‘Artists first’: DBR Lab at ASU

Composer, violinist and artist/entrepreneur Daniel Bernard Roumain joined ASU as an Institute Professor in 2016. This year, Roumain launched DBR Lab, “as a conversation with, and challenge to, Herberger Institute.”

DBR Lab (from left): Caress, Sara “Saza” Kent, Daniel Bernard Roumain, Adele Woodson, Jedd “Rellian” Greenhalgh, Malena Grosz. Not pictured: Jordan Klitzke. All photos by Keegan Carlton except where noted.

Roumain writes:

As a Black, Haitian-American composer, I wanted to have conversations with other artists that could share and understand how wonderfully diverse our field is, in terms of how we identify and define our bodies, passions, politics and work. I didn’t want to be limited by tradition, or compelled by innovation. I didn’t want to fit in to someone else’s notion of what my work could mean or be to others. I wanted to be a part of something, with other faculty and staff and students, but I wanted us all to be, and feel, equal.

In numerous conversations with Dean [Steven] Tepper, he challenged me to start a lab and creative space where I could invite and work with contributors to a classroom and world of ideas. We reject the word “student,” as we are all contributors.

I was blessed to find young people who believed in the promise of what our lab could be. Through a combination of weekly group and one-on-one meetings, creative sessions, local performances and a New York City debut performance at National Sawdust, we have firmly established ourselves as a class, concert experience and arts collective.

Read more about what Roumain has been creating at ASU and beyond here. And below, meet the members of DBR Lab, in their own words:

Caress

How would you describe your artistic practice?

My life has been a rollercoaster of emotions, life experiences and failures, all of which are threads creating the fabric of my artistic practice. I write the stories I’ve lived, the stories I’ve seen others live and I’ve tried to be honest about the unseen aspects of those experiences. Poetry for me is less about the presentation of complex metaphors that leave the audience searching for a thesaurus; instead, my performance transforms difficult topics into an opportunity to connect on a common level. With a combination of beatboxing, comedy, storytelling and theatrics, I challenge audiences to ride the twist and turns of life with confidence, compassion and community.

What was your path (academic or personal) to what you do now?

I initially began performing poetry at high school debate tournaments and coffee shops as a form of self-expression. My hobby quickly turned to passion and following my television debut on Season 4 of Verses and Flow on TvOne, I decided to take a more permanent leap into spoken word performance as a career. For the past six years, I have toured over 150 colleges and universities performing my solo beatbox poetry show, and I began work for my master’s in performance at ASU in 2017.

How did you become a member of DBR Lab?

I was asked to perform at a donor dinner for ASU in 2017. Prior to the event, I was told to meet with the professor/musician I would be performing with. I walked into Daniel Bernard Roumain’s office and after a brief introduction, he took out his violin and asked me to “jam.” I began singing and beatboxing while he played and remember feeling a deep sense of creative chemistry. We performed at that donor dinner later that week and culminated the event with our unique rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Following the performance, Daniel asked if I’d be interested in joining the lab. Without hesitation, I became a member, and it has been the best decision of my graduate career.

What specific opportunities have you had because of your involvement with DBR Lab?

As a result of the lab, I’ve been able to collaborate with other artists in a way that my solo career never afforded me. The lab is an opportunity to feed off of other genres, styles and perspectives to build new inspiration and new work. My work has evolved as I went from solely using beatboxing to creating with composers and live musicians. I’ve become more comfortable with my own musical capability and discovered unique ways to fuse melody, poetry and percussion. Having Daniel as a mentor has been instrumental in understanding how to navigate academia and a professional career. The opportunity to perform at National Sawdust and Daniel’s graciousness in sharing his advice and network to help each of us grow has been the single greatest benefit of DBR Lab.

What impact has being part of the DBR Lab had on you and your work?

Being a member of the lab has given me a home within a larger university. We are artists first. A class won’t teach you how to live as an artist, how to collaborate and connect with people on a level beyond art. DBR Lab is bigger than a performance or a group jam session. It’s a commitment by a group of people to support and invest in one another on a level that most artists never receive. We are individuals, we are a collective, we are an experiment and a proven concept. We are DBR Lab.

