very semester, WSN produces superlative-like, special themed issues known as Influential and Up-and-Comers. These long-form profiles work to highlight students both at the center of the NYU community and the fore of their fields and majors. While the school’s pool of artists makes multiple appearances every year, we decided to dedicate another semesterly issue, the Arts Issue, to the students who inspired us and impressed their professors with their art, through the mediums of comedy, dance, jazz, rap and spoken and written word. When it came to influencers, our minds immediately went to sketch comedy group Hammerkatz. One of the older entertainment troupes on campus, its monthly shows attract the masses, and its members have gone on to work on “30 Rock” and “Saturday Night Live” — not to mention the 11-member group is a riot to photograph in a small space. When we thought of talent on the rise, we went straight to the receipts, and it was hard to pass on dancer and Princess Grace honoree Aliza Russell and WSN favorite Jesediah. Both artists have already gained significant attention through accolades and publicity, but what really solidified their place in this issue were the messages behind their crafts. Admittedly, WSN rarely covers student writers, which led us to our choices of Rachel Main and Melissa Lozada-Olivia. Main, a playwright and screenwriter, and Lozada-Olivia, a spoken word poet, both yearn to tell salient stories, as all great writers do. Timo Vollbrecht, a saxophonist and doctoral student in Jazz Performance and Composition, was brought to us by a professor absolutely gobsmacked by his musical dissertation. We tend to focus mostly on genres of pop and rap, but for this issue, we wanted to highlight a student in love with the improvisational nature of jazz. Roaming the blocks that make up campus, you never know when you’re walking past the next Baryshnikov, Mozart or Dickinson. It’s important to stop, lift your head up from your phone screen and consider the breadth of talent found in this distinct community, and this semester’s Arts Issue is just the tip of the iceberg.
& l e k i M n a y R n o s n i h c i N a l Daniel
Telling Stories in Search of Universality
Parable of the Prolific Son
Sketches, Not Skits!
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Telling Stories in Search of Universality written by Daniella Nichinson | photographed by Katie Peurrung
riting is a cathartic experience. It’s a time for the writer to face the blank page, nothing standing between them and what they want to say. It is also a meditative process that allows the writer to distance themself from reality and enter into a state of creative solitude. I don’t think there’s any other art form that creates such a space.
For Rachel Main, a second-year MFA Dramatic Writing student at Tisch School of the Arts, writing has been a part of her life since childhood. Main showed an inclination toward storytelling, always engrossed in books and her own imagination. It was her mother who spurred her on and supported her creative drive. “My Gran always told me that my mum and I were alike,” she said. “When my mum was little, she would also spend hours and hours reading books and writing.” Main’s mother became her inspiration and continues to be to this day. But at the age of 12, Main was hit with the brute force of reality: her mother was diagnosed with meningitis. While many children her age had yet to hit puberty, Main was thrown onto an expedited track to maturity. Yet, looking back on this difficult time, she regards it not as a burden but rather as an opportunity to see the world through a different lens. “Since I was 12, I was her caregiver,” she said. “That was a very interesting perspective. As a writer, that’s something that I integrate into a lot of my work, and I’m very passionate about working-class areas being well represented.” Main came to NYU to study Dramatic Writing from a small town in Scotland called Glenrothes, just 30 miles north of Edinburgh. Her 3,000-mile-long journey to the
States began on a whim. In her undergraduate studies at the University of Dundee, Main received a degree in English and Film Studies, where she thrived and explored the depths and intricacies that writing had to offer. Main wrote and produced her first play called “Garden Girl.” With a £100 budget and a cast composed of her friends, she took the play to Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It received a modest three-star review, but the entire process was exhilarating for Main and resulted in a revelation. “At no point before that did I ever think I could be successful in this industry,” she said. “That never occurred to me.” Despite displaying a clear passion for the arts and writing, she was uncertain of what to do next — until one trip across the Atlantic changed that. “My mom and I came to New York and we passed NYU Tisch, and I made it my desktop wallpaper. This is a goal,” she said. “I’ll apply to one writing school. If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.” It happened. Now, Main is flourishing and taking advantage of any opportunity that is hurled her way. Just a few months ago, Main was announced as one of 20 students to receive a British Academy of Film and Television Arts scholarship. Aimed at British students studying in the
United States, the scholarship offers financial support and mentorship for the brightest and most talented aspiring filmmakers. Main is thankful that the program is not just a monetary scholarship but a chance to connect with industry leaders that will support her in her career. As a writer, one has the ability to communicate carefully and tell the stories people want to hear. It is a gift that is easily squandered by those who don’t realize the cultural and social impact of narrative creation. Coming from a working-class background, Main understands and strives for representation on screen and on stage and seeks to tell tories that aren’t always told. “In British cinema, it’s shocking how little diversity there is and the demonization of the working-class youth — the other,” she said. “As someone who lived [in the United Kingdom], I often could not see myself represented on screen. It’s important to me to hold on to the voice I have and not forget my roots are in the U.K.” For Main, the opportunity to study Dramatic Writing in New York City was a surreal one. It instilled in her a deeper sense of gratitude and, perhaps most importantly, an aspiration to help others like her realize their potentials and chase down their dreams. “In 10 to 15 years I’d love to be a mentor to someone like
