WASHINGTON — No, you’re not imagining things.
There are actually jazz musicians skateboarding at the Kennedy Center and film crews shooting skaters in your backyard swimming pool.
Both efforts are coming to the surface this week in our nation’s capital, thanks to a special two-week event by the Kennedy Center and a short doc by Run Riot Films that’s catching fire on Vimeo.
So how in the world did these wild ideas come about?
Grab your board. It’s time to hit the creative ramp.
‘Finding a Line’ at the Kennedy Center
When you think of the Kennedy Center, you probably don’t think skateboarding.
But all of that is about to change with the new Millennium Stage program, “Finding a Line: Skateboarding, Music and Media,” which pairs jazz and skateboarding from Sept. 4-13.
“These are high school fantasies I’m living out,” says Jason Moran, Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center and co-curator of the Finding a Line event. “In the ’80s, I was down in Houston with my brothers and my friends in the neighborhood and we all skated. A lot of those skate videos that were being made in the ’80s also had great soundtracks on them, so you’d hear a lot of punk bands and, every once in a while, you’d also hear a really great jazz recording.”
Moran recalls watching Mark Gonzales skate to John Coltrane in “Video Days.”
“I never forgot that jazz had a relationship to skating,” Moran says. “There were a lot of parallels. It’s kind of a relationship with youth culture, ambition and striking out, doing things yourself, making ramps and all kinds of stuff, so it seemed to make a lot of sense that I would get interested in jazz.”
At some point, Moran chose the path of music, but he never forgot his love for skateboarding.
“I would be practicing piano and my friends would be skating and riding bikes outside the house, and that would make me sad,” he recalls. “Eventually I just gave up skating because I got way more interested in piano, but I never got rid of the passion of watching skaters perform.”
Then, about three years ago, he was working at the San Francisco Jazz Center when he got an idea.
“Every time I come to San Francisco, I can only think about skating, because when we would take family vacations there, my brothers and I would bring our skateboards. San Francisco is like a skating mecca, so I wanted to celebrate that tradition. I asked the center if they would consider bringing a ramp inside the concert hall, and so we did.”
Unlike in San Francisco, Moran’s Kennedy Center event is not inside the hall, like most Millennium Stage shows. Instead, the Kennedy Center has built a skate ramp just outside the building.
“We have way more real estate out at the Kennedy Center,” Moran says. “These beautiful plazas and these beautiful marble walls. There’s so much space to make this go a lot further, because I always envisioned it as an outdoor event.”
Festival co-curator Ben Ashworth designed the skate bowl and other ramps, providing new exposure for the typical Kennedy Center audience — and vice versa.
“The people who will be showing up for the orchestra, they will have to see a skate ramp for a couple of weeks, and the skaters will have to see some violins,” Moran says. “A lot of young people out here who are into sports and into skating have a lot of other passions as well, and I’m interested in how music intersects those people … who move their bodies to it, whether they’re doing exercise or skating or writing, how music fuels those thoughts. This is one of those intersections.”
Moran says there’s a shared beat to many different forms of art and sport.
“There’s something innate in everyone about how we feel rhythm,” Moran says. “I’m looking at the everyday … relationship they have with tempo and with rhythm. … When their boards slap against the ramp or their wheels hit the ground — what that sound is, is also part of the orchestra.”
He hopes this idea will provide for some crossover between lowbrow and highbrow guests.
“Coming to a place like the Kennedy Center, which is such a refined space presenting some of the best that the performing arts has to offer of the world, sometimes we feel a bit intimidated by these spaces, this beautiful white building with very tall ceilings … where is our place in that?” Moran asks. “For a forum like skating … and its relationship to cutting-edge music, there is a conversation we can have about it. We can actually think about it for a couple of weeks together.”
The skateboard-jazz performances are free to the public for two weeks, except for the closing event where Moran himself will perform a ticketed event with his own jazz band The Bandwagon.
A few skaters — Chuck Treece, Ray Barbee, Ron Allen — may also join in the music.
“Some of the great skaters are also musicians,” Moran says. “At any point that they feel ready, they can step off their board and then come onto the bandstand with us and play with us.”
There are also open skate sessions for folks who sign safety waivers.
That means you can “find your own line.”
“‘Finding a line’ is terminology that pool skaters use,” Ashworth says. “When you drop into a pool for the first time, you gotta find a line, right? It’s also a metaphor for life.”
Draining Pools with Run Riot
Speaking of which, the D.C. film production company Run Riot Films has captured a similar phenomenon in the new short film “DCDC.” It follows the skateboarding group DCDC, formerly the DC Downhill Club now known as DC Drain and Clean, which skates in drained swimming pools.
“A lot of them used to be surfers,” Run Riot co-founder Josie Swantek says. “Here they are stuck inland, missing the surfing vibe, missing the sport, so they take longboards and they start doing downhill skateboarding. And from that downhill skateboarding community, one of the guys said, hey, I’ve got a pool that I’m thinking about skating … That’s how DCDC was born.”
Soon, the skateboarders began using Google Earth satellite images to find dilapidated pools in the DC area, before knocking on residents’ doors to ask permission to drain their pools for skateboarding.
