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Evening The Score

Soulful Symphony’s Darin Atwater Is Writing A New Future For American Music

Photographs by Frank Klein

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 5/11/2005

An April drizzle falls on Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, but the atmosphere inside is anything but dampened. A few well-heeled patrons mill around in the lobby and aisles, but most of the full house sits rapt with attention, waiting for the music to begin. All it takes is for the black-clad orchestra members to find their seats and lay hold of their instruments for cheers to erupt from the audience. A few moments after the concertmaster takes her violin in hand and strikes a haunting note with her bow, signaling that the music is soon to begin, the conductor emerges from the wings and strides across the stage with a sense of purpose.

But there’s something different about this orchestra. Before turning his back to the audience, this maestro smiles and announces, “We’re a little more relaxed here, so if you feel the spirit moving, there’s plenty of room in the aisles.” And then there’s the fact almost all of the musicians are African-American (as is the bulk of the sold-out house), flying in the face of the fact that, according to a American Symphony Orchestra League 2004 report, less than 2 percent of U.S. orchestra musicians are African-American.

As the music begins to swell from the stage, another difference emerges. The conductor, 34-year-old Darin Atwater, is not just leading the musicians and chorus through another performance of Beethoven or Bach. Titled “Journey,” the concert is designed to take the audience on a pilgrimage through the Negro spiritual, which Atwater calls the parent of all American music. More than mere adaptations of classic spirituals for the symphony orchestra, the arrangements set the choruses’ delivery of gospel lyrics over what sound uncannily like hip-hop beats jumping up through the string-borne melodies. Atwater not only conducts the orchestra, he also arranges and/or composes the music as well. He calls his ensemble Soulful Symphony.

As he leads the 75-member orchestra and chorus in a rendition of “Father We Adore Thee” and an uptempo version of “The Storm Is Over,” it is clear that Atwater is using music that is indigenous to the African-American experience as a medium to create an unlikely but pleasing new mode of music. Atwater takes elements of jazz, gospel, Afro-Cuban, swing, and a bit of hip-hop and blends them together so they retain their distinct feels and flavors, allowing the music to soar off the stage and move from spiritual to jazz jam session without ever breaking from or straining the rich orchestral sound. Throughout this symphonic performance-turned-church revival, all matter of people, black and white, young and old, stand up to clap or wave their hands as if they were in a church pew, not an orchestra seat.

But the transformation at work here is more than musical. In an era when American orchestras struggle to keep an audience—the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s classical series has experienced a 2-4 percent decline in attendance over the past decade—Soulful Symphony sold out all four of its concerts at the Meyerhoff during the 2004-’05 season. Even more remarkable, Atwater and his orchestra are literally changing the complexion of the usual Meyerhoff audiences, 78 percent of whom are white, on average, in a city whose population is 64 percent black.

Can one man spark a turnaround in Baltimore’s slightly fading symphony-going crowd? “I think it’s a possibility,” BSO president James Glicker says. “Classical music in general has been very stagnant and academic over the last 100 years or so. That doesn’t appeal to audiences.” He adds that Soulful Symphony’s four-for-four sell-out rate bests that of the venue’s house band, the BSO, which out of 88 concerts so far this season has sold out eight.

Soulful Symphony has not only expanded the Meyerhoff’s box-office take, it has expanded the venue’s usual profile. “Our objective is to serve the community,” Glicker says. “But two-thirds of the community of Baltimore is African-American. We need to be representative.” He adds that other esteemed American symphonies, including Philadelphia, Cleveland, and St. Louis, have been checking in on what and how Soulful Symphony is doing in the Baltimore market.

Julia Kirchhausen, vice president of public relations for the American Symphony Orchestra League, acknowledges that orchestras across the country have been working to bring in more diverse audiences. “When a person comes up with a good idea and a compelling product, something that is new and different and engages a community, the community will respond accordingly,” Kirchhausen says. “Whenever there’s a success story, I think other orchestras look at that kind of model as a ‘Can we do this in our community?’ Will [Atwater] have an impact in other communities? I think he possibly could.”