me, a younger kid, using what I learned, my experiences, some of my money, to make someone else’s dreams come true and represent another generation,” she said. Main’s writing is rooted in emotional exploration — in the dissecting and examining of character traits. Her writing draws on experiences from her own life and how those experiences have shaped her thoughts and being. “The stories I want to tell all come back to similar truths: mothers and daughters with unresolved issues, people who are in environments they don’t necessarily feel they belong in but want to prove themselves or prove to others that they belong there,” she said. Main believes that a story well-told can resonate with anyone. Even a writer’s personal account of their life can find itself in the heart and mind of a reader across the globe, from a different background and with a distinct way of thinking. What’s most important is for there to be some feeling to latch on to that serves as the simple connection among heterogeneous beings. “I want to tell stories that people haven’t seen and might be very specific,” she said. “In specificity, there’s something that’s very universal.” Over the years, Main has grappled with telling oth-
ers about her past, but has come to the realization that it is, in fact, her past which has shaped her into the writer she is today. For Main, writing has become an outlet for creative expression and personal reflection. It all circles back to her childhood and coping with her mother’s illness. “I was very lonely and felt like I had lost connection to all of this support I had grown up with,” she said. “The only thing that remained the same was that I still had my favorite books and my own imagination — I used my voice in writing instead. At this stage in my life, writing became less of a hobby and more of a necessity.” Main is someone who seizes the chance to share her unique background with others. By bringing awareness to issues of class and upbringing through her screen- and playwriting, Main strives for the artistic representation of those typically ostracized. She hopes that their journeys and obstacles may be understood by those more fortunate because their stories deserve to be told just as much as anyone else’s. At the heart of Main’s writing is family. Her connection with her mother runs deep through her veins because it was her mother that infused this passion for
sharing challenging stories that need to be told. “My mum is my real inspiration as no matter what I write, everything seems to return to her,” she said. “She is the strongest person I know — her life was suddenly, horrifically transformed, but she fought every part of it, recovered and continues to support everything I want to do.” People want to hear stories, watch theater and see films that are honest. Everyone has moments during their lifetime when hopelessness prevails over hope, and the hole of despair grows deeper and deeper. Main has realized that writing operates as a channel to purge those emotions and to lift an oppressive weight off your shoulders, despite how taxing it may be. “It can be a draining process,” she said. “But I think it has helped me to come to terms with what I have dealt with, and I’m always surprised by how many people with different experiences have told me that they connect to what I write.” What Main has proven is that no matter how singular the act of writing is, the result can be universal. Email Daniella Nichinson at email@example.com.
Parable of the Prolific Son written by Ali Zimmerman | photographed by Katie Peurrung
esse Sgambati was drunk or stoned or both when his musical alter ego, Jesediah, was born. In his first year at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Sgambati was trapped in a dilemma all new artists must face: how to carefully select that most crucial piece of branding that can make or break a career. He needed a stage name. He frequently bounced his ideas around with his managers, Jake Nanez and Alex Baranello, who are both Sgambati’s classmates at Clive. He considered simply “Jesse” and quickly rejected “Young Jez.” It was not until early in his sophomore year that the perfect name struck him. Sgambati was hanging out at Nanez’s apartment, delivering a characteristically boozy rant about the Clive administration. Nanez stopped him and asked what he was doing. The answer: “I’m preaching on these n-ggas.” They soon came up with Jesediah, a name that is both commanding and perhaps ironically biblical. “There’s no other artists with it,” Sgambati said. “I didn’t want to do anything that was like ‘Yung J’ or ‘Lil Backpack’ or some sh-t like that. To me, that ship had sailed.” And while the 22-year-old Clive senior has a well-streamed Spotify repertoire of high tempo trap and pop-influenced sounds with recent breakout singles like “Factual” and “G.O.A.T,” he is in no way defined by the parameters of what his girlfriend lovingly refers to as “f-ckn-gga” music. Sgambati was born in New Orleans but grew up in Syracuse, New York as the only adopted child of two gay men. Music and performance were centerpieces of Sgambati’s life growing up. He was enrolled in piano lessons when he was three and took dance lessons almost every day. He started to teach himself to play guitar when he was nine. “I took like four lessons but it was moving too slow and I wasn’t trying to shred,” Sgambati said. “I just wanted to be able to write songs and be able to go around with my guitar and serenade people.” He used to attend Old Songs Festival, where he found a love for folk music among the banjo and mandolin players crowding tents at the Fairgrounds in Altamont, New York. He began writing folk songs on the guitar, turning to his New Orleans roots for inspiration. “I like looking at my home state and just understanding how much of bluegrass and folk came out of the South and came from African people,” Sgambati said. “I realized that was something I connected with and it had a lot to do with the storytelling. Folk music and hip-hop music are really the only things I listened to when I was younger because, to me, they were both about telling a story just in very different ways.” But music isn’t all that has marked the young rapper’s life. From a young age, Jesediah’s gender identity shaped the enigma we hear and see on stage. “When I was four, I asked my dad ‘when does my penis grow,’ and he was like ‘never, my guy, sorry to be the bearer of bad news.’ I was like, ‘well this doesn’t make any sense.’” Sgambati came out as transgender in eighth grade and moved quickly through his transition thereafter with plenty of support from his dads. He began taking hormones within the year and had his top surgery during his senior year
