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