THE ARTS PAPER – ARTICLES
Unrestricted movement across borders
Bernsen and Bynum mix, mesh, and match
“I like to compose enough
to push the improvisers out of where they’re comfortable
and improvise enough to push the composition out of
where it’s comfortable,” says Bynum. Photo
by Hilary McHone
t takes a big room to hold big ideas. For married couple
Rachel Bernsen and Taylor Ho Bynum, the blurring of boundaries
between performance mediums and genres is a big idea they
hope to showcase in Bernsen’s Erector Square loft, aptly
dubbed The Big Room. According to a statement on Bernsen’s
website, The Big Room “offers a low-tech platform for
interdisciplinary collaboration, experimentation and research
in dance and performance.”
Bernsen is a dancer, choreographer, and teacher of both dance
and the Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique, according
to Bernsen, is “a way for people to find out what their
own habits are, what patterns of use and misuse that might
be contributing to chronic pain and stress,” and what
changes and choices could be made to function more freely.
Bynum is a composer and cornetist as well as a partner in
the New Haven-based avant-garde jazz Firehouse 12 record label.
The Big Room is inspired, Bernsen says, “by what’s
happening in the New York scene — an entrepreneurial
guerrilla style. Artists are not only making work but curating
roving artists’ series, producing events, and writing
She hopes to catalyze a community around interdisciplinary
work, offering a semi-regular performance series called “Take
Your Time” in the space. The first production, a co-presentation
with Carl Testa’s Uncertainty Music Series, was scheduled
for May 28. The idea is to showcase “two artists of
different genres or two artists in the same genre working
Both in their mid-30s, they moved to New Haven from New York
City two years ago. In an interview in The Big Room, Bynum
says they moved here “with the realization we needed
the time and space to create work.”
“I’ve got my ideas, got my collaborators. I need
a chance to think and put ideas together,” says Bynum.
Bernsen adds that the fact that they could afford her Erector
Square studio space was another factor, a space that would
be out of their price range in New York City.
Genre-bending has become second nature to both artists in
their respective mediums. Bynum considers himself indebted
to the jazz tradition; he was mentored by bass trombonist
Bill Lowe as a teenager in Boston and avant-garde jazz titan
Anthony Braxton as a student at Wesleyan University.
“There’s a Braxton term that I love: ‘trans-idiomatic
music.’ The idea is that you pull ideas from any genre
or idiom but aren’t defined by them,” says Bynum.
As a performer and improviser, Bynum is interested in “the
manipulation of texture of sound.” (He switched from
playing the trumpet to the cornet because he believes the
latter has more timbral flexibility.) His works mix structured
composition, improvisational space, and a use of noise akin
to the free mark-making of visual artists.
“I like to compose enough to push the improvisers out
of where they’re comfortable and improvise enough to
push the composition out of where it’s comfortable,”
says Bynum. “I try and keep it fresh on both sides and
use abstract sound enough to blur up melodies but have enough
melodies so there is not just abstract sound.”
Over the past five or six years, Bernsen says, her relationship
to dance has changed. From someone who started out interested
in dance as a technical form and “being a dancer with
a capital ‘D’,” Bernsen says that choreography
is now her focus, “experimenting with movement ideas
as opposed to just manifesting someone else’s movement
ideas.” Her starting point in creating works, she says,
begins with “very personal movement impulses and broadens
out from there.”
Bernsen’s dancing background is varied — a short
period with the Urban Bush Women, a brief stint with “really
minimalist artists,” dancing with the art house pop
band Fischerspooner, studying Afro-Haitian dance. Influences
and inspiration run the gamut from “contemporary release-based
work to being really interested in Afro-Haitian, Afro-Brazilian
and hip-hop dance.”
The Alexander Technique was instrumental in changing Bernsen’s
relationship to dance, she says.
“One of the issues I struggled with before studying
the Alexander Technique was bringing too much tension to dancing,”
The technique allowed her to “let go without feeling
I was losing control. It sounds like a paradox but in letting
go, you really gain total ownership of yourself and yourself
in movement.” The technique, Bernsen notes, has general
therapeutic applications; many of her students are non-dancers
recovering from injuries or knee and back surgeries.
Both Bernsen and Bynum are staying busy. Bynum has two CDs
slated for a fall release. He also plans an “acoustic
bicycle tour” of New England from September 10-23 —
“playing with the analogy of alternative means of transportation
and alternative musical forms or acoustic transportation and
acoustic music,” he jokes — riding his bicycle
through each New England state and playing with a different
group each night. Bernsen plans on teaching dance and the
Alexander Technique at Dance Agency TsEKh, a two-week dance
festival in Moscow this July. She will be a guest artist this
fall at Wesleyan University.