Website: ladycaress.com

IG, Twitter: @ladycaress

Jedd ‘Rellian’ Greenhalgh

How would you describe your artistic practice?

I am a multi-instrumentalist, sound engineer, songwriter and DJ. Over the course of my life, I have been developing my skills as a performer, beat designer, composer, graphic designer and pop-based artist to create and market my music as efficiently and independently as I possibly can. My work incorporates a mix of my academic musical training with the style and imagery of Pop Top 40 and music of the runway.

What was your path (academic or personal) to what you do now?

I am currently a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community, but was born in a very conservative corner of the world where I was taught that anything of a queer nature should be shunned and avoided. I experienced a great deal of suppression and developed a deep fear of my honest self at a very young age. My “coming out” process at the age of 19 was a very difficult time with a lot of friction. Throughout my adult life, I have been chipping away at the internalized “queerphobia” that was instilled in me, and now I strive to help create a world where other queer individuals do not need to go through the struggles that I did. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree in music science from Idaho State University in 2017, I moved to Arizona to study for a master’s degree in music composition. I graduated from ASU in May of 2019, and will be fighting for LGBTQIA+ equality all throughout my career.

How did you become a member of DBR Lab?

I arrived in Tempe to study at ASU in August of 2017 as a complete stranger to the Arizona community. I quickly immersed myself in organizations and performing ensembles that were aligned with my interests as a musician, and over the course of four months, I crossed paths with Daniel Bernard Roumain on three separate occasions. After that, he and I both served as guest judges on ASU’s Got Talent in November. I had the privilege of giving the show’s “judge performance” as the contestants’ votes were being counted, and Daniel seemed to like what he saw of me. During the following spring semester, I studied independently with him, and in May of 2018, he extended an invitation to me to join the DBR Lab, which I accepted.

What specific opportunities have you had because of your involvement with DBR Lab?

Due to my network with Daniel and the DBR Lab, I was able to serve as a composer and performative DJ/violinist for the theater/spoken word artist ‘REAL’ during her residency at the ASU Kerr Cultural Center in October of 2018. I have also had the opportunity to share my work with many of the individuals involved with the execution of Phoenix Pride, and of course, I was able to join the lab in a performance of my own original work in New York at the National Sawdust venue. Additionally, I was able to work with the lab as I developed my debut album, “I Am Not Sorry.” I wrote, performed, recorded, produced, mixed and mastered the entire project myself.

What impact has being part of the DBR Lab had on you and your work?

Working with Daniel and the rest of the DBR Lab has shown me the importance of incorporating activism for my community in the work I create as an artist. When I arrived in Arizona, I knew how to write music and perform, but I did not have an entirely clear reason why in my mind just yet. With the love and support of the lab, I have developed my artistic purpose and resolve as a performer to fight for equality and visibility for the LGBTQIA+ community.

Anything else you want people to know about your DBR experience or your work?

One of the most valuable aspects of working with the DBR Lab is the opportunity to function in the same orbits of individuals who practice similar performance styles as me. As a musician primarily trained in academia, I was always encouraged to handle my work in popular styled music as a peripheral focus in spite of that genre being my major interest as an artist. The work of the DBR Lab breaks down the rift between academic and popular forms of artistic expression, which provides me and my music with a foothold that did not previously exist.

Malena Grosz

How would you describe your artistic practice?

I am a connector and curator. My primary artistic practice is to curate experiences, managing logistics to present artists in their best light. I love to create a platform for others to share their work. I experiment with different practices and mediums as a way to push my boundaries and continue growth. I have an upcycled art installation called the Flower of Cycles, which I have been traveling with since 2015. It’s made with 49 bicycle rims and over 4,000 LEDs controlled with Arduino, arranged as the sacred geometric symbol, the flower of life. I have presented it at Burning Man, Symbiosis, the Global Eclipse Gathering, Sonic Bloom and other local and regional events. It’s been an ongoing test of my abilities to take on a project for which I had none of the required skillsets to begin with, but I have learned through peer mentorship every step of the way.

