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Music, Theatre and Dance Alumni Win MaTilDa Awards

Thursday, March 6, 2014
Music, Theatre and Dance Alumni Win MaTilDa Awards

by Gillian Ellis

Every year we recognize three distinguished alumni with a MaTilDa award. This year’s music recipient is Kerstin Allvin who has a busy career as a harpist. When a second harp is needed, she performs with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and also plays with the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings. She freelances as a performer and as a recording artist while maintaining a successful private teaching studio and teaching harp students at OU, as an adjunct and in Music Prep.

We would have to look very hard to find someone who spent more years under the influence of the OU music faculty. Kerstin’s father, Raynold Allvin, was chair of the department for a time, and Kerstin said, “I was always running around the corridors and going to the concerts.” She began taking university music classes before she left high school, and she also played with and sang in Meadow Brook Estate, the show choir her father directed. From the age of 14 or 15, she played in what was then the Pontiac Oakland Symphony, under the direction of now Professor Emeritus David Daniels. Kerstin said, “He’s just so wonderful. He has been such a mentor. I regard him very highly.”

Kerstin continued both of those activities once she was enrolled as an official OU student. She also continued to study with her harp teacher Elizabeth Ilku, who was then the principal harpist of the DSO. In 1982, Kerstin was a co-winner of OU's Distinguished Musicianship Award but that was her final semester as an OU music major. She transferred to the University of Indiana in Bloomington to complete her B.M. in harp performance, and from there went to the University of Michigan, where she graduated with an M.M. This was followed by six months of study in Paris with a professor emerita from the Paris Conservatory.

Although she did not complete her music education at OU, Kerstin is in no doubt that all the experiences she had here, especially the interaction she had with all the faculty, laid “an incredible foundation.” She said, “All the teachers were like family members. Stanley Hollingsworth was an amazing influence, as was David Daniels, and Jan Albright on the voice faculty. Many, many people touched my musical life.”

It may be that Kerstin Allvin experienced the music program at OU in a rather unique way. It was so much more than an education to her; it was woven into the fabric of her life. She is delighted to receive the MaTilDa award. “This is a huge honor for me,” she said. Read more about Kerstin on her website.

This year’s theatre alumnus MaTilDa has been awarded to Esau Pritchett, who recently appeared in August Wilson’s modern classic Fences in the leading role of Troy Maxson at the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey. His performance was reviewed in The New York Times in glowing terms. They called it, "A potent and fearsome portrayal. It’s a thrilling performance in a production that’s more ready to explore an angry man’s power than to serve a play’s poetry."
Professor Emeritus Michael Gillespie saw Esau in that production and had his own assessment to offer. "He is a very powerful actor with tremendous stage presence. He is physically and vocally imposing.” Although Esau's skills have grown immeasurably, what Michael sees now is the mature expression of what he saw in Esau when he was first at OU.

Originally from Saginaw, Michigan, Esau was taking the general education Theatre 100 course when he first auditioned, reportedly on a dare from fellow student Emile Garrison. The theatre professors saw his potential immediately. Michael said, "Esau was a striking young man with a beautiful voice."  Esau quickly became a theatre major and his first part was Count Orsino in Twelfth Night. Michael Gillespie was at first amazed that someone without any prior training could memorize and recite the lines so precisely and with such feeling, but when he quizzed Esau about this, he found the novice actor was not really untrained. Esau's mother had given him recitations to say as he was growing up.

While he was at OU, Esau also appeared in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and in Death of the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka. This last play was set in Africa and entailed a fruitful collaboration with the World Music program. Esau played a tribal chieftain who commits suicide.

His role in All My Sons won him a nomination to the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. By the time the competition rolled around, Esau had appeared in his final production at OU -- Othello. He played a scene as the eponymous character, with Stacy Cole playing Desdemona, and won the regional round and went on to compete victoriously in the finals. In 1988, he was one of two national Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Award winners.

