Minneapolis: Big dance town

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2011 - 10:34 AM

When it comes to dance, our little towns on the prairie are leaps and bounds ahead of most U.S. cities. A special report on the surprising scene and some of its top artists.

Dancers in the Twin Cities are leaping and turning. They also are kicking butt.

The metro area, 15th-largest by population, is among the top five places for dance in the United States. That high rank shows up when comparing cities by the number of dance companies with annual budgets of more than $100,000. Not surprisingly, New York, San Francisco and Chicago outpaced us on the list, compiled annually by the Washington, D.C.-based organization Dance/USA. But this tally shows the Twin Cities to be well ahead of many much bigger metro areas.

The Twin Cities and its suburbs in 2009 was home to 14 dance groups with over-$100,000 budgets, while Phoenix had one, Atlanta and Dallas had two, and Miami, four. Some experts believe there are as many as 200 more dance companies and individual choreographers in the Twin Cities with budgets below $100,000.

What is indisputable is the bustling activity in Twin Cities dance. "I'm calling it the new Berlin," said Ben Johnson, director of concerts and lectures at Northrop Auditorium. "The dance scene is insane and crazy and out of control and it's not just what's happening in venues: People are doing it on their own in other spaces. It's a real golden age."

Most weeks dance can be found on the largest stages (such as Northrop) and in the tiniest cabarets. And styles range just as widely, from South Indian to West African, modern to hip-hop, ballroom to ballet.

The Twin Cities area has "always been a vibrant outpost for voices who provide a range and diversity of dance styles and genres," said Andrea Snyder, who recently stepped down as Dance/USA's executive director.

That scene has convinced dance artists from elsewhere to move here (or to move back here) and put down roots, a list that includes Shapiro & Smith Dance, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater, James Sewell Ballet, Ananya Chatterjea of Ananya Dance Theatre, Carl Flink of Black Label Movement and Karen Sherman.

We export, too. Just this year, TU Dance's Toni Pierce-Sands appeared as a guest artist with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (with whom she performed for many years). And Minnesota Dance Theatre protegée Kaitlyn Gilleland is now a rising star at New York City Ballet.

And while dance audiences remain small when compared to those for theater or music, they add up. A poll of the major dance presenters in the Twin Cities shows some 80,000 tickets sold for dance performances each year in 2009 and 2010, or enough dance lovers to fill Target Field twice.

What sets Twin Cities apart?

We asked expert observers to help explain why this place is such a hotbed for dance. David R. White said a "lively fringe that's established itself at the center" is key to understanding dance here, along with "enlightened" funders and years of cooperative relationships between presenters.

White, a respected dance executive who formerly ran New York's Dance Theater Workshop, also cited a strong dance program at the University of Minnesota. That department trains approximately 100 dance majors and 1,000 non-major students each academic year, said program coordinator Nora Jenneman.

Though John Munger lives (and dances and teaches) here, he's a national guru when it comes to dance demographics, and was until recently director of research for Dance/USA, where he worked for 21 years. You want "granular" breakdowns? Munger counted approximately 210 "serious dancemakers" operating with budgets under $100,000 in the Twin Cities, and said more than 40 nationalities and cultures are represented. Munger has tallied an average of 697 dance performances per year over the past three years.

Unlike a Miami, Houston or San Francisco, the Twin Cities area lacks a very large ballet company. MDT is our biggest, with an annual budget of $1.6 million -- pocket change when contrasted with Miami City Ballet's $13.5 million budget.

A collaborative spirit is recognized as central to the Twin Cities scene. "I go to a concert and see the best young choreographers and dancers dancing for each other," said Cynthia Gehrig, president of the Jerome Foundation. "There's a level of interconnected support and effort."

Choreographer Chris Yon, a Los Angeles native, moved to the Twin Cities from New York in 2008. For him the lure was choreographer Justin Jones, a New York University classmate who came here a few years ago. Yon, a Bessie award-winner, remembers seeing Minnesota-based dancers such as Morgan Thorson and Hijack (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder) perform in New York when he was living there. "It was like the Minneapolis cultural board sent these people to bring me here," he said with a laugh.

