First Wave Students take part in Britain’s Cultural Olympiad

 LONDON, England – Before the torch enters the stadium for the 2012 summer Olympics, UW-Madison’s First Wave Touring Ensemble this week joined thousands of young people celebrating the Cultural Olympiad in London.

First Wave’s return to Britain has been several years in development, starting with their initial trip to Manchester, England, to participate in Contacting the World 2010.

This time, they return to Contacting the World 2012 as special guest artists and will continue their tour with workshops and performances in Corby, England.

They also will perform and facilitate workshops as invited international guests at this weekend’s Shake the Dust-Apples and Snakes spoken-word festival, which is part of the Cultural Olympiad.

The First Wave Touring Ensemble is a select group of First Wave students, chosen by audition, to tour and perform nationally and internationally each year.  The cast includes Dominique Chestand, Marvin Gutierrez, Darline Morales, Zhalarina H. Sanders, Taylor Scott, Danez Smith, John Vietnam and Jonathan Williams.

Designed to augment the athletics-driven Olympiad, the Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebrations in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic movements.

Since preparations began in 2008, more than 16 million people across the United Kingdom have taken part or attended the performances created in more than 8,300 workshops.

Prior to the sport events, hundreds of cultural events and activities led by ensembles from across the globe and funded by the Olympic Committee are in London. This year’s Shake the Dust festival involving First Wave is one of those sponsored events.

“First Wave’s participation in the Cultural Olympiad is a watershed moment for our university since the multicultural face of our campus and community will be on full display in an international forum,” says Willie Ney, executive director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, which houses the First Wave Learning Community.

International exposure is rapidly expanding First Waves’ reputation and involvement, Ney says. He was contacted by a colleague in England, Jacob Sam-La Rose, about bringing First Wave to the Cultural Olympiad.

The Shake the Dust festival is the first national teen poetry slam competition in the history of the UK, Ney says. But the competition is just one day of the festival. The remainder is devoted to workshops and evening performances featuring close to 270 official festival participants and hundreds of other guests who will attend the evening performances.

“This is actually the highest profile international performance that we have been involved with as a program,” Ney says. “We’ll share the stage with one of the UK’s most renowned celebrity artists/poets who is the official poet of the 2012 Olympics, Lemn Sissay.”

The Cultural Olympiad is about youth culture, art development and ways of sustaining community art, says First Wave artistic director Chris Walker, an assistant professor in the Dance Department.

“But primarily it is about sharing, growth and identity projected through youth art,” Walker says. “First Wave happens to exemplify that through scholarship and the artwork that we create, and so we’ve been invited to present our hip-hop theater work on the main stage.”

Performing and teaching at the Cultural Olympiad is the nucleus of what First Wave does, Walker adds.

“This what we do – getting young people together from all over the United States, knowing that they have in common this zeal to express themselves through the arts, and a zeal to impact their community and they choose to do that through the arts” he says. “And when we put those kinds of minds together in the same room, we are incubating genius.”

As a global art form, spoken word provides an opportunity to extend college studies into an international learning experience, Ney says.

“Most of all, they’ll be exposed to diversity in a way that I don’t think they can imagine unless you step outside of the United States – not even in New York City,” Walker says.

To bring the experience full circle, the students will deliberately take in as much of England’s culture as they can through museums, food, touring and attending lots of theater, Walker says.

The ensemble will present “Shock,” a piece that explores universal concepts that are a perfect fit for the international stage. The piece is about the sense of confusion, anxiety, pain and triumph that affects people exposed to an alien culture without adequate preparation.