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Flash Dispatch 2, 3-16: Midwest Dancemaking
Searching for the Highest Common Denominator in Minneapolis and Chicago

By Karinne Keithley
Copyright 2001 Karinne Keithley

So I've just returned from a Midwestern month -- three weeks in Minneapolis, one in Chicago. Now, back in New York at my computer, the #1 Chinese Garden lights blinking steadily, I'm assimilating the information of the last few weeks in the part of my brain dedicated to The Space Crisis and the Question of New York (call it what you will -- I think we're all unfortunately familiar with the problem). Each of these cities offers a viable alternative to New York, with active arts scenes, available space, and slightly more affordable rents. I'll tell you what I saw, in some scattered impressions of these two towns.

I had heard much about Minneapolis from a good college friend who grew up dancing there as a scholarship student at Zenon, a repertory company of modern and jazz works. From her telling, Zenon seemed to be a central organizing point of the dance community. In addition to functioning as a school for training and professional classes, the company cultivated active and ongoing relationships with New York choreographers including Bebe Miller, Doug Varone and Mark Dendy, before such figures were the established artists that they now are. (These relationships continue: Varone was back in Minneapolis this fall creating a new work for the company; newer regulars like Allyson Green and Wil Swanson have joined the roster of guests.)

My principal interaction with Minneapolis was also through Zenon; I had been commissioned to make a new piece for its repertory. The company, now almost 20 years old, is still actively acquiring repertory, and still headed up by the same woman who founded it, the tireless Linda Andrews. There are even original company members still dancing (both of whom kick ass), Denise Armstead and Christine Maginnis. With seven full members and one apprentice, the company works most of the year, on salary, with time off in January and in the summer. It rehearses from 11:15 to 4 p.m. daily, surviving on grants, the generosity of local benefactors, and a lot of state-supported school residencies.

It's made up of an odd and lovely assortment of folks, this company, with a good ensemble vibe despite their disparate stylistic backgrounds. It seems, though, that there have been other moments when the company was more defined. Like any scene, the Minneapolis dance community appears to exist in waves, often suffering right at the crest from an (inevitable?) attrition -- the old lure of New York City. I wondered if the current makeup of Zenon was a microcosm of the larger scene: continuing, but not exactly unified. Looking for a new sense of definition.

What Minneapolis has that makes this continuation possible -- survival of companies even during the less defined moments (and not just survival, but salaries and audiences) -- are the two critical components of an arts infrastructure: financial support and interested audiences.

The hero of the Minneapolis dance scene is, I think, the Jerome Foundation, which is based in Minnesota, and funds artists exclusively in Minnesota and New York. But whereas we small fry choreographers in New York are competing with larger and more visible fish in our pond, there's less competition in Minneapolis. My Zenon residency was funded by support from Jerome. An emerging choreographer friend of mine who, until recently, lived in Minneapolis, routinely received from $10,000-$12,000 a year to produce work. And most radically of all, Jerome actually offers fellowships to dancers to support their work with various choreographers, a much needed reversal of the hierarchy of respect (as reflected by money, as is the great American way) in the dance world.

So dancers and choreographers in Minneapolis actually have access to the kind of support that I've only heard about in New York, that helped make the golden age of the dance boom, when rents were low and the NEA gave grants to individuals and small companies. Funding at the moment when artists are not yet established and visible is critical to the next generation of companies and dance artists. But in this time when we here in New York are increasingly having to align with the dominance of the market (i.e. perform only where aligned with the highly profitable sale of alcohol), Minneapolis still offers a public funding option.

The other half of that balance is that there is actually a public that wants to see dance. Minneapolis isn't a stylish town, but it loves its arts. Well-educated, enthusiastic audiences abound. I went to concerts there and got the crazy feeling that there were people there who weren't dancers! Twice I saw performances in massive auditoriums -- much larger than the Joyce, more the size of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's theaters, with full houses. Local choreographers were publicized prominently and enthusiastically in local papers.

It sounds like a dancer's paradise, right? The catch? Well, I didn't get a broad enough sense of the scene to state this definitively, but my sense was that there was a missing edge. Seeing Robin Stiehm's "Dancing People Company," I was dismayed at the bland dancerliness of it all. Still thin and pretty. In a recent article in the Washington Post, Sean Curran said it rather diplomatically (he was part of an adjudicating committee for local dance works in the D.C. area): "New York has every brand of dance, and in New York, dancers are more experimental investigating their own responses to movement. Outside of New York I tend to think people are dealing with bigger themes -- unrequited love, loss, relationships."

Okay, big themes are important, and I often think that our sophisticated abstraction is constituted in large part by an unfortunate fear of sincerity. But the end-of-relationship dance in Stiehm's concert was so simplistic as to remind me of the worst of the American College Dance Festival Association (an annual torture-fest of college choreography) -- it even went as far as costuming the poor dancers in silky pajamas. But more shocking was the glowing review of the concert in the Star Tribune the next day, praising the sophistication of the work, calling it evocative though never literal. (By the way, the title of the duet was "Leaving," and it was performed to the most sentimental composition of Arvo Part that I have ever heard. Sound like college to you yet?) So is this the dilemma of the overspecialized corner we have painted ourselves into here in the "dance capital"? Ah, but I refuse to believe that "real folk" need to be fed pretty, obvious, passionate, and well-behaved dancing. Couldn't we search for the Highest Common Denominator? Sorry, there's a bit of venom showing up here. A speedy rant is always indicative of a long-standing complaint. Age-old dilemmas, these are. Case in point: David Parsons.... I think I don't need to explain that one.

So let me switch cities. My stop in Chicago on the way home wasn't a business stop, but was certainly for the purpose of investigating the town as a potential new home, evaluating the arts community, costs, etc. I'll lay out my impressions briefly. Chicago is a working man's town, the self-proclaimed "City of Broad Shoulders." This extends to the artists. There's not a lot of posturing, but everyone seems to be working hard. The Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois-Chicago both foster an incredibly strong, young visual arts community. But unlike, for example Portland, Oregon, a bastion of youth culture with little sense of growth after your band breaks up, Chicago has the vibe of young artists doing serious work that will continue to grow and thrive. Well-positioned between youth culture and supported arts environment, it has an accessibility that is sometimes lacking in New York, where the Institution of it all already exists.

I wasn't there over a weekend, so my impressions of the performance community were derived only from posters, listings and talking to folks, but it seems that the new hybrid form of dance theater entertainment is taking hold there. (In a town already famous for its theater and comedy.) The performance companies there, interestingly, don't seem to suffer from the phenomenon of the 'me and my dancers' naming scheme. Companies have names like Lucky Pierre, Mad Shak, and Goat Island. Oh, and there's miles and miles of space available.

The drawbacks? It's cold and windy. It's not uber-glam. They've got no pacifying additive in their tap water that tells you that the rest of the world is less important than the city you're now in. But it seems like a fine quotient of professionalism. And you know, they did invent the skyscraper.

It comes down to a complicated set of balances. Space enough to work, scene enough to inspire, little enough scene to leave room for imagination. Infrastructure enough to accommodate the creation of new work, but not so large as to have lost imagination or lost touch with the younger generation of artists. So if that anticipated Brooklyn Revival of Downtown Dance doesn't ever come to fruition, you may just find me in a warmer coat somewhere in the Chicago meat-packing district hanging out with some nice Polska kielbasa, making dances.

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