What am I doing here?
I first became aware of Ani Collier and her performance art work at the Hippodrome Theatre. I was the manager of the HIPP bar at the time; this is around 2008. Normally, the HIPP had professional plays on the Main stage often directed by the force that is Lauren Warhol Caldwell. But every so often, I'd hear of an unusual show happening, something involving dance and performance art, with a classically trained Bulgarian ballerina. The show was conceptual, unusual, provocative, challenging, risky, strange, all my favorite words when it come to arts. And these shows were not easy to get seats for, and they were pricey tickets, and they felt like some underground spectacle that the hoi polloi were not necessarily aware of. No, this was for the folks who dig to find art like buried treasure, who will adventure around the corner, into the unsafe darkness to find the light. Inside the HIPP, Ani Collier and company would fashion a show and utilize whatever set was currently on the stage. Hell, sometimes, I've heard, she'd just dance right over the seats, down the Voms, in the rafters, wherever necessary to tell a story and engage an audience.
"Of Air and the Water" - a collaboration with Ani Collier, Mark Tanner, Lola Haskins - Poetry, Music, Dance. "Mistresses of Many Voices" - a collaboration with Ani Collier of dance & monologues. "Swan Song" - featuring dance and musings from Carlos Somoza's novel "Art of Murder". "The Nightingale and The Rose" - a romantic fifty-minute "movement poem". You can see more here at Ani's web page: http://anicollier.com/public_html/performances.html
I never found my way into even one of these performances, but they were highly regarded and people talked. Without ever having met Ani, I knew she was Gainesville's secret epicenter of exploratory mixed-media, dance and expressionism. She also danced with and choreographed for the world-renowned Dance Alive organization and was a classically trained ballerina from Bulgaria. And that's why, when Creative Director Lauren Warhol Caldwell parted ways with the Hippodrome and found herself creating new work with Ani Collier at the little black box space around the corner, Black C Art, I took a more direct interest - me, being a long-time Caldwell fan. I attended and reviewed some of those performances, and found them to fill a niche that simply didn't exist in any other performance spaces in town. The work was inspirational, confrontational, community and issue-minded, and compelled more questions and dialogue than it answered. It was about exploration and discovery for artist and audience alike; often accompanied with refreshments and an interrogative talkback. Between these two enigmatic power-house women, it all gets covered; photography, art, dance, theatre, storytelling, music, lights, spectacle, romance, the kind of stuff Aristotelians spend their nights dreaming about.
I don't want to be too specific. That would ruin the magic.
But I can tell you I find myself now as a strange passerby; or better, passer-through. We amuse and muse each other in the search for childlike fun, adult matters of cosmic significance and also happenstance, and a hunger & thirst for adventure, exploration, risk, and bedazzlement. I've been authorized to be influenced and to influence, all to the better undiscovered downtown where art is the strangest, finest, most perplexing, and fiercely rewarding.
Lauren Warhol Caldwell (she got permission from Andy Warhol himself to use the name), yes, was Liza Minelli's personal assistant. Did you hear me? And beyond that, the Creative Director at the Hippodrome for much of my Gainesville residency. You can read about her here:
Lauren Caldwell - Gainesville Downtown
I'll tell you another story too. I've reviewed a number of plays at the Hippodrome, Directed by Lauren Warhol Caldwell. You'll see my reverence for her work in the reviews and I'll list them below. But also, know that at one time I was a student of non-traditional age (shut up!) at the University of Florida where I dug out and escaped with a Bachelors in Theatre Arts. One of my beloved mentors, Tim Altmeyer, got a role and had to take some days off. In his place, Lauren Caldwell appeared. It was an audition class. She scared the living shit out of me! In the best way, of course, by being demanding and uplifting and never letting anyone take a free ride. You had to step-up, earn your stripes, deliver your best work, or suffer your own disappointment. She'd never shame you, but in her presence, you might sure shame yourself. (Why didn't I remember the lines? Why was I late? Why didn't I have a resume and a great headshot with living dazzling moist eyes?!) You'd feel an almost mystical compulsion to not bullshit, to deliver the goods, to rise above mediocrity and earn her respect. I think I did so.
Because you see, she's directed tons of shows, held the Hippodrome during it's best formative and durational years, on her shoulders like Atlas - never compromising her vision, her audacity, her voice, her style. To be admired, here are several reviews by Tom Miller (that's me) written in the afterhours of experiencing a Caldwell-Directed show:
THE TWO MUSKEETERS
THE ELEPHANT MAN
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE
MR. BURNS - A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK CHRISTMAS MUSICAL
… Just to name a few.
