Tag Archives: ballet

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Cirque de Amateur

August 26, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The term “amateur” gets a bad rap. While suggesting a lack of skill, the word actually comes from the Latin “amator” or “lover.” An amateur is someone who does what they do for the love of it, and in Omaha, some love the circus arts. People are flocking to the traditions of the big top for myriad reasons: hobby, self-expression, exercise, paid performance, or social activity. 

Ciara Searight is a professionally certified aerial trainer who studied with Aircats at the Boulder Circus Center, Aloft Loft in Chicago, and Circus School of Arizona. Searight is an aerialist, acrobat, and dancer. Gracefully, she performs above the ground, defying fear with seeming effortlessness.

“I’m a certified teacher, but I’m an amateur performer,” says Searight, who started FreakWorks Entertainment in Omaha to teach and reach out to those with a similar love for the art of the aerial performance. The group meets frequently on Sundays in Elmwood Park, and she welcomes the public to join them. Parks have always allured young acrobats.

“I did gymnastics when I was younger, but I was inspired by playing around on tall swings, flipping around and hanging upside down. I thought, ‘there’s got to be something like this out there,’” says Searight of what led her to aerial arts such as silks, corde lisse, sling, lyra, trapeze, flying trapeze, straps, chains, pole, Spanish web, and more.

Anyone can do something in the circus arts, from the highest tightrope to yoyo tricks, unicycling, or sleight of hand—the possibilities are limitless. All it takes is one specific talent and to know approachable circus folks like her, according to Searight.

Circus-Arts2“Even pets can be taught tricks to perform. FreakWorks has had fire breathers, sword fighters, aerial silk performers, a lyrist, unicycle, whip, rola bola, breakdance, acrofusion, juggling, fire fingers, fire staff, poi, ballet, hoopers, flag, hand tut, pole. I wish we had BMX and skateboarders. Contortion and hand balancing would be great. Also teeter totter and trampoline artists would be amazing.”

The athleticism in aerials is obvious, but performing in most circus arts is a guaranteed workout.

“It’s great exercise. It works every part of your body,” Searight says, adding that core strength is what makes it look so easy. “I always enjoy watching people for the first time and how proud they are after doing their first real pose.”

Sara Gray describes herself as one of the obsessed ones. As Purple Pyro (her pseudonym), Gray is pushing her limits.

“I practice several movement arts: I breakdance with a local dance crew, Organix, I perform fire spinning and fire eating with Animatikz Entertainment, and aerial acrobatics with Flight Motion Studios.”

As a kid, Gray used to attempt handstands and splits with her friends with little success.

“I never got them. I decided that it would just never happen for me, and that’s what I told myself my entire life. Now I can hold a handstand with a fire staff on my neck and do the splits.”

Gray believes everyone should revisit the limits they have set for themselves as she did when she came across FreakWorks.

“I got into the circus arts last summer when my boyfriend and dance partner introduced me to a small circus group in Lincoln. After climbing into the aerial hoop for the first time, I was hooked,” says Gray. “I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life and I can never get enough. When you start off barely being able to get into the hoop, and then you work hard enough to build up the upper body strength that most people lack, there is a sense of empowerment that becomes addicting. It really helps you realize that you can break any limit that you may have set for yourself at an early age.”

Andrea Grove fits the enamored hobbyist profile. She discovered circus artistry through a roundabout route. While she had excelled at gymnastic floor exercises as a child, she eventually gave up the sport. She tried replacing gymnastics with cheerleading, but she hated it.

“Unfortunately, I felt too old to be a gymnast, and then I eventually got caught up in being a confused teenager,” says Grove. Around 20, she began attending music festivals, where circus performers flourish.

“I saw my first hula hoop dance at a festival in Minnesota and was blown away. It looked like magic. So I went home, bought a hoop from Target, and started teaching myself through YouTube tutorials.” 

Elmwood meet-ups with FreakWorks, as well as contortion training at Laurel Feller’s FlightMotion Studios, helped Grove branch out, adding to her list of skills and her family. Because circus people are tight like that.

“It captured my heart,” Grove says. “That magical feeling of seeing my first hoop dance hasn’t gone away; it’s only grown. That’s why I do it. It is an escape from the mundane, and I hope to someday spark that magic in someone else’s life. They can join my family.”