of high school. “I think, to me, that was really important because I had figured it out at that point in my life, and I didn’t want to come to college where you’re already introducing yourself all over again and have to do that twice because I hadn’t felt secure in my transition at that point.” Nearly five years later, Sgambati moves around his apartment with ease and a cigarette in hand, shirtless under a pair of camouflage overalls, confidently owning the scars from his top surgery. His left arm is tattooed with the words “real boy.” “People still have jokes, but if you let other people be the reason you feel like a male then you’re never gonna feel like a male,” he said. His switch from folk to hip-hop began in high school with Sgambati freestyle rapping on friends’ porches. During his ju-
nior year, his high school’s band room became the makeshift studio for his first song. Sgambati knew he wanted to pursue a hip-hop career in college and had his sights set on studying at Clive, but the first challenge was getting his foot in the door. “When I applied to school, I applied as a folk musician because I figured I could finesse my way in. I knew they had three million black dudes who are like ‘I rap, I make [rhythm and blues],’ so I didn’t want to give them another stereotype,” Sgambati said, a grin emerging on his face. “I got to Clive and started making trap immediately. I was doing trap-trap when I first got here. Just songs about shooting people in the face and having fancy cars. Then I started making trap-pop.” In addition to releasing singles, Sgambati has kept himself busy this year performing around New York City, most no-
tably opening for Aaron Knight at S.O.B’s and Tinashe at Irving Plaza. He also filmed and released a music video for his song “G.O.A.T.” Behind the scenes, Sgambati’s vision is made possible by a team of musicians who double as friends he’s met through Clive. His current manager, Giovanni Roca, started West 4th, a club that doubles as a record label his sophomore year and signed Sgambati as its first artist. Sgambati also met Benny Berger, one of the producers in a class at Clive their sophomore year, and the two instantly connected over their love for trap music. With graduation around the corner in the spring and possible plans to try his hand in the Los Angeles music scene after, Sgambati is arming himself for a future in the music industry, with a new more elevated sound. “I think picking apart my blackness has been important to the music I’m making because I used to just make generic trap music, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t that great,” Sgambati said. “I feel like the stuff I’m doing now is a more full representation of myself. I’m trying to incorporate folk and piano. I’m producing my own stuff again so I can think about what I like.” Sgambati has yet to find a sound he can truly call his own, but he has no plan of ending the search any time soon. “Jez is not trying to ride waves by any means,” said Bradley Wastler, a producer and graphic designer for “Factual,” and the founder of WH9LE art collective, of which Sgambati is a member. “He makes music that is very current and up-to-date, but he’s very geared toward the future and looking toward long term success in the music industry.” From a passing glance on Instagram or a shuffle through his Spotify, it looks and sounds like Jesediah has the clout, swagger and attitude to be expected of a rapper. Hidden behind his feed and his trap lyrics is Jesse Sgambati, a different man altogether. “People always say the come up is hard. It’s hard to get more famous if you get stale,” Sgambati said. “There’s more room for mistakes at the lower levels, and I’ve changed my brand so many times because nobody is checking on me. But at that higher stage, you really have to be what people have expected of you to reach this point.” Tyla Leach, Sgambati’s girlfriend of a month whom he met him on Instagram, spoke on Jesediah’s brands and how his ethos changes from performer to boyfriend. “All his songs are like ‘Imma take your shortie, I’m gonna smash, me and your girl,’ but he’s really just a sweetheart, so I’m like ‘who is this on this song?’ Leach said. “I thought he was gonna be a f-ckboy, but that is not at all what happened.” With a new single “Versailles” due to be released on Oct. 13 and many other upcoming tracks, which remain shrouded in secrecy, Jesediah has his sights set on making a lasting name for himself. But no matter how far his career takes him, Sgambati swears to never forget his beginnings. “My friends would be like ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna eat, but I’m gonna buy this ticket to your show.’ That stuff I’m not gonna ever forget. At any level I just want to give back to who and what made me.” Email Ali Zimmerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sketches, Not Skits! written by Guru Ramanathan | photographed by Katie Peurrung
n extravagant businessman walks into a classroom to meet with his son’s elementary school teacher. The father is horrified to find out that his son has been flinging poop at other children. After some consideration, he arrives at the most bizarre conclusion: his son must be a monkey. Over the next few minutes, the father goes bonkers as he likens his son to various species of monkeys you’ve probably never heard of and even brings in a zoology expert on a minute’s notice despite the teacher’s failed attempts to reign in the father.
