Two nights ago, along with most everyone we knew in Richmond, VA, Cindy, Jonathan, Danielle, and I attended SPARC’s event, LIVE ART: Tree of Life at Richmond’s Landmark Theatre. This was the second year of LIVE ART and last year, somehow, we weren’t in the loop and didn’t know it was happening. Boy, will we be sure never to make that mistake again! Here’s a description taken directly from the LIVE ART program to describe what LIVE ART is. “In 2012, SPARC (School for the Performing Arts in Richmond Community) piloted LIVE ART, an innovative new program inclusive of students with and without disabilities…Now in its second year, LIVE ART is a multi-disciplinary, inclusive, educational program. For 11 months, students with a range of developmental disabilities (autism, Williams syndrome, Down syndrome), hearing and vision impairment have been working in performing arts classes alongside typically developing students. Together they train in multiple disciplines of arts education: singing, painting, spoken poetry, technological visualizations, musical instrumentation, acting, and more. Tonight, you get to witness the culminating event of the program. Over 160 students will perform alongside nationally-recognized, award-winning musicians who have donated their time to showcase the students and give them their moment in the spotlight…”
The nationally-recognized, award-winning musicians? k.d. lang, Jason Mraz, Christina Perri, Robbin Thompson, Steve Bassett, René Marie, Josh Small, Raining Jane, Daniel Clarke, Jesse Harper, Susan Greenbaum, Samson Trinh and The Upper East Side Big Band and narrator Richard Jenkins.
And sure, part of the draw for those of us who didn’t have children performing were these big names — but the bonus once we got there, the big bonus we might not have even realized — the kids. OK, picture this: the Landmark Theatre, newly renovated, with seating capacity for 3565 people — sold out. Young people playing lively jazz as we enter. (skipping the part about the fire alarm going off, delaying the start of the show…minor inconvenience) — and then — spotlight on a young boy at the piano. He wears a dark suit. An adult crouches nearby — his father maybe, or piano teacher, grinning, encouraging. The boy plays with heart; we’re with him, every note; we’re smiling, too, for his triumph, he’s still young this piano player. We feel each note, feel the passion beneath the playing, and there’s a moment in the music when the echo of a note lingers, when the player pauses and the song might be over, and he rocks on the bench, he rocks through the audience’s beginning applause but then he picks up again, a strong note, louder, louder, he plays on to the rousing finish and we burst now into full-fledged applause and the boy, unable to contain his delight, jumps from his piano bench and runs circles in the middle of the stage and then leaps into the man’s arms. We all, I’m sure of it, start our crying then.
The entire night is one of triumphs. I can’t take my eyes off the kids. Yes, René Marie is singing, whom I’ve loved for years, her jazz vocals lifting all our spirits, we’re toe-tapping now, but it’s the kids — they’re dancing, some of them catching on every third or fourth or fifth step, but they’re all in this performance, they’re all creating art on this stage together and it’s beautiful and lovely. There are the kids who sing in sign language — gorgeous and lyrical — the Ukulele Choir and the stunning “Dancing Fingers” ensemble, kids who, in pairs, “blindfold each other and work as a team to create a piece of visual art” — all to music. There is the young boy playing a mean guitar who sings solo on Neil Young’s “Old Man” — we can’t get enough, his voice deep and throaty. There is k.d. lang singing “Hallelujah,” her voice filling the entire theatre, rising beyond us in the balcony, filling every corner, every space, and again (as I was most of the night), I’m crying; the emotion is overwhelming, this combination of music and dance and spoken word. I keep thinking what it must be like to see your child on that stage, what this performance means to them. I keep thinking: why isn’t every educator seeing this? Every member of the Department of Ed? Every politician who thinks he knows what is best for education? Every person who thinks that standardized testing is the way to go? Every person who does not believe that inclusion works in schools? Every Board of Ed who thinks that cutting the arts makes sense, that arts are a frivolous extra?
And I’m also thinking that this is Christmas right here. The spirit of love and light, because, after all, that is what Christmas is about–isn’t it? Letting in the light. If putting up a tree with some decorations helps you let in the light, do it. If putting a wreath on the door helps you let in the light, do it. If making cookies and singing songs brings the light to your heart, do it. Or wrapping presents. Or believing in the story of a baby as a metaphor for hope.
But above all else, the way we let the light shine in these dark winter days and always is through love. As Ebeneezer Scrooge famously said, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” These artists, these kids in LIVE ART showed us how. More than any church service could, this one evening revealed a truth that many of us probably already knew deep down. The trappings of Christmas aren’t important. The gifts aren’t important. None if it is important (don’t we learn that lesson in How The Grinch Stole Christmas? That in spite of the Grinch’s best efforts, Christmas comes anyway, whether we want it to — or are ready –or not?). This performance demonstrated to me once again the power of art — and the deeper power of love and compassion. Without love, there is no art (topic of another blog?). The overwhelmingly positive power of the human spirit.So, as I sit here in my study, conflicted about how to celebrate Christmas, how much to give in to the season–loving the lights, the tree, even some of the traditions (I’m listening to The Messiah as I write this)–but not loving the stress, the expectations, the “shoulds”– I’m coming around to a slow understanding that Christmas, too, is a metaphor, a reminder for us to let in the light, to slow down and remember what is truly important. Let in the light and the love. Merry Christmas everybody!