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Large-scale dance work ponders big questions

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: April 4, 2014 - 11:09 AM
Photo by Grant Halvorson.

POST BY CAROLINE PALMER, SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE

Vanessa Voskuil’s “The Student” premiered Thursday night at The O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University. The evening-length work makes an impression, not only for its cast of over 150 dancers and singers but also for its strong conceptual vision, albeit one that is only partly realized. The thematic connections are both brilliant and tenuous. There are spellbinding moments of visual and kinetic harmony. And while ultimately “The Student” loses its way over the course of two hours, it still shows a fascinating journey through its creator’s mind.

This ritual-like work is built around the massing of groups of people engaged in repetitive movement and idiosyncratic breaks. As the performers enter the auditorium walking backwards they move with a sense of gravitas, slowly and purposefully, determined to maintain a respectful order. Their neutral-colored costumes and spare environment suggest a stark futuristic society, one in which emotions are stripped down and repurposed.

And that is an important point – Voskuil actually delves into an array of human states in “The Student” and yet they are not dramatic. The work, set to sternum stirring compositions from Janika Vandervelde and sound designer Jesse Whitney, is about the process of learning and, consequently, the process of becoming through learning. This evolution is deliberate, marked by visual and textual tableaux. We see hints of pioneering avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson’s influence here. Voskuil’s peeling back of layer upon layer of meaning from subtle sources reflects a shared approach.

“The Student” stands out for its intelligence and questioning spirit. Both Paul Herwig and Chris Conry ponder the existential quandaries Voskuil poses, but they also add wit and wordplay to the mix. There’s black humor in the recurring appearance of a hanging noose, complete with a cardboard cutout of Voskuil. The performers sit and scribble in the air around them, rote learners eventually overwhelmed by the task. A gorgeous sense of flow unfolds as movement ripples through the crowds onstage, especially as the performers roll from the back of the stage and fall into the orchestra pit, as if controlled by a force far bigger than them. And they are – Voskuil, despite her slight frame, is a powerful presence with a command of how to move large groups of people for her creative ends.

But the work has diminishing returns, despite an injection of impressive voice work from members of the Perpich Center for Arts Education Chorale Ensemble, Hamline University Women’s Chorale and St. Catherine’s University Women’s Choir. The questioning grows weary in its circularity and the work struggles to find an ending. The themes become repetitive and less interesting, too self-involved. In some respects one could argue this is the moment of mastery, when everyone in the piece (and watching it, too) finds an answer. But Voskuil’s intentions are not that pat. The process of learning often reveals nothing more than the need to continue searching.

“The Student” will be performed again Friday, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. For information go to http://oshag.stkate.edu.

Dance world honors (and roasts) Sally Rousse

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: April 1, 2014 - 1:44 PM
Sally Rousse / Star Tribune photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii

Fans filled the seats at the Cowles Center on Sunday night to celebrate James Sewell Ballet co-founder Sally Rousse. “Sally Jubilee!” marked the dancer/choreographer’s 50th birthday and the end of an era as she is moving on from the company after 24 years. So it was only fitting that the evening began with a tongue-in-cheek eulogy from animator Bill Burnett, who created the cartoon "Tutu the Superina" for Nickelodeon with Rousse.

“She who danced has gone on to join the other late greats in ballet heaven,” he intoned. “Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Travolta.” Of course the joke is that none of these folks have passed on but people react to career changes like they are a sort of death.

Video of Rousse and Sewell working out moves early in their partnership showed two young innovators with a lot of creative chutzpah. When they stepped onstage Sunday night to perform the beautiful duet “Tryst” each showed that the passage of life events – including their marriage, two children and divorce – can deepen an onstage bond.

While there were many tender moments including the return of former Sewell members Christian Burns and Brittany Fridenstine-Keefe the evening was also filled with plenty of fond jokes at Rousse’s expense. According to Sewell her studio nickname is “tree frog” because of an uncanny ability to climb around on other dancers’ bodies. Dancer/choreographer Penelope Freeh, a Sewell Ballet member for 17 years, recalled how Rousse hopped into the cab of an idling beer truck blocking an alleyway in order to move it so they load up their car for a tour. “The driver was dumbstruck,” said Freeh, “But it got the job done.”