What was your path (academic or personal) to what you do now?

I earned a BFA in visual communication from NAU in 2007. I worked in graphic design, marketing and project management for 9 years before deciding to return to grad school to shift my career. I started producing immersive nightlife events called InnerSpace in 2014, producing over 15 bi-monthly events, two festival stage areas and one small festival on private land before beginning at ASU.

How did you become a member of DBR Lab?

I took Daniel’s “The Communicating Artist” class in Fall 2017, which is where I met Saza as well. There were only four of us in the class, but it was a breath of fresh air. Daniel inspired me and introduced me to other inspiring artists. He also taught me how to tell my story without sounding rehearsed. I took “The Artist as Activist” in Spring 2018 (again with Saza). Towards the end of the semester I reached out to Daniel, asked if he would be my mentor and/or on my applied project committee. He said yes to both. Working with Daniel has been a complete shift from the traditional teacher relationship. He inspires me because he doesn’t just talk about doing things, he’s out there actually doing them.

What specific opportunities have you had because of your involvement with DBR Lab?

When the DBR Lab presented during Herberger Institute Day, Cindy Ornstein from Mesa Arts Center (MAC) attended our presentation. Afterward, she approached me to see if I would be interested in guest producing some events at MAC. She also offered for the DBR Lab to produce a Spark at Dark event (which we did on March 16). Prior to Spark at Dark, Cindy hired me to guest curate the Color+Light Party, which was the opening reception for Architects of Air’s Albesila, an inflated lumenarium with 27 domes. I brought my upcycled art installation and some other lighting, booked the DJs and some additional lighting.

Daniel has also hired me to help manage some of his projects for DBR Productions. I was able to attend a rehearsal for his Carnegie Hall debut of “The Just and The Blind,” meeting the performing artists and the SOZO Artists management and production team. Daniel gave me a ticket for the performance that night and even gave me a special shout out from the stage at the end of the show when the cast gave acknowledgments.

Daniel pushed me to stay involved with the production of TEDxASU, and I’m so glad he did. I stepped back from being the main producer into an advisor role, which allowed me to balance the project better. We ended up hiring DBR Lab members for the production, which honestly took it to the next level. Lady Caress was our emcee, she commanded the stage and offered a playful reset between each talk. Jedd “Rellian” Greenhalgh performed solo on violin with backup tracks on the promenade during our pre and post events.

And of course, National Sawdust! Daniel told me about National Sawdust during the “Communicating Artist” class. I was so inspired by the co-founder, Paola Prestini, and knew I wanted to work with this venue one day. Daniel said he had a collaboration in the works, which held true. Performing at National Sawdust was a huge challenge and massive reward. It was a dream. We really did something special there.

What impact has being part of the DBR Lab had on you and your work?

Being a part of the DBR Lab has been the most impactful program of my graduate education. It was the first time I was surrounded by other artists as students who were passionately producing independent work. I’m older than everyone in my cohort and most of the graduate students in the theatre program. A lot of students are still figuring out what they want to do and don’t have much real-world experience yet. I came here knowing what I wanted to do and ready to put in the work. It’s been so important to find a group of peers that support and inspire my work. It’s been refreshing to work with Daniel and it is such a gift to have his mentorship and guidance. I have grown so much through being a part of the DBR Lab the last year and look forward to continuing work with the lab after graduation this semester.

Anything else you want people to know about your DBR experience or your work?

This is just the beginning.

Website: https://www.partyprotoolkit.com/

Sarah ‘Saza’ Kent

How would you describe your artistic practice?

I vacillate between many artistic mediums. I am a performer, creator, and educator — a dancer, choreographer, writer, director, emcee, actress… My creative work tells stories, and through these stories, I hope to shed light on the many facets and contradictions of the human condition. Whether working with subjects such as interpersonal relationships, sustainability, climate change, terminal illness, sexuality, substance abuse, infidelity, the pharmaceutical industry, love, death and dying, I use stories to address the multiple perspectives of the people or characters involved. I always try to flip the script to show the humanness, the fragility, and honesty, no matter how messy it might be. My goal is to move people — make them think and hopefully look at a situation from an angle they’ve never thought of before — to push boundaries, artistically, but also to challenge the audience’s boundaries… far but not over the edge… big nudges, bumps… small shoves.

