Top: Seventh grader Jeleah Howard, who praised teacher Hannah Healey. Bottom: Eighth grade students Taylor Cornigans and Gabrielle Walker. Lucy Gellman Photos.
Just off Kimberly Avenue, the Grinch was trying to steal Winterfest—and the Whos of Whoville weren’t having it. In one hand, he dragged a bag heavy with stolen gifts, looking down on the town below with a wide, green-eyed smirk. In the other, he gestured for his dog Max to come closer, and revel in his misanthropic glee. But the Whos paid their material possessions no mind: they linked arms and began to sing.
Their warmth, even after the first snow of the season, was contagious.
Students and teachers alike are bringing that joy to Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School (BRAMS) this week, as they prepare for the first in-person Winterfest since 2019. For the first time this year, it is an all-school affair, with artwork from students in visual and video arts, theater, band, strings, chorus, and dance. The performance unfolds this Thursday evening at 7 p.m.
It is the first time in the school’s recent history that all art forms—including video art, which has provided animated backdrops for two theater performances— are performing together. Arts Coordinator Tavares Bussey, who took over the position this year, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Top: Strings students, who play as an ensemble. Bottom: Seventh grader Jeleah Howard, who praised teacher Hannah Healey.
“The thought was, let’s bring together our community as one united front,” Bussey said Monday morning, as he visited classrooms to check in on their Winterfest preparation. “Being able to see the kids in their element doing what they love is going to be really nice.”
Monday, it seemed that the school had taken that message to heart, from dances crafted around mental health and climate stewardship to new-old folk tales that centered the magic of community. Down one first-floor hallway, a handful of eighth grade students trickled into Angelo Vessichio’s band classroom, ready to run through “Ode To Joy,” “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for what may have been the hundredth time.
As she placed her flute gingerly in her lap, Melani Dejesus said she was looking forward to playing with the full band—and watching her peers shine across their art forms. Because of the pandemic, which pushed New Haven schools online for over a year, she hasn’t had many chances to play with a full ensemble, she said. She keeps coming back to the instrument because “I just think it's fun.”
Nick Gutierrez, who is in the eighth grade. He started playing the bass clarinet after he was drawn to its sound.
Nearby, bass clarinet student Nick Gutierrez agreed. Like Melani, he’s found that he likes rehearsing—the deep notes are his favorite, particularly when they ring out at the end of a number—and that it can help him relieve stress. After weeks of practice, he feels ready to play in front of BRAMS families that plan to fill the audience Thursday night.
At the front of the classroom, Vessichio raised his hands, and students launched into a stripped-down version of “Ode To Joy” that floated over empty chairs and pressed up against the closed door. A drumbeat erupted from the back of the room, as Miles Sclafani lifted his sticks and brought them down in time with bass clarinet. Flute swooped in, and Melani’s eyes darted across the room to her classmates. Even in the spare rendition, the melody bubbled to the surface, daring a listener to sing along. Thursday, fifth through eighth grade band students will play together, filling in the empty spaces.
Vessichio, a 35-year veteran of the West Haven Public Schools, said that they’re very much ready—and he is too. For over three decades, he taught the band at May V. Carrigan Intermediate School in West Haven, then went into retirement in 2021. At home, he found that he had too much time on his hands; “I missed teaching too much.” When BRAMS posted a job for a band teacher, he grabbed it. He’s proud of the gains that each class has made, he said, including 12 fifth graders who started earlier this year.
“I’ve never done anything like it [Winterfest] at other schools,” he said. “I love seeing the progress that students make, especially from the fifth graders.”
Top: Melani Dejesus. Bottom: The Whos dance without their wintery possessions.
Those pre-performance thrills—and a few jitters—popped up across the school Monday. In the first-floor auditorium, Chris Lemieux’s eighth grade drama students were midway to Whoville when Lemieux did a double take of a script, put out one arm, and stopped the scene from where he was standing in the second row. From the center of the stage, Teleyah Green looked up, and cleared her throat.
