Yo-Yo Ma and friends bring 'arts strike' to Detroit school

Yo-Yo Ma
The Detroit News

By Jennifer Chambers

Music, dance and poetry intersected with science lessons Thursday when world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel brought their talents to Detroit’s Spain Elementary-Middle School, where they engaged students in an “arts strike.”

Ma and Woetzel, along with Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato, joined a class of Detroit Public Schools students to create a new work, “We Are Unique,” which they would perform together on stage later in the day.

In a second classroom, the artists playfully improvised with students using music, poetry and dance, mixing in astronomy. Together they danced as members of the solar system while Ma and Pato played music and dancer Charles “Lil Buck” Riley, the 2014 Harman-Eisner Artist in Residence of the Aspen Institute, acted as the sun.

Ma and Woetzel have defined the arts strike as “a targeted event in which celebrated artists engage educators, students, schools and communities, highlighting and sharing the unique power of the arts to empower, enrich and educate.” The arts strike was presented in conjunction with the Aspen Institute Arts Program.

“We bring some methods we’ve used in lots of schools across the country,” said Woetzel, who is director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program. “When you do something like this, you find out what they are exploring and you bring everyone in. We learned their ideas and what they thought about gravity and we had a dancer, Lil Buck, who can represent that. Ma came up with music that fit this.”

Ma, who laughed with students one moment and appeared completely drawn into his music the next, said the idea behind the program is to spur one’s imagination to solve problems, build trust to collaborate, and engage adults and children.

“Collaborate and trust to build imagination — that is what we so desperately need in this country — so we can talk together and work together and do what Detroit is doing with itself with all the committed citizens and people that are so passionate about the city,” Ma said. “That is what we get from being in this school and the community — the possibilities.”

Students demonstrated what they learned from the morning’s activities during a schoolwide assembly.

DPS put arts and music back into elementary and middle schools this year after budget strains had forced the programs to be cut in the district, which is under emergency management.

“Our students are truly lucky to have the opportunity to interact with and learn from artists of such acclaim,” DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin said.

Fourth-grader Dorien Matthews, 9, said the experience with Ma and his fellow artists was “a lesson about the solar system and some information about how to dance with the solar system and make music, to let us know how to listen to the sun.”

Spain sixth-grader Taquira Gardin, 12, danced on stage as part of a performance for Ma and the artists.

“Today taught me how Yo-Yo Ma plays and how successful you can be in life,” Gardin said.