Bernsen and Bynum say they draw inspiration for their work
from a wide range of sources. For Bernsen it might be the
writings of French semiotician Roland Barthes. Bynum mentions
the novels of Italo Calvino as one source; his CD Madeleine
Dreams, released under the name Taylor Ho Bynum &
SpiderMonkey Strings, incorporates text from the novel Madeleine
is Sleeping written by his sister Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.
“Since a lot of our own influences come from places
outside our disciplines, we use each other as sounding boards,”
Bynum notes. “In some ways, though we are dealing with
different mediums, we’re dealing with the same issues
of improvisation and composition, form and freedom, individual
His collaborations with Bernsen, Bynum points out, have impacted
his music. Working with dance, he says, has enabled him to
“embrace silence much more.” Where many of his
musical influences such as trumpeter Miles Davis were known
for “using space and silence,” Bynum says he has
“always been much more hyperactive.”
“It’s much harder to not play than play in the
same way as for a dancer it’s much harder to not move
than move,” explains Bynum. Collaboration in dance performances
“has allowed me to not feel like I have to play. Let
the space sit. Appreciate the silence of the moment.”
Similarly, for Bernsen, working with musicians — bagpiper
Matthew Welch, bass player and electronics manipulator Carl
Testa, and singer Anne Rhodes, as well as her husband —
has allowed her to “open up more space for improvisation
and think about creating structures around improvisation more
Bynum acknowledges he gets “drawn into the dance”
when performing with his wife. “Whenever you’re
performing, your body is in space. It’s just that as
musicians, we can ignore that,” he says. But in interdisciplinary
work, “If you’re looking at one body moving, you
have to look at the way the other body is moving. If you’re
listening to the sounds one person’s making, you have
to listen to the sound the other person’s making.”
“Because I’m a dancer, I’m thinking about
the body first,” notes Bernsen. “It does create
a certain democracy in the performance itself. It makes the
fact that we actually do have different roles in terms of
sound versus movement all the more exciting and dynamic. We’re
all involved in the architecture of the piece but within that
we all have different things to offer that create texture.
“It’s exiting to be asking musicians to be thinking
of presence in relation to performance. It changes their relationship
to what they’re doing,” says Bernsen. Her goal
is “seamlessness,” structuring her work “so
it doesn’t appear to the audience that that person is
“What I love about interdisciplinary work is that it
forces you to engage in every respect with the whole experience
of the moment,” says Bynum.
For more information, check out their websites: rachelbernsen.com
Artists in the kitchen
“Food to me is an artistic
medium,” says Bun Lai of Miya’s Sushi. “I
use it to express and explore ideas of what it means
to be human.” Photo by James F. Oca, Jr.
“It definitely can be considered an art because we
transform the ingredients,” says Jean Pierre Vuillermet,
executive chef at Union League Café on Chapel Street
in downtown New Haven.
It’s closing time at the restaurant, and I’ve
asked Vuillermet to reflect on his art — the art of
“The plating can also be colorful, artistic,”
he continues. “It can be considered an art. And we use
our hands. There are a lot of senses involved in cooking.
The taste, the smell, the feeling, also.
“You make some dough, for example. You make some sausage.
You build things. The texture is very important.”
Chefs, like artists, work with ingredients. Meats, vegetables,
spices, herbs, and oils are their clay, paints, plots, characters,
and musical notes. And they use tools and instruments: Knives,
pots, fires, and circulators are their paintbrushes, words,
pianos, and lights that illuminate the stage. With ingredients,
tools, and imaginations, they create new things.
New Haven is considered by many to be home to Connecticut’s
foremost culinary scene, a city of food excellence and innovation.
Cooking is one of the arts to be enjoyed and experienced here.
“It’s like a stage,” says Vuillermet of
any restaurant. “My mother in law, she used to say when
you open the doors it’s like opening the curtains. You
need to be ready to perform.”
Different chefs have different philosophies, interests, and
influences. Talk to the best in New Haven and you will uncover
each one’s individuality as reflected in their culinary
“Art goes through many parts of the human body —
through reason and through the senses,” says Anna Sincavage,
chef and founder of Skappo Italian Wine Bar in the Ninth Square.
“Cooking is not an intellectual form of life, but comes
directly from the heart.”