Visit facebook.com/Freakworks for more information. Omaha Magazine

Dance, Girl, Dance!

September 30, 2013 by
Photography by Ballet Nebraska

Judy Leppek’s performance was this reviewer’s favorite in Ballet Nebraska’s recent production of Snow White at The Rose Theater. Luppek’s regal bearing, perpetually pursed lips, and impossibly long neck made quite an impression. She performed miracles with an arched, cuts-like-a-knife eyebrow in bringing great drama to her character, the deliciously diabolical evil queen.

Which is all well and good, except for the puzzling fact that Leppek—the critic’s fave, mind you—was performing in a non-dancing role. It’s a point that, sadly, doesn’t bode well for a ballet review, where the focus is meant to be…well, ballet.

Sure, Ballet Nebraska founder and artistic director Erika Overturff was terrific in tulle during a memorable solo as the Queen of the Nymphs. And the oft-paired and always resplendent duo of Natasha Grimm-Gregory (the beguiling Snow White) and Sasha York (the charming Prince) provided a couple of magical moments. The problem was that they just weren’t allowed enough dance sequences for them to dish up more than a meager ration of those magical moments.

The second act of Snow White best illustrates this dilemma. Between a septet of darling dwarves and Snow White doing almost everything but dancing, it seemed an eternity before this ballet was allowed to be a ballet.

Guest choreographer Winthrop Corey, artistic director of the Mobile Ballet Company and a summer faculty member for both Joffrey Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre, now has the dubious distinction of being behind my two least favorite Ballet Nebraska works; this one and 2011’s Dracula, which exhibited similar symptoms hinting at a diagnosis of Dance Deprivation Disorder.

Now entering its fourth season, the once fledgling ballet company—the state’s only professional troupe—should be at a certain stage in its maturation. It is to be expected that the early years of any such performance company would be typified by efforts that are building blocks for the future. It should come as no surprise that a company’s initial works could be rather bare-bones-ish. After all, and just as with any launch of a new performance company, Ballet Nebraska started with little more than an artistic vision. Just imagine the tireless organizing, networking, and fundraising that had to unfold before a single dancer could even dream of donning a tutu.

But imagineering has an expiration date. Now is a time when the company should be expected to shine in a fully developed artistic mission, and an ambitious one at that. Snow White didn’t cut any corners when it came to beautiful costumes and sets, but this reviewer felt it did so with dance, the very core of what they do.

Which is all a cryin’ shame. The company has a magnificently talented cadre of artists, but the curiously choreographed Snow White didn’t give audiences much of an opportunity to appreciate their talents.

There’s a classic ballet/burlesque film from the golden age of Hollywood that pits Maureen O’Hara (ballet) against Lucille Ball (burlesque). My wish for Ballet Nebraska is for them to heed the advice from the movie’s title and just Dance, Girl, Dance!

David Williams, the recently named managing editor of Omaha Publications, has written hundreds of performing arts reviews for a number of area publications and formerly served on the board of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Sammy Sunshyne

June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The most surreal event of Sammy Sunshyne’s life happened last year, at the Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, Mich.

“It was the biggest show of the festival,” recalls the Omaha acrobat, “and I got to go inside of a giant inflatable bubble and crowd surf.” The plastic ball made for a rough ride with such a big crowd (she estimates there were 50,000 people), but it was probably the most awe-inspiring thing she’s ever done. “It was only six minutes, but it was the best six minutes of my life. I ran back and hugged my friend, and she spun me around because it was the most beautiful thing.”

Just two years before in 2010, Sammy (Samantha Mixan) had attended a different music festival that introduced her to hoop dancing. “Hula hooping was where it all started for me.” Today, she’s a professional acrobatics performer with shows in Downtown Omaha clubs, at festivals and concerts all over the United States, and at international events. Though she will graduate in December with a degree in psychology from University of Nebraska-Omaha, it’s her performing career that has captured her focus.20130503_bs_3087_Web

While Sammy’s current proficiency is in hooping and fire dancing, she’s training in contortion as well. “It’s all about increasing my flexibility, mobility, arm strength,” she says. “I’m working on a contortion act with fire for this year.”

