Princeton University Hodder Fellows

Amir ElSaffar

Destined to “Transform the Art World and Society”

By Lori Goldstein | Photos courtesy of the Office of Communications, Princeton University

Each academic year, Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts selects five Hodder Fellows, artists who receive an $84,000 stipend to support their work. The committee looks for “emerging artists who have attained a certain level of achievement, yet are not fully established — people who will transform the art world and transform society,” says Stacy Wolf, professor of theater and director of the Arts Fellows. “We look at what they’ve accomplished, what we imagine they’ll accomplish in the future, and what they plan to do in their ‘studious year of leisure.’” Financial support has been critical during the pandemic. “Artists’ lives are always precarious, no artist can ever count on an income. Especially this year, the University is happy to be able to support this group of artists.”

Amir ElSaffar, composer/musician/vocalist

Amir ElSaffar, a jazz trumpeter and composer who has just completed his seventh album, is assembling a creative team for an opera in the Arabic tradition, entitled Ruins of Encampment.

The opera’s narrative is the Mu’allaqat, a body of pre-Islamic poems revered throughout the Arab world from the sixth century to present day. Myth has it that the poems were written in gold on a black cloth in Mecca, where the Kaaba, the holy site for Islam, is located.

In ancient times, nomadic tribes convened at certain points in the year; for example, they would meet at an oasis or at a place where rainfall was expected. A young man might see a young woman from another tribe; they would exchange glances, experience an intense romantic connection but never meet, as their tribes departed. In the tripartite Mu’allaqat, the narrator, the young man, arrives at the campsite where his beloved once was; he experiences trials and tribulations in his quest to find her. In some cases they will find each other, oftentimes they won’t. Yet he’ll experience a transformation before he returns to his tribe.

ElSaffar wants to set the story in the present-day Middle East. The city could be Aleppo or another city damaged by war. “The ruins could be a literal or figurative encampment. You could read into the story that it’s about a refugee who is cut off from his homeland and now attempting to survive in his current situation,” he says.

The style of singing will derive from the Iraqi maqam, a melodic modal system which ElSaffar studied in Iraq from 2002 through 2006. (Iraqi-American ElSaffar sings in the maqam style on several of his albums.) “What I’m interested in structurally is finding a way to use some of the elements of Middle Eastern maqam music and juxtapose them with the structural elements of Western opera.”

The melodic material, the poetry, the way of singing — that will derive from maqam. The staging and operatic dialogue between a man and a woman through recitatives and arias are not common in the Arab operatic world.

The orchestra will be no more than 30 musicians, playing on Middle Eastern instruments — the oud, the santur, the qanun, and Arabic percussion — along with such Western jazz instruments as the trumpet and saxophone, and classical string instruments. The ensemble will include musicians adept at improvisation, which will be part of the opera’s score.

As a jazz trumpeter and composer, improvisation is integral to ElSaffar’s work. “I write music that is based on each musician’s sensibilities,” he says. “Some elements are strict in terms of form, but there’s a lot of openness where each musician is able to bring something to the music that I didn’t write for them. I give them liberty, the license to be expressive; I’m honoring their creativity.”

The Ruins of Encampment orchestra will include the musicians in his 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, which has traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East for the past five years. The six members of his Two Rivers Ensemble were in existence for 15 years prior to their expansion as Rivers of Sound.

As of this writing, ElSaffar is in search of a librettist versed in Arabic poetry as well as a stage director. He has also been in communication with several European opera houses. These elements need to be in place before he can begin composing for the musicians he has chosen. ElSaffar sees the project in “the very early stage, pre-commission. I couldn’t get a commission without having a foundation, without the creative team in place. This year, with the Hodder Fellowship, I’m building that foundation.”

Kim Brandt, choreographer

In a time when “social distance” has entered our daily vocabulary, choreographer Kim Brandt has been separated from the dancers whom she relies upon for the creation of her work. “When we went into lockdown, I understood that we had to not move our bodies as a collective experience. This language is very familiar to me — an attention to where we are, the space we’re in, and the time it takes to be there,” she says. “The whole world was all of a sudden thinking about these things that I am always thinking about, although for completely different reasons.”

Brandt’s choreography develops in three stages: she works alone; rehearses with the dancers to build movement scores; and after the performance, the work morphs and shifts according to her criteria for the performance space. Since March, Brandt, whose spaces have included Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and MoMA/PS1, has been an artist-in-quarantine. Her solo practice has generated movement scores, “drawings that operate somewhere between story board or notation … a way for me to keep track of what I’m thinking about.” Brandt engages in movement practice at home in New York, via Zoom or the internet.

She has also been writing, “put[ting] language to the experience of how I relate to my body and my body’s movement to my environment, and how I will translate that in my work and how I will ask the dancers to translate that … it’s such an interior, private experience.” Brandt’s introspection has yielded publication of a number of articles, including one in the Smithsonian’s American Archives of Art Journal.