“I try to combine flavors to see if the flavors work,”
says Manuel Romero, Ibiza Restaurant’s executive chef.
“If the flavors work, I try to work with textures.
“If you do creative cuisine,” he explains, “I
think that is like art.”
At Miya’s Sushi on Howe Street, Bun Lai rejects the
notion that flavor comes first. “Food to me is an artistic
medium,” writes Lai in an e-mail. “I use it to
express and explore ideas of what it means to be human.”
Lai’s menu reads like a short-story collection —
the intersection of food and narrative. “Many of my
dishes tell stories about people,” he continues. “My
Tyger Tyger Roll talks about the unity of human beings using
East African ingredients that the Queen of Sheba might have
eaten with King Solomon.”
Other chefs have regional sensibilities. Their work is grounded
in the seasons — the here and now. At Zinc on Chapel
Street, chef Denise Appel shops regularly at area farmers’
markets. The focus on locally grown ingredients gives her
cooking a structure, not unlike the meter in a poem. Sincavage
of Skappo has no recipes; she recreates traditional foods
of Umbria, the region in Italy where she grew up. In Umbria,
she says, food is deeply linked with nature.
Appel was the chef at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
in Hartford before opening her enterprise in New Haven. A
painter, sculptor, and furniture collector with a passion
for the visual arts, she doesn’t equate cooking with
“I just don’t really look at it and think, this
plate, this canvas. You start getting into the seasons and
you know what combinations go. You’re always thinking
of old combinations with a twist.”
Like all artists, chefs learn from different sources and their
influences are diverse.
“I’ve been learning about Afro-Cuban food traditions
since I was a child helping my abeula (grandmother) sort and
clean black beans in her kitchen,” writes Jesus Puerto,
chef and owner of Soul de Cuba Café, in an e-mail.
“She would tell me what to do and I did it without question.”
Now, Puerto writes, his ongoing investigations into different
cuisines begin “by simply asking questions.”
Grandmothers play a special role in the transmission of cooking
“In Europe, the parents, when they work, they rely on
the grandparents to help take care of the children,”
explains Vuillermet, whose parents ran a restaurant in France.
“My parents were pretty busy so my grandmother took
care of me and taught me how to cook.”
Sincavage is a grandmother herself now, imparting knowledge
and a way of life to the younger generation.
Jeff Caputo of Scoozzi Trattoria and Wine Bar attended the
Culinary Institute of America. Appel, Romero, and Talamelli
never went to cooking school. They worked in kitchens, learning
on the job from accomplished chefs with a commitment to teaching.
Kitchens are part laboratory, part rehearsal room, part performance
space. Several of the chefs I spoke with reflected on their
roles as teachers.
“We really do define ourselves by the things that we
eat in the most basic way,” says Jason Sobocinski, who
studied gastronomy — “an anthropological look
at food culture”— and learned about cheese through
his full-time job at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The founder and owner of Caseus on Trumbull Street, Sobocinksi
teaches school kids about cheese and runs a series of classes
at his restaurant.
“If you know more about what you’re eating, you
can taste it better,” Sobocinski explains. “When
you know more about a painting, or a score you’re listening
to — or if you’ve studied Shakespeare and you
go see one of his plays — you’re going to get
a lot more out of it. If you know more about what you’re
eating and what you’re cooking with, the experience
is so much bigger and better.”
Then there are questions of (re)interpretation.
“Cooking has a lot to do with modernization and interpretation
of old dishes, which can’t happen unless you know the
basics,” says William Talamelli, the young chef at Press
200, newly opened on Crown Street. “You can’t
modernize unless you know what you’re modernizing. It’s
the same thing with music. You can’t write jazz if you’ve
never heard a Miles Davis song. I mean, you can, but will
it be worth listening to? Will people pay to hear it?”
“If I have a beautiful cheese,” comments Sobocinksi
of Caseus, “I’m not going to take that cheese
and put it in a dish in the form of a foam. That would be
a beautiful technique, and there’s artistry in that.
But that’s not my artistry.”
Sobocinski is referring to “molecular gastronomy,”
a major cooking trend that originated in Spain in the 1990s.
Chefs “deconstruct” meals or dishes, transforming
ingredients at the molecular level. It is a scientific approach
In New Haven, chefs aren’t too interested in molecular
gastronomy, although they borrow techniques here and there.
Appel, Vuillermet, and others use a technique called “sous
vide” to cook meats at low, even temperatures with succulent
results. Appel’s pastry chef does molecular cooking.
But for the most part, you won’t find many foams here.