The outrageous scenario may sound made-up, and in fact, it is. This was the opening sketch of Hammerkatz’s first show of the fall semester. NYU’s premier sketch comedy group performed 10 hilarious sketches over the course of an hour, including interpretations of a couple confronting marital problems while testing out different mattresses and Chase Bank managers changing a woman’s business to become more feminist. This year the group is led by Director Miranda Kronfeld and Assistant Director Gus Laughlin, seniors pursuing Religious Studies, History and Drama, respectively. They have each been a part of Hammerkatz for three years. Kronfeld and Laughlin have big shoes to fill, having taken on directoral positions previously inhabited by an incredible roster of alumni, including the Golden Globe-winning Donald Glover and Rachel Bloom. “In terms of changing things — I sound so scared — I think you’re always trying to strike a balance in your curation of shows between the unified voice of Hammerkatz versus highlighting and elevating the voices of the individuals on the group,” explained Kronfeld. Hammerkatz consists of 11 members, three of whom are new — Dane Clarke II, Ellena Eshraghi and Evan Lee-O’Leary. When auditioning a new group, Hammerkatz conducts performance auditions and judges writing samples. The samples can consist of at least one fully written sketch (five pages or less) or a list of sketch ideas — all so that the directors can get a sense of people’s comedic voices. “In terms of what we look for, it’s a different case,” Laughlin said. “We’re always looking for voices that we don’t have on the group, like missing holes in our playspace.” Kronfeld elaborated, “We turn away huge numbers of really capable, funny people. So, yeah, to repeat what Gus said, there are sort of specific things we are looking for; we’re looking to expand our group’s voice. So, it’s a combination of looking for talent and then sort of having the luck to fall into [Hammerkatz].” Hammerkatz’s performance rehearsals actually only take place during the week of a monthly show. Most of the year entails three-hour writers meetings that happen every Monday night. Everyone who joins the group comes on board as a writer and a performer, but Hammerkatz’s devotion to and careful execution of the writing process cannot be understated. “[E]veryone brings in two to four sketches a week, and we do a table read of them and give each other notes, pitch jokes, give notes on structural things that might need adjustments,” Kronfeld said. Newcomer Dane Clarke II, a first-year Tisch Drama student, spoke about his initial nerves when joining the group. “I know for me — since I’m a freshman — my first meeting, I was terrified,” Clark said. “Only ‘cause I don’t know how this comedy stuff works. Especially the Hammerkatz. I heard about them, and when I went to the meeting, I was thinking, ‘Okay, I’m about to go in there and just keep my mouth shut and listen.’ And I think I did do that. But listening, I realized that this is not a meeting I have to be quiet and sit in a corner.” The writers’ room is a very supportive and collaborative space for the group. Even when coming in with a sketch they are unsure of, members know they are entering a place
in which they are going to be learning more about their own skills and others’ talent sets. “We all have different mindsets, all different walks of life, so we all understand different parts of what can make this successful,” Clarke said. It is tough to describe the Hammerkatz’s style and voice because of the fluidity of comedic taste and the changing sensibilities of every year’s new members. “I really do think that [our voice] develops over the course of a year with each new group as we lose graduating members and gain new ones and get to know each other and what we do best,” Laughlin said. Seniors Russell Katz and Eden Keig, Film & TV and Sociology majors, respectively, have both been on the group since their first year at NYU. Though they had trouble putting it into exact words, both articulated that the group was definitely different from when they had first joined four years ago. This is also influenced by the different perception they had when they were first-years, but they’re liking where the group is right now regardless. “I think every new director has a slightly different spin on things, and every new group of new people brings their new voices,” Keig said. “It’s always going to be changing, but I think it’s going in a fantastic direction.” Kronfeld expounded upon that, saying, “Of course, everyone loves this group and is always doing what they feel to be is the best interest of the group. But I think people can shut down a little bit when they don’t feel they’re being heard, like if I’m not being valued why am I putting my time into this.” While the Hammerkatz are a riotous bunch, they have also shown their versatility in using comedy for more than drawing up laughs. Humor can also be used to make an observation about systemic issues. With the rise of comedians like Keegan-Michael Key, Ana Fabrega and Amy Schumer, more diverse voices are opening up and making a claim in the comedy industry. “I think comedy is the most effective and incisive way to observe truth,” Kronfeld said succinctly. Speaking of our growing social consciousness and sensitivity toward comedy, Keig said, “I think there’s new parameters all the time. Society is constantly evolving, and I think it’s respectful to work in the new parameters.” While pushing the limit is certainly important, boundaries are just as critical. With its current group, Hammerkatz has proven they maintain a wonderful balance in their sketches. Hammerkatz makes sure to never count out comedy as a special and unique form to generally appreciate, with Laughlin even describing it as a universal language. “I think we’re always trying to produce the highest caliber of work that we can while also making sure everyone on the group feels happy and productive and represented, and I think as long we succeed in that mission, we will create shows people enjoy coming to,” Kronfeld said. “We keep doing what we love to do, which is writing and putting together funny shows and performing them for a bunch of college kids who love poop jokes.” Email Guru Ramanathan at email@example.com.