Atwater certainly has a good shot at making the most of Soulful Symphony in Baltimore. He has the backing of BSO management, which, with funding help from members of the community and some key local philanthropists, has entered into a three-year commitment to present a series of as many as six Soulful Symphony concerts a year at the Meyerhoff and the BSO’s new second home, the Music Center at the Strathmore in North Bethesda. Glicker says that Atwater’s way of connecting with this audience is just what the BSO needs.

But Darin Atwater says he wants to do more than shift classical demographics and boost attendance. “What we’re trying to do primarily with the Soulful Symphony is to demystify the whole idea that when you get symphonic musicians together that we sound like this, or when you come to a symphony hall to hear big band and gospel that it has to sound like this,” he says. “As artists, we’ve allowed ourselves to be marginalized. The idea of us representing the whole of life through music and through art has been lost.

“Everybody has a call,” he continues. “My question to myself a few years ago was, ‘What is my greatest contribution to the world and the people that God has called me to influence? And what have great men before me done to achieve it?’

“Because whenever you’re dealing with something that’s bigger than yourself,” he says with resolve, “there’s a level of art where you begin to engineer your culture.”

 

On a Monday morning a couple of weeks after the final Meyerhoff Soulful Symphony concert of the season, Darin Atwater sits down with a reporter in his Baltimore waterfront condo, dressed down in a blue-green Izod polo, cuffed jeans, and a pair of pristine white leather Nike Air Flights. He sits down, but he doesn’t stay seated still long. He tries to politely answer questions but occasionally breaks off and dashes over to the piano to play a few notes and then jot down the ideas playing out in his head on a sketch pad. He calls what he’s working on a musical “rough draft,” but the pencil marks seem certain—there are few erasures.

“I erase sometimes, but not too often,” he says.

Atwater’s piano sits next to the windows, which reveal a panoramic view of the city below. Pulling away from the view, the eye rests on homages to African-American artists who have proceeded him. A coveted Romere Bearden collage hangs over a coffee-colored sofa across the room, while a French poster featuring a man with arms long enough to master the full scope of his keyboard hangs near his Yamaha grand. Two portraits flank the instrument: to the left, a picture of bluesman BB King holding his guitar; to the right, a well-known image of jazzman Miles Davis with his left index finger up to his mouth.

“It’s just such an assertion of individualism,” Atwater says referring to the portraits of King and Davis. “And they speak to me, too.”

Davis, in particular, serves as a personal inspiration for Atwater. “He was never satisfied with where he was,” he notes. “I’m always forging ahead. Always trying to reinvent.”

He has forged ahead so far that he’s already worked out most of the material for Soulful Symphony’s five 2005-’06 Meyerhoff concerts in his sketch books. In addition, there are looming dates scheduled for Soulful Symphony outside Baltimore. Atwater casually mentions an upcoming concert in New York in June with some familiar names: Aretha Franklin, Kathleen Battle, and Roberta Flack, to name a few.

And then there’s the reason he keeps jumping up and hurrying to the piano on an otherwise kicked-back spring day. Atwater is preparing a movement for the composition Evolution of a People, a piece that the Soulful Symphony will perform with the BSO under the auspices of the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture on Martin Luther King Day 2006. Atwater will be conducting this music, while still images gathered by local poet and photographer Ellis Marsalis III, aka t.p. Luce, play on a giant screen behind the orchestra.

Atwater and Luce started talking about the MLK Day piece at a concert last summer by the latter’s brother Wynton Marsalis at the Rouse Theatre in Columbia. Atwater already had the basic concept behind Evolution of a People; Luce, a photographer who also studied U.S. history, “seemed like the perfect person to work with me on this project,” Atwater says.

The plan is to use the music and the images to show the scope of the African-American experience from slavery to the present. Working on the music, Atwater has spent lots of time looking at the images Luce has assembled, not all of them pleasant. He holds up an illustration of African slaves kept in irons by slavers fearful of insurrection during the ocean voyage to the men’s new home in America.

“It’s difficult, because it’s so horrific,” Atwater says. “But you want that conviction to come through your art. So it’s like an actor—a lot of times, people try to stay on the surface of things, but you really can’t portray the reality of the horror without immersing yourself in the pain that they must have gone through.

“It’s painful looking at all of these pictures,” he says, “but necessary.”

