By Sarah Hucal
A growing number of children and adults gathered on a grassy clearing at the northern end of Morningside Park, the thirty-acre stretch of green between 123rd and 110th Streets in Northwestern Manhattan. It was dusk on a Saturday evening, and residents of both neighborhoods could be seen chatting and laughing while holding either curious-looking musical instruments, or one of many oversized papier-mâché lanterns that appeared to have come straight out of the mythical world of Dr. Seuss.
This was the Morningside Lights parade—the culmination a week of puppet-making workshops open to the community, organized by Columbia University’s Miller Theater and Processional Arts Workshop. With the theme of “The Imagined City,” the aim of the event was to explore the concept of urban planning and development in the diverse neighborhoods that straddle the park, Morningside Heights and Harlem, through community-based performance.
At nine p.m., over two-hundred children and adults embarked on a lantern-lit procession, carrying large architectural puppets and small paper lanterns, marching to the tune of a world-premiere composition written by local composer Nathan Davis. A group holding instruments ranging from brass trumpets to plastic Melodicas, strolled near the composer, who, judging from his tousled hair, long white coat and pockets full of instruments, looked more like a kooky scientist than an established musician in the midst of his latest musical debut.
Bear in mind, that the musicians performing this evening were not even hired professionals; in fact, they were volunteers who had met mere moments before the start of the performance. This spontaneity was all part of Davis’s vision for the piece. Like every other aspect of this unique event, Davis wanted anyone to be able to participate, no matter what their musical ability or instrument of choice happened to be. Those unable to read music had nothing to fear— there was no typical score to speak of, only instructions written on a pamphlet-sized map of the parade route, suggesting musicians play certain tones and instruments at different junctions. Many of the directions were delightfully vague in nature, such as “Make it happen,” or “Repeat any note in Morse Code pattern,” providing fun music-making opportunities for both adults and children. When the procession arrived at a park overlook, the score instructed performers to “Play your favorite song as loud as you can.” And indeed, while some used their voices to sing pop tunes, others played familiar ditties on horns and keyboards.
Through the entire forty-five-minute procession around the park and Columbia University’s campus, the lanterns created an illuminated canopy over Davis and the local music-lovers, as they created a cohesive cacophony, punctuated intermittently by the honk of red plastic vuvuzelas that Davis had supplied. Betty Modlow, an elderly woman from Morningside Heights, who marched with both a mini-xylophone and a tambourine, drew parallels to the West Village’s annual Halloween parade, which she participates in annually. “It was started by one person as a small community event,” she said “and now it’s huge.” Consequently, the Halloween parade also features illuminated puppets made with the help of Processional Arts Workshop.
The giant lanterns this evening, which ranged from Trojan horses to Gothic churches, were created by parents and children during a week of well-attended drop-in lantern making sessions at Miller Theater. Amanda Yee and her 11-year-old daughter Jane spent the entire week crafting an impressive blue-green jellyfish out of bamboo sticks, which were then layered with gauze and tissue paper and illuminated by a small light. “We saw a sign on the theater about the open puppet-making workshops,” she said “and ended up going every day that week to build our lantern.” What turned out to be an excellent mother-daughter bonding experience for the pair, proved to be the same for others. Harlem residents Jennifer Lanson and her 5-year-old daughter Maya stood out in their matching sequin capes. Maya, like many of the younger children, had created a small triangular lantern out of sticks and tissue paper earlier that day, which she held proudly before her. Jennifer and her family lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they would often march in community parades. “It was always so much fun for the kids and a great way to bring the community together.” she said. “I’m so glad that Maya is able to experience something like that right here in our neighborhood,” she said, smiling.
As Maya and her mother demonstrated with their glittery clothing, the evening had a fantastical feel. Many of the children had clearly dressed to their heart’s content, donning princess crowns, fake mustaches and the like—a 10-year-old even rode a unicycle deftly through the crowd. Harlem residents having a late-night picnic in the park looked with awe upon the approaching barrage, while other families joined the procession spontaneously.
Towards the end of the route, regular parade-goer Betty Modlow reappeared with her tambourine and xylophone. “Look at how many people joined,” she mentioned, motioning towards the seemingly endless crowd that had just cheered after the final notes of Davis’s piece. “I think this parade is going to be around for a long time,” she said, before heading into Miller Theater for a reception of cookies and juice with paraders from both sides of the park.
Article: Sarah Hucal
Photos: Shawn Brackbill