it difficult to practice traditions and remember the past.
To compliment this abrupt change, actress Silvia Brito of Sunnyside, Queens erected the Thalia Spanish Theatre in 1977. The Thalia is the only bilingual Hispanic theatre in Queens serving more than 600,000 people of Hispanic origin who hail from every Spanish-speaking country around the world.
The theatre is a nonprofit organization that puts on five to six professional productions a year. These productions are often American- or world-premieres of plays, folklore shows, flamenco shows, and zarzuelas – Spanish operas that contain dialogue. In addition to these shows, the theatre also puts on an annual summer festival as well as acting workshops for children.
| Cultural performance is key at Thalia.
Brito left the theatre in 1999, and her successor, Angel Gil Orrios, helped to change the theatre to put on shows in both Spanish and English all week long, as opposed to just on weekends as it was in the past. The Thalia Theatre’s new schedule helps to serve a wider audience of Hispanic and other culturally adept people who wish to experience and unforgettable event.
Orrios not only helps to run the theatre as the executive artistic director, but he also has produced and directed an abundant amount of shows worldwide, and continues to help produce and direct shows at Thalia.
Thalia Spanish Theatre is now in celebration of its 30th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone the theatre is putting on a special season of shows, such as a musical reproduction of Picasso’s famous painting “The ‘Ladies’ of Avignon” opening in October, as well as a play written by Pablo Picasso himself entitled “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” opening in April.
These special shows are just a few examples of the spectacular performances that the theatre puts on year after year as it continues to be a prominent place in the Queens community helping to preserve the Hispanic culture.
The Thalia Spanish Theatre is located at 41-17 Greenpoint Ave. in Sunnyside. To learn more call (718) 729-3880 or go to thaliatheatre.org.
Leave ‘Em Laughing
Astoria Is A Hub For The Comic Community
By Jennifer Polland
Astoria. The name is only slightly funny, but the people who live here are hysterical. Dozens of up-and-coming comedians have flocked to Astoria in the past decade and have nestled into this intimate Queens community. What is it about Astoria that calls to comedians? The Queens Tribune asked a few well-known Astoria-based comedians, and here is what they had to say:
Stats:Last Comic Standing, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Star Search
Years in Astoria: 9
Why he moved to Astoria: I was living in Syracuse and my sister was living in Astoria. I wanted to move to the city, so I moved into her apartment.
What he likes about Astoria: When I’m not on stage, I’m pretty mellow, and to me Astoria was kind of mellow. I like that there aren’t a ton of people in Astoria. There are some good places to run. It’s easy to have a car, and it’s easy to get out of the city pretty quickly.
Jesse Joyce has lived in Astoria for six years.
Stats: Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, Entertainment Tonight
Years in Astoria: 6
Why he moved to Astoria: Moody McCarthy is kind of the founder of the Astoria movement. He sold me on Astoria, and told me it was a great place to live. Then he and I both convinced everyone else to move here.
What he likes about Astoria: Astoria is a couple bucks cheaper than Manhattan. And, given that I’m on the road a lot, I keep a car on the street so it’s easy to get out of the city. It’s also really neighborhood-y, and it’s close to Manhattan. I just really love the area.
Stats:VH1’s Best Week Ever, Comedy Central Presents, The Late Show with Craig Ferguson, The Today Show
Years in Astoria: 6
Why he moved to Astoria: I went to NYU and spent many years living like a college student in Manhattan. I had no money, and I was in debt. I moved out to Astoria and all of a sudden I had some money and a lot of space.
What he likes about Astoria: I think it’s funny because every once in a while, people recognize me in the neighborhood, and there’s a sort of attitude like, what are you doing still living here? Why are you living in our crappy building? My wife and I have a three-bedroom apartment with our own offices in our apartment. We are so close to Manhattan and we have so much space. I also feel at home in Astoria – it really feels like my neighborhood. I feel like the deli is my deli. We have the four or five restaurants that we really love in the area. There are great restaurants, there are trees, and it’s really close to Manhattan.
Stats: Premium Blend
Years in Astoria: 4
Why he moved to Astoria: I moved here because of Jesse Joyce. He was a big fan of Astoria, and everyone kept saying Astoria, Astoria, Astoria.
What he likes about Astoria: In the past, I’ve lived in somewhat dangerous cities, and it’s nice that no matter what time of day or night, it feels safe here. And, it’s pretty diverse. I think our zip code is one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation. Also, there are probably like 50 comedians here, and we started a basketball league and now we’ve got like 70 guys on the roster. Through word of mouth, the area has just gotten more and more popular with comics, and it’s great.
Stats: Oz, Comedy Central Presents, Late Show David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel Live
Years in Astoria: 3
Why he moved to Astoria: I moved here from Bellerose, where I had lived my whole life. I just wanted to be closer to the city. I knew about Moody McCarthy living here, but other than him, I didn’t know about too many other guys living here at that time. For me, it was more of a financial consideration and wanting to be closer to the city, so Astoria seemed like a good fit.
What he likes about Astoria: I like the neighborhood feel of Astoria. It’s close to the city, but it’s not quite as hectic. And, it’s obviously cheaper to live here. I also have a car, so it’s a lot easier to park here than it would be in Manhattan. Because there are so many comics here, there’s a real community for comics. A bunch of us get together on Wednesday afternoons to play basketball at a park in Astoria. It’s really nice to have a social circle close by. Knowing that I have friends close by and people that are in the field that you can just talk with is great. For me, it’s been a really nice experience, and I plan to be here for the foreseeable future.
Stats: Lifetime’s How Clean is Your House, MTV News Concert Emcee
Years in Astoria: 3
Why he Moved to Astoria: Jesse Joyce is a friend of mine, and he had an opening in his apartment, so I moved in.
What he likes about Astoria: You can keep a car in Astoria, which is great because I perform on the road a lot and it’s important to have a car. Also, Astoria is really close to the city. It’s almost like living in the city, but it is way more affordable than Manhattan. I like the neighborhood, too. It’s kind of quiet. I’m from the Midwest, and it seems to feel like there are a lot of Midwestern people there. There aren’t a bunch of overly-trendy hipsters living here, and it feels a little more Midwestern than other parts of the city. I really dig Astoria, and I plan to stay here.
Stats: ABC’s New York Comedy Festival,Founder and host of Waltz-Astoria’s Tuesday Night Comedy
Years in Astoria: 2.5
Why he moved to Astoria: I moved to Astoria because of the comedy; because of guys like Jesse Joyce and Ray Devito.
What he likes about Astoria: I like Astoria for several reasons; first, it’s cheap. Second, all of my friends live here and all of the comics I respect live here. Third, it’s so convenient to all parts of New York; it’s geographically the best location for a comedian to live in New York. Also, I have my own show at Waltz-Astoria, which is great because Waltz is a place where I write and a place where I perform, and that routine is great for a comedian.
Stats:Last Comic Standing, Comedy Central’s Premium Blend
Years in Astoria: 2
Why he moved to Astoria: Moody McCarthy talked up Astoria, and I realized it was a great place for a comic. It’s close to the city, it’s quiet, and it’s cheaper than Manhattan.
What he likes about Astoria: I love Astoria. It’s quiet, and there are lots of trees, but it still has a city vibe. It’s really easy to get into Manhattan. It’s a good community, it’s laid-back, and it’s easy to live here.
Years in Astoria: 1
Why he moved to Astoria: A lot of funny, nice guys live here. It’s almost a no-brainer to move to Astoria if you’re a comic.
What he likes about Astoria: I like Astoria because it’s way less crowded than Manhattan. In Astoria, there are a lot of nice coffee houses where you can stretch out and get some work done. I’m planning on buying a place in Astoria, so I think I’ll be here for a while.
Queens Playwright Reflects On A Classic Art
Kathleen Warnock calls Queens home.
By Jennifer Polland
Kathleen Warnock is an Astoria-based playwright who has had plays published all over the United States. She is passionate about the theater and strives to create stories that really reach people. But for her, the theater is about more than just telling a good story; it is about finding a place where she belongs. Here, she speaks candidly about the theater, Astoria, and herself.
Queens Tribune: How long have you been writing plays?
Kathleen Warnock: I’ve been writing plays seriously since about 1990. I came to New York to be an actor, and that didn’t work out – it didn’t work out big time. I actually started writing a play about things that had happened when I used to be a sportswriter; which was what I did before I came to New York. That play took a couple of years, but eventually got produced, and that made me realize that I could be a playwright. So I could still be in the theater, but I didn’t have to be in the theater as an actor.
QT: So was that an “A-ha!” moment for you?