Lemieux began to explain: the words were disappearing into mumbles before they ever got to the audience. If he couldn’t hear students, their families wouldn’t be able to either. And he knew they could do it, he said—he’d heard them greet each other more loudly in the school’s hallways and cafeteria.
The line got a few giggles as students took their places at the top of the act, and began again. Taylor Cornigans smoothed down a Rudolph-red sweatshirt and looked out into the empty auditorium. Behind her, Teleyah prepared her speech to the Winter Fairly.
For theater teacher Chris Lemieux, Winterfest is a chance to work with students on enunciation and projection. Taylor Cornigans, who plays Cindy Lou's big sister Debbie, is pictured in the red sweatshirt.“There’s not a lot of people in this school that get along with each other, so we can come together for this,” she said. “It really helps me get out of my comfort zone.”
“Winterfest is supposed to be about togetherness! About family!” Taylor declared. Lemieux nodded almost imperceptibly; the show could go on. Teleyah would deliver her prayer to the so-called Winter Fairy, setting into motion the string of events that could melt the Grinch’s heart. One deep breath later, she was again the Who Cindy Lou, hands clasped in prayer as she sent her wishes into the air.
For students, it’s part of learning to be back in person. Last year, theater students recorded their Winterfest performances before the actual date, after gathering in person proved too risky (mid December turned out to be the cusp of the Omicron surge). This year, they are back in front of an audience—and their peers—for the first time since 2019. For some of them, it marks the first time they’ll be bringing their craft to the physical Winterfest stage.
Taylor and fellow student Jaiden Fletcher (a.k.a. Santa Paws) suggested that the new format is helping unite the student body, particularly after the isolation of the pandemic and over a year of remote learning. While school resumed in person in fall 2021, students are still navigating their craft, relearning the intricacies of sharing space.
Top: Jaiden Fletcher. Bottom: Saya Crespo.
That’s not unlike the Grinch, Taylor said: it tells the story of a small group of determined citizens who work together to preserve and celebrate the magic of the season.
“There’s not a lot of people in this school that get along with each other, so we can come together for this,” she said. “It really helps me get out of my comfort zone.”
“I agree with Taylor,” chimed in Gabrielle Walker, adding that acting helps her control her emotions during the school day. “It’s getting us together as a school. I don’t get to see the other arts do stuff a lot of the time.”
Jaiden nodded, waiting for exactly the right moment to jump in. When Covid-19 hit the school, it ripped through his chance for live performance, he said. He appreciated the work that went into virtual and pre-recorded performances, but found that sometimes “it was boring.” He’s one of those people who gets energy from a crowd, he said: in his last year at the school, he finally gets to step into the spotlight.
Seventh grader Jeleah Howard
In Hannah Healey’s dance classroom upstairs, a group of seventh graders also prepared for their moment onstage. After starting BRAMS’ dance concentration online two years ago, they have grown into the space, embracing the wall-length mirror, ballet barre, and posters of dancers that line the room. On one end of the room, the words YOU ARE stretched across a white sheet of paper, surrounded by one-word answers including Smart, Powerful, Strong, and Unique.
“They’ve been working very, very hard this year,” Healey said as dancers scurried into position, tucking their heads into their knees. “They’ve been able to get into a rhythm.”
As Sleeping at Last’s “Snow” drifted over the room, that rhythm came to life, moving with a grace that was all about the very fact of being there, all in the same room and vibrantly alive. With the exception of Healey’s phone, on which she cued up the music, there wasn’t a screen in sight. At the center of the room, Saya Crespo extended her right arm gently, and traced the skin with her left. Her fingers slipped over her elbow, not making a sound. She dipped into a backbend, and sank into the music.
Around her, dancers stepped back and bounced forward, the white of their costumes flowing as they moved. Even their breath, it seemed, synced with the music.
During a short pause in rehearsal, seventh grader Jeleah Howard said she is happy to be back in the classroom, and equal parts “nervous and excited” for Winterfest. After dancing for years at Gloria Jean’s Studio of Dance, she stopped during the pandemic, and hasn’t been able to return since. “I was sad,” she said. Then BRAMS entered her life. This year, Healey’s class has become a very bright spot.
