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Patrick Scully poses as poet Walt Whitman. Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler.
POST BY CAROLINE PALMER, SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
Sometimes the best way to learn about an artist is through the perspective of another artist. With “Leaves of Grass – Uncut” Patrick Scully summons the radical spirit of 19th-century poet Walt Whitman. Over the course of the show, which had its first performance Thursday night as part of the Fresh Ink Series at the Illusion Theater, we learn that the two men have much in common when it comes to defying rules and embracing life.
Scully assumes the role of Whitman, talking through his life story, railing against the puritan morals of his day, lauding the love of other men, extolling his contemporaries (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oscar Wilde) and reading excerpts from his works. Whitman, as portrayed by Scully, is a confident man who explains how he would code his language to escape the wrath of a rabidly homophobic society. Despite these efforts, Whitman’s works were banned and critics were quick to denounce him with their harshest words, which is hard to imagine today given the significant influence and great beauty of his writing.
But Whitman was undeterred by these obstacles, which explains why he is such a hero to Scully, a proud rabble-rouser himself. With “Leaves of Grass – Uncut” Scully creates an onstage world that Whitman would have appreciated. Seventeen men dance together in tender, sensual and playful moments. In the opening scene they strip down entirely to bathe, setting the tone for an evening about relationships between men and how society has sought to deny them.
The movement itself is based in contact improvisation, which emphasizes the intuitive give and take of dancing with another person. Scully’s company members take great care to support and inspire one another. Kevin Kortan makes an appearance as Whitman’s lover Peter Doyle and in one of the work’s more poignant moments they discuss the poet’s refusal to use the pronoun “he” (instead using “she”) in his writing to describe their passionate relationship. Scully shows us that Whitman wasn’t always so bold.
The Fresh Ink series provides opportunities for artists to try out new ideas. Scully still has some work to do with tightening up the production – there are a couple of false endings – but it is a heartfelt salute to Whitman. Without this daring poet’s soaring words and his willingness to take risks in a hostile era, we may never know what it means to “sing the body electric.” Scully is the perfect caretaker for Whitman’s legacy.
“Leaves of Grass – Uncut” continues through Sunday, July 13 (8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m. Sun). Illusion Theatre, Cowles Center, eighth floor, 528 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. $14-$19, 612-339-4944 or illusiontheater.org.
While immersive, site-specific dance-theater has been popular in New York and elsewhere for several years, as evidenced by such long-running shows as "Sleep No More" by Punchdrunk Theater, it is more rarely seen in the Twin Cities.
In "KOM HIT!" Audience members, who are encouraged to wear stick-on moustaches a la Strindberg, may wander freely from room to room, up staircases and into hallways. You may be invited into a room for a solo performance by a singer playing electric guitar, or witness a thrashing dancer in a "mad scene" through the window of a what looks like a walk-in closet.
Here a woman gazes at her reflection in a mirror, there a teenaged girl plays electric bass with an angel-wing-wearing guy on the accordion. Feathers drop into the foyer from above. A sad creature writhes alone on a bare wood floor.
The troupe numbers more than 14 performers, but co-creators Sally Rousse and Noah Bremer are showcased in certain "episodes," including a group scene in the American Swedish Institute's top floor that involves posing for photographs and passing through a large picture frame. Well-known Ballet of the Dolls dancer Stephanie Fellner gets a lot to do, and does it well. In the end, however, the piece is more about mood and movement, perhaps the ephemeral nature of souls and old houses, than it is a coherent narrative.
See "KOM HIT!" at 6 and 7:30 p.m. on June 26 and July 1, 3, 8 and 10. $20, 612-871-43907, or go here.
The performances are timed to the opening of a terrific small photo show in the new wing at ASI. Turns out old August S. was both a fashion hound and a fan of selfies (well before the term came into vogue, and almost at the dawn of photography itself). The photos of Strindberg come from Fotografiska, Sweden's preeminent photo museum.
The Powerpoint slide in Cecily Sommers' much-debated keynote Thursday at Dance/USA located "innovation" at the intersection of art and science. (photo by Caroline Palmer)
By Caroline Palmer
The Dance/USA conference continued Thursday at the Cowles Center with statistics, futurism, workshops and showcases. Executive director Amy Fitterer kicked off the morning plenary by reporting the conference data: 31 states represented, over 400 attendees, 50 volunteers from the Minnesota dance community, 50 scholarship recipients and performances by 30 local artists. “There’s endless dance in this city,” she said.
Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in New York went so far as to call the Twin Cities among the greatest in the world for arts and arts philanthropy. He spent several years here as senior program manager for the Dayton-Hudson Foundation and manager of community relations for Target stores.
Cecily Sommers provoked some strong reactions to her keynote presentation. After recounting her personal journey from professional dancer to chiropractor and now global trends analyst, Sommers urged the conference attendees to “step out into something you’ve never done before” and to “get super-curious about what’s happening in the world” in order to adapt to the fast-changing world. Sommers used examples from the technology and science boom (the advent of 3-D printers and genetically modified organisms) as well as corporate and entrepreneurial business models that use unexpected approaches to draw attention.
But as local choreographer Chris Schlichting pointed out during the question and answer session, Sommers’ message also hewed to a capitalist model where the end goal of risk-taking is making money, which is rarely true of the dance world. For most artists (and especially in cash-poor dance), innovation is borne out of the ability to do so much with so little. Meaningful funding is welcome but cannot be taken for granted so artists are constantly working on creative ways to keep their efforts alive that extend beyond a paycheck. Art for art’s sake still matters. And while some business models have relevance in arts management they are not an automatic or even a comfortable fit. This is a longstanding tension in the arts world and Sommers hit upon this particularly sensitive nerve during her keynote.
After her presentation the lobby was abuzz with discussion on everything from the challenges artists face when required to adopt ill-fitting business models by funders or boards to questions about why the future Sommers described wasn’t racially diverse or cognizant of the social justice downsides that can accompany innovation (genetically modified foods, for example, that are often sent to poor countries in famine with little knowledge of the health effects). The tension between short-term solutions versus long-term consequences kept people talking.
The day’s agenda was filled with a variety of workshops focused on the nuts and bolts of arts administration, leading into night-time showcases featuring repertory excerpts from Twin Cities dance companies and independent choreographers including TU Dance, Hijack and Ragamala Dance. In addition, Katherine and Robert Goodale, dance patrons for whom the Cowles Center’s main stage is named, were honored with the Champion Award. And just as the day began, it ended with numbers, this time courtesy of Cowles Center executive director Lynn Von Eschen, who reported that since the new facility opened in 2011 some 60 companies with a total of 500 dancers have performed there for more than 100,000 audience members.
The conference continues through Saturday with workshops at Northrop Auditorium plus more performance showcases around the city and at the Cowles.
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.
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