En Pointe

Photograph by Jonathan Givens

May Kesler ’82PS, who laced up her first pair of ballet slippers at age two, has been dancing for over sixty years. Now she appears in several professional productions a year and regularly incorporates dance into her physical-therapy practice near Washington, DC. Kesler was selected to represent the capital city in photographer Jonathan Givens’s new book, Dance Across the USA, which showcases dancers in front of iconic American landmarks.

Frozen Assets

Rachel Drori with one of her frozen smoothies. / Photograph Courtesy of Daily Harvest

Rachel Drori ’09BUS has never had much time for home cooking. As a busy marketing professional turned CEO, she’s always appreciated the convenience of frozen food. But finding healthy options in a freezer aisle stocked with microwavable meals isn’t always easy. So in 2015, Drori decided to remedy that problem by founding Daily Harvest, a superfood company.

The New York City–based startup offers frozen smoothies, meal bowls, snacks, and desserts made from plant-based ingredients and curated by chefs and nutritionists who look to food trends for recipe inspiration. All items are sold through a subscription delivery service at seven to eight dollars each, and most can be prepared quickly with a blender, stove, or microwave, with the sole addition of water, milk, or another liquid base.

With Daily Harvest, Drori wants to rebrand frozen food as more than just fast and easy. She says that items in grocery-store freezer aisles have changed little since the 1950s — the era of Betty Crocker and TV dinners — and that the category is ripe for innovation: “People have traditionally associated frozen food with things like a bag of chicken nuggets. Nobody has thought much about what it could be.”

Photograph Courtesy of Daily Harvest

Drori hopes that people will begin to associate frozen food with healthy eating, and says that the frozen ingredients in her harvest bowls and chia parfaits are more nutritious than fresh produce because they’re picked at peak ripeness. “For example,” she says, “frozen blueberries are actually healthier than the fresh ones at Whole Foods, which are harvested while still green and degrade significantly in nutrient content during their long journey to an end user.”

Drori’s message is clearly resonating. Over the last three years, Daily Harvest has added over one hundred thousand subscribers and has attracted celebrity investors like Gwyneth Paltrow and Serena Williams. Last year, the company raised forty-three million dollars in Series B financing.

For promotion, Daily Harvest plays into the aesthetic of “food porn” by posting gorgeous images of their offerings on Instagram. “People eat with their eyes first,” Drori says. She adds that the company also sets itself apart from other food startups by reaching customers who, so to speak, have too much on their plates.

“It can be a romantic idea to make things with a delivery meal kit, but it’s also a lot of work,” says Drori. “Then there are subscription meals that require less prep time, but they’re full of additives and preservatives.”

“Everything we do is meant for busy people who don’t have time to cook or do research, and who want someone they trust to tell them what to eat,” Drori continues. “Convenience without compromising nutrition is where Daily Harvest really stands out.”

Julia Joy

High Roller

Martin Lewison and his wife Cheryl ride Ohio’s Woodstock Express (left) and celebrate coaster number 1,600 (inset). / Photograph by Martin Lewison

Even in the thrill-a-second universe of roller coasters, Taiwan’s Gravity Max is unique. The coaster lifts riders 114 feet into the air before bringing them to a lurching stop at what looks like the end of the track. For a few tense seconds, riders have a bird’s-eye view of the whole park. Then the world drops away — the track is falling!

Actually, it’s just swinging. The section of track — with the train still on it — pivots from horizontal to vertical, leaving riders facing the ground. They contemplate this new perspective for a few moments until — click — the cars are released and they plummet downward at fifty-six miles per hour, tearing into a series of loops and tunnels.

Martin Lewison ’88CC travels the world for just this sort of terrifying experience. He has ridden 1,665 coasters, including the Gravity Max, mostly with his wife Cheryl. The Lewisons have visited coasters in thirty-two countries. They’ve ridden the world’s fastest, which is Formula Rossa at Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World; and the world’s tallest, which is Kingda Ka, at New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure; the longest, which is Steel Dragon 2000, in Japan; and the weirdest, which is without a doubt the Hundeprutterutchebane (the word means “dog-fart roller coaster”) in Denmark, which entertains riders with the sounds of flatulence.

Lewison has even built his career around roller coasters. As an assistant professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York, he researches and teaches the business of amusement parks.

Lewison enjoyed theme parks as a kid growing up in New Jersey, but by the time he entered Columbia in 1984, his interests lay elsewhere — his economics classes, and the fraternity Beta Theta Pi. When he was working on a doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, a friend introduced him to the wonders of Kennywood, a local century-old amusement park with several classic wooden coasters. He met Cheryl in 2007, and she encouraged his burgeoning hobby.

While the Lewisons love the cultural exchanges of foreign parks, he says that their most unusual ride was on a farm in Indiana, where the owner had built a twenty-foot-high corkscrew coaster on top of an A-frame shed behind his house. The car had only one seat, and it came with instructions: lean to the right at the start, lean to the left at the loop.

“Most people don’t get to add that one to their list,” he says.

