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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.
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 Momentum Dance series, which has been an important platform for emerging dancers and choreographers in the Twin Cities for the past decade, has a new partner and new infusion of cash.
Walker Art Center and the Southern Theater, where Momentum is held, announced Thursday that the Cowles Center for Dance has come aboard. Additionally, Momentum has received a $40,000 grant, through the Cowles Center, from the Jerome Foundation to commission four choreographers to create new works for the 11th festival, which will be held July 9 – 18, 2015, at the Southern Theater.
“The Cowles Center jumped at the chance to continue the legacy created by the Momentum program,” Lynn Von Eschen, executive director of the Cowles Center, said in a statement. “The last 10 editions of the series introduced impressive voices and innovative approaches to creating dance in the Twin Cities.”
"Momentum began in 2001 out of an impulse to support emerging artists who often would be self-producing while trying to create work and do publicity and all the institutional stuff that’s necessary to have a successful evening,” said Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at Walker Art Center.
At its start, the series had three partners, including the now-defunct Dance Alliance. In its early years, Momentum was an annual festival. About six years ago, the organizers decided to make it biennial, in part to give commissioned artists more time to work, said Bither.
Michèle Steinwald, who has been program director and producer of the series since 2006, will continue in that role.
The Momentum series has commissioned more than 45 pieces since its inception. Past commissioned choreographers range from Chris Yon (photo above by Cameron Wittig), Mathew Janczewski, Hijack (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder) and Emily Johnson, to Aparna Ramaswamy, Morgan Thorson and Kenna-Camara Cottman.
In addition to supporting dancers and choreographers, the series also features collaboration among three of the principal venues that make up the dance ecology in the Twin Cities.
“It used to be that dancers graduating from the U or elsewhere would go to New York or San Francisco for work,” Bither said. “But now, not only are there opportunities that keep them here, we’re attracting dancers from the east and west coasts.”
Emerging choreographers are encouraged to apply at the Cowles website. Submissions are due Friday, April 25 by 5:00 pm.
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
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
Arwen Wilder, left, and Kristin Van Loon of the Minneapolis dance company HIJACK performed excerpts from"redundant, ready, radish, reading, Red Eye" in the atrium at City Center on Thursday.
Lunchers and shoppers at City Center are gettng an eyeful this week, as the main-floor atrium, usually a dead space that gets little traffic, became the site of some noon performances by local dance companies. Titled "Luncheon: Mid-day Modern Dance Series," the performances are intended in part as an ode to Valentine's Day week and also "to show people City Center is still alive," said Jaime Carrera, who curated the series and will perform a jazz dance on Friday. "Putting art in unconventional spaces is a goal of mine. People who haven't been exposed to modern dance can see some, free and accessible."
On Tuesday, Laurie Van Wieren raised a few brows by costuming herself in a mattress. On Wednesday, Sally Rousse showed off something more traditional, a bit of ballet. On Thursday, the two-dancer company HIJACK performed a piece they premiered at Walker Art Center in December, now and then turning heads by creating unusual movement up and down the escalators.
Some people glanced toward the dancers as they rolled, spun and interacted with chairs, then looked away, quickening their steps as they passed. Others stopped, with a range of expressions from consternation to befuddlement to smiles.
"It's a little weird, but that's good," said Target employee Kelly Gray.
"It's awesome," said Michael Flora from his perch looking down from the railing at skyway level, where most observers were congregated."A public space like this is so transitory, most people are only seeing it for about 30 seconds, but they are seeing it."
The program was paid for for by City Center and facilitated by Hennepin Theatre Trust, which operates its administrative offices and the New Century Theatre just off the atrium.
Melissa Ferlaak, director of education and community engagement for HTT, called it "an experiment. It gets people out of their comfort zone, which is what City Center needs."
Asked what he thought was going on in HIJACK's piece, Nathan Reed, the center's general manager, said "I'm not sure, but we like bringing the arts downtown."
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