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A piece by Vanessa Voskuil kicked off the Dance/USA opening celebration Wednesday night on Nicollet Island. (photo by Caroline Palmer)
By Caroline Palmer
On Wednesday night the Nicollet Island Pavilion played host to the opening night celebration for the 2014 Dance/USA conference. Fittingly, the evening began with a site-specific dance piece, “Forthcoming” (2010), choreographed by Vanessa Voskuil and using the roiling rain-swollen Mississippi River as a stunning backdrop.
The Washington, D.C.-based national dance service organization is welcoming over 400 artists, administrators, presenters and educators from around the country (and abroad) to Minneapolis for workshops, business sessions and performances taking place at the Cowles Center, Northrop Auditorium and other venues.
Local planning committee leaders Aparna Ramaswamy (co-artistic director of Ragamala Dance), Sara Thompson (external relations director at Northrop) and George Sutton (executive director of James Sewell Ballet) received warm thanks from Dance/USA executive director Amy Fitterer at Wednesday’s event for leading a nine-member team to make sure conference attendees get very opportunity to enjoy the bustling Twin Cities dance scene.
Target Corporation’s president of community relations, Laysha Ward, set the tone for the evening when she told the audience that dance played an important role in her childhood, one spent in rural Indiana where she was the only African American student in her school. She recalled watching Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on PBS. “I felt so connected to something that moved and changed me,” Ward said, adding the artist’s role as “the steward of hopes, dreams and aspirations” taught her about courage and gave her perspective on challenging social issues.
Ward’s comments were an appropriate introduction for the night’s honorees. Local dance educator Colleen Callahan-Russell, who currently teaches at Southwest High School, received the 2014 Special Citation: Inspiration. Diane Aldis from the Perpich Center for Arts Education introduced Callahan-Russell by describing her a “fearless advocate for dance.” Noting that she is entering her 33rd year helping students to discover how movement can be a part of their lives, Callahan-Russell said, “For me teaching is not perfect, it keeps me humble. My journey is always with every student to figure out what they need
The 2014 Ernie Award went to D. David Brown, executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. PNB artistic director Peter Boal presented the honor by calling Brown “a true champion for the art form. He has wisdom, patience and experience. He puts the institution first.” Brown told the conference-goers to “Do what you can, with what you have, where your are,” wise words for members of a field where financial resources are scarce even when creative resources are abundant.
Liz Lerman, who has led her own company since 1976, received the 2014 Honor Award. Lerman’s Dance Exchange is based in Takoma Park, Md., and she is well-known for work that spans generations and abilities. Urban Bush Women founding artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar praised her longtime friend as “an incredible listener and observer of the world and people.” Lerner called upon the younger dancers in the room to make sure they forged lasting and supportive relationships. “There are way more downs than ups” in the dance profession she said. “Nothing will inoculate you from failure except the people who stay with you.”
The conference will continue through Saturday.
The annual McKnight fellowships for dancers and choreographers were announced this week. Each midcareer artist receives $25,000.
The winning choreographers are Penelope Freeh, Wynn Fricke and Joanie Smith. The winning dancers are Sally Rousse, Kenna-Camara Cottman and Max Wirsing.
The dance fellows also can get funds to commission a choreographer of their choice to create a new solo work for them. The choreographer fellows are eligible to apply for additional support for a residency at one of four national partners.
The McKnight Fellowship winners are selected by a panel from submissions, and the program is administered by Northrop at the University of Minnesota.
Ragamala Dance Theatre founder Ranee Ramaswamy (right, photo by Ed Bock) was in Banana Republic at the Mall of America when she got the call that she had been awarded $275,000 from the Doris Duke Foundation in New York.
Choreographer Emily Johnson, who founded Catalyst Dance, was just about to give her dog a bath when she, too, got a similar call.
“I cried,” said Johnson, 38. “I was just stunned.”
Ramaswamy 62, had a similar reaction. “I walked out of the store and sat on a bench for God knows how long,” she said. “You know, you do your work out of love, and then a blessing like that comes.”
The Twin Cities scored big in the Doris Duke performing arts awards, announced Tuesday. In addition to Johnson and Ramaswamy, Twin Cities puppet-maker Michael Sommers was awarded $80,000 from the Duke Foundation, named for the famous arts loving philanthropist and tobacco heiress.
Golden Valley-bred composer and pianist Craig Taborn, who now lives in New York, also was awarded $275,000.
The Twin Cities-connected performers were part of a national roster of 39 artists in theater, dance and jazz who were honored this year. Choreographers Bill T. Jones, Joanna Haigood and John Jasperse were also named winners alongside playwrights David Henry Hwang, Lisa Kron and Tarell Alvin McCraney as well as jazz greats Roscoe Mitchell and Randy Weston.
In the past three years, the Duke foundation has given out more than $18 million to artists, funds that are delivered over years and that include a portion for retirement savings.
Ramaswamy who founded Ragamala 22 years ago, is in Philadelphia, where she was on a panel for the Pew Charitable Trusts. She was, with daughter Aparna, the Star Tribune’s Artist of the Year in 2011. In 2012, President Obama appointed her to the National Arts Council.
“You know, as an artist, you’re working your little thread,” said Ramaswamy. “When it gets noticed, that gives you encouragement to continue doing what you do. This is a gift like that. And to be mentioned in the same breath with Bill T. Jones, that’s a high honor.”
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.
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