my hair stays on your pillow like a question mark a poem by Melissa Lozada-Oliva originally printed in Muzzle Magazine
Doesn’t Want to Be Relatable written by Alex Cullina | photographed by Katie Peurrung
oet and performer Melissa Lozada-Oliva has never known how to keep her own secrets. “I have a deep need to confess things,” she said. “A big part of being a performance poet, for me, is sharing stuff on stage in front of strangers.” The 26-year-old native of Newton, Massachusetts came to New York last year to pursue a master’s in creative writing at NYU, but before that, she was already at the top of the slam poetry world. The first time Lozada-Oliva ever saw slam was when she watched a video on YouTube of a performance by the slam poet Taylor Mali, while Lozada-Oliva was an undergraduate student at Simmons College. She recalls having an immediate, visceral reaction. The idea of sharing a part of herself like that, of telling a story while working within the rules and constraints of slam, thrilled her. “I was like ‘I have stories, I have stories to tell,’ and I’m excited by this form I get to put it in,” she said. Her experience growing up as a Latina kid in an immigrant family in Newton, a mostly-white, relatively affluent suburb of Boston, was a major influence on her work. Her parents met in an English as a Second Language class after immigrating to the United States — her mother from Guatemala, her father from Colombia. “As a Latina woman, I experience so much shame focused on what I look like,” she said. “I wanted to honor shame, maybe, or understand it better, so I could feel it less.” Writing and performing offered her an outlet for that shame. Writing started as a way to channel her anxieties. From the ages of eight to 18, she kept a meticulous log of everything she did. Over those years, language had a profound effect on Lozada-Oliva. “That really intense, neurotic, maybe bad habit developed into a skill where I had control over language,” she said. “I really had access to it in a way that made me feel powerful.” Not long after watching that first video, Lozada-Oliva joined her school’s slam poetry team. As she recited her work at slam competitions, it quickly became clear how gifted a writer and performer she was. Slam emphasizes poetry as a spoken form, an exercise in the beauty of sound rather than the beauty of the written word; it’s written to be performed for others, usually in the context of a competition. Being read aloud can inject new life into words that don’t necessarily make an impression on the page. But Lozada-Oliva’s work, perhaps unusually, is just as powerful when read silently as when she performed aloud. If anything, it seems like performing her work transforms Lozada-Oliva instead of the reverse. In person, she’s friendly, warm and approachable but also a little tentative. In performance, she commands attention, spitting words forcefully and unapologetically. It’s no wonder then that she was part of the team that won the National Poetry Slam competition in 2015. “[Slam poetry] allowed me to find these really deep stories in me I wanted to tell, but also the way that slam is set up, I felt like I was ‘winning,’” she said. That feeling of victory came when she was able to use the performance as a way to lay bare her past traumas for others to see.
“As a feminine person and as a woman, it felt like you would only pay attention to me when something bad had happened to me, and I couldn’t just be a poet or tell a funny story,” she said. “Now I’m trying to lean into how much I love storytelling and how much I love humor.” She soon transitioned into performing independently, which continues to be a significant part of her artistic practice. “I’m inherently a very performative person,” she said. “I like specifically what I can get across [to] people in that way. I like the connection of performance.” In 2016, Lozada-Oliva was living in Boston, working at a bookstore and spending every free moment she had writing and performing. The previous year, she had published her first chapbook, “Plastic Pajaros,” and in 2016, she published her second, “Rude Girl is Lonely Girl,” inspired by her love of the titular character of the Netflix series, “Jessica Jones.” After seeing one of her performances, Lozada-Oliva was approached by a representative of publisher Button Poetry who proposed that she publish a book with them. While writing what would become her first full collection, “Peluda,” Lozada-Oliva also applied, and was accepted, for an MFA in Creative Writing at NYU. “Peluda” was published during her first semester, in fall 2017. The title translates to “hairy” or “hairy beast,” a reference to her complicated relationship with her body hair. Her mother worked as a waxer, and hair and hair removal is a motif that permeates the book. “The way hair removal related to my identity as a Latina, as a woman, and feminism and all of these things I was grappling with and trying to understand,” she said. “Do I wax my mustache because it’s something my mom taught me how to do and it’s a way she showed me love? But why is that a way she showed me love? Why was the only thing she was able to do was become a beautician, as a poor immigrant?” “I wrote a book as an ode to her, basically,” she said. She chose NYU’s MFA — the only program she applied to — partly because she wanted to be in New York, the center of the country’s publishing industry. But the clincher was the program’s faculty, including poets she admires like Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds and Anne Carson, all of whom she got the chance to study with during her first year. But she wants to make it clear that an MFA is not a requirement for being a writer. “I don’t think anyone needs to do the MFA,” she said. “But I think I’m a better writer, mostly because I’m a better reader now.” When it comes to where she draws ideas, influence and inspiration, Lozada-Oliva is generous in crediting not only her family but also her fellow artists, friends and peers. “I just love sad, spectral women, sad, ephemeral ladies,” Lozada-Oliva said, citing writers and creators as varied as Matthea Harvey, Kelly Link and Jamie Loftus. She has a particular admiration for filmmaker, writer and artist Miranda July. “I love how she talks about loneliness and love and connection,” she said.
