Among life’s many daily reminders that one is getting old, one of the most pleasurable is following the professional triumphs of someone for whom you once babysat. I first met former New Paltz resident Lisa Channer when she was seven years old and I was 19; nowadays Lisa’s curriculum vitae are 16 pages long. She has been a professor of Theatre Arts and Dance at several universities – currently the University of Minnesota – and co-founded two theatre companies, one of which takes her to Russia on a regular basis, most recently on a Fulbright fellowship.
I rarely get to see my young friend anymore; but this week she’s back in the town where she grew up, helping choreographer Livia Drapkin Vanaver direct the dance portions of two orchestral works by Bill Vanaver that will be premiered by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic on March 31 at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston. Lisa will also be the narrator for one of Bill’s new works: The Earth Shall Have Its Own, which is based on a folktale from Georgia (the one that used to be part of the Soviet Union, not the Southern state).
This Saturday’s “Russian Caravan” gala at UPAC is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Vanaver Caravan’s inaugural performance in 1972. Just a few years later, Lisa’s mother, Eileen Channer – longtime assistant to the Dean and Fine and Performing Arts at SUNY-New Paltz and founder of the Arts Community, an organization of local teaching artists that’s still going strong – was instrumental in getting the Vanavers settled in Rosendale. As a young girl, Lisa got her first exposure to modern dance as one of Livia’s students, and the experience – along with her participation in Steve and Carole Ford’s Youth Theatre through the Arts Community – sparked a lifelong passion for theatrical movement.
I remember the girl-child Lisa Channer as a whirlwind of energy, both physical and cerebral: ever-curious, inventive, funny and exuberant. Her determination made mincemeat of all obstacles, including physical setbacks like scoliosis and a long healing process after being struck by a car in front of New Paltz High School during her senior year there. Since then, in addition to earning a BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an MFA in Directing from the Yale School of Drama, Lisa has attained Advanced Physical Clown certification from the Delle Arte School of Physical Theatre in California. And her current work with Minneapolis-based Theatre Novi Most (Theatre of a New Bridge) – the cross-cultural theatrical incubator that she co-founded with her husband, Russian émigré Vladimir Rovinsky – has a strong focus on melding Eastern and Western acting methods that emphasize physical techniques and movement, such as Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Biomechanics approach. You might say that it’s all Livia Vanaver’s fault.
“Livia has been a huge role model for me, for my whole life,” Lisa told me. “The work the Vanaver Caravan does is not only inspiring to me for its social meaning – bringing people together through sharing of international song, dance and stories – but also because they are just darned good artists: top-notch at what they do. Since I’m trained primarily to direct plays, it is a glorious gift for me to get to work in a different way with a group of such talented people. And it does fit into my own work with Theatre Novi Most, which connects cultures through performance. I am excited to be directing them once again after a great collaboration last summer at Jacob’s Pillow” – the Caravan’s EarthBeat, which she called “a blast! It was fun to go back to that world and remember what it was like to be a dancer…This time I get to come home to New Paltz, too, so there is a bonus!”
It’s a privilege to count myself one of the old friends with whom Lisa Channer is reconnecting this week, but soon she’ll be dashing off again to rejoin her family: Lisa and Volodya have two young sons, Sasha and Daniel, and Eileen has recently moved from Maine to Minneapolis to spend more time with her grandkids. Lisa also needs to get back to work. Besides her University teaching gig, Theatre Novi Most just finished the premiere run of Picnic on the Battlefield, an original mash-up of Fernando Arrabal’s dark comedy of the same name and Slawomir Mrozek’s Enchanted Night. Several new projects are currently in development, including a collaboration with playwright Cory Hinkle called Brecht’s Brain and a new play about the marriage of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan and poet Sergei Esenin, for which Lisa was doing research on her Fulbright sojourn in Russia last year.
Each of the works that Theatre Novi Most develops becomes a permanent part of its repertory. “My primary motivator is to champion the European model of ensembles working together over long periods of time,” Lisa said. “American theatre is like fast food: Strangers come together for about five weeks, and then it goes in the dumpster. It’s a short-term investment. In the European/Russian model, it sometimes takes years to make a new play, so it’s a real jewel that stays in the repertoire for decades – a lasting work of depth. There’s a movement growing in America to bring that model back.”
The Vanavers must be so proud to know that such an ambitious and successful career started right here. “New Paltz was like a Petri dish. I was always surrounded by creative people. That’s why I became an artist,” said Lisa. “I feel really blessed that I get to do this.”
As of presstime, tickets are still available for “Russian Caravan” at UPAC this Saturday night. Besides the premieres of Bill Vanaver’s The Earth Shall Have Its Own and The Ballad of Polly Vaughn, featuring the Caravan Dancers, the program will also include Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Opus 78 and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Opus 32. Gala tickets including both a 5:30 p.m. dinner at Frank Guido’s Little Italy and the 8 p.m. concert cost $125 and may be ordered at www.vanavercaravan.org. Concert tickets alone range from $26 to $48, and can be obtained at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; at the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or via TicketMaster. To learn more about Theatre Novi Most, visit www.theatrenovimost.org.