What was your path (academic or personal) to what you do now?

I started dancing and acting in middle school and just kept going. I majored in dance at ASU as an undergrad, then came back seven years later to pursue my MFA in dance there as well. In between, I danced and choreographed professionally for companies and the NBA/WNBA, as well as starting my own professional (non-profit) company with my best friend in 2007 (EPIK Dance Company). I also taught high school for 3 years and at the university level for almost 10 years. As an emcee, I began in the rave and hip hop scene in the late ’90s but put the mic down to pursue dance. I picked it up again a decade later and began hosting events from Urban Sol to the Cactus Bowl. I also was blessed to book a couple of national commercials. In 2012, I partnered with the Be Kind People Project to create and manage the Be Kind Crew and served as artistic director for the organization for five years. Now, my focus is purely on my own artistic endeavors and EPIK, which is in its 12th season, creating original work that combines street and concert dance with hip hop theatre, spoken word and music to tell stories. But my number one job and passion is being a mother to a super rad little girl named Rylen.

How did you become a member of DBR Lab?

I took 3 years off from finishing my MFA to take care of my ill mother. When I finally returned to finish my last year in 2017, I heard about this new Institute Professor in the school of music. I needed only a few class credits to finish my degree, so one class I chose was DBR’s “The Communicating Artist.” I was captivated the moment Daniel introduced himself by performing in front of the class. I knew right away I was going to learn a lot from him. That is the class where I also met my labmate Malena for the first time. The next semester, Malena and I both took his other course, “Artist as Activist.” It was at the end of this course that he asked me to join the lab. He didn’t realize that I was graduating. I told him that I was still interested in partnering with the lab if there was an opportunity to do so. Instead, he got permission for me to join as alum! I’m the only alum currently in the lab, but I believe it has helped create a model where we can all be involved, whether we have graduated or are still in school.

What specific opportunities have you had because of your involvement with DBR Lab?

I have had the opportunity to collaborate with Daniel and all of my labmates, who are all incredible artists. I have also been able to visit and break bread with international visiting artists at ASU. In January, I attended the APAP conference in NYC. Daniel is a board member and well-loved artist in that community. He introduced me to countless people that I was able to begin building relationships with. As a lab, we curated an event at Mesa Arts Center called Spark at Dark, where each of us was able to perform our own work, as well as perform and improvise together. And lastly (and most exciting) has been the opportunity to travel to NYC to perform at National Sawdust! But the most valuable opportunity by far has been having a mentor who had the vision to bring us together, is willing and determined to invest in us and believes in us and our future.

What impact has being part of the DBR Lab had on you and your work?

Being a part of DBR Lab has been literally life-changing for me. Not only do I receive real mentorship from an incredible artist and human being, but I have also built relationships with my labmates that I know will last a lifetime. As an artist, and especially as a director/leader, you often feel like a silo. I now feel like I have a support system of like-minded artists, who, at the same time, are so different from me, which means they offer perspectives and inspiration that are valuable and different from my own. My work with the lab has also helped me gain insight into the industry and where I want to go as an artist. I believe my trajectory has been altered in a positive way because of my work with Daniel and the lab.

Anything else you want people to know about your DBR experience or your work?

Just what an incredible opportunity for mentorship and growth it is. Daniel is truly interested in our growth and success as artists, individually and together as the lab. I feel especially grateful because I was able to be a part of something so special, even as an alum. I am so excited about what the future holds for all of us! This is just the beginning….

Website: www.epikdanceco.org

FB: EPIK Dance Company

IG: @epikdanceco / @chipsnsaza

Twitter: @epikdance / @chipsnsaza

Photo courtesy of artist.

Jordan Klitzke

How would you describe your artistic practice?