Ask Lewison why the couple devotes so much time to roller coasters and he’ll talk about the thrill of defying gravity, the intellectual stimulation of learning the technology behind them, the variations in style, size, color, layout, and sensation. He’ll talk about the idea of “collecting” rides, of having a reason to travel the world.

“But mostly, not much has changed since I was a ten-year-old kid on the boardwalk,” he says. “I like roller coasters because they’re fun.”

 — Alan Wechsler


Four Columbia alumni worked on a winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Casting director Jessica Daniels Schwarz ’07SOA, production designer Markus Kirschner ’09SOA, post supervisor Andrew Hauser ’12SOA, and co-producer Rob Cristiano ’13SOA were all honored for their contributions to The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The film, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, is set in a gay conversion-therapy center in the early 1990s.

Huck Hodge ’08GSAS won the Charles Ives Living Award, which grants $200,000 over a two-year period to a promising American composer. Hodge’s work, which is inspired by light patterns in nature, has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and many festivals. He teaches composition at the University of Washington.

Wei Zhang ’09GSAS and Andrea Young ’06CC, ’12GSAS are recipients of 2018 Breakthrough Prizes, a group of awards commonly known as the Oscars of science, which are funded by Mark Zuckerberg’s Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Zhang, a mathematics professor at MIT, and Young, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, each won in the New Horizons category, which recognizes extraordinary contributions by junior researchers.

Life and Nothing More, a feature film written and directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza ’08SOA, won the John Cassavetes Award at the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards. The Cassavetes award is given annually to the best feature made for under $500,000. Life and Nothing More follows a young African-American boy searching for a connection with his absent father.

Radhika Jones ’08GSAS has been named editor in chief of Vanity Fair magazine. Jones, who has a PhD in comparative literature from Columbia, was previously the managing editor of the Paris Review and editorial director of the books department at the New York Times.

Junk, a play by Ayad Akhtar ’02SOA, won this year’s Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. The play, which ran on Broadway from October 2017 through January 2018, explores how the reckless sales of junk bonds in the 1980s transformed our economy. Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his last play, Disgraced.

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— Carolina Castro

Show People

Photograph by Tetra Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Since Richard Rodgers ’23CC, ’54HON first teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II ’16CC, ’54HON, hundreds of Columbians have performed, written, directed, produced, composed, and choreographed on the Great White Way. Here are seven alumni-affiliated shows in Broadway theaters right now.

Book written by Terrence McNally ’60CC, directed by Darko Tresnjak ’98SOA
Based on the animated film of the same name, McNally and Tresnjak’s musical tells the story of a young amnesiac orphan who turns out to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Written by Tony Kushner ’78CC, ’10HON
This Tony Award–winning epic about the AIDS epidemic landed Kushner a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993. Now the two-part play is back on Broadway in a production starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield.

Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical about a carnival barker in dire straits is widely considered one of the best shows of the twentieth century. This spectacular revival features choreography by former Columbia student Justin Peck.

Book by Jennifer Lee ’05SOA
This musical fairy tale is the latest Disney phenomenon to make the leap from screen to stage. The show follows a princess as she searches for her sister in a winter wonderland, and features twice as many musical numbers as Lee’s animated film version.

Written by John Kander ’54GSAS and Fred Ebb ’57GSAS
The current production of Kander and Ebb’s classic show opened in 1996, making it the longest-running musical revival in Broadway history.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical
Music supervision by Tom Kitt ’96CC 
Theatrical magic brings the world’s most famous sponge to life as he fights to save the town of Bikini Bottom, accompanied by an impressive array of songs by David Bowie, John Legend, Cyndi Lauper, They Might Be Giants, and others.

Directed by Diane Paulus ’97SOA
Tony Award winner Paulus directs this feel-good musical about a pregnant waitress who pins her hopes and dreams on a pie-baking contest.

Trail Head

Paul Stephens clearing a trail in the Caucasus Mountains. / Photograph by Fabian Weiss

The term trailblazer is tossed around frequently. But for Paul Stephens ’09JRN, the description isn’t just laudatory: it’s literal.

For the past three summers, Stephens, thirty-six, has been bushwhacking through forests, climbing mountains, and navigating glaciers as he attempts to build the first long-distance hiking trail through the Caucasus Mountains, which divide a portion of Asia and Europe.

An avid outdoorsman who grew up in a small town in Indiana, Stephens first started exploring the Caucasus as a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia between 2005 and 2007. He returned to the US to study journalism at Columbia, then spent a few years in Yemen, writing about international affairs. In 2011, he moved back to Georgia, where he landed a communications gig with USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.

“I was visiting these different mountainous regions, and I started thinking that it would be amazing if they were connected,” Stephens says.

This idea led Stephens to found the Transcaucasian Trail initiative, which he now directs. His goal is to develop a three-thousand-kilometer-long route, which will link more than twenty existing and proposed national parks across three countries. Such a trail would not only create opportunities for pleasure but bring in much-needed tourist money, says Stephens: “Attracting world-class recreational hiking to the region could dramatically increase economic opportunities for the local people.”