And speaking of making things happen, Patrick Scully, who introduced contact improvisation to the Sewell Ballet, described Rousse’s activist spirit by recounting how the petite ballerina stood up to the Cowles Center architects who were entertaining the notion of having the dancers use the same bathrooms as the patrons.

Perhaps the funniest scene of the night, however, belonged to the performance trio Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King and Monica Thomas) wearing tutus and toe shoes, assuming ballet poses while reciting a list of  wild rumors about why Rousse was leaving Sewell Ballet. “She was fired,” they hissed. “She was hit by a bus! She slept with the boss! She’s moving to a cattle ranch in Australia where the cattle are in dances narrated by Hugh Jackman! She had Hugh Jackman’s baby! She quit and tore up all the costumes! It was a frenzy of tulle!” It was a brilliant send-up of the dance scene’s catty side.

Many expressions of appreciation for Rousse came from the heart. Freeh described Rousse’s willingness to share her roles with other dancers. Longtime friend, the poet Heid Erdrich, called her “intrepid not tepid.” All of the evening’s performers waltzed with Rousse while wearing costumes from her roles (including Sewell modeling Rousse’s hamburger tutu and French-fry headpiece from 2011’s “Le Dance Off”). Former Sewell and current Minnesota Dance Theatre member Justin Leaf serenaded Rousse with a sweet rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

The show concluded with Rousse and Noah Bremer of Live Action Set dancing an excerpt from a work they are developing for the American Swedish Institute. “What’s next?” he asked Rousse. “It’s in the lobby!” she exclaimed, while being carried off funeral-style by her fellow dancers. The Brass Messengers struck up a festive march.It was time for birthday cupcakes.  

The poet in the library

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: March 28, 2014 - 12:16 PM

Do gays have a special affinity for libraries? Yes, if we are to believe poet Greg Hewett. He spoke March 27 at Quatrefoil Library, which recently moved its LGBT holdings from St. Paul to a new spot in a senior housing project on Lake St. and 13th Av. S. in Minneapolis.

In a writers-in-residence program sponsored by his publisher, Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press, Hewett was "embedded" at Quatrefoil, where he spent about a week reading, talking to patrons,  and getting to know the collection.

His talk at the library drew a full house.

Hewett, raised in Ithaca, N.Y., has lived in the Twin Cities for 20 years. He is a associate professor of English at Carleton College in Northfield. His books of poetry include "Darkacre," 'The Eros Conspiracy" and "Red Suburb."

Hewett said he treasured trips to the library as boy, and recalled that he once stole a book about gay authors through history, as he was too nervous to check it out age 15. (He more recently returned it, told the story, and was given a pardon on the overdue fine.)

One thing that impressed him about Quatrefoil were its historic holdings, including publications of the 1950s gay group, the Mattachine Society.

Hewett said a collection in which all the materials were gay-themed was like a symphony, as opposed to the "solos" of LGBT books scattered among the holdings of a bigger, mainstream library.

Hewett had asked some audience members to write brief statements about books they had read from Quatrefoil's collection. One man praised "The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's," Ricardo J. Brown's memoir of being gay in St. Paul in the 1940s. Other books that came up for praise were Alan Hollinghurst's novel "The Line of Beauty" and a collection of short memoirs by gay men who grew up in the rural Midwest, called "Farm Boys."

Hewett said his Quatrefoil residency led him to re-commit to a project that he hopes to complete this summer, rewriting an old, never-published novel.

Chris Fischbach of Coffee House said other writer-libary pairings in the program have included Lightsey Darst at Walker Art Center's library and Ed Bok Lee at a small library at the American Swedish Institute.

Quatrefoil Library, co-founded by Dick Hewetson and the late David Irwin, opened in 1986. It has more than 14,000 books in its collection, plus other materials. Those with memberships may borrow materials, excluding rare books and periodicals. It is located at 1220 E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.

Mad King Thomas on (secret) home tour

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: March 27, 2014 - 9:51 AM

POST BY CAROLINE PALMER, SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE

Mad King Thomas members, from left, Theresa Madaus, Tara King, Monica Thomas. Photo by Mad King Thomas.

