MacArthur Foundation Recognizes Four Theatrical Artists

by Jacob Coakley

Four 2015 MacArthur Fellows with ties to performing arts (top to bottom): Mimi Lien, Michelle Dorrance, Basil Twist, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.The MacArthur Foundation has announced their 2015 class of Fellows, giving 24 “exceptionally creative” individuals a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 in recognition of their accomplishments and in support of accomplishments to come. Among fellows in other fields like economics and architecture, the Foundation recognized four performing artists: Mimi Lien, Michelle Dorrance, Basil Twist, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. More info about each artist after the jump.

2015 MacArthur Fellows: 24 Extraordinarily Creative People Who Inspire Us All

Recognizing 24 exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future, the Foundation today named the 2015 MacArthur Fellows. Fellows will each receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000, allowing recipients maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions.

"These 24 delightfully diverse MacArthur Fellows are shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways," said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. "Their work, their commitment, and their creativity inspire us all."

Michelle DorranceMichelle Dorrance
Tap Dancer and Choreographer

Founder and Artistic Director
Dorrance Dance/New York
New York, New York
Age: 36

Michelle Dorrance is a tap dancer and choreographer breathing new life into a uniquely American art form in works that combine the musicality of tap with the choreographic intricacies of contemporary dance. Dorrance uses her deep understanding of the technique and history of tap dancing to deconstruct and reimagine its artistic possibilities.

Tap is primarily an aural dance form, with dancers creating complex syncopations through technical feats of footwork. In a high-contrast physical style, Dorrance maintains the essential layering of rhythms in tap but choreographs ensemble works that engage the entire body: dancers swoop, bend, leap, and twist with a dramatic expression that is at once musical and visual. In SOUNDspace (2011), she shapes the architecture of the stage space by moving dancers in and out of view; the dancers create an acoustic chamber as the audience is surrounded with textured rhythms created by leather, wood, and metal taps on the stage, backstage, and balcony.

Dorrance has moved beyond the episodic nature of traditional tap pieces—with solo dancers competing for the most audacious phrase—to craft evening-length ensemble works that tell compelling stories through rhythm and the arrangement of visual information. The Blues Project (2013) is an encyclopedic depiction of the history of the blues as told through tap-based works as well as an active collaboration between the dancers and the musicians who accompany them. In ETM: The Initial Approach (2014), Dorrance creates a fusion of acoustic and electronic sound. The dancers perform on platforms that are activated by their contact to emit sounds and enable electronic looping, allowing a real-time exploration of how movement and sound affect each other. Dorrance’s choreographic sense of tap as a musical and visual expression is bringing it to entirely new contexts and enhancing the appreciation of tap as an innovative, serious, and evolving art form.

Michelle Dorrance received a B.A. (2001) from the Gallatin School at New York University. A member of the faculty of the Broadway Dance Center since 2002, Dorrance has performed with preeminent tap companies and has taught and choreographed for institutions and groups across the United States and abroad. She toured with the Off-Broadway production of STOMP (2007–2011) before founding Dorrance Dance/New York. The troupe has performed Dorrance’s choreographic works at such venues as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the Joyce Theatre, and Danspace Project, as well as at numerous festivals throughout North America and Europe.

Basil TwistBasil Twist
Puppetry Artist and Director

New York, New York
Age: 46
Basil Twist is a puppeteer and theater artist whose experiments with the materials and techniques of puppetry explore the boundaries between the animate and inanimate, the abstract and the figurative. Twist’s works range from productions of classic stories to abstract visualizations of orchestral music and are informed by puppetry traditions from around the world, including hand puppets, bunraku, and string-and-rod marionettes.

His best-known work, Symphonie Fantastique (1998), uses a complex choreography of fabric, feathers, tinsel, and cutouts in a 500-gallon tank of water to evoke human characteristics and emotions and illuminate Berlioz’s score in unexpected ways. Twist has brought puppetry to new audiences and venues with a captivating beauty and refinement. He tells the story of La Bella Dormente nel Bosco (Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, 2005) with life-sized marionettes, controlled by puppeteers on an overhead bridge, and onstage singers. In Petrushka (2001), he employs meticulously crafted, life-like puppets moved by puppeteers who are sometimes visible (as in the bunraku tradition) to underscore the theme of tragic manipulation in the love-triangle plot. More recently, Twist has returned to his roots in abstraction in The Rite of Spring (2013); he enacts the intensity of both Stravinsky’s score and the response to the original ballet’s debut in 1913 through cascading curtains of billowing silk, crumpled paper, curling smoke, projections, and just a single dancer.

In addition to his own productions, Twist is a frequent collaborator with renowned opera companies, choreographers, and playwrights, and he has trained and mentored an entire generation of young puppet artists at the Dream Music Puppetry Program based at the HERE Arts Center. Twist’s wide-ranging and trailblazing body of work is revitalizing puppetry as a serious and sophisticated art form in and of itself and establishing it as an integral element in contemporary theater, dance, and music.

Basil Twist received a D.M.A. (1993) from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette. His additional works include Master Peter’s Puppet Show (2002), Hansel and Gretel (2006), Dogugaeshi (2004), and Arias with a Twist (2008). He has designed and directed puppets for a number of collaborative theatrical and opera productions, such as Red Beads (Mabou Mines, 2005) and The Long Christmas Ride Home (written by Paula Vogel, 2004), and original dance works, including Darkness and Light (Pilobolus, 2008) and Cinderella (Dutch National Ballet, 2012). Since 1999, he has served as director of the Dream Music Puppetry Program at the HERE Arts Center in New York City.

Lin-Manuel MirandaLin-Manuel Miranda
Playwright, Composer, and Performer

New York, New York
Age: 35

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a composer, lyricist, and performer reimagining American musical theater in works that fuse traditional storytelling with contemporary musical styles and voices. Well-versed in the structure and history of musical theater, Miranda expands its idiom with the aesthetic of popular culture and stories from individuals and communities new to Broadway stages.

In the Heights (2007), which Miranda began to write while in college, is set in Manhattan’s Dominican district, Washington Heights, and expresses the pathos of an immigrant community losing its neighborhood to gentrification and its younger generation to assimilation and upward mobility. In the opening scene, Miranda showcases his linguistic dexterity in the character Usnavi (played by Miranda himself), who interweaves song, dance, and narration to introduce the other various characters. They, in turn, express themselves in musical styles ranging from hip-hop to salsa.

Miranda continues to explore the dramatic potential of hip-hop in Hamilton (2015), in which he uses an urban soundscape to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton’s rise from an orphaned West Indian immigrant to America’s first Treasury Secretary. Miranda presents policy battles, love triangles, and duels through high velocity lyrics, replete with false and slant rhymes, that expand the range of both pop and Broadway music. 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. Melding a love of the musical with a pop culture sensibility, Miranda is expanding the conventions of mainstream theater and showcasing the cultural riches of the American urban panorama.

Lin-Manuel Miranda received a B.A. (2002) from Wesleyan University. His other theater credits include co-composer and co-lyricist of Bring It On: The Musical (2011); actor in revivals of tick, tick…BOOM! (2014) and Merrily We Roll Along (2012); new original music for a revival of Working (2012); and the mini-musical, “21 Chump Street,” for This American Life (2014). He is also a member of the improv hip-hop group, Freestyle Love Supreme.

Mimi LienMimi Lien
Set Designer

New York, New York
Age: 39


Mimi Lien is a set designer for theater, opera, and dance whose bold, immersive designs shape and extend a dramatic text’s narrative and emotional dynamics. Lien combines training in set design and architecture with an innate dramaturgical insight, and she is adept at configuring a performance space to establish particular relationships—both among the characters on stage and between the audience and the actors—that dramatize the play’s movement through space and time. 

In sets for both large-scale immersive works and for more traditional proscenium stages, Lien envelops the audience in a specific mood or atmosphere. For Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2013), Lien designed a full-scale Tsarist Russian salon that summoned up the decadence of early nineteenth-century Moscow and the chaotic emotional lives of the Russian elite. Her simple and stark set for Born Bad (2011)—brown shag carpet, worn wallpaper, and three wooden chairs on a platform that is overhung by a low ceiling—created a claustrophobic environment that heightened the play’s portrayal of family tensions.

For other works, Lien choreographs the movement of set pieces so that they become participants in the dramatic action. She propelled the narrative action forward in An Octoroon (2014), as a series of cascading false walls enacted a sequence of startling set transformations. With surrealist touches such as a sloping floor and an aperture that opened and closed to create a sliver of light suggesting a tightrope, Lien brought to life the eeriness of Hades’ underworld in Eurydice (2008), while also evincing the devotion of Eurydice’s father as he constructs (onstage) a string room for her that is held aloft by helium balloons. In projects that range from large regional theaters, to small experimental, hybrid pieces, to a performance in an 81-acre meadow, Lien is revitalizing the visual language of theater and enhancing the performance experience for theater-makers and viewers alike.

Mimi Lien received a B.A. (1997) from Yale University and an M.F.A. (2003) from New York University. Her designs of sets for theater, dance, and opera have been seen nationally and internationally at such venues as Soho Repertory Theatre, the Public Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Joyce Theater, Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, the Goodman Theatre, and Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre (Russia), among many others. She is an artistic associate with Pig Iron Theatre Company and The Civilians and co-founder of the performance space JACK.