I have a pretty open artistic process where I develop the context and the content of the work together based on what is currently inspiring me. I have done extensive acting and dancing, so I have a wide-ranging tool box I am able to reach into in order to best communicate and engage through the ideas and physicality of the work.

What was your path (academic or personal) to what you do now?

I have had a very winding road to get to where I am. I have an undergraduate degree in biology from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Before receiving my MFA from ASU, I attended a dance conservatory in Mazatlan, Mexico, for 15 months and taught and choreographed in Ecuador for two years. I’m really interested in cultural exchange and learning through differences.

How did you become a member of DBR Lab?

Daniel and I met on both of our first days at ASU when I enrolled in his “The Communicating Artist” class. We connected over the material of that course, and I continued to take independent study courses with him after that semester. We talked about the idea of the lab months before it became a reality.

What specific opportunities have you had because of your involvement with DBR Lab?

Performing at National Sawdust is the most noticeable opportunity, but it has also allowed me to connect with other ambitious artists who are interested in a career as an independent performer/creator.

What impact has being part of the DBR Lab had on you and your work?

At this point it is working specifically with Daniel that has had the majority of the impact. I’m continually inspired by his ability to dream big and believe in the power of his work. I can be a little too humble and self-doubting at times, so he keeps me focused.

Anything else you want people to know about your DBR experience or your work?

I think the DBR Lab helps fill part of a void at ASU because it deeply acknowledges the reality of being an artist outside of the comfort of academia while still acknowledging that ASU is an important resource and institution.

Jordan Klitzke’s thesis performance: https://vimeo.com/306212146

Photo courtesy of artist.

Adele Etheridge Woodson

How would you describe your artistic practice?

Whenever I start a new project/piece of music, I usually have the big picture already in my head. For instance, I knew I wanted to have a piece with spoken word and film at our National Sawdust performance before I even began writing it. That way, I knew I was writing something that would be listened to via a visual medium, and that actually influenced how I wrote.

I’m constantly inspired by my peers and role models to work hard and essentially “one-up” myself with each big project I complete. But at the end of the day, I want to like what I wrote. Sometimes, that takes multiple drafts; it can be very frustrating. So I am, slowly but surely, learning to be patient with myself when creating.

What was your path (academic or personal) to what you do now?

I started playing violin when I was 8, and I went to an arts school in Phoenix, where I learned piano and how to work in an ensemble. I started private composition lessons at age 17, when I knew I wanted to go to school to write music. Music school was not always easy, in fact I struggled quite a bit my first year. It took me a long time to find my identity: what type of music I want to write and play, how I want to present myself to the world. I’m still figuring it out, but jumping out of my comfort zone and trying new things has helped me grow exponentially.

How did you become a member of DBR Lab?

I was actually DBR’s first private student. We began working together my first semester at ASU three years ago, back before we even had the idea of the lab. We’ve worked closely together ever since, so it seemed only natural that I would be a member.

What specific opportunities have you had because of your involvement with DBR Lab?

In just this semester alone, I had the opportunity to curate and perform in two shows: Mesa Arts Center and National Sawdust in New York City. (Not to mention, I have performed with DBR for various ASU events before, including in Nashville.) DBR has also given me incredible connections and introduced me to some of the greatest artists in the world, even ones in the film industry that I want to work in. I am very grateful.

What impact has being part of the DBR Lab had on you and your work?

The DBR Lab has become a creative family. As the youngest member, I was intimidated at first by the scope of the work my labmates had done. But no one treated me any differently just because I’m young — in fact, they lift me up. Whether I’m struggling or enjoying success, I know they have my back. I’ve looked up to the other members for years, and it’s surreal that I get to work with them now as an equal. I also have people I can collaborate with regularly: My work for National Sawdust was created alongside Caress and Jedd with DBR’s mentorship. They’ve given me a safe space to create.

Anything else you want people to know about your DBR experience or your work?

I want more people to sign up for the lab! I know so many Herberger Institute students with big ideas who don’t know that such an incredible resource is available to them. Students can follow our instagram @dbrlab and learn more.

Website: adelebrooke.com



‘Artists first’: DBR Lab at ASU was originally published in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts