The MacArthur Foundation has given its “genius grant” imprimatur for 2015 to six visual and performing artists, ranging from the current darling of the Broadway stage -- “Hamilton” composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda -- to veteran theater artist Basil Twist, a puppeteer working mainly in the nonprofit sphere.
Dancer-choreographer Michelle Dorrance, painter Nicole Eisenman, photographer and video artist LaToya Ruby Frazier and theatrical set designer Mimi Lien were the other arts honorees just announced.
The 24 MacArthur recipients also included scientists, scholars or leaders in history, economics, sociology, community development and other fields. Non-academic writers honored this year were New York novelist Ben Lerner, Vermont poet Ellen Bryant Voigt and Washington, D.C., journalist-essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Officially known as MacArthur Fellows, the designees each get $625,000 from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, paid over five years. For the third straight year, none of the arts and culture winners hails from California.
Miranda, 35, adds his genius grant to the 2008 Tony Awards he won as star and main creative engine of the Broadway musical “In the Heights.” The portrayal of life in a contemporary Latino neighborhood in upper Manhattan won for new musical and for Miranda’s score. The work was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
Theater critics’ accolades have been even greater for Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which uses hip-hop music to tell the story of the founding father who’s on the $10 bill. It transferred to Broadway in August after an acclaimed off-Broadway premiere in February at the Public Theater. The MacArthur citation praised “Hamilton” lavishly:
“The daring pairing of street culture with America’s founding narrative recalls the youthful, defiant spirit of the American Revolution, and cross-racial casting connects the present day to the diverse immigrant society of the thirteen rebel colonies. ... Miranda is expanding the conventions of mainstream theater and showcasing the cultural riches of the American urban panorama.”
Twist, 46, “has brought puppetry to new audiences and venues with a captivating beauty and refinement,” the MacArthur citation said. The designer and performer, who is based in New York, is known for originating his own projects, including a puppet-based staging of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.”
His work in Southern California includes the design for drag performer Joey Arias’ “Arias With a Twist” at REDCAT in L.A. in 2009, a touring production of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” for puppets and two pianos that was seen at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica in 2010, and shows at the La Jolla Playhouse for which Twist designed prominently featured puppets, including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2010 and the rock musical “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” in 2012.
Dorrance, 36, is the New York City based founder of the Dorrance Dance/New York tap dance ensemble, which she launched after touring with the theatrical dance production “Stomp!”
The MacArthur Fellow citation credits her with “breathing new life into a uniquely American art form in works that combine the musicality of tap with the choreographic intricacies of contemporary dance.” Los Angeles Times reviewer Laura Bleiberg described Dorrance as “one of today’s most brilliant dancers” in a review of the recent documentary film “Tap World,” adding that Dorrance hadn’t received a fraction of the screen time she deserved.
Eisenman, 50, is a New York artist whom the MacArthur citation credits with tackling “enduring themes of the human condition” while helping to re-establish the “cultural significance ... of the human form” in painting after it had waned “during the ascendancy of abstraction.”
In a 2011 Los Angeles Times review of an L.A. gallery show of Eisenman’s paintings, reviewer David Pagel rated her as a leading figure in “cartoon primitivism … which combines the accessibility of cartoons with the meatiness of simplified forms and vigorously smeared pigments.” The effect, he said, made “familiar situations alien, simultaneously accessible and off-putting, troublesome and irresistible.”
The Chicago-based Frazier, 33, was cited for focusing her lenses on Braddock, Penn., a decaying former steel factory town, in “images which … manifest both the environmental and infrastructural decay caused by postindustrial decline, and the lives of those who continue … to live amongst it.”
Lien, 39, is a New York-based set designer for theater, opera and dance whose work includes the production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ drama “Appropriate,” now in previews at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A.
Her other L.A. credits include sets for the Taper’s 2014 production of “Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison and “Elephant Room,” a 2012 comedy and magic production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
The MacArthur citation said that Lien’s “bold, immersive designs” have “an innate dramaturgical insight” that allows the scenic elements to heighten audiences’ understanding of the characters inhabiting the sets.
The most recent L.A. artists to win MacArthur fellowships were abstract photographer Uta Barth in 2012, installation artist Jorge Pardo in 2010 and multimedia artist Mark Bradford in 2009. The Southern California performing arts scene hasn’t generated a “genius” since classical violinist Leila Josefowicz won in 2008, although by then the former child prodigy had relocated to New York City.
FULL LIST OF “GENIUS” GRANT WINNERS:
Patrick Awuah, education entrepereneur, Accra, Ghana
Kartik Chandran, environmental engineer, New York
Ta-Nehisi Coates, journalist, Washington, D.C.
Gary Cohen, environmental health advocate, Reston, Va.
Matthew Desmond, urban sociologist, Cambridge, Mass.
William Dichtel, chemist, Ithaca, New York
Michelle Dorrance, tap dancer and choreographer, New York
Nicole Eisenman, painter, New York
LaToya Ruby Frazier, photographer and video artist, Chicago
Ben Lerner, writer, New York
Mimi Lien, set designer, New York
Lin-Manuel Miranda, playwright, composer and performer, New York
Dimitri Nakassis, classicist, Toronto, Canada
John Novembre, computational biologist, Chicago
Christopher Re, computer scientist, Stanford, Calif.
Marina Rustow, historian, Princeton, N.J.
Juan Salgado, community leader, Chicago
Beth Stevens, neuroscientist, Boston
Lorenz Studer, stem cell biologist, New York
Alex Truesdell, adaptive designer and fabricator, New York
Basil Twist, puppetry artist and director, New York
Ellen Bryant Voigt, poet, Cabot, Vt.
Heidi Williams, economist, Cambridge, Mass.
Peidong Yang, inoraganic chemist, Berkeley, Calif.
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