“It makes me feel happy,” she said. “When I’m dancing, I can just do what I want. Dancing here, by myself, it’s kind of scary—but with everyone else, you’re in it together.”
That’s also true for Saya, whose interest in dance has grown from YouTube videos to a daily practice. After learning to dance in her kitchen and on Google Classroom during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, she’s delighted to be making her Winterfest debut. She credited Healey with helping her get there. “I paid close attention to the words that she [Healey] was saying” during remote learning, she said. It made the transition back easier,
“It feels good,” she said. “When I’m dancing, I feel happy and free. I like dancing because I can put all of my emotions into it. Like, sometimes I get sad because my friends don’t come to school. And I’m happy when I get to see all my friends and teachers.”
“What We Do Is Real Life”
Top: Daniel Sarnelli's drama students, some of whom said the class is helping them build up self-confidence. Bottom: Students watch their peers perform at an all-school Winterfest rehearsal Monday afternoon.
At an all-school rehearsal Monday afternoon, the strongest performances were those unafraid to center hope in the coldest, darkest season of the year. Bringing back her eighth grade dancers, Healey folded in a reminder that it is still—and always—time to act in the face of climate catastrophe. Drawing his eighth grade theater students out of their shells, Daniel Sarnelli conjured the fictitious “Bay of Hope,” where a fruitless day of ice fishing could still turn into a night of music making and unexpected merriment.
As eighth grade dancers took the stage to Citizen Soldier’s “Would Anyone Care?,” dynamo Dakarai Langley took his place at the front of the group, his body immediately in motion. Moving in time with the lyrics, he stepped forward, going airborne as fellow dancers reached out to touch something in the distance. Their hands brushed the empty air, so that even the fingers were part of the piece.
The music floated off the stage and towards the bleachers—Would anyone see me/For the person that I really am?—and students kept dancing. They stumbled forward, and then caught themselves. They lifted their torsos to the ceiling, and then plunged just as quickly to the floor. In the auditorium, where students had been talking just moments before, someone could have heard a pin drop.
Pressing his whole body to the stage, Langley became a force of nature, limbs slicing through the air with height and precision. When he turned to face his classmates, it was a call and response, a promise to catch each other if they fell. When they formed a line to clasp hands, the last lines of the song rang out over the space. In a blackout that followed, a sense of all that students were holding filled the space. Their classmates, still applauding in the audience, let some of it settle on their shoulders.
The dance, which is part power, part meditation, and part ritual, has been months in the making. When she began choreographing the work with her eighth grade students this year, teacher Nikki Claxton sat down with the class, and began talking about mental health. As an educator and a mom, she knows that many of her students may be in crisis—and that suicidality and self-harm among youth has been rising at an alarming rate.
“We talked about it as a class,” she said. Some of her students didn’t realize that their classmates might be struggling; others spoke about their own experience with mental health. “I said, ‘You never know what people are going through.’”
Everything fell into place from there, she said. With her students, she identified triggers, which can range from grief, depression and chronic anxiety to bullying, homophobia and transphobia, and economic status. She found the song by Citizen Soldier through an episode of “Paw Patrol” that her niece was watching. The rest, she said, was the care her students poured into the work.
“They brought the emotion that I’m looking for,” she said. “You never know who you’re going to meet, or when you can just be a shoulder to cry on. I’m so proud of them … what we do is real life.”
In the hallway after the performance, students Dahmia Perkins and Jaida Brown both said the dance has made them think differently about mental health—and given them new tools to talk about it with their friends, families, and academic support systems.
“It feels good to be a part of that dance because it feels like you can have hope,” added eighth grader Maelle Davenport. “When they [peers] speak about it [mental health crises], I don’t really know what I can do. But when we dance, it shows that people care.”
For more from Monday's rehearsal, check out the Arts Council's Facebook page.