After graduation he moved to New York where he has made a living as a working actor ever since. He has appeared in movies and on television and made many appeances in regional theare. A highlight of his career came in 2010 when he appeared at Lincoln Center in A Free Man of Color.

In the near future Esau is scheduled to play both Mark Anthony and Oberon. With his career trajectory still clearly upwards, we know we will hear more about Esau. Read more about Esau on his IMDb page.

The dance alumna MaTilDa recipient is Denise Caston who was successful in her dance career before graduation! She was hired by the Rockettes when she was 19, and so her schedule would be to take the fall semesters off to perform with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Fox in their wonderfully traditional holiday show, and then return to OU every winter semester to continue her studies. In 1998, she appeared in OU theatre’s production of A Chorus Line, and throughout her time with the dance program she danced every semester with Oakland Dance Theatre and also choreographed for them.

Denise has danced in all kinds of styles but is widely known as a tap specialist. She said, “I am known for that [tap] but I always strive to be as versatile as possible and it has served me well over the years. She began to take tap when she was three. She had classes in her teacher’s basement for eight years, then she branched out into jazz. At this point she said, “I wanted to train more seriously, and I started stepping and I took on ballet and took on lots of extra classes to catch up to everyone else.”

At OU, Denise worked extensively and about equally in class and in choreography with now Professor Emerita Laurie Eisenhower and Associate Professor Greg Patterson. And she was an original member of Greg’s Patterson Rhythm Pace.  In 1999, the ensemble took a piece to the Jazz Dance World Congress.

While still in Michigan she found work in commercials and industrials. Denise says that the auto industry makes the Detroit area a good place to find that kind of work, but shortly after graduation in 2001, she made the move to New York City. Denise danced with the Rockettes for ten years, appearing with them in several cities. 

In 2002 she toured Australia, playing huge stadiums in major cities with a show called Elvis to the Max. She said, “The star of the show was an amazing Elvis impersonator and a superstar in Australia."

In 2004 and 2005 she took a season off from the Rockettes to tour the U.S. in Crazy For You, which had been a Broadway hit in the mid-1990s. About this experience Denise said, “Tour life doesn’t suit everyone, but I really enjoyed it. You see the entire country.”

Among the highlights of her New York years was an opportunity that came her way when she attended a master class offered by the great Savion Glover at the Broadway Dance Center. “They do a showcase every year and after class he came up to me and asked me if I wanted to be in his piece. I got to work with him for three or four months. I learned so much. It was surreal. I hadn’t been in New York long at all.”

Denise returned to Michigan in 2008 and has been working in the Michigan dance world ever since. In addition to teaching in many studios she has two major projects in hand. She is the director of Detroit Tap Repertory, which is a vehicle for committed and talented tappers to hone their craft and to showcase their choreography and their dancing. “Everybody in this group is a great tap dancer.” Read more about the group on their Facebook page

Her second project is the Motor City Tap Fest, which is always in the third week of August. This year it will run at Wayne State University from August 13 until August 16. There will be master classes but also classes for literally all levels and all ages. Denise has teachers coming from as far afield as Spain. There will also be inspirational materials for teachers to take with them as they prepare for the new season. There will be a tap jam which Denise says is an important component and also a participants' showcase event. On the Saturday evening there will be a Grand Faculty Concert at Orchestra Hall and this year Denise is inviting not just tappers, but all kinds of percussive forms of dance. She is going to release an open call for choreography submissions to be part of the concert and would love to see ballroom, salsa, tango and flamenco all represented in the program. Read more about this year's event here.

Denise believes resources are scarce for tap in Michigan and she is committed to changing that. She would love to see everyone who loves the art form, or who wants to know more, show up to the Motor City Tap Fest in August and “Take classes all day and go home with blisters.”

This year's MaTilDa Awards Dinner is on Sunday, April 13 at 6 p.m. at the Royal Park Hotel in Rochester. For more information about how to purchase a ticket or to see a full list of MaTilDa winners visit our MaTilDa webpage.

Top right: Kerstin Allvin
Middle left: Esau Pritchett
Bottom right: Denise Caston