“I think it’s a trend,” says Vuillermet,
“but it’s good to explore different things and
try different techniques.”
A meal — like a play, a concert, or a trip to a museum
— is a time-bound experience with a beginning, middle,
and end. Time is important in the kitchen, too.
“There are different art forms within the art form,”
reflects Jeff Caputo, executive chef at Scoozzi on Chapel
Street. His kitchen — next door to the Yale Repertory
Theatre and the Yale Center for British Art, across the street
from the Yale University Art Gallery — has the most
art-infused location of any restaurant in town.
“In theater, there’s an art form to the cast and
crew, the sets,” Caputo continues. “There are
really a lot of art forms that make up the culinary arts.
There’s the art form of plate presentation, the art
form of movement … if you watch people in the kitchen,
everyone moves with a purpose.”
“It really is like a weird little ballet,” he
says. “It all starts with training — telling people
what to do and how to react in certain situations.”
“It’s got a rhythm,” says Romero of cooking
in a professional kitchen. “Everybody’s got to
keep the same rhythm. If you’ve got four or five people
and somebody messes up, it’s hard to get back. To make
food like art, you need time.”
Of his players in the kitchen he notes, “You’ve
got to teach them how to follow you, how to work in the same
way at the same time.”
While time races forward in the kitchen, good food slows us
down, suspending us in the present moment.
“Food, visual art, music — they’re great
memory devices,” muses Talamelli. “Food helps
you feel at home. It helps you remember things.”
All arts begin with the body. Food, like dance, is physical.
“I am a manual guy,” says Vuillermet. “I
love to take the product and break it down. The leg of lamb,
the fillet of fish. I even have some pleasure doing that sometimes.
You go around the brains and the bones and things like that,
and then the cooking is always interesting because you want
to make the flavorings and the seasonings work out.”
And then there’s the question of purpose.
At Skappo, Sincavage cooks to bring people together. Her restaurant
is like a family dining room, small and filled with personal
affection. We, the audience, bring our hearts to her stage.
“We’re all searching to be together,” says
Sincavage. “This is life, with a simple ‘l,’
not a big ‘L’ — to be together and to live
this moment and to go to the next.”
As for Vuillermet, his heart’s desire is a simple one.
“I don’t know what I would do if I was not doing
cooking,” he reflects. “I just feel better when
I have my chef clothes and I’m in the kitchen.”
Innovation must be more than a buzzword
OluShola A. Cole
OluShola A. Cole
Call it the weather melting a sun-starved artist, and giving
me a brighter perspective, but I’m commenting on how
wonderful it is to see so many warm-weather activities here
in New Haven. Not quite sure if the sight of people frolicking
and lounging about on the New Haven Green itself has softened
my “grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side” view,
but I get great pleasure knowing that for most neighborhoods
in New Haven, the heat brings out the “unity”
in community, and neighborhood and city events, programs,
and activities start to pop up all over town.
And most of all, from the perspective of someone experiencing
her first summer here in New Haven, I am ecstatic about the
amount of city and neighborhood arts activities, events, and
programming. Better yet, the “starving artist”
side of me is absolutely impressed and positively thrilled
that a good portion of these programs are free. I would also
like to add that the free activities, events, and concerts
that were programmed by the International Festival of Arts
& Ideas were truly something worth taking advantage of,
because free, world-class programming — here in New
Haven — does not come by often.
I’m an urban nomad, programmed to roam from city to
city with a spirit of creativity. For now, I like being in
one place, especially when I get to see New Haven uncurl from
the crouched position it’s in during the cold months.
It’s like seeing the city stretch in the warmth of festivals,
street fairs, farmers markets, concerts, recitals, exhibit
openings, and graduations. The temperature rising brings a
creative fervor to New Haven, infusing artistic energy into
a community that is truly innovative.
The topic of innovation, especially in New Haven, has been
on my mind — and by “innovative” I mean
ideas or theories that are introduced as new and creative
in concept, unique and cutting-edge. I happened to glance
at one event in the paper that included a well-known, local
yet world-renowned drama school working with an Edgewood Magnet
School program. The drama school was putting on one-act plays
that the students from the Edgewood Magnet School had created.
Given the reputation of the drama program, I found myself
pleased to see this collaboration within the community and
education system. What struck me as innovative was not the
fact that it was the drama school, but that it was a collaboration
between a highly respected drama institution and the community,
the education system, and young students now immersed in and
exposed to the dramatic arts. I saw it as cutting-edge because
a program like that carries an organic and long-lasting influence
(well past other required institutional/demographic outreach
requirements), while creating a new generation of artists
who want to be involved in theater.
