Michigan Youth Arts Festival

May 16, 2010.  Just before lunch, the familiar sound of “Beat It” echoes across the Mall of Western Michigan University’s campus, filling the May sunshine with the contagious Michael Jackson beat.  The student dancers, some forty or so, seem to rise from all points of the mall and converge on a clear open area, and in the cool spring air, render an energetic version of the famous Michael moves, the choreography that changed the dance world.  The film students are right behind the dancers, weaving among them, cameras in hand, taking the raw footage that will soon become the “video” of the flash.  The musicians, writers, painters follow the dancers as they move from open space to the fountain rim—yes dancing on the edge of water—and back.  Everyone is smiling. Everyone, even we who were young for the first Thriller—we are smiling too.

This weekend I had the pleasure of taking five of my Interlochen students to the Michigan Youth Arts Festival, held at WMU.  The festival is a multi-discipline, sometimes interdisciplinary showcase or students from all over Michigan in various artistic disciplines.  I was teaching the writers, springboarding a Life Writing workshop from the Great Michigan Reads selection for 2009-10, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a thoughtful, often funny book based on the flight of Bich Minh Nguyen’s family from Vietnam in 1975.  Also in the workshop were several students from the Saginaw Academy of Arts and Sciences, Detroit and Mackinaw Island.  We wrote short fast essays about transformative moments, about food—a theme from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner—about the history of a particular emotion or an abstraction.  Students retold life moments about dancing alone to their favorite music, experiencing the mood of a city intersection, their grandmother’s bread, bathroom reading, insomnia, losses, watermelon, inheritances, apples, brushing their teeth with someone they loved.  Who says young people don’t have enough life experience to do life writing?

In between they listened to the singers, choirs, orchestras, percussionists, dancers, actors, and viewed the films and visual art.  If I was occasionally impatient with the slowness between performances—do we need to be introduced to every performer when that info is in the program?—the student performances were drop dead good.  Young people knocked me out with their energy and focus.  And that’s what makes it a sensational experience, students with other students, working toward a common goal. They worked together to make art, but in the process, they also made friends outside their normal world and observed other young people deeply invested in this thing called art.

Now on break, the writers sit on the Mall, watching boys in white shirts and ties play Frisbee before they play a symphony. They watch actors play the statue game. One of my writing students remarks, I like to watch the choir singers walking in the wind in their red gowns.  (One skill for writers is vigilant observation!) I have noticed them too. It makes me happy that we have seen the same thing and understood the pleasure of being in the same wind as the singers, for a moment in the same place with the similar understanding of this beauty.  I know this writer will find words for this; she will put pen to paper.  That’s what this kind of event does—it makes the making easier.  Thanks to all the people who believe in art for Michigan’s youth, and to the students who bring their talent and time to this swirl of making, this new wind in the May air.