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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.
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.
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