Atwater plays some heavy, doom-laden chords on the piano. “This movement is such a gut-wrenching type of thing—musically it will seep into your soul, it’s so dark. Where the cowboy movement may be very . . . ” Atwater transitions effortlessly into a whimsical trotlike movement that sounds like polyharmony doing the mambo, evoking the spirit of black cowpokes like Nate Love and Bill Pickett riding across a prairie without a care in the world.

Despite the ease with which he can move in and out of musical moods, Atwater says he sometimes feels like he’s cutting a new trail because “what I’m doing has never been done before. Even our [previous] African-American composers haven’t wanted to embrace our music.

“Everyone has wanted to be accepted by embracing the European [musical] standard. But I’m embracing our standard. Let’s be wildly American, which means going back to our roots anyway.”

Atwater notes that he’s not the first to present this idea. “In 1893, Antonin Dvorák came to America and wrote a symphony called The New World Symphony based on African and American music,” he says. “Every composer has based music on folk idioms, so Dvorák came to this country and said, ‘Your folk music is made of spirituals—how come you guys are not looking to your own homeland?’ He took from that idea and wrote one of the greatest symphonies, based on spirituals.

“It’s the same today with jazz, hip-hop—anything that comes from African-American culture is not looked at as ripe for fine art.”

Given the fact that many musicians are known in mainstream society for just one type of music—as a classical artist or a gospel artist, say, but never both—Atwater says Soulful Symphony is a “counterstatement in what’s happening in popular culture. Commercialism is the monster of art now.” That said, he finds trying to do something in the orchestral realm that reaches out to listeners beyond that frustrating: “It’s like you’ve been marginalized to make music that makes a grand statement in such a small demographic in terms of people’s interest.”

But don’t mistake Atwater for a highbrow looking down on pop culture—especially not hip-hop. “Mos Def is my man,” he says. “And I like the sound of Ludacris, although I don’t like all of his content.” Atwater enjoys hip-hop so much that among his future plans—along with conducting Porgy and Bess and a piece by African-American composer William Grant Still—is a hip-hop symphony he’s calling Paint Factory. The title refers to hip-hop’s ability to unite people in a way previously unseen in popular music since maybe the Beatles.

“I’m going to call it Paint Factory because there’s a whole global phenomenon of all these races [coming together],” Atwater says. “You have Israelis and Palestinians finding a common ground through hip-hop. If we allow it to spread that way, if we can stop denigrating it, there’s something there that we can grab onto.”

 

Darin Atwater’s love of hip-hop should not surprise anyone. The 34-year-old is a product of the hip-hop generation, one of the very few working composer/conductors likely to don a Sean Jean cap and sneakers. He looks like an around-the-way type of guy, and in fact he is—a product of Northwest Washington, D.C.

Atwater’s father, John, worked as an executive for IBM, and his mother, Marian, was a teacher, but both were very active in the Third Street Church of God, near the Capitol. Marian Atwater gave her children weekly vocabulary lists, so it’s no wonder that Darin Atwater guy can transition from maestro mode (“The African never compartmentalized his art—he wrote songs about everything.”) to praising Mos Def’s “Ghetto Rock” as “hot.” Love of music goes back generations in his family: His mother sang in the church choir, and his great-grandmother had an affinity for classical music. In fact, the magnificent wooden gramophone with a shinny brass bell adorning his piano belonged to her. “She loved to listen to Bach and Beethoven,” he says.

Soulful Symphony is even something of a family affair: Atwater’s younger sister Stacy sings in the chorus and as a soloist. Darin Atwater dismisses any sentimentality about performing with a family member. “When she’s singing, I’m thinking the same thing I would when anyone else sings,” he says, deadpan. “Please don’t mess up the song.

Atwater says he started playing the family piano by ear when he was 4. He relied on that facility even after he began taking lessons; he recalls that his music teacher learned his secret by asking him to start playing in the middle of a piece. “He tricked me,” Atwater says smiling.

Atwater grew up thinking that he would become an accountant or a businessman like his father, but he also remembers watching movies with the family, and his father turning to him and saying, “You’re going to score a movie someday.” (In fact, Atwater mentions, he’s traveling to Los Angeles in late April to look at scripts he could compose for. He waves off questions—“it’s too early to talk about”—but he can barely contain his excitement.)