On the subject of the conceptually forward, watching a carefully
planned event unfold on May 8 on four city buses in New Haven
still didn’t prepare me for “innovative-ness”
until I sat and watched Sarah Bleasdale and Colleen O’Shaughnessy
of the Hillhouse Opera Company literally serenade an audience
on a city bus with popular operatic arias. I might add that
this bus was coming back from BJ’s Plaza, straight down
Grand Avenue toward the New Haven Green, and was full of Asians,
Latinos, and Blacks. It didn’t occur to me how truly
unusual the concept of Exact Change (performing arts
on city buses) was until I saw real, everyday transit-dependent
faces process and grasp the idea that for 40 minutes, real,
live opera was accessible to them and included in their bus
“New and creative” came to mind when I saw the
“D” bus pull up next to the New Haven Green and
the whole, entire bus (including the driver) was jamming and
chanting along with the Carlos Hortas Collective, hands raised,
and singing along. “Innovative” was watching Noteworthy,
a female barbershop quartet, float off a bus euphorically
(surrounded by smiling passengers of color) after performing
along a route from West Haven to the New Haven Green —
with an attentive audience throughout the whole journey. An
event like Exact Change has the makings of a successfully
innovative program because it uses public transportation as
an arts venue and exposes the community to the arts. Along
the same lines, I also had the pleasure of seeing sketchbooks
handed out, at the beginning of the Arts Council’s recent
exhibition Through Nick’s Eyes: A Tribute to Nicholas
Ohly (1938-2007), to community members who were inspired
by Nick Ohly’s own sketchbook collection, and had their
sketchbooks displayed and celebrated at the closing reception.
Groups that would not usually come to the Arts Council set
foot in an environment that celebrated their own creative
contributions through their sketches. The exhibit went beyond
the walls into communities that benefited from this opportunity,
and, again, created another path of access to the arts. Finally,
I had the pleasure of watching a phenomenal performance of
Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, directed by up-and-comer
Hillary Brown, in a refreshingly different performance space
that complemented the stark theme of the play and captured
its celebration of the human spirit.
“Innovation,” a buzzword (generally) that’s
used to impress and lure a potential consumer market, sometimes
bypasses several time-tested tools, especially when it comes
to developing and engaging a community. To me, newfangled
ideas and concepts loose their luster if the basic concepts
of a group striving to nurture, educate, trust, include, learn,
and love its members are lost. A new idea will fall flat on
its face if the basics aren’t established. Just from
my brief time here in New Haven, there are so many innovative
things here in the city that grab my attention as an artist
and a community coordinator, yet the mistrust among many city
residents shows me how some of these new ideas won’t
take if New Haven as a whole doesn’t build on those
Addressing the topic of space in this discussion about innovation,
the challenges and difficulties of booking, renting, and finding
venues in New Haven has made artists become quite creative.
Where some cities use nontraditional spaces like storefronts,
libraries, and galleries as a way to break the mold of traditional
venues, storefronts and other nontraditional spaces here in
this city are utilized because they are quickly becoming the
most affordable and are the only realistic option for artists
who want to find a viable performance venue. Call it creative
desperation born of artistic frustration — a call for
space and action. But in this situation, a move toward using
nontraditional spaces doesn’t seem like an innovation
that will be successful. If a community is upset, frustrated,
tired, mistrustful, and broke (especially from booking space
out of sheer necessity at the last minute), this doesn’t
creative a positive structure for or support an innovative
movement within a city.
Some of the most amazing and cutting-edge performances, events,
and activities take place here in New Haven. Each of the city’s
neighborhoods and communities does an amazing job of making
them unique and relevant to its area, yet accessible to the
public. And in doing so, they include, they build trust, they
mobilize, they debate, teach, create access, support, learn,
heal, and, most of all, they listen. Innovation cannot function
with out this. With these qualities in place, there is a foundation
for each of these groups to try new things, to receive new
ideas and grow, thus becoming an innovative, creative community.
Panning out, I’m watching these individual communities
create unique new things and struggle for support from the
city. New Haven, until it decides to consistently foster its
artists, neighborhoods, and creative groups, will always be
seen as a place possessing world-class, brilliant, innovative
people and resources; instead of standing on its own as a
thriving artistic landmark of innovation.
OluShola A. Cole is the Arts Council’s coordinator of
community programs. This is her opinion.
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