SPARC’s ‘Live Art: Blue’ brought out the best of the blues and the best of the human heart
This is not a review. This is a personal experience.
I cry. Maybe too much. I have a soft heart. I love deeply and grieve easily. But nothing prepared me for the gut wrenching, joyous display of love and humanity that I witnessed at the Altria Theater Sunday afternoon at Live Art Blue, put on by The School for Performing Arts for the Richmond Community (“SPARC”).
It’s not just the fact that the stage was full of needs-based children. Telethons don’t move me like this.
Live Art is a nine month program at SPARC that allows children who have special needs of all sorts to rehearse with other children their age to prepare for this yearly concert. The program is funded by many corporate and personal benefactors.
The genius of Erin Thomas-Foley’s troublesome dream is that it hits the sweet spot of what we love most: our children. She has found a way to realize one of the greatest expressions of humanity. It is all based on the simple idea of letting these needs based children be normal. Letting them find the artist within themselves. Letting them sing and dance and paint and play music and interact with other children.
To let them be normal in a world that thinks they can’t be that.
Hand me the Kleenex.
As a writer for GayRVA I know that everyone reading this article knows what it feels like to feel different. To feel that you don’t fit in. To feel like there is no place you can just be you and express yourself.
This is Live Art’s fourth year. The theme this year was “Blues.” The word, the idea, the connections you make when thinking about “Blue” were explored in every way possible.
In her forward to the Live Art program Erin Thomas-Foley, SPARC’s Director of Education-Outreach said,“We began by talking about all the things that come to mind when we see or hear the word “Blue.” The blue sky, the blue ocean, a river, Blue Ridge Mountains, the meanings of all shades of blue, feeling blue, feeling better after feeling blue, blues music, bluegrass music, and everything beyond the blue sky that we cannot see.”
Using this starting point the children wrote poetry, essays, songs and dances, many of which were performed along to other music.
There were some truly great artists who gave their time pro bono to make this magic happen for these kids.
The opening of the show featured a wonderful and very poignant original film by the local film production team, The Casual Gentlemen, which is comprised of SPARC teachers Brendan Kennedy, Matt Polson and Phil Vollmer. The film features a young girl, a pastels artist drawing the cityscape of Richmond when she discovers a trunk with SPARC written on top. She opens it, climbs in and like Alice in Wonderland finds herself in a better place, interacting with the wonderful kids of the Live Art program. She feels so connected to these kids that she drags the trunk all the way to her school, opens it up and watches as her classmates all climb in to discover the wonderful connections of their own. Just beautiful.
The program was amazing. Every song had bevies of children singing and dancing with banners and LED light strips and found items. Many songs were danced to interpretively. The range of styles of artistic expression were far too numerous to catalog.
The artists were fantastic.
Jason Mraz led the musical procession with “Blue Skies.” Mraz was a SPARC student in the day and his sister Candace is one of SPARC’s most valuable leaders. Mraz has been instrumental since the beginning of this project, using his influence and talents to bring the best artists available and spending extraordinary time and resources making this event happen.
In a recreation of a Blues Brothers number, Candace joined her brother onstage as Elwood Blues singing and dancing. Bow Bow Bow.
Local renowned artists led the pack. Steve Bassett did several numbers in the second act and read one of the kid’s poems. His performance of “Beyond the Blue” was co-written by Erin Thomas-Foley.
Robbie Schaeffer performed a beautiful and haunting song titled “Lullaby” that featured Brenda Hayes, Jacob Stanfield and Elie Meyers.
The amazing Desiree Roots sang the spiritual “Wade in the Water” and “St. Louis Blues,” backed up by the students and Human Story Musicians which was led by Billy Dye and featured local favorites Jessi Johnson, Todd Patterson, Tyron Dyre, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Karla Brown, William Anderson and Anthony Cosby-Knowles.
Local staples Josh Small and Bobby Joe Small Jr. led the student population in a wonderful square dance (why don’t they teach that in school anymore?) to the great bluegrass number “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” featuring guest fiddler Annie Leeth,of whom I had the pleasure of writing about twice this weekend, here and as violist in Quill Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night.” Leeth also happens to be the daughter of two of my great law school friends so I am overjoyed to sing her praises all weekend long.
The Grammy award winning Blues Artist Keb’ Mo’ thrilled the audience with his easy going, smooth style. He sang solo and joined in groups featuring almost every other headline artist including the great blues Harmonica player, Phil Wiggins, who jammed along with every artist as well. That man can blow those pipes!
Probably the most affecting number for me was performed by Chris Stills in his original number “Daddy’s Little Girl.” As the father of three girls that title alone puts a lump in my throat. The performance featured the Host of Sparrow Aerialists who did their magic on royal blue strands of material, creating a swing on the bottom for many of the little girls on stage to swing from, all being pushed by their parents who gave them a big hug when they were done. OMG. Waterworks.
The evening ended with a film retrospective on Robbin Thompson. This great artist who died last year was instrumental in making the first shows happen and gave of his time and talent generously and graciously. The entire stage filled with all the students, their parents, the teachers, the artists and the crew all singing Thompson’s song, “Move On Down the Line” and finished the evening with the Keb’ Mo’ song, “Life is Beautfiul.”
Life is beautiful and life is made more beautiful because events like this happen. All it takes is one person with a little push and important friends. Erin Thomas-Foley and Ryan Ripperton, the Executive Director of SPARC are these people.
There are literally over a hundred gorgeous people who make this event happen. The Program Manager deserves credit which she can share with her staff. She is Courtney Vollmer and she managed this program pregnant for most of the year and after she had her beautiful daughter Lea.
Thank God Lea is a healthy little girl who can look forward to growing up with children of all abilities in a safe, loving artistic world that we create.
This opportunity should exist for all special needs children in every city that can accommodate such a project. The world is full of these children, many of whom are convinced that no one will allow them the expression that is locked up in their minds and bodies.
Richmond, thanks to SPARC is a leader and innovator of this opportunity. The Richmond community has to work harder to get behind this effort and support it with their time and their money. The Altria Theater had a healthy crowd, but not a sell-out crowd. THIS MUST CHANGE. If you haven’t been you need to go next year. If you want to help out, Call SPARC, they’ll find a place for you. If you have a child that can benefit from this wonderful program, go.
I am the second of five children. My older brother Steven was born with Spina Bifida. He was a brilliant boy with an I.Q. much higher than mine. He died at age nineteen of complications from the many surgeries he had to close his spine. My mother fought very hard to keep him out of state run asylums and to make sure that regular schools made accommodations for him. She was the 1965 New York State March of Dimes Mother of the Year. She had five children and treated him like he was like all the rest. It is her legacy I see in Erin Thomas-Foley and SPARC.
And God bless them for it.
SPARC presents LIVE ART: BLUE where kids with abilities and disabilities alike perform on the Altria stage this Sunday
This year’s performance, titled LIVE ART: BLUE, will feature three-time Grammy Award-winning blues musician Keb’ Mo’ and blues harmonica virtuoso Phil Wiggins.May 31, 2016
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