The Caucasus — which spans Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and parts of Russia, Iran, and Turkey — is one of the most diverse regions in the world. Its Christian and Muslim communities speak more than forty indigenous languages, and its terrain ranges from glaciers and sixteen-thousand-foot mountains to grasslands and subtropical rainforests.

Stephens spends his summers leading teams of volunteers who build the trails, and in the fall he scouts routes for the following year — usually hiking around fifteen miles a day. In the winter, he’s more often in his office, fundraising and planning for the next season. He expects the trail will be completed by 2024.

“The same things that drove me to be involved in journalism are driving me in this project: curiosity about other people, commitment to thinking about larger issues in a region, and belief in creative solutions,” Stephens says.

While working on the trail recently, Stephens found himself in a village that had been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, before harsh winters and a lack of economic opportunity drove most families away. Over a meal, one of the villagers told Stephens and his crew of volunteers that he hoped the hikers coming through the village might give his grandkids a reason to move back. For Stephens, it was a concrete affirmation of the trail’s mission — to ensure that the natural and cultural heritage of the region will be enjoyed by future generations.

“I hope that it helps people appreciate the incredible diversity of the region, and that it gives them pride in their culture and history. And I hope that, as we work to literally connect communities, people will begin to understand each other better.” Stephens says. “We’re hikers, but we’re not just focused on the pretty landscape. There’s so much more to this project.”

— Kelley Freund

Ask an Alum

Photograph by Martino Lombezzi, Contrasto

On the Record

Francesco Spampinato ’06GSAS is a historian of contemporary art and an enthusiast of vinyl records. His 2017 book Art Record Covers explores the connections between fine art and mass media through a survey of over five hundred album covers.


COLUMBIA MAGAZINE: How does this book relate to your studies?
FRANCESCO SPAMPINATO: I’m interested in understanding what happens when art and pop culture converge. My book, which is the first to focus specifically on covers by modern and contemporary artists, examines the evolution of the record cover format in relation to artistic movements and styles.

CM: Talk about the relationship between pop culture and art.
FS: In the 1960s, the pop-art movement collapsed hierarchies between highbrow and lowbrow — between paintings and comic books, for example — and, in many ways, art and pop culture have been connected ever since. Musicians were inspired by visual artists to develop a new form of, let’s say, avant-garde for the masses. Pop music was no longer just entertainment; it became a way to convey political messages and to reshape society. And musicians started to collaborate with pop artists, like Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, and Jann Haworth.

CM: Most people stream and download their music. Why are physical records still relevant?
FS: I think we somehow need to have a tangible experience with music. The mid-2010s saw a huge revival of vinyl records; US sales have grown every year for twelve years straight. For me, this comeback is about more than just nostalgia. The Internet has caused us to lose some of our previous ways of interacting with reality, and a record is a touchable and relatable thing.

CM: What makes a great album cover?
FS: It should make you stop and think critically about what you’re looking at. A great cover by an artist isn’t a mere transposition of his or her work but an image that adapts to the rules of media and marketing, and that also echoes the music. It maintains the intellectual dimension of the artist’s oeuvre but in a different context.

5 Important Album Covers Worth a Second Look

RECORD: The Velvet Underground & Nico (self-titled), 1967
ARTIST: Andy Warhol
“This is one of the most iconic covers of all time. Warhol’s artwork suggests that even bananas can be repurposed as mass media — the image on the cover is a sticker that, once removed, reveals a peeled banana underneath. As the band’s manager, Warhol also proposed a new role for the artist as a producer of mainstream culture.”

RECORD: Nervous Breakdown (Black Flag), 1980 
ARTIST: Raymond Pettibon
“Pettibon is an artist who really understands the relationship between art and music. His cover for Black Flag’s first EP reflects the energy of punk and the compelling need of young people to rebel against the society of adults.”

RECORD: Artpop (Lady Gaga), 2013
ARTIST: Jeff Koons
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Koons did a series of erotic photos and sculptures of himself with his then wife, the porn star Cicciolina. Gaga approached him to create something similar. She even references Koons in her song ‘Applause’ with the lyric, ‘One second I’m a Koons, then suddenly the Koons is me.’”

RECORD: Windowlicker (Aphex Twin), 1999
ARTIST: Chris Cunningham
“The cover of this single is derived from Cunningham’s music videos for Aphex Twin. I remember the joy of watching his work on MTV and then seeing it at major art shows. It was proof for me that art can originate in pop culture and then be appreciated and acknowledged by the art world.”

Album Covers Courtesy of Taschen

RECORD: Beat Bop (Rammellzee vs. K-Rob), 1983
ARTIST: Jean-Michel Basquiat
“This is a fundamental record. First, because this ten-minute rap battle is a hip-hop milestone. Second, because Basquiat made the cover in his neo-expressionist style borrowed from infographics and cartoons. Third, because graffiti artist Rammellzee raps on it. Last but not least, because Basquiat produced it himself.”

— Julia Joy

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