So immediately my interest in Black C Art is peaked. What in the world are these two artists now doing together? I knew Black C Art had been in the Downtown because, as I state clearly in all my work, Downtown Gainesville is the Known Center of the Universe. To be fair, I stole that line from Shamrock McShane, who is the official discoverer of this fact. All I did was to repeat it until the universe gave up and agreed with us. Between Shamrock and I, we pin-pointed the precise Center of the Universe as being the inside-right seat just as one enters Maude's Café. Sit there, and know all!
Back to Black C Art. Fascinating performances are there, and shown only to a limited audience. The inside space feels like a gallery, but transforms easily into a black box theatre with theatrical lighting and sound design. It wasn't always the case, Ani tells me. The space began as a formal gallery and dance space, primarily to present the works of Ani Collier. But a confluence of invited "Creatives" enter and exit the space over time colliding and exploding in a surprising diversity of happenings. So in a way, Black C is to enter the mind of Ani, and also to engage her playfulness, dance, theatricality, imagery, and artistic vision as one converses and collides with the forces that exist in the Known Center of the Universe. That makes sense to me, I hope it does to you fair reader. I began to attend these experiences and to review them as I had the Hippodrome shows.
A couple of my reviews are below:
I saw Oedipus ReDux: (Lauren Warhol Caldwell recruits my long time band-leader, Charles Ray Martin to interpret Oedipus from Jocasta's point of view, with original contemporary Rock-a-Billy songs!)
I saw Ani Collier shows featuring photo-collage superimposed on metal structure - sideways glimpses of New York Buildings, Flowers, Dance, Shoes, Movement, Colors, Umbrellas open inside where no rain falls, waterfalls of plastic bottles; their beauty destroying, preserving, transforming, colluding.
I saw "There Was a Girl" - a collaborative reading in which Ani Collier expresses, by movement, what is spoken in the script), with another mentor of mine, Gregg Jones, taking a role as antagonist, player, villain, muse. Just look at some of the imagery from these collaborations!
While we're deciding what to show for ArtWalk -- Ani dances and ponders and goes into the back room to look through her voluminous photographic work -- "What should we do?" She asks. I act like I know what I'm doing. "How about this?" She emerges with some balled up paper and silver air-conditioning insulation. She positions these on one of the display areas in the gallery. "What do you think?"
"Cool!" I say. Then, I suggest, "It's making art from what's around." She agrees, and retreats to the back area. After a spell, she emerges with a brilliant image of an old woman in Cuba smoking a cigar. "I got this in Cuba," she tells me. "Look at her. She knows the good life." That's it, we decide. We call the show, "The Good Life." Lauren Warhol Caldwell arrives. She taps into the creative vibe. "What about this!" Lauren says. Her visual sensibilities imbue the process. We are all standing, moving, dancing, adding and creating together. There is a joy that permeates the gallery. Lots of laughter. When it's all said and done, a show is up on the walls. It makes sense, if only to us. Patrons will come during Gainesville Art Walk - the last Friday of the month - and decide what they see for themselves. I remember the one woman who, after careful consideration of everything displayed in the gallery, says in a calculating tone, "Where's the art?"
I think: If you don't see it, it's not there for you. It's there for us. Come back again in a few days, it will all be different. Or it won't even be an art show, it will be a play, or a dance, or a photography session or a video. Or maybe the place will be in-between shows and nothing will be on the walls. And someone will walk in, take a measure of the place--the empty walls--, and say, "This is fantastic work!"
Since I've been in residence with Ani Collier and Lauren Warhol Caldwell, we've come up with an invisible piano player named Morine French, we've used scraps of paper and tape and red fabric flower petals to present "The Good Life", the gallery has been drenched in red light, where cinnamon candy looks like butter scotch and vice-versa, with Ani Collier dance photo collage printed on metal; cityscapes, and roses have adorned the space. While all this is going on, Ani just happens to be working in parallel with Dance Alive choreographing/playing/dancing a primary role in freakin' Carmina Burana at the Performing Arts Center with a cast of over 250 performers. Later, Ani throws a retirement reception in the Black C for the conductor, Dr. Raymond Chobaz. Champagne, catering, suits, ties, a brilliant piano cake, the works!
Perhaps we are meteors, comets, and particles in a long collision of arts, music, contemplation, and exploration swimming in the ocean of possibilities, and who knows how long it will last, but do see it while you can. Enjoy and appreciate each fortunate moment like drops of water in the sea, and ultimately, move along. Flowers aren't meant to last, they're meant to be immortalized in stories, poetry, and art.
PROJECTS AND GALLERY SHOWS:
MORINE FRENCH, Invisible Piano Player (February 2022):