“It was just such a crazy story that I was like, we gotta film that,” says Chris Tuss, director of the film and co-founder of Run Riot Films. “We filmed all last summer and had a handful of shoots with the guys as they approached homes, found homes, got dirty, cleaned some pools and skated.”
The company’s title, Run Riot, is fitting because the video has truly “run riot” on the Internet.
“We put it out on a Thursday evening. By Friday afternoon, it had a couple thousand views and was picked as a Vimeo Staff Pick,” Tuss says. “It just took off from there, and now it’s up to over 67,000 views on our Vimeo page. It did, over the course of three or four days, spread really quick (and was) picked up by a bunch of blogs, so we’re really thrilled how that happened.”
The film’s popularity is a product of its unique premise.
“These pools have been abandoned for a reason,” Tuss says. “The upkeep of a pool is pretty expensive and sometimes it just goes into disrepair and it becomes full of rainwater and dirt and muck and mosquitoes and turtles and frogs. So they thought, why don’t we approach the houses, we can offer to clean the dirt out of their pool … and on top of that, we’ll ask them: can we fix your fence, can we repair your shed, can we mow your lawn? Is there anything we can barter with so that you as the homeowner will allow us to be on your property? So it’s sort of a win-win.”
This barter system made for unexpected relationships in the communities.
“The woman in the video, Iris, they went by her house for a year and probably knocked 20 times before Iris finally answered the door,” Tuss says. “What was Iris thinking when she answered the door? You have this group of skateboarders just knocking up at your house.”
“What I love about it is the cultural exchange that you have happening. You’ve got a historically black community in D.C. and then this group of skateboarders approaching, knocking on doors and saying, hey, we want to skate your pool,” Swantek says. “Beyond that, it’s not just about the skating, it’s become a real relationship and a friendship with a lot of the people in the community. … Iris and the guys have a real friendship that has grown out of this, and I just think that is beautiful.”
Aside from the human relationships, the film also explores the benefit of technology.
“Back in the day of skateboarding in the early ’70s in California, those guys would rent planes and they would fly around and mark on maps where the saw empty pools, so this is the new version of that,” Tuss says. “You don’t need to rent planes anymore, you can just get on Google Earth.”
Run Riot’s filmmaking process marks a similar technological evolution. Instead of old-school helicopter shots, Tuss and company used drones to get aerial shots over the swimming pools.
“Nowadays with the technology that’s out there, as filmmakers we have a lot of tools at our disposal to get some really interesting shots,” Tuss says. “That drone was a big-boy drone. It was an octocopter, it wasn’t a GoPro, it was a legit, big Red Scarlet camera on that thing, getting a very expensive camera on a flying piece of equipment and getting some really cool shots.”
The octocopter had gimbals, allowing operator Bryan Harvey to fly the drone while cinematographer Dave Adams controlled pans and Tuss monitored framing via a remote monitor.
“It was really a passion project for Run Riot,” Tuss says. “We didn’t have a specific client in mind for it, it was just a cool story that we wanted to capture. So I think that took off a lot of the pressure. We could do it how we wanted to do it.”
Run Riot, which has a second office in Brooklyn, has been in business for nearly five years, handling various clients, including the DC Central Kitchen, the National Zoo and the Smithsonian.
Swantek and Tuss met at Catholic University, where Tuss studied engineering and Swantek explored media studies. After college, Tuss flew to Los Angeles to explore filmmaking, serving as a production assistant and finding editing gigs in postproduction houses. When he returned to the East Coast to be closer to his family — including former WTOP reporter Adam Tuss — he landed a gig at National Geographic, where he met Swantek and Adams. Together, the trio formed Run Riot Films.
Next on the horizon: a feature-length documentary called “Selling Our Daughters,” an exposé about a nonprofit on the Thai-Burmese border that’s supposed to fight sex trafficking. They’re currently crunching to hit the deadline for Sundance, where Swantek’s former D.C. filmmaking mentors, Sean and Andrea Nix Fine, won Best Directing for “War Dance” (2007).
“I coproduced ‘War Dance’ with Sean and Andrea, and I was in Northern Uganda with Sean and the crew. My time at Fine Films was very formative. I consider them mentors and friends to this day,” Swantek says of the Fines, the Chevy Chase couple who won an Oscar for their doc short “Inocente” (2012). “That’s the beauty of D.C. A lot of people don’t think about it as having a strong film and creative community, but it’s here and it’s growing.”
Thus, D.C. continues turning cinematic pipedreams into tangible Hollywood pipelines for half-pipe filmmakers. Consider “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleischer, a D.C. native who got his start directing skate videos, not so different from the dudes who skated Walter White’s pool in “Breaking Bad.”
Whether it’s a camera lens, a jazz instrument or a skateboard wheel, art is all around us.
“What skaters do is they rely on the landscape,” Moran says. “They reconsider what the picnic table is used for or what the curb is used for. So all of those things have double uses or triple uses and they kind of go through life looking at every surface. … This is a serious, serious form.”
So the next time you see folks examining the composition of a space, finding a line and measuring the angles, they might not be filmmakers or musicians — they might just be skateboarders.