Bringing the Migration Walkway to Life
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We bring our traditions with us as we move through life, and those traditions change on our path—sometimes in surprising ways. At the 2017 Folklife Festival’s On the Move program, the transformation implied in movement was represented by the Migration Walkway, a curving wooden path with high-vaulting portals that crossed through the Festival grounds.
The walkway twisted under your feet and above your head, simultaneously conveying a sense of motion and stasis. The raised platform offered an unparalleled view of On the Move: a two-week series of performances exploring and celebrating the way people and their cultures move to and within the United States. Many people worked together to bring the Migration Walkway to life: over the course of several months, carpenters, painters, lighting designers, dancers, artists, and visitors all added their stories and made the walkway their own.
Envisioning the Walkway
When technical director Tyler Nelson started thinking about walkways to incorporate into On the Move.
“I was looking for inspiration in architectural structures that allow people to pass rather than creating a barrier,” he said. He knew he wanted a pathway or bridge that conveyed a sense of movement within the structure itself—a work of art as well as a functional piece of architecture. He found examples of this in the High Trestle Trail Bridge of Madrid, Iowa, and the Lachiku bamboo bridge in Tokyo, Japan. Both use square frames in a rotating pattern to cover a raised path, capturing the feeling of continuing movement.
Tyler also found an infographic illustrating population movement among countries over a twenty-year period. Using swooping, colored lines that vary in thickness to reflect the volume of people, the graph emphasizes that people and cultures move in multiple directions at once and rarely in straight lines.
Festival carpenter Anna Kann had a week and a half to turn these example images into a functional design. She left large spaces between each portal, creating multiple entry and exit points for visitors. This evoked the theme but also made the bridge more accessible as a seating area and easier to install.
“Paths lead all directions, and people come on and off at different points,” Anna explained. “It’s all fluid.”
As Anna and the rest of the technical team moved her design from paper to reality, it continued to evolve. Lighting designer Charlie Marcus added panels of multicolored LED lights under each of the portals. He wanted to attract people to the structure by day and allow them to enjoy it by night. The On the Move theme resonated with Charlie personally.
“I’m Jewish, and all my family is in New York and Florida, and there’s a still a bridge even after generations,” he said. “Whether it’s a bridge or I-95, it still connects us together.”
Scenic painter Carolyn Hampton added her own perspective, designing a series of paths on the walkway floor to evoke the themes of movement and migration. She looked at the graphic Tyler used for his initial inspiration and realized that “any linear thing wouldn’t work.” Initially the plan was to draw swoops of color, like the ones on the infographic.
“Then I had a crazy idea,” she reflected. “Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could make the bands actual pathways that are ways that people travel from one place to the other? That’s the idea behind it: people travel by ocean, or on the dirt road, or they fly.”
Carolyn’s design created a series of paths within the path, evoking roadways, railways, waterways, and skyways.
Animating the Walkway
During the first week of the Festival, Mestre João Grande and Mestre Jelon Vieira, two renowned capoeira teachers, created a new communal atmosphere on the walkway, inviting interaction and physical dialogue among vibrant traditions. Capoeira is a dance-like martial art with a long and complex history, starting as self-defense among Brazilian slaves and continuing as a significant expression of a broader sense of Brazilian tradition and identity.
João Grande and Vieira offered open classes on the Migration Walkway, encouraging people of all backgrounds and experience levels to interact. They each took one side of the walkway to demonstrate their styles of capoeira—Angola and regional, respectively—allowing the two styles to share space while retaining their distinct characteristics.
The second week, Viajeros de las Américas activated the walkway in a different manner. Group director Ubaldo Sánchez has been helping create alfombras de aserrín, or carpet murals, since he was five years old. Ubaldo is a member of the Mam people, an indigenous community in Guatemala of Mayan descent: Mam is his native language, while Spanish is his second and English his third.
For Ubaldo and others, the alfombra connects present-day traditions to Mayan history. Pre-Colombian Mayans created carpet murals of rose petals for royalty to walk on, and the Catholic Church later adopted the tradition for religious ceremonies and changed the ingredients to sawdust. Ubaldo and other Central American artists in the D.C. area have designed countless alfombras to create a sense of community and educate people of all backgrounds about Mam and Mayan traditions.
Once the artists began working on the walkway, they added new elements to their original design. First of all, the shape of the walkway surprised them.
“We thought that it was all going to be squared off,” Ubaldo said. “But when we saw it wasn’t like that, it came out really pretty with the angles it had.”
To accommodate the winding walkway, they added a slight curve to the murals. After forgetting one of the pattern molds, they created a new border design using ears of corn. Explaining the changes, Ubaldo emphasized the importance of improvisation and resourcefulness in the art of the alfombra. The final piece, synthesizing the original design and the place and time in which it was created, became part of the living art that people of all backgrounds walked across in a ceremonial procession to close the Festival.
The Migration Walkway is a representation of what people and cultures look like when they are on the move. As they moved across its surface, the builders, artists, athletes, visitors, and educators each took ownership of the structure, recreating it with their own experiences and vision. This ownership provided satisfaction, but the people responsible for the walkway were still surprised by it. Visitors interacted on the walkway with each other, even coming back at night to take pictures; capoeiristas and alfombra artists made the structure an unexpectedly integral part of their performances and teaching.
When the structure was taken down, its parts were saved, to be reassembled and used again in a future Festival. The Migration Walkway, and the people who helped build it, are still on the move.
Jessie Riddle is an intern with the 2017 On the Move program and a PhD student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Her areas of focus include Latino and Latin American Studies, stories about place, and belief studies.