Singer-songwriter Mitski is another singular influence on her and her work. “The way she specifically talks about longing and desire and wanting to be kissed,” she said, showing me a tattoo on her arm of the title of one of Mitski’s songs, “Thursday Girl.” “So many people are listening to this thinking, about shitty dudes, but it’s not about them. It’s about the magic of wanting someone.” She also cites an idea from her friend, poet Crystal Valentine, an NYU MFA alumna, as influencing the way she thinks about art and relatability. “I don’t want you to relate to this story. I just want you to understand that I’m also a person, and I want you to empathize with this knowing that you can’t see yourself in this at all,” she said. Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet and music writer based in Columbus, Ohio who worked with Lozada-Oliva as the editor for “Peluda.” “I think there’s something really unique [about it],” he said. “It’s interesting and playful, while still grappling with really serious topics like family and the body and grief and loss and love, and I think there’s something really easy to connect with.” As a Latina woman writing, or even just existing, in America in 2018, President Donald Trump is an unavoidable presence for Lozada-Oliva. Even if she doesn’t write directly about him, other people often ask her what it’s like to live in the U.S. today as the child of immigrants from Latin America. “I appreciate the notion of looking toward a Latina writer.” she said. “‘Yes, we just understand. We’ve understood this for a while, and you haven’t,’” she said, addressing an imagined white audience. She doesn’t dispute the value in telling untold stories or the healing power of sharing one’s pain, as evidenced by her own work. But she’s also not afraid to challenge the idea that she should be expected to either. “I think the expectation of me only having to meditate on my trauma and the traumas the world causes me is unfair, and so I really push against that,” she said. At this moment in time and space, her current work leans more toward being “satirical and dark because that’s what I’m feeling. I think it’s more truthful to me.” “I’m leaning away from sentimentality because it doesn’t feel useful,” she said. “You’re idealistically looking for hope and joy, for someone to tell you it’s OK, and what if it’s not? It’s currently not OK. What are we going to do about that?” Tiffany Mallery, a Boston-based illustrator and frequent collaborator of Lozada-Oliva’s who illustrated the covers of her chapbooks and collection, loves her work for its levity in the face of pain. “She’s just really funny, and that’s such a unique part of her poetry. It can be really tender and serious,” she said. “But there’s a really genuine sense of humor that comes across.” Mallery also praised the steady sense of hope that pervades Lozada-Olivia’s work. “Even if it’s a poem about something painful,” she said, “there’s still moments where you see this light come through.” Email Alex Cullina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Painting Musical Portraits of Humanity written by Nicole Rosenthal | photographed by Katie Peurrung
or Timo Vollbrecht, a Steinhardt doctoral student in Jazz Studies and Composition, capturing the essence of worldly encounters is just a regular day’s work. The internationally-performing saxophonist, composer and reeds player — emerging from Berlin’s innovative music scene and taking inspiration from the lively music scene of the Big Apple — has toured in over 30 countries with his quartet, Fly Magic. The group combines elements of jazz, post-rock and contemporary sound culture in its music. The German-born musician is no stranger to being both a frontman and a tentative band member. In both roles, he’s garnered acclaim through numerous awards, such as the German Youth Jazz Awards, the Praetorius Music Award and the Winning Jazz Award of the Hanover Jazz Club. “I want to be an artist that is like a citizen musician,” Vollbrecht said. “I want to produce art that is situated in cultural context and is in direct relevance to the environment that is around me. I think that’s the point of it. I don’t just listen to jazz — you have lots of influences when you’re an open-minded person who listens to music and consumes art.” While touring around Aleppo, Syria, Vollbrecht found himself lost in the city and decided to ask a local for directions. Unbeknownst to him, a man named Muhammed took Vollbrecht through the city on a grand tour and returned the musician to his hotel, calling on two young boys to personally escort him back. “It was this really human, humbling experience I had. And then, the war broke out in Syria, and a lot of people fled to Germany,” Vollbrecht said. “I was thinking, ‘what happened to this dude? He might be in the country that I’m from.’” From that experience, Vollbrecht wrote “Muhammad,” a melancholic yet powerful composition. The song garnered such a positive reaction among live audiences that Vollbrecht decided to release an entire album based on memorable experiences from around the world, titled “Faces in Places.” Back in his hometown of Stadthagen, Germany, Vollbrecht began his journey in music during his teenage years as he played along to the famous American saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ records. After being gifted a toy saxophone at a young age, he became fascinated with the instrument and started taking lessons at school. “It was just luck,” Vollbrecht said of finding his instrumental niche. After taking part in a high school exchange program in Wyoming, nearly 8,000 miles away from home, Vollbrecht studied at the Berlin University for the Arts for his undergraduate studies before taking the big leap to New York for his graduate work. Vollbracht attended NYU’s master’s program where he received a Master of Music in Jazz Saxophone. These years gave him the opportunity to learn from some of the program’s renowned faculty, like David Schroeder and Mark Turner. The inspiration from these extraordinary musicians was so fulfilling that Vollbrecht returned to NYU to pursue a doctorate in Jazz Performance and Composition. “As a jazz player, New York has the biggest jazz scene and the most prominent,” Vollbrecht said. “All the bands that I was listening to were here, so I really wanted to come here at some point. I came here on a Fulbright grant in 2010 and thought I’d be here for a year. Now, I’m still here doing my Ph.D.”