Atwater planned to major in accounting when he entered Morgan State University in 1988, but at Morgan he met a man who caused him to rethink his course. The late Nathan Carter, the incomparable director of the Morgan State University Choir, needed a pianist. “When Doc heard me play, he was like, ‘I think you ought to reconsider,’” Atwater laughs.

Atwater says what ensued was a mentor/mentee relationship that largely shaped the whole of his musical life. “Dr. Carter stands in the pantheon of distinguished African-American artists,” Atwater says. “He taught me the importance of being connected to your tradition and preserving and maintaining the highest level of artistry at all costs.” The last time Atwater saw Carter, in June 2004, shortly before he died, Atwater says his mentor suggested music for Soulful Symphony to play.

Atwater’s time at Morgan was hardly a typical college life. He says he spent most of his sophomore year on tour with the family gospel group the Winans, all the while maintaining a 3.3 grade point average. “My teachers would just shake their heads and me and say, ‘Just get the work done,’” he says.

Armed with a vision of fusing the many musical styles he loved, but feeling limited by the lack of opportunities to study composition at Morgan, Atwater launched his own two-year “self-study” course. He left Morgan in 1991 and says “self-study” meant going down to the BSO to listen to other composers’ work.

In 1995, Atwater says he wrote a piece called Maschil (from the Hebrew, “to play skillfully”), which he describes as “a piano concerto [based on] a spiritual, but it was a very classical, European piece. I was under a lot of internal pressure to succumb to the established sound of classical music.” A year later Atwater met Wynton Marsalis at one of the trumpeter’s concerts, and ended up going to Marsalis’ apartment the next week.

“[Marsalis] said, ‘Man, if it’s just the two of us, we’ve got to do this’—and by ‘do this’ he meant embrace our own traditions,” Atwater says. “So from that I said, ‘I’m taking everything that I’ve learned—from jazz, classical, hip-hop, the spiritual, gospel—and I’m dealing with that from now on.”

By 1997, he had found his way to the Peabody Institute, but Atwater says two big things indicated to him that he would not be a part of the Academy for long: “During my first lesson, my teacher, Morris Cotel, told me, ‘Man, you’re a harmonist. You’ve basically got all that you need, but check this book out,’ [and] gave me a book on 20th-century harmony. But when I would come in to see him, he was finishing lessons, teaching other students about harmony.

“The second thing that happened was that I was chosen to study with John Corigliano, composer of the movie The Red Violin—he’s like the pre-eminent composer in classical music right now,” Atwater continues. “So, we listened to my piece, and then I’m in the bathroom. He comes in, and he’s like, ‘You have such a defined sound. Don’t be afraid of your voice—go with it.’ That’s all I needed to hear from him.”

Atwater never finished a degree at either Morgan State or Peabody, which he left in 1998, but he says he never worried about whether or not he would succeed. “I just knew that one day I would get there,” he says.

No doubt his confidence was bolstered throughout his years of formal and informal education by his ability to support himself with music, playing and recording with a who’s who of gospel music, including Donnie McClurkin, Richard Smallwood, and Yolanda Adams. Atwater has never worked a 9-to-5 job.

“A job?” he says, half-laughing, half-recoiling. “That would be horrible.”

 

Atwater made his debut as composer and pianist in May 1995 with the National Symphony Orchestra, premiering Maschil. Later that year he toured Europe as the arranger, pianist, and music director for Scala Theater. And then in 1998, as he was composing a symphony based on his new outlook called Song in a Strange Land, Atwater says he thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have an all African-American orchestra perform this?

So he started talking to other musicians, who knew other classically trained African-American musicians all over the Mid-Atlantic. In February of 2000 Song in a Strange Land premiered at the Meyerhoff in a performance featuring Wynton Marsalis and gospel stars Karen Clark-Sheard and Kim Burrell.

Marsalis, the artistic director for New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and among the most accomplished and acclaimed jazz artists and composers of his generation, describes Atwater as an “extremely intelligent” musician with a sophisticated vision that includes many styles of music.