Having decent halls in which to perform is critical, and here again the Twin Cities area scores high. This year marks the long-awaited opening of the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis, a renovated historic theater with a dance focus. Even without that 500-seat venue, the number of dance-ready facilities in the Twin Cities is "remarkable," said Douglas Sonntag, dance director at the National Endowment for the Arts.

The connection between local, national and international dance is strengthened by programs that present touring companies, whether it's a large-scale Russian ballet at Northrop, or the edgier fare that performing-arts curator Philip Bither books at Walker Art Center.

Three company experiences

Some troupes are experiencing renown beyond Minnesota. In the coming year Ragamala Dance, which specializes in the south Indian dance form of Bharatanatyam, will spend 18 weeks touring. It just returned from a well-reviewed gig at the Kennedy Center. Ranee Ramaswamy and Aparna Ramaswamy, the mother-and-daughter team behind Ragamala Dance, say local roots are key to their success. "I've grown up as an artist in America and not in a mainstream [dance] form," said Aparna Ramaswamy. "To be able to be a full-time artist with that form is really incredible. I don't think that's possible in many communities, and it was possible here."

For Pierce-Sands the Twin Cities offered a new, yet familiar, chapter in her career. She grew up with MDT and later left to perform with other companies, including Ailey. She returned to her native St. Paul to found TU Dance with husband and fellow Ailey alum Uri Sands. This fall they will open a dance center in St. Paul. "The dancers are the ones who get trained, leave, come back, bring other dancers in," she said, reflecting on her own experience. "Even with all the creators who are here, it's the dancers who are the messengers."

Linda Z. Andrews, who founded Zenon Dance Co. 29 years ago, said word gets out when a place has committed companies and performers. "We've worked with so many great choreographers, and they all talk amongst each other so that's got everyone to know what was going on," says Andrews. "What the Twin Cities really became known for is not choreographers as much but really highly trained dancers."

Not in it for the money

What about the lives, finances and careers of dancers? Some key words are: hard work, low pay, potential for injury, day jobs and no guarantees. Very few are in a union.

A 2007 study conducted by Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and others reported the average income of surveyed dancers as totaling $7,856 from their art and $17,039 from other sources for a total of $24,895 in 2005.

A majority of Ragamala's dancers are salaried full-time, but they also do administrative work for the company. Some troupes like MDT and Zenon give their dancers contracts (30 weeks and 32 to 36 weeks respectively). "Dancers are a tremendous investment, and it's a challenge for us to make sure our artists are treated financially with the respect they deserve," said Lise Houlton, artistic director of MDT.

Many dancers take on second (or third) jobs to make ends meet. Yon works part-time in a Whole Foods bakery. When touring Yon says he and his dancers jokingly describe it as "professional dance fantasy camp because we get to dance full-time for a week."

'Are they satisfied?'

Highly ranked or not, the companies that seek to employ dancers are not exactly fat and sassy.

"This dance community doesn't have the infrastructure that other art forms have," says Kim Motes, who formerly ran the effort to fund and refurbish the Shubert Center (now Cowles). "We have two world-class orchestras, which is unusual in this country. The question for the dance community is, are they satisfied with where they are? I know many companies are not."

Gary Peterson, executive director of James Sewell Ballet for 13 years, now runs the Southern Theater. He said that growth has been slow, and that a number of dance companies "are staffed the same way they were 10 years ago. There's so much good work being done, but it's hard to gather resources, it's hard to be patient."

Looking to the future

Many issues need to be addressed, but there are many reasons to be optimistic. With the Cowles Center opening this fall and a revamped Northrop Auditorium under way, dance likely will continue to play a vital role here.

Its future depends on the fleet feet of the next generation of artists. Anyone who sees teacher Mary Harding leading her dance students from the Perpich Center for Arts Education to performances around town harbors hope that the art form will continue to thrive.

Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance. Research assistance by intern Andrew Penkalski.

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