Miami Light Project's "Here & Now" Celebrates New Work by Local Artists

Cecilia Benitez and Stephanie Perez's "Manteca" is based on the game of dominoes.
Cecilia Benitez and Stephanie Perez's "Manteca" is based on the game of dominoes. Photo courtesy of Miami Light Project
Let's be honest: Miami's arts and entertainment scene often depends on what can sell bottles, attract tourists, or bring in a celebrity promoter.

That's not to say we don't have cultural institutions — the Adrienne Arsht Center will entrance any Broadway or ballet lover, Pérez Art Museum Miami is a revolving door for art buffs, and the New World Center puts classical music front and center in Miami Beach.

But, as is the case in many cities, catering to audience demands can leave little room for local artists to showcase original, unknown, and experimental work of their own.

Enter "Here & Now," the signature program of the nonprofit organization Miami Light Project. Since its launch in 1999, this annual performance and multimedia art show has commissioned more than 100 South Florida-based artists to create new works. And from Thursday, June 2, through Saturday, June 4, six more will take to the Light Box stage in Wynwood to present theirs.

"I feel like in order for us to be at the leading edge of cultural transformation, we must invest in the artists who live in our own community," says Beth Boone, Miami Light Project's artistic and executive director. "It's been thrilling to do that and to plant the seeds and watch them come to fruition."

Each winter, a new set of four to eight artists is selected through an application process to be "Here & Now" artists and perform the following summer.

This year's cohort explores diverse themes through various mediums, from spoken word to music and dance. Boone describes this year's show as a little bit of everything.

"It's a perfect microcosm of Miami," she says. "It's sort of astonishing how wildly diverse the work is in terms of artists, things that artists have to say, the platform for the things that they have to say, and the experiences of the artists."

Some explore downright profound concepts. One work, called "Organesis," is based on the creator's idea of "perceived emotional scarcity in a late-capitalist society."

"I've heard others say they feel like they have to be careful about how much they give of themselves or how much they feel they can receive from other people," artist Jenna Balfe says about how she conceived the premise behind the dance piece. "I relate that trepidation to this consumerist, capitalist culture that we live in, where it's like, 'Oh, you feel a void? You can fill it by buying this thing.' Or you can fill it by having a bigger bank account or escalating your status by how you look and what you present as."
click to enlarge Jenna Balfe's "Organesis" is a 17-minute performance that explores the idea of fulfillment. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT
Jenna Balfe's "Organesis" is a 17-minute performance that explores the idea of fulfillment.
Photo courtesy of Miami Light Project
The 17-minute movement piece doesn't present a solution, Balfe explains, but rather an exploration of the idea of fulfillment. She used her experience as a dance/movement therapist — and a living human being — as inspiration. Balfe will be joined by four other performers and instrumentalists playing guitar, synthesizers, and a Crumar CPB-2 (sort of like an organ-esque piano; just Google it).

"I'm just really excited to watch people experience it because I think it's pretty different," Balfe says. "At this point, it's so in my head and my body — I just want to share it."

Other artists in the show delve into identity and cultural roots.

Photographer and multidisciplinary artist Symone Titania Major created her piece, "Home," in response to moving out of her childhood home in Goulds and getting married.

"You know, every human at some point is at home in seclusion to their own thoughts, to their own ideas, and they work through it. And it looks different for everyone. I'm doing it based on my experiences, and what it looks like when I actually go home by myself, and I'm breaking down from the day," Major explains. "The audience members are kind of like either a nosy neighbor looking through the window or a fly on the wall."

New World School of the Arts graduates Cecilia Benitez and Stephanie Perez based their piece, "Manteca," on the game of dominoes and how it represents the resilience of Cuban immigrants.

"From hearing our parents' stories, we know that it was a really difficult transition," Benitez says. "But in the end, what we love about the Cuban people is that they're always able to find celebration and to really just have fun in life despite all the hardships that they went through."

"We love that it is being performed in Miami because the audience will really understand what's going on," Perez adds. "I would like the audience to just feel seen. I want them to feel hugged after watching our piece."
click to enlarge Symone Titania Major's piece, "Work," explores her feelings about moving out of her childhood home. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT
Symone Titania Major's piece, "Work," explores her feelings about moving out of her childhood home.
Photo courtesy of Miami Light Project
For all of the artists involved, the gig is essentially a creator's dream: a blank slate to make something new with resources and without many restrictions. In addition to getting paid a stipend for the six months, the selected artists selected have access to a rehearsal space and technical assistance.

"Because we are technically young and emerging artists, there aren't many foundations or institutions that would necessarily take a chance on us because we don't have this huge résumé to support us in terms of our own creations," Benitez says. "It just feels like a really helpful tool and resource at this age and during this time in our careers."

"I speak to other artists all around the nation, and they don't get the same support, unfortunately," Major adds. "Sometimes they have to do the crowd favorites or covers or, even in spoken word and poetry, a lot of people are reciting poems that they didn't write. And so to be able to have a true respected space to present my original work that has been created in my mind, it just means the world to me."

Even for more seasoned artists like Balfe who've had work commissioned before, the resources Miami Light Project provides go a long way. Balfe says her band Donzii was priced out of its studio space earlier this year.

"We haven't been able to afford anything since. And so having the Miami Light Project, support us and give us space and time and resources to do what we love has been huge because it's particularly hard right now."

According to Boone, that support lasts essentially forever.

"One of the things that I think is so great about the program is that it's like, once a 'Here & Now' artist, always a 'Here & Now' artist. You become a part of the family," she says. "It's sort of the full freight of the magic of theater that they have at their fingertips really for the rest of their lives."

"What is particularly satisfying about this project is that you can see the results of modest investment sustained over time yielding huge results and moving the needle in Miami for artists to have a place to live and make work."

"Here & Now." 8 p.m. Thursday, June 2, through Saturday, June 4, at the Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., Miami; 305-576-4350; Tickets cost $15 to $25 via
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Emmalyse Brownstein a former intern at Miami New Times and a graduate of the University of Miami.