KW: I realized, oh duh, I’m a writer! Because I had been working as a sportswriter, I had published some things, and I realized my part in the theater is as a playwright. It was a real light bulb moment.
QT: What do you like about playwriting?
| A performance of Warnock’s “Some Are People.”
KW: I like that it’s a collaborative art. If you have a good director and good actors, they find much more stuff in it than you knew you put in there. There are certain actors and directors who I have worked with several times because I know that what they are going to do is make my plays better.
QT: Do you feel that you can get more out of a play when you are writing it versus when you are acting in it?
KW: Oh yeah, because the writer is god, and in the beginning there was the word. I have a lot of plays that I’ve sent out and I’ve been lucky enough to have several of them done here in New York. I’ve had them done in various places across the country. Sometimes I haven’t seen them because I can’t always get to the places where the play is being done.
QT: How many plays have you written so far?
KW: Four-full length plays, which have been produced. One-act plays beyond number, of which many have been produced here, regionally, and I even had a production in London a couple of summers ago.
QT: What inspires your plays? Is there some sort of overarching theme that runs through a lot of them?
KW: A lot of the themes that my plays have are that everybody is searching for a home. Even though my plays have very different plots, it’s usually about finding where you belong and the journey that you had to take to get there.
QT: Going along with that theme of everybody is searching for a home, how much do you – your interests and your personality – play into your plays? Do you think that you are searching for a home in a way?
KW: Well, I think that that’s what I had a lot of in my life. And, the plays do have a tendency to have a close-to-home feel to them. The play “Rock the Line” was definitely inspired by the years I spent following around Joan Jett. The play “Grieving for Genevieve,” which is about a mother and her daughters in Baltimore, has its parallels with my family because I have a lot of sisters and my mother lives in Baltimore. “To the Top,” which was my very first play, was directly based on my experience as a sportswriter.
QT: Do you find that it’s easier to draw from your own life and use that in the theater?
KW: Well as I get older, I find it easier to imagine. The play that I just had done last fall in the EATfest, which is called “Some Are People,” was three characters in Provincetown. None of it was based on my life, but I knew enough about the craft to make them real and truthful.
QT: What is it like when you see your play being performed on stage?
KW: Oh it’s the best. It’s the absolute best. And when you have good actors and a good director, it’s the most gratifying thing you’ve ever seen. I love to go see my plays when they are being done because every performance is different, and you learn something about the play and about the writing from what the director and actors do.
QT: Where are you from originally?
KW: I’m originally from Philadelphia, and my dad was with the government so we moved around a lot. I spent several years in the Deep South: in Alabama and South Carolina, and finally my parents retired in Baltimore. Then I moved down to South Carolina to be a sportswriter, and I moved up to New York in the mid-80s to go to acting school. I’ve been in Astoria for 14 years.
QT: What made you decide to move to Astoria?
KW: Every single cent I was making was going to rent in Manhattan, and it wasn’t a great apartment. When I got into Astoria, I had a much nicer apartment at a much lower rent, and suddenly I had more time to write. There is a connection. If every minute of your day is spent making money to pay the rent, then you don’t have time to be an artist.
QT: What do you like about Astoria?
KW: Astoria has changed in the 14 years I’ve been there, but it still has a neighborhood feel to it. You still have locally-owned stores and restaurants. There is a sense of history in the neighborhoods, and it doesn’t all look alike. And, it’s much more diverse than Manhattan. It’s really the place to purchase if you’re not a zillionaire – and it’s quite enjoyable.
QT: You’ve been living in Astoria for 14 years: have any of your plays been inspired by Astoria?
KW: A little bit. I have a lot of 10-minute plays, and those plays are just slices of life from wherever I happen to be, and they could be just from people on the street interacting with each other. The characters in my plays are the sort of people who do live in Astoria. I generally don’t have rich people in my plays; they are regular working people.
QT: Is there any sort of message that you hope people will get from your plays?
KW: I just hope they have a good time seeing a story that was told well. If it comes back to them and they think about it for a while, and think about the characters as real people, it’s a success.
QT: Do you have any advice for young playwrights?
KW: Find a good supportive peer group; that’s a really important thing, because if you don’t, it makes people give up. Don’t just assume that when you finish the play you’re done. Be hands-on all the way around. Unless you come in with a super-pedigree and tons of introductions to agents, you’re going to be someone who is doing smaller works. That means you get out there and make your own work better. That part is essential and it’s completely rewarding because it changes your knowledge of the craft.