Since he’s been in the U.S., Vollbrecht has found his community within New York City mainly by making music with others. Fly Magic bandmate and roommate Elias Stemeseder praised Vollbrecht as a friend and fellow musician. “Despite his very clear compositional and sonic trajectory, Timo is really open to new musical ideas, and willing to explore where these ideas might take his songs,” Stemeseder said. “His open-mindedness makes it a real joy to work on music together. I’ve played his exact same pieces with different combinations of people, the results often being radically different. Timo seems to be happy with any outcome — from extremely polished to extremely raw — as long as the music has that certain directness and spontaneity that he’s looking for.” In his global performing career, Vollbrecht professes that, while the overall schedule of live shows is the same, there are minute cultural differences that make a show stand out. During a show he played in China, the applause was shortlived. In Europe, however, the crowds clap generously and demand an encore; it’s practically a ritual. “It’s really the intimate [and] small places that I really enjoy, like Rockwood or something like that,” Vollbrecht said. “You’re closer to the audience. It’s more intimate. You feel the audience better.” Charlotte Greve, a colleague and longtime friend of Vollbrecht, met the musician at a jazz competition during their high school years. Though years have passed since their first meeting, the two still play together, mostly in large ensembles. “We enjoy updating each other on recent life during rehearsal,” Greve said. “It’s just endless talks about life, being a musician, being [the] band leader and sharing a similar path of growing up in a similar way and then moving to New York.” Even with so much support, Vollbrecht is left to his own devices to define his sound, which is very much informed by his experiences and travels. “It’s always hard to brand whatever you do,” Vollbrecht said. “‘Oh, it’s a jazz show.’ What is a jazz show? It could be like a swing thing but it could be something like what we do, which is a lot more experimental in a way and fuses with other genres like indie or prog-rock or post-rock, experimental soundscapes, whatever … once the word jazz is in there, it’s a jazz concert. ‘We know that drawer, let’s put you there.’” What Vollbrecht hopes to convey in his multi-faceted and genre-bending music is an intimacy between the performer and the audience. For his band, each concert brings new opportunities to make a personal connection with a crowd. “You share time with other people and express whatever is on your mind, especially with music that is originally composed and, with improvisations, it’s very in the moment,” Vollbrecht said. “That’s why we [perform], I would say. There is some sort of synchronicity between the band and the audience and it can be very powerful and very intense and it can also be like super distant. It really depends on the venue. That is what is pretty much the same about playing anywhere.” Email Nicole Rosenthal at email@example.com.
From Kansas City to Princess Grace written by Ryan Mikel | photographed by Sinjun Strom
ancing in front of mirrors for 15 years is a taxing yet admirable feat. Ask Aliza Russell, a 20-year-old dancer in the Tisch School of the Arts and recipient of the Princess Grace scholarship. Russell never saw herself as a dancer, least of all as a ballerina. For her, it was an unrealistic, implausible feat. Mentally, she couldn’t picture herself doing the steps. Physically, she could not grasp the movement. “Ballet was always this unachievable thing,” Russell said, still in a leotard and slicked back pony from rehearsals. “The image of a modern dancer in itself was more achievable in my head. I could mentally picture myself doing the steps.” However, Russell spent a great deal of her adolescence working to obtain this unbendable image. Born and raised in Kansas City, MO, she was minutes away from the Todd Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity, the home of professional dance troupe and school Kansas City Ballet. But before her days of tendus and plies, Russell took the conventional route of entering competition dance. At age five, she enrolled in the local studio Priscilla and Dana’s School of Dance. There, she immersed herself in jazz, tap and heaps of tulle, dancing for trophies rather than for herself and the art form. Her run at the studio wasn’t for nothing; competition dancing endows Cirque Du Soleil-like flexibility on its dancers and a stage presence leagues above the rest. But like most dancers on the cusp of adulthood, Russell was tempted by the prospects of a more formal training ground: ballet school. Off went 16-year-old Russell to the land of classical ballet and even more heaps of tulle. She described the whole experience as interesting at best. It wasn’t until she crossed paths with Haley Kostas, a University of Missouri graduate and the founder of Defy Dance Project, and Jen Freeman, Tisch graduate and faculty member of the Summer Dance Sessions, that Russell found her footing in the dance world. “I wanted to focus on my foundation, and I really wanted to work with Haley Kostas,” Russell said. “Through the Summer Sessions, I met Jen Freeman. I don’t think I would be in New York without her guidance as a teacher and a choreographer.” Freeman, a 2007 Tisch graduate, widened the scope of what dance could be for Russell. Spending multiple summers under her guidance at the Summer Dance Sessions, a dance intensive in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, Russell was inspired physically, mentally and artistically through the fusion of jazz, athleticism and modern techniques. That inspiration carried Russell all the way to West Fourth. “As an educator, it has always been my mission to encourage Aliza to follow her truth,” Freeman said. “Aliza is a wanderer by nature; she wants to experience her art wherever it takes her. I am so happy that Aliza will have these years at NYU to reflect upon the challenges she overcame and the lessons she learned about herself.” The end goal for Russell was always New York City, but it wasn’t
