CalArts to honor Steven Lavine, celebrate work with ‘African Beats’ tribute performance

CalArts African Ensemble, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Karley Sullivan/ CalArts

California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) will honor one of its “most ardent champions” this month with a tribute performance full of excitement and history.

“African Beats: From LA to Ghana, a Tribute to Steven Lavine” will showcase the talent of CalArts’ African Music and Dance Program and three CalArts’ African groups—Kidi Band, Azoli and Aza—to take the audience on a journey through the history of African music and its influence on CalArtians.

Lawn seating for the Oct. 15 event is free.  The event celebrates the leadership and success of CalArts’ President Steven Lavine, who is stepping down after 29 years at the school.

The tribute concert is part of the Celebration of the Arts: A Tribute to Steven D. Lavine, a $50 dinner and arts showcase offering special seating with views of all performances, a themed dinner and a private bar.

Steven Lavine’s Legacy

CalArts President Steven Lavine. Photo Courtesy of Joan Abrahamson/ CalArts
CalArts President Steven Lavine. Photo Courtesy of Joan Abrahamson/ CalArts

Lavine is credited for making CalArts what it is today by expanding the school’s international recognition, growing the school’s endowment, founding new programs and increasing student enrollment.

However, what most will remember him for is his welcoming nature and spirit, which fostered an inclusive and collaborative environment for students from all disciplines.

“He has been an inspiration for so many people; he’s so positive,” said Dave Bossert, CalArts alumnus, CalArts trustee, SCV resident and MC for the upcoming tribute performance.

Bossert said Lavine is one of the few presidents with an open door policy for all students.

“He takes the time to talk to him and is very present in the CalArts community,” he said.  “Those are going to be some hard shoes to fill.”

A testament to Lavine’s success as a president is the continued development of top artistic talent from the school’s programs.

Lavine is also credited for the survival of CalArts as he led the school through budget deficits, two economic recessions and the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.

After the earthquake, Lavine fond temporary spaces to hold classes and rebuilt the school an effort Bossert calls “herculean.”

“If it wasn’t for the leadership of him at the helm, I don’t know if the school would have survived,” Bossert said.

During his nearly 30-year tenure, Lavine has increased CalArts’ enrollment by 60 percent and grown is endowment by 476 percent.

He expanded CalArts’ presence in the Santa Clarita Valley, founded the Community Arts Partnership (CAP), pushed for the creation of REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), opened the Wild Beast Music Pavilion and established the school’s 2030 plan.

“Every great book and movie has an ending and this is the end of one chapter at the end of Steven’s life and he is going to begin something else,” Bossert said.  “I can tell you this that he has cemented his legacy at CalArts.”

CalArts’ African Music and Dance Program

Nani Agbeli, faculty in the African Music and Dance program. Photo Courtesy of Steven A. Gunther/ CalArts
Nani Agbeli, faculty in the African Music and Dance program. Photo Courtesy of Steven A. Gunther/ CalArts

The African Music and Dance program opened at CalArts in 1970.  Since its inception, the program has grown to include students from every discipline and continues to influence musicians from the Herb Albert School of Music.

The program includes an intensive study of music and dance from the Ewe people of Ghana with visiting artists covering repertoire from other African cultures, according to the CalArts’ website.

Nani Agbeli, director of African Music and Dance program, joined the school two years ago with a goal of making the program a collaborative one; and he succeeded.

“Right now I have interest from almost all the schools at CalArts that are in my African programs,” Agbeli said.  “I’m really happy that that path is being created and really happy that the program is so collaborative.”

Kevin Koteles, an African Music and Dance program major, said the main reason he came to CalArts was to be involved in a community-based music program, like the one Agbeli built.

“As far as collaboration, this place is perfect for it,” Koteles said.  “So many different people are influenced and inspired by this music, but then the reaction to that is so different.”

Tanya Orellana, a Scene Design Program major who has spent three semesters in Agbeli’s class, said the program allows her to get to know people from different métiers, or trades of study.

“Every métier is represented in the classes and it’s a really nice place to meet people,” Orellana said.

Agbeli is grateful that CalArts is a welcoming environment that encourages cross-cultural exchange and participation of different ethnicities in the African Music and Dance program.

“That’s one thing I like about CalArts, is everybody is welcome and they come in so seriously and so energetic and try to hit the level that is demanded,” he said.

And that level is a lofty one.

Nani holds his students to a high level of expectation to ensure the integrity of the dance and music his students perform.  Authenticity and near-perfection is of the utmost importance to maintain tradition.

“The classes are really challenging mentally and physically, but Nani really has a way of getting a lot out of you,” Koteles said.  “It can be really inspiring.”

The students appreciate the high standard Agbeli sets because they say it pushes them to work harder and live up to expectations.

“Nani holding everyone to such a high standard is really important because at the end you feel like you were part of something that you’re proud of,” Orellana said.

The students enjoy working together for performance, like the “African Beats: From LA to Ghana, a Tribute to Steven Lavine,” because it encourages and energizes them.

“At the end you see all the performers come together and you know each group is going to contribute more than 100 percent to what they’re doing,” Agbeli said.

Tribute Performance

Agbeli is looking forward to the tribute performance in honor of a president who supported his intentions to grow and strengthen CalArts’ African Music and Dance program.

“For this very performance the intention is to prove a point to the audience,” he said.  “It’s very important to me that we make a point that the African program is taking a high step and is really awesome.”

The students have been working on this performance since school began in late-August.  Agbeli said he and his students are working hard to perfect the traditional and cultural elements of the performance in just a few short weeks.

“This is music most people grew up with; it takes a lifetime to perfect,” Koteles said.  “Only at CalArts would we have this group of people and the dedication to really be able to do this.”

Those involved are keeping the details of the performance to themselves, but guarantee it is something people will want to see.

“I think they are going to be thoroughly entertained and, in CalArts fashion, I’m sure there are going to be some unpredictable moments,” Bosssert said.

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On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_

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