While the idea of bringing into a performance into someone’s home is not a new one, it’s still a concept worth exploring. A house is not a controlled environment like a theater – there are no special lights or sets or a proscenium to separate the artists and audience. On the other hand, there are many more choices to make about how to interact with the environment (and not break anything or need to call the fire department).

For the daring Sage Award-winning performance trio of Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King and Monica Thomas) a house is the perfect setting for their new project “The Narrator is Suspect,” a glimpse into each woman’s background.

The many ideas underlying the work are drawn from travels the three artists took last year to one another’s childhood abodes (King: Albuquerque, New Mexico; Madaus: Cody, Wyoming; and Thomas: Great Barrington, Massachusetts). The three Macalester College alumni met one another’s relatives and observed how their own interactions with family differed from those of friends and colleagues.

Dubbing the entire effort an “immersive home experience,” Mad King Thomas plans to explore the secret histories we all hold and how they are translated with the passage of time and the capacity of memory. Public performances are at an undisclosed home in south Minneapolis this weekend (there have been some private showings as well).

“The Narrator is Suspect” will take place March 28 and 29 at 8 p.m. Reservations are required, so RSVP to madkingthomas@gmail.com for a spot. Admission is $10-$20 (sliding scale). For further information go to www.madkingthomas.com.

Just in, these added shows:
Thursday, April 3 at 7:30pm in St. Paul
Friday, April 4 at 7pm in northeast Minneapolis
Friday, April 11 at 8pm in south Minneapolis

Bedlam debuts Lowertown space with Morgan Thorson work

Posted by: Claude Peck Updated: March 24, 2014 - 12:38 PM
From left: Genevieve Muench,  Morgan Thorson, Max Wirsing and Jessica Cressey. Photo by Farrington Starnes.

Bedlam Theatre held its first performance Saturday night at its new Lowertown space in St. Paul and what good fortune to kick things off with the premiere of Morgan Thorson’s “YOU.” Thorson and her crew showed off some of the many possibilities for the big, airy refurbished room with a view of the Union Depot and waiting-to-be-used light rail tracks right outside the window. After the curtain call Bedlam co-founder Maren Ward thanked everyone for attending the “soft opening” (bigger festivities are planned for later this spring, when the space will open its accompanying bar and restaurant).

“YOU” explores the dynamics of a dance ensemble as well as the different personalities that emerge over the course of the creative process. This particular work delves into the positive aspects of interplay and how individuality sparks a collective goal. Joined by the terrific cast of Jessica Cressey, Genevieve Muench, Max Wirsing and special guest Emma Barber, Thorson (a two-time Sage Award-winner) has once again illustrated how a simple concept like collaboration can lead to a much deeper exploration of relationships and movement.

The audience is seated at each end of the space, so some of the experience depends on your location. Thorson plays with this dynamic, running the dancers around the space (and even some of the back rooms) but also experimenting with perspective, constantly shifting the front of the work so that it no longer seems necessary. The movement is pedestrian but when set to everything from Michael Jackson, Bee Gees and experimental harpist Zeena Parkins it acquires an extra level of confidence and showmanship.

Thorson injects several eclectic references to the work. There is a tiny twerk here and there, coupled with a skittering shuffle. All of the dancers don red velvet costumes with gold brocade, as if they ripped down the curtains from a Summit Avenue mansion (Cressey still wears the rod across her shoulders). They dance with determination and a high level of physical propulsion while looking like outcasts from a very peculiar marching band. It’s an excellent visual.

Midway through “YOU” the dancers chant “We trust that things are coming together,” reminding us that they are good dancers, we are “good lookers” and they look good in their costumes, too (created by Merrill Stringer and Thorson). As in many moments throughout the evening, Thorson uses self-reference to shift the perspective again. She and the other dancers work with such focus and commitment, that even the most lighthearted moments unfold with the same sort of care. This is a fine example of how five people can truly become one – or even one another.

Who:  Morgan Thorson

What: “YOU”

When: 8 p.m. Mon. & Thu.-Sat. Ends Mar. 29

Where: Bedlam Lowertown, 213 E. 4th St., St. Paul.

Tickets: $12-$18 (Mar. 24 pay-as-able). 612-341-1038 or www.bedlamtheatre.org

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