She’s debuting the act on her summer tour with Quixotic Performing Arts Ensemble, the same troupe she performed with at last year’s Electric Forest Festival. Except for a couple weeks off here and there, she’s traveling with them as a fire dancer for most of May through August.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity to work with a group on their level of performance,” Sammy says. “They’ve been so inspiring, and they’ve taught me a lot about performance. They’ve taken me to the best places I’ve performed, the biggest places. It’s a huge part of my career.”

When Quixotic contacted her to work as a performer, “it was a dream come into motion for me.” Sammy gives the credit for that connection to the tightly knit community of acrobats in the Midwest. “It’s small and interconnected and people know people. That’s how most opportunities present themselves, through people you know.”

“I’m trying to push the art aspect of performance. I want to make it into a work of art that you refine to be something impactful and beautiful as opposed to the sexy entertainment aspect.”

Attempts to train alone are things of the past since she injured herself trying for more complexity on a tour in India in 2010. “There’s a subtle strength that’s needed to control the body in those really intense poses,” she says. Sammy now travels to Kansas City frequently to train at Quixotic Performing Arts, perfecting the lessons at home in Omaha. She practices yoga, takes ballet, and is what she calls a six-day-a-week vegetarian. It also helps that she has access to a great training facility locally, thanks to her position as a tumbling instructor at Elite Cheer. When she can, Sammy trains with circus performers she knows from Montreal and San Francisco, such as Haley Rose Viloria.

In Omaha, she attends hoop jams, little get-togethers of amateur and professional performers around town, such as Circle of Fire at McFoster’s Natural Kind Cafe and a group at Elmwood Park. “We get together to show off our skills, and there’s usually a drum circle.”

Professionally, Sammy’s performed at Sokol Auditorium electronic dance music (EDM) parties. “They have their own show going on, and I’m a bit part of that.” She worked at the Mayan New Year’s Eve at House of Loom and last year’s Omaha Fashion Week after-party at the Burlington. Sometimes, you can catch her work at clubs like Red9 in Lincoln and Halo and Rehab in Omaha. She’s also performed at the Bourbon Theater in Lincoln, both with Quixotic and her fire-dancing partner, Ken Hill.Maybe-_Web

“She’s amazing,” Hill says emphatically. “I’ve seen her since the beginning up to this point, and it’s been awesome to see.”

She makes all her own hoops (out of polypropylene) except for her fire props, which are custom-made. Sammy dips the fire-resistant Kevlar spokes into a white gas fuel before performing. “You shake off the excess fuel, and then you light them,” Sammy explains. “It burns the gas, not the Kevlar. So when the gas runs out, your fire prop goes out.”

Little scars run up her hands and arms from fire spinning. “I don’t get burned every time, but it’s just something that comes with it. Obviously the more proficient you are, the less likely you are to get burned.” Sammy uses safety precautions such as putting up her hair, wearing lip balm when she’s fire eating, and perhaps squirting a water bottle on her hair and clothes. And when she gets burned during a performance, she doesn’t give it away. “Sometimes, you don’t even notice them until later.”

Sammy estimates she performs about twice a month in the off-summer months. “The community’s really growing,” she says. “It’s slowly getting bigger. More people are getting interested in it.” She feels two urges: to experience the performance scene in cities like Oakland, Seattle, Portland, and New York City, but also to bring that scene to the Midwest. “Event planners are only now realizing performers could add so much to their shows, so they’re just now starting to hire them. They add so much atmosphere.”20130503_bs_3073_Web

Sammy’s signature performance style is breezy and fun. Constantly smiling, she never makes poses look taxing or difficult; hence her stage name given to her by a friend. “There’s no possible way I could do this without a support system helping me,” she says. “I wouldn’t have these opportunities if I didn’t have the connections. You have to go out there and meet people who can make your dreams happen.”

While pursuing her dream on tour this summer, Sammy’s put a lot of thought into instilling her performances with a message. “I’m trying to push the art aspect of performance,” she says. “I want to make it into a work of art that you refine to be something impactful and beautiful as opposed to the sexy entertainment aspect.”

For her summer tour, she’s created a backstory for her fire-spinning piece. “So I’m a lost girl looking out over the audience, with my one light,” Sammy explains, “and she’s looking and searching, not knowing where she is. Then she becomes possessed by this inner being, this other side explodes through her personality. She’s confident and doing things that don’t seem possible for humans to do.”