“[Atwater] is willing to do the type of study that is required to develop the technique to speak the language and to communicate these things” to both orchestra and audience, Marsalis says by phone from New York. “Like to know how to deal with aspects of the Afro-American church tradition, and the orchestration of a symphony orchestra, and the arrangement of a jazz saxophone section—the whole kind of way you have to balance materials, and the amount of knowledge.”

Marsalis says he sees Atwater’s music possibly having a profound effect on the symphony-going audience in America: “It has the potential to do that because it uses a lot of vernacular American musics and a lot of the sounds of the American vernacular, unapologetically.

“Anybody who can figure out how to get a symphony orchestra to groove—not in a condescending way—and still have them play challenging parts, is doing a great service to the orchestra and to all of us.”

After the Baltimore debut of Song in a Strange Land, Atwater went on to make his orchestral conducting debut with the Dallas Symphony in 2001, leading his Tehillah for Chorus and Orchestra. The composition is a collection of Psalms with African undertones. The text includes Psalm 136, which Atwater says is “in the African tradition of call and response.” Dallas minister and novelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, author of the best-selling Woman, Thou Art Loosed!, provided the call to which the orchestra and chorus would respond. Atwater’s sojourn in Dallas ended up lasting two years when he found himself serving as creative arts director for Jakes.

Atwater says Jakes heard the orchestral work that he was doing on Richard Smallwood’s 1999 CD Healing. Jakes called Atwater in 2000 and invited him to come to his church, the Potter’s House, to conduct an orchestra for a Sunday morning service, to “feel out how people would respond, what it would look like.” The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Atwater provided music for special church events while still doing arrangements for gospel artists on the side. But he credits Jakes with pushing him to work on his own music as well. “He really empowered me to come back and do Soulful Symphony,” Atwater says. “In a way, he made me feel like I didn’t have a choice. He said, ‘You’re equipped to do this, man.’”

Atwater did return to Baltimore and launch Soulful Symphony. And after several concerts at the now-shuttered Mechanic Theatre and in other cities, he began talking to the BSO about a more involved relationship with his orchestra. “I had done my homework,” Atwater says. “I knew that the BSO was going to be away from the Meyerhoff a third of the season with [Strathmore]. I said, ‘We’ve had a nomadic existence. We need a home.’”

The conversation led to a proposal to the symphony’s board, which led to Atwater scheduling a concert at the Mechanic in October 2003. “We put on a concert for the community, but it was really for the [BSO] board—the other 1,600 people just happened to be there,” he says with a chuckle. Two months later the BSO board voted unanimously to bring on Soulful Symphony as an artistic affiliate and Atwater as a composer-in-residence.

In spite of his meteoric rise and powerful mentors, Atwater notes that his path hasn’t been easy. “When people use the phrase ‘overnight success,’ my response is, ‘The night was very long,’” he says.

Soulful Symphony has been a struggle financially. One series of concerts at the Mechanic was scheduled for a February 2003 weekend that found the city buried under several feet of snow. “Only 500 people showed up over two nights out of [an expected] 3,200,” Atwater recalls. “I had to come up with $50,000 myself in payroll for my musicians.” He says he was on the verge of having to sell his piano until a round of studio work came through to cover the balance.

The difficulties have not all been financial. “You sacrifice a lot of things for the sake of art on this level,” he says. “I’m sacrificing the amount of time that I get as an individual artist and in my personal life. My musicians and soloists just show up to perform—they don’t do the PR or the fundraising, the thematic work or artistic programming. When you’re dealing with an orchestra, you’ve got close to 100 people on payroll. That’s a small business!

“But it’s an all or nothing kind of thing,” he acknowledges. “There’s no way I could work at IBM and be committed to this.

“I was talking to Bishop Jakes about how your destiny pulls you, and he said that it makes demands on your life that you have no control over,” Atwater continues. “My calling,” he says, is “social engineering under the auspices of the arts.

“When you become like an infrastructure instead of one person, you have the ability to change culture,” Atwater says. “The thing that changes it is when you become organically linked to the community. Sort of like what Alvin Ailey was doing, what Wynton Marsalis is doing with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“This is not just lip service,” Atwater insists. “[The BSO] wants to make a statement to the community that ‘we are here for you.’ If the BSO was talking BS, it would say, ‘Let’s get 50 Cent onstage with the BSO for the MLK concert,’ he says with a chuckle. “Symphonies have been doing that for years, and people can see through that.”