Because much of her choreography relies on the dancers’ proximity to one another, rehearsal is not possible during the pandemic. Also critical to Brandt’s choreography is the collaboration between the dancers and her. “It’s such a priority for me to create an environment where their point of view is valuable and part of the process,” she says. As choreographer, she observes from outside: “I’m interested in the dancers’ experiences, how they feel about a particular movement I’ve asked them to do with this or that dancer, or all the dancers together. It has made for some very meaningful relationships.”

In the work, Untitled, performed onstage at The Kitchen, dancers gather informally in different stances then build a body mountain. Brandt says they “knew where to go and the score was to hold the structure as long as possible without talking or any one person leading or being in charge, trying to get everyone to ‘hive-mind,’ to work together. Once they couldn’t hold it anymore, the score was just to dissolve the structure across the space.”

As for a musical score, there was none, which is typical of some of Brandt’s work. A soundtrack may be whatever is happening at the time of a performance. One work occurred in a gallery with artists’ studios upstairs; someone was listening to WNYC, so that became the sound. Another score occurred at 5:30 a.m. in Red Hook, right on the water. “There were lots of tugboats and seagulls, it was just beautiful,” she says. Brandt has also collaborated with composer Nate Wooley, whose music has either been recorded or performed live during some of her exhibitions.

Her choreography has ventured to outdoor spaces as well. Brandt recalls a performance at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where they had to contend with afternoon thunderstorms during summer rehearsals. “I made the work accommodate the potential for somebody to come upon it and for invited viewers who showed up intentionally.”

“For me, dance is about movement, the body, and the relationship between moving bodies toward other moving bodies or moving in the environment,” she says. Brandt looks forward to the time when she’ll be “knee-deep” in rehearsals, bringing her concepts of dance back to live performance.

Casey Plett, writer

Casey Plett is writing her third book of fiction, a novella with short stories interspersed between its chapters. The novella will form a trilogy with her two widely acclaimed debuts — a short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, and a novel, Little Fish. She was the recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for each of these works.

The novella “focuses on relationships, intimacy, and love,” says Plett, whereas the first two books, whose main characters are young trans women, “explored questions of creating some meaningful adult life without necessarily a lot of precedent for what that looks like.” She also enjoys crossover characters, “because I like to make them earn their keep.” Two characters from A Safe Girl to Love appeared in Little Fish; similarly, there are characters from Little Fish who will show up in this new work.

There are commonalities between Plett and Wendy, the central character in Little Fish. Both lived in Winnipeg, a city that Plett loved “for all its darkness and flaws.” (She currently resides in Windsor, Ontario, yet went to graduate school and transitioned in New York City.) Both were brought up as Mennonites. Plett aspires to the example of many people in her life, who try their best to live up to the values of humility and sacrifice as a form of faith; Wendy’s religious upbringing comes into play as she explores the truth about her grandfather.

Ten years ago, 33-year-old Plett would have been passionate about explaining why writing on transgender issues is so important. From 2010 through 2011, she wrote a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency column on being transgender. Today, she says she sees “the randomness in which we exist, even though we’re [transwomen] a small part of the population within our population, we’re just as diverse — divided by race, class, and geography and every other way you can divide the human race.”

Plett acknowledges the difficulties that still face trans women of color, those involved in sex work, or experiencing male intimate partner violence. “That’s all pressing and horrific and needs to change, but probably won’t change whether I write fiction or not,” she says. Via the novella, she feels it is “very important to fold [those issues] into a lot of other mundane parts of life. I’m not doing anything particularly inventive or groundbreaking, but if those women are trans, then what does that look like?”

As for the difference between writing a short story versus the novella, Plett explains that for her the germ of a short story is aesthetic-based, “often an image, a place or a room, some kind of visual or sensory setting. There’s a story in my first book which literally started with an image of an apartment I lived in with my dad when I was 4.” Her novella, on the other hand, is clearly narrative-based. “It’s one of those ideas that I’ve had for a very long time, so that when I sat down to write what happens and what happens next — that all came organically,” she says. The novella started out as a 28,000-word story, which cleanly divided into five different chapters.

“There’s definitely a part of the process where writing shifts over to editing, says Plett. “I’ve never sculpted anything … the writing feels like I’m handling this huge slab of stone and editing feels like I’m starting to hammer out something that looks artful. Editing is arduous and labor-intensive, but the writing is harder.” In regard to the Hodder Fellowship, Plett says, “It’s a dream to have this much freedom to work unencumbered, one of the most generous gifts I’ve ever received.” Now she lives in the moment: “My only thought is getting my work out the door.”

Troy Michie, visual artist

Trained as a painter, Troy Michie redirected his creativity during graduate school to the art of collage, an assemblage of disparate, fragmented materials. His work is emblematic of his hometown, El Paso, Texas. It straddles two communities, with not only the Rio Grande as its physical boundary, but also a fortified barrier that separates Mexico from the United States. The shifting boundaries — Texas originally belonging to Mexico — elicits his art. ‘’That’s what I’m thinking about in terms of collage. The idea of the cut, the cut becomes the boundary.’’

