ArtFul Living

With Michelle “Mike” Ochonicky
Healthy Planet Arts Editor

On Stage & Under Water In March…

It is fair to say that where there is a diversity of cultures characterized by genuine engagement there is also creativity, innovation and productivity,” said Cecelia Nadal, founder and executive director of Gitana Productions. Her words accurately describe the Al-Andalus Ensemble, performing in St. Louis on March 2 at 7 p.m. in the beautiful Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Avenue.

For eight centuries from 711-1492 A.D., Andalusian Spain witnessed a cultural melding between Africa, the East and the West, as well as among Christians, Muslims & Jews. This era, referred to as Al-Andalus, portrayed inclusion and tolerance, melding cultures in a remarkable artistic, scientific and cultural blend. Consequences of this period are credited with setting the stage for the European Renaissance.

Fast-forward to 2013, and meet the Al-Andalus Ensemble. Tarik and Julia Banzi, founders of the Al-Andalus, were awarded the “Just Plain Folks” award for “Best World Music Song of 2009,” chosen from over 560,000 songs from 163 countries in the world’s largest Independent Music Awards.

El Pais, the newspaper of Madrid, Spain, described the Ensemble as “a delightful proposition of exquisite music.” With oudist Tarik Banzi leading, the five-piece group merges the “exquisite” with raw passion and power, treating listeners to an extraordinary combination of East and West. Strains of classical, jazz and contemporary music finding roots in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe offer a cosmopolitan cultural beat. Recent international engagements for the Ensemble include performances in Belgium, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Slovenia, United Arab Emirates– and now, St. Louis!

The Al-Andalus Ensemble concert will open with words from two noted St. Louisans: Michael Castro, published award-winning poet and founder of River Styx, will present the Ensemble with Rabbi James Stone Goodman of Congregation Neve Shalom, who is also a writer and musician. This promises to be a most memorable concert indeed.

Gitana Productions is a 501(c) 3 arts and education nonprofit that provides global healing through music, dance and drama in the St. Louis community. This group regularly brings an impressive diversity of international and local artists, representing both traditional and innovative impulses. For more info, or to order concert tickets, visit www.gitana-inc.org.

Michaelangelo is credited with saying, “What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?”

Artists have long recognized the beauty and grace of the human form. In an exhibition opening at PHD Gallery on March 8, photographer Ed Freeman presents works that celebrate the human figure in a unique way. Described as “serene,” “hypnotic,” and “otherworldly,” Freeman’s photographs are taken underwater, capturing models in the fluid movements as possible only when suspended in water.

And here’s the part that really demonstrates how dedicated to art this photographer is: Ed Freeman can’t swim.

As Freeman’s press info says, “He nonetheless dons goggles and straps on a twenty pound weight belt before plunging into the deep end of a Los Angeles pool, underwater camera in hand. The models, as many as nine at a time, take a deep breath and dive down. There are no snorkels or oxygen tanks, and no artificial lights; just a bunch of committed, open-minded individuals, some of whom happen to be very strong swimmers. This is fortunate for the photographer, who occasionally has to be rescued.”

Says the photographer, “I’m not a journalist and these aren’t documentary pictures. They’re about the freedom and sensuality of being suspended in a weightless environment. We all have a profound connection to this primordial state; I’ve tried to capture some of that feeling in these images.”

The photography teams nicely with glass works by Michelle Hamilton. Her bowls present an aquatic feel, described as “multi-colored sea anemones and Medusas whose delicate radial tendrils float upwards as if underwater.”

The grace of this exhibition is simply gorgeous. The opening reception is 7-10 p.m.; the exhibition remains on view through May 18 at PHD Gallery is located at 2300 Cherokee. Visit www.phdstl.com for details.