Atwater acknowledges that, despite his success so far, his calling presents a challenge in today’s society. Working in orchestral music—a realm that is the very opposite of most popular music, artistically and commercially—he yearns for widespread acceptance. And yet, he refuses to compromise.

“There’s a way for [your call] to become popular, but you’re still committed to your call,” he adds. “T.D. Jakes is breaking into popular culture—he’s crossing over, but his mission has not changed. That’s the key: to share your mission and to be accountable to people. He’s accountable to his core audience—he’s not going to get onstage and start talking radical left-wing doctrine, just like I’m not going to get onstage and only perform traditional symphonic music.” Keeping true to yourself, he says, “that’s my litmus test.”

 

Baltimore philanthropists Sylvia and Eddie Brown have been integral in accountability of another kind for Atwater—taking the Soulful Symphony from an orchestra that played sporadic engagements to an orchestra with a home with the BSO. Sylvia Brown says she first saw Soulful Symphony during that commercially disastrous snowy weekend in February 2003.

“My first feeling was that that audience was so small,” Brown says. “People won’t know just how good this man is. There wasn’t any question about his talent, and I thought, We’ve got him right here in Baltimore. It was kind of breathtaking.”

The Browns were not strangers to Atwater’s talent; he had been serving in the music ministry at Douglas Memorial Community Church, where the Browns attended services.

“They were really working kind of hand-to-mouth and were working to raise money for the musicians and to pay expenses,” Eddie Brown says. The Browns gave Atwater $5,000 to help defray the cost of instrument rentals. When BSO Chairman Phil English subsequently came to Eddie Brown with a proposition for the symphony, Brown says he laughed.

“They said they would like to form a partnership with the Soulful Symphony and that their board had unanimously approved the idea,” Brown says. “But there was one problem. They had projected that over the three years [of the proposed partnership] . . . a [total] operating deficit of $900,000. And they said, ‘We would like for you and Sylvia to make a $900,000 contribution to defray the cost.

“I laughed and said definitely not,” Brown adds.

He did make a counterproposal that, all things considered, may be better for the community’s interest in seeing this symphony succeed. After talking with his wife, because, as he says, “we do everything together,” Eddie Brown told English he was willing to give the BSO a challenge grant in the form of $300,000 over the next three years to be used for Soulful Symphony, but the grant had to be matched in a very specific way by other segments of the community.

“‘Two hundred thousand must be raised from your board of directors—since they voted 100 percent in favor of this partnership, then we would like to see them step up to the plate to support it,’” Brown recounts telling English. “‘Another $100,000 we would like for be raised from the African-American community in Baltimore, as an indication that the African-American community is behind this effort. Then, the balance would be raised in the broad community. Therefore we have a total community and interest involvement to make this happen.’

“I think that surprised them, frankly,” Brown chuckles. “[And] I think they’ve just been blown away that the response has just been so great, in terms of every single concert being sold out.”

The rewards of Soulful Symphony’s success outstrip mere cash flow. The Browns took a group of underprivileged Baltimore middle-school students from an after-school program that they run to a Soulful Symphony concert. Raised on a steady diet of hip-hop and mainstream pop, the students embraced Atwater’s music.

“They made us two paintings based on what they saw, they did the research on instruments and soloists,” Sylvia Brown says. “It was tearjerking

“And those are the kids we want to inspire,” Eddie Brown adds.

Atwater shares that mission. Along with attracting more African-Americans and younger audiences to Soulful Symphony and, ultimately, to the BSO, he says he’d like to reach more members of the hip-hop generation and members from various socioeconomic strata. “But it’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some aggressive outreach,” he says. “We were just talking with [George Gilliam and Jim Hamlin] about the Pennsylvania Avenue renewal project. I would like to do something like take Soulful Symphony out on Pennsylvania Avenue and just play.

“People can come to the symphony and be inspired by a performance. But transformation comes when you become like a part of a fabric of a community,” he continues. “And that takes time, and people seeing you as a normal person—walking down at the harbor and saying, ‘Oh, I just saw you down at the Meyerhoff. What’s up?’”

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