New 'Connections': Student Performance Piece Reaches Across Artistic Disciplines

May 12, 2017 Mike Keefe-Feldman

As the ambient sounds of electronic music from Berklee College of Music students Olga Kisseleva and D’Anthoni Wooten resound off the walls in Berklee’s Zero Gravity Room, seven Boston Conservatory at Berklee dancers begin to sway. Behind them, the white wall is illuminated with the projection of a video installment from Berklee student Alejandro Gonzalez that plays with the concepts of breaking apart and coming together. As the music incorporates an udu-driven electronic Afrobeat track, oud player Amal Waqar begins plucking along and, one by one, the dancers spring into motion.

Kisseleva picks up a microphone and—in her first-ever solo vocal performance—offers writhing vocal runs that correspond with the movements of the dancers, who conjure the idea of connection with interlocked fingers. Later in the evening, Gonzalez would provide a modular synthesizer soundtrack and offer more video—based on software that he wrote—as visual artist Fotini Christophillis drew upon these multiple stimuli to create an abstract painting—for instance, bringing a touch of green to the base of her canvas when Gonzalez delivers a passage of heavy bass.

The piece, Connections, performed on May 6, was the brainchild of Kisseleva, otherwise known by her artist name, Olya, and served as a prime example of the type of cross-discipline collaboration envisioned by the merger between Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music—a hallmark of the type of projects students are encouraged to undertake when studying in the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute (BIAI).

A Whole New World

Olya, originally from Moscow, Russia, grew up in a musical family and spent many years in New York City, enjoying a lucrative career in finance with Merrill Lynch while performing throughout the city as “a banker by day and a singer by night.” After graduating from Boston University, Olya again felt called to music and met with Michael Bierylo, chair of Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design (EPD) Department; she decided to come to Berklee and says the EPD major has “opened up a whole new world of music” for her.

“You don’t choose music,” Olya says. “Music chooses you.”

While she may have been the driving force, Olya is quick to acknowledge that it takes many to make such an interdisciplinary partnership work. In this case, that included the support of Neil Leonard, artistic director of the Berklee Interdisciplinary Arts Institute, and Diane Arvanites, modern dance instructor at Boston Conservatory at Berklee, who guided Conservatory student dancers Frangeli Ramirez, Anna Schlueter, Julia Ueda, Clare Savage, Esther Reilly, Aileen Leon-Echeverria, and Sofia Blustein (all B.F.A. '20).

Leon-Echeverria says this sort of collaboration was entirely new to her, but notes that Arvanites provided guidance while allowing room for individual expression via a structured improvisation approach. In collaborating with the other artists, Arvanites also “would guide them on what we needed” as dancers, Leon-Echeverria says.

Olya’s musical collaborator, a Berklee class of 2017 graduating student D’Anthoni Wooten, found the experience to be “nerve-racking but fun.”

“I had never collaborated with dancers before, so this was the first step for me,” Wooten says.

Student Clare Savage voiced a similar perspective, albeit from a different point of view.

“We’d pick up cues, movement-wise, to pair with the music,” Savage says. “I had never done that with musicians, so it was different, but in a good way. There was a lot of creative energy.”

Making a Scene

That creative energy was the idea of the piece for Olya, although she says that the title itself, Connections, came last. After finding common ground in the arenas of modern dance, African polyrhythms, electronic music, Arabic scales, video and software programming, and abstract painting, that title was ultimately a natural outgrowth of witnessing what Olya describes as “different elements of our humanity coming together.”

For Wooten, who plans to intern at Tokyo-based game/animation production house G-Angle after graduation, the project was also representative of “the steps toward bringing our schools together.”

“We need more of this stuff,” Wooten says.

Beyond campus walls, that point was echoed among several creative-minded attendees interested in building upon Boston’s arts scene, such as Elly Vadseth, an interdisciplinary artist studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. Vadseth found the event “energetic, complex, and interesting,” and left inspired for greater artistic experimentation.

“I’m really glad that I came,” Vadseth says. “I’m looking to collaborate with other institutions and I’d love to add more musical elements into my own work. It’s a bit hard, sometimes, to connect with student artists from other schools, but events like this are perfect for that.”