2Qs with Ensemble Mik Nawooj

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 31, 2019
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Ensemble Mik Nawooj on Friday, November 1 at Campbell Hall

Oakland’s Ensemble Mik Nawooj is an innovative 10-piece ensemble featuring winds, strings, piano, drums, and a lyric soprano – plus two MCs, the kind you find at a hip hop concert. That’s because EMN founder and composer JooWan Kim, who was classically trained in composition at Berklee College of Music and San Francisco Conservatory, also is drawn to hip hop’s spirit of disruption. EMN merges the two influences to create a hybrid that turns upside down everything you thought you knew about either genre.

EMN brings its cutting-edge stylings of original songs and extractions of Wu-Tang Clan music to UCSB Campbell Hall on Friday, November 1. Kim clued us in on its beginnings and its breadth. 

Q. How on earth did you come up with EMN?

A. It was really just purely by accident. I was doing my masters at conservatory, but I was totally disillusioned with the Eurocentric classical music aesthetic. I wanted to get out of that concert music world. In trying to make that happen I did a novelty piece that involved chamber music with an emcee coming in at the end. My teachers hated it, of course, but the audience loved it. And then we ended up getting a full-page write up in the paper. My emcee thought there was some juice in the project. I spent the next six months writing music, thinking about what I wanted this to be using classical instruments. I figured, I’ve spent so much time and money, why not start there.

So you were embracing hip hop?

At the time I wasn’t into hip hop at all. But later, once I heard N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton album, I had an experience where I totally got it. It was literally a rapture. I was dipped into the river of hip hop and reborn as a hip hop composer.

A Decade of Dance Lab

Nebula Dance Lab Founder/President and Artistic Director Devyn Duex had a very clear idea of what she was suggesting when the dancer/choreographer named her new creation after the interstellar phenomenon back in 2009.

“It’s a mass with lots of gas and energy, which just pulls in more energy and it gets bigger and bigger from the collective energy,” she explained. “That’s what we wanted to create – an open place where more people and ideas could come in.”

The concept was to go beyond personal accomplishments and embed something in the community that had an expanded vision. “I didn’t want a company that was just my stuff,” said Duex, whose extensive dance history included pre-Santa Barbara stints with James Sewell Ballet, Straw Hat Players, The Pittsburgh Playhouse, Cabrillo Music Theater, Universal Pictures, and others, while her post-2003 modern dance engagement included working with Motion Theater Dance Company, SonneBlauma Danscz Theater, Fusion Dance Company, and more. “I wanted to create an environment where emerging artists had a platform, a space where they could try things out, experiment, push the boundaries, and not only create work but also be able to put it out there for the public to see.”

Now, as Nebula is preparing to celebrate its 10th anniversary with a show at the Lobero Theatre that reprises repertory and performers from its history along with a couple of new works, Duex has come up with a title to reflect the occasion: Kairos. “It’s the perfect, delicate, crucial moment; the fleeting rightness of time and place that creates the opportune atmosphere for action, words or movement.”

The moment is the Decade of Dance Lab celebration set for November 7, an evening as a journey through Nebula’s creative collaboration and evolution featuring repertory work by Erin Martinez, Emily Tatomer, Meredith Cabaniss (whose own Santa Barbara-based selah dance collective produced a two-week pop-up series of community events at a vacant State Street storefront earlier this month), Brooke Hughes Melton, and Edgar Zendejas along with the premiere of new works by Gianna Burright and Indy Award-winning choreographers Shelby Lynn Joyce and Weslie Ching, plus special pre-show performances by youth companies in Santa Barbara.

“I’m just so satisfied that we’ve had the ability to support so many artists, hundreds over the years,” Duex said. “Whether they stay for eight years, which some have done, or come in and out for a project or season, everyone has a place to come back to.”

Duex was thrilled to note that the Kairos show features choreographers and many of the dancers who have moved on – including one who is even coming out of retirement to perform – representing all 10 seasons of the company/collective.

“I got emotional yesterday in rehearsal because everybody’s back, in some way or another, in the space, re-staging a piece, or dancing, or just coming to see the show. It’s just really awesome. It means a lot to have had so many people resonate with the vision. When I look out across all the dance people who have been involved, I can see that it really is a company, with everyone owning the things that they do.”

Duex’s own choreography will be represented by “Sand Into Glass,” which played in 2012 and 2013 to sold out houses, while she’ll also be dancing on stage as part of the celebration. “And I’m the producer/director so there are lots of layers,” she said.

As the November 7 performance approaches, Duex is finding the emerging emotions hard to contain. “There have already been some tears, and I’m sure I’ll be crying that night. Good tears, of course. There’s just so much history, so many people.”

But Nebula won’t be receding into a black hole when the curtain comes down. Indeed, the rest of the season has already been announced, while next fall brings the company’s ambitious dance adaptation of “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” the 1960 children’s novel of a 24-year-old woman stranded alone for years on an island off the California coast that was adapted into a movie in 1964. Plus, there’s increased attention on Nebula’s HHII Dance Festival, which began in 2015 as a showcase for dozens of small U.S. and international companies to exhibit new works outside of their own hometowns.

“We’ve got our sights set on our next ten years,” Duex said. “We want to expand HHII into a live arts festival, and make it more collaborative beyond Nebula. We want to grow our mission to support emerging artists and provide a platform for them to be seen and heard, see other perspectives, other styles and approaches from all over the world, and create more collaborations.”

And apparently we’ll need another astronomical term to denote Duex’s Dance Lab vision.

Dance Dimensions

State Street Ballet, which opened its 2019-20 season early in October with one of its biggest productions in its history, scales back dramatically as “EVENINGS” – its showcase for its dancers to create their own works and experiment with new movement, music, and styles – returns to the Gail Towbes Center for Dance on November 1 and 2. The annual event features seven short world premieres, performed in SSB’s rehearsal space and followed by a Q&A with the choreographers to provide a glimpse into their process. Wine, light refreshments, and a fun social environment rounds out the event where almost anything goes.


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