Kat Moser’s Photographs

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Kat Moser “fell in love with photography” while watching a cousin develop pictures in a home darkroom, and although she was only 6, her heart was won. It would be more than 50 years before she acknowledged herself as an artist, but there was no hesitation in her choice of medium. Watching figures emerge onto the paper floating in emulsion had seemed magical to the child. Today, she still attests, “It’s all about the alchemy.”

There does seem to be a spirit of the ancient mystical pursuit of transformation in Moser’s photographs. Women’s gleaming bodies float effortlessly in sun-sparkled bodies of water; branches reflected in streams write runic formulae in the sky; rough buttes are recast in silver and shadow. “Ethereal, mystical, spiritual—these are just some of the words I use to describe my work,” she says in her artist statement. “All three represent the primal connections we have with Mother Earth and her female qualities. I am deeply moved by the powerful yet often unseen worlds that surround and link us to life’s profound mysteries.”

"Morning at Fontenelle"

“Morning at Fontenelle”

Moser’s direction is intuitive, sensitive. She is attuned to myths and fairy tales, and the wordless understanding nurtured by decades of yogic practice. At the same time, her work is honed by learning from contemporary masters and enriched by discerning study of the genre and perspectives widened by travel. She is knowledgeable and demanding of the process necessary to achieve the desired finished effect—the look of infrared film.

Infrared light exists just beyond our range of vision; cameras using this spectrum capture a view we can never see—strong colors and contrasts, milky-white foliage, and porcelain skin. With IR film no longer readily available, Moser has customized two digital cameras to produce infrared’s other-worldly images.

“I’ve always been interested in spirit photography [of the late 19th century],” she says. “I loved the romantic, Victorian, ethereal quality of infrared from the first time I saw it. The longer I use it, the more interested I am in its possibilities.”

"Frozen Blooms"

“Frozen Blooms”

Moser’s photographs transform the familiar into images as fragile and foreign as dreams. A title, “Mahoney Retreat” from the series “Other Worlds – Inner Life,” leaves viewers retracing their own memories of the nearby park. In “Pool of Tears,” the pattern of overhead branches echoes dark-wet strands of hair. Delineated against a broad white back, the composition is both the scene and its reflection, illustrating the series’ title, “Illusions of Water.”

One of Moser’s models, Kristi Mattini, worked at Nouvelle Eve when invited to participate. “I have a long history of ballet,” Mattini says. “Sometimes, there’s a theme, but usually I just go through the dance movements in water. It’s impossible to hold a pose, which shows how good she is at catching the moment.” In the same way that Moser isolates a fleeting image and imbues it with a sense of timelessness, she creates an artwork of an individual. “Even if I’m standing next to my photograph,” Mattini says, “people don’t realize it’s me, and I can appreciate the work without feeling self-centered.”

"Isadora"

“Isadora”

In Moser’s years between little girl and award-winning photographer, there was a degree in fashion merchandising, work as a buyer, and Nouvelle Eve, a high-end women’s boutique in the Old Market. For nearly 40 years she expressed her creativity in developing the store, the brand, and the clientele. The photographs she enjoyed taking liaised with the shop’s sophisticated marketing profile. In those years too, she and her husband renovated a condo and established Jackson Artworks, ahead of the curve in living the Old Market life.

“I loved retail, loved that lifestyle, but I reached a turning point,” she says. “It was very clear to me.” The time had arrived to recognize and embrace the artist that had been waiting all those years. “I believe that everything I’ve done has been foundational to my life as an artist.” In the past few years, the Mosers have sold the shop and the gallery, generating a tremendous sense of freedom, and finally time, Moser says, to “relearn how to play.”

"Mahoney Retreat"

“Mahoney Retreat”

During her long apprenticeship, she gained a thorough understanding of infrared’s characteristics, always moving toward more subtle and mysterious results. [Note: All Moser’s images are created photographically; none are Photoshopped.] Looking ahead, she would like to explore adding techniques, such as encaustic, or printing on surfaces other than paper. The knowledge she has acquired over a lifetime hasn’t dimmed the awe of her first experience. “Oh, no,” she says with a smile. “The expertise allows the magic to happen.”

Kat Moser’s work is handled exclusively by Anderson O’Brien Fine Art (aobfineart.com).