One type of fringe publication — erotica magazines often read by white men, containing photographs of Black male nudes — provides material for Michie’s collages. He opens the magazine to the photograph in the centerfold, and weaves parts of it with other pages. He’ll draw or paint on the papers with acrylics. “With the photography that gets cut up and woven, I’m thinking about what differentiates a boundary from the silhouette of a body, or the boundaries on a page becoming a margin,” he says. The work is “particularly aimed at the queer community … queerness is something most people universally try to disregard. They can’t really see Black and queer as a thing, and I’m in many different categories, from Mexican to Black and queer.”

First-generation Mexican Americans — El Paso’s pachucos and pachucas — and African Americans were united by one notorious garment: the zoot suit of the ’30s and ’40s. Its traits were high-waisted, wide-legged trousers and a coat with oversized lapels and wide, padded shoulders. For those who donned it, the zoot suit was an example of self-fashioning, a personification of identity. It was the black-tie equivalent for jazz clubs and nightlife.

The zoot suit was also an example of camouflage, akin to the disruptive patterning painted on battleships during World War II. “Because of its excessive use of fabric during wartime and the fact of it being worn mainly by men of color, it was considered a disruptive garment,” says Michie. “Due to the hegemonic style of the time, the suit was a confusion to most Americans outside of the subculture and ultimately made zoot suiters a target at the expense of formulating their own identity.” When a group of white servicemen beat and disrobed zoot suiters in Los Angeles in 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt saw the clashes for what they were: a race riot.

Since it became illegal for tailors to make a zoot suit, Michie collects clothing that has zoot suit features — an oversized lapel, a vintage shirt, or a pair of high-waisted pants. In his archive of collage materials are clothes he’s worn, clothes from consignment shops, and zoot suit patterns. What Michie is particularly energized about is his new-found ability to use a sewing machine. “Sewing is a way of drawing again, on the woven pages which then become my paper,” he says. “I’ll trace the outline of a figure or make an organic mark, so I feel there are all these different pieces of making a collage.”

The sewing has altered the process: before he could put a piece down and if he wanted it to stay, he glued it down. Now, “if I want to sew something I have to be sure of what it’s going to be.”

A 2019 Whitney Biennial Artist, Michie is creating work for his second solo show at the Company Gallery in New York, its date yet to be determined. He also submitted collages to Miami Basel, which became an online viewing room due to the pandemic. For the first time in his life as an artist, Michie is enjoying not having a side job. (He taught painting at Yale before accepting the Fellowship.) Michie happily keeps a nine-to-five routine in his Brooklyn studio, returning to his home in Queens each day.

Kimber Lee, playwright

Playwright Kimber Lee had planned to travel to South Korea for research on her next play. The pandemic grounded her physically, but not artistically. She rerouted her creative energy toward the completion of several shorter commissions in this country and in England.

Lee was one of three playwrights chosen by the British Actors Touring Company to write a monologue for the Signal Fires project, inspired by James Baldwin’s Letter to My Nephew: My Dungeon Shook. They were asked to write a letter to a stranger, a letter of hope, as a way of reaching out and connecting. Once a letter was purchased from the project website, it would be engraved and mailed, along with a votive candle and the suggestion to “read aloud the letter with whomever you are isolating.”

Lee wrote about Inwood, the Manhattan neighborhood in which she lives. “Young people are on the baseball fields year-round at Inwood Hill Park … always practicing, always playing, they’re beautiful to watch,” she says. “When those fields were empty early in the pandemic, more than anything else, that was disturbing to me. I wrote about that — missing the rhythm of the neighborhood.”

Anton Dudley, a playwright on the faculty of Kenyon College, asked Lee to write a dialogue his students could perform via Zoom. Addressing the theme of isolation, “Dough” takes place on either side of a door in an apartment hallway, with two people having to talk through this door. It’s a conversation between a pizza delivery boy and an old lady, who complains about the quality of the pizza. Eventually she realizes that the dough is not as good as it usually is because the pizzeria owner has passed away. In writing this dialogue, Lee says she “was thinking about how all over the world, there are missing people that you take for granted but are not here anymore, that have been such a huge part of the fabric of their community — what kind of a hole does that leave?”

Lee also participated in Radio Round, a fundraiser organized by Los Angeles theatre director Casey Stangl. Ten playwrights each wrote a five-minute, two-character play in turn to form a chain play: the second playwright receives the first playwright’s play and must utilize one of the characters from that play.

“It doesn’t have to be a continuation of the same story; it can be a completely different context and moment,” says Lee. The third playwright takes the other character, so it becomes a chain of plays linked by one character from play to play — based on the structure of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1900 La Ronde.

Ever inquisitive, Lee continually jots down notes for new ideas, including a reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew as a horror story, in the way that Japanese and Korean horror films “build atmosphere, there’s always something lurking under the surface.” She finds what happens to the female characters in that drama, traditionally considered a romantic comedy, horrifying — especially for Katherina, “because essentially she is silenced,” says Lee. “In the latter quarter of the play, she doesn’t have any lines anymore.”

As we endure this long, hard winter, Lee is optimistic that to the yellow house, about the two years Van Gogh spent in Paris with his brother Theo, will have its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse during the summer of 2021. She also looks forward to next year’s London production of untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play, whose protagonist, Kim, breaks out of a repetitive cycle of narratives about Asian women.