always NYU. In fact, Russell took a gap year between high school graduation and college orientation just to freelance in the city. Upon graduating early from high school, she enrolled in The Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, the oldest professional school of dance in the United States and an emanate hub for postmodern dance. It was there that Russell found her niche in the wide-encompassing canon of dance and strengthened both her palpable and impalpable foundations as a dancer. However, afraid of never getting a taste of the college experience, Russell made a blind leap of faith into the anxiety-crippling college application process. A few months later, she started at NYU. “It was a very last minute decision,” she said. “Coming to Tisch, I knew that a lot of their curriculum revolved around postmodern [and] modern techniques. I really wanted to immerse myself in them and also experiment more with choreography. My first year, I attempted to make a solo by myself and perform it, which was very interesting. ‘Kitchen Sink’ was what it was called.” Having since amassed a broader vocabulary and extensive experience in choreography, Russell doesn’t exactly look back on “Kitchen Sink” with reverence. To others, like Tisch Dance Chair Seán Curran (Tisch ’83), it was the first glimmer of a principal dancer in the making. “I knew from the beginning that she was unique,” Curran said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t until I saw her do ‘Kitchen Sink’ herself that it really hit me that this is a dancer who has authenticity, and — a word I don’t like to use so often — she had this fluency. She was really in her body and moved in a language that was her own.” Under Curran’s leadership, the Tisch Department of Dance was named number one in the country by OnStage. He mentioned he feels like “a proud papa” that one of his students received the Princess Grace scholarship — one of the most prestigious dance scholarships in the world — instead of the more classically trained ballet dancers or Juilliard kids uptown. Curran was adamant about having zero influence in Russell’s award besides filling out paperwork. Russell attributes her success to the various styles of dance and professors she invested herself in under Curran at Tisch. Among those professors, Russell cites Assistant Arts Professor Rashaun Mitchell, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow and 2012 Bessie Award for “Outstanding Emerging Choreographer.” A former recipient of the scholarship in 2007, Mitchell was one of the major influences for Russell’s application. Another catalyst for her appli-
cation was collaborator and choreographer Michelle Dorrance — a Princess Grace Award recipient and, more recently, a 2015 MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient. Engulfed in a community of fellow recipients and an encouraging faculty willing to place stock in her application, Russell found her roots in the New York City dance scene and gained the courage — and recommendation letters — to apply for the esteemed scholarship. “All I knew about the award was that Michelle Dorrance had won it,” she said. “One day, I was sitting in Sean Curran’s office talking about scholarships and he mentioned the Princess Grace scholarship, but said it’s really hard to get. But I was like, ‘No, I am applying.’” After a few essays and dance reels that consumed most of her junior year, her application was ready. A few months later, in mid-July, Russell received the crucial call. After shaking the initial disbelief, she accepted that her life was about to change. “We are thrilled to welcome Aliza to the Princess Grace Awards community,” Princess Grace Executive Director Toby E. Boshak wrote in a statement. “When selecting a Princess Grace Award winner, the dance panel looks for artistic excellence, and in Aliza, they found a beautiful and intelligent dancer with a wonderful sense of nuance and deep physicality.” This artistic excellence accelerated Russell into one of the most exclusive circles of talent in the art world. And the scholarship: it would go toward that hefty NYU price tag. “When they called me and told me, I was like, ‘Are you sure?’” Russell said. “The awards have always gone to classically-trained students in very balletic environments. I was really surprised they were willing to support a modern dancer like me and that means a lot.” With this support, Russell will be finishing her final year at NYU in hopes of dancing anywhere in any capacity possible. In preparation for her impending graduation date next spring, she has her eyes set on a few modern dance companies around the city. Most recently, she auditioned and was cast in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 movie-musical “West Side Story.” Her true love, however, is modern and contemporary dance. From the likes of Kyle Abraham and Siles Reiner to Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, Aliza Russell can do it all, and she does it in her own distinct and unreplicable way. And unlike ballet, she can see herself and lose herself in the movement. Email Ryan Mikel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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