“Bohemian soul.” That’s how Kendra “Vie Boheme” Dennard describes the music she writes. It’s a mix of African-American traditions, she said, including R&B, blues, soul, gospel and jazz.
A handful of listeners gathered recently at Minneapolis’ Modus Locus gallery to hear Dennard’s latest “bohemian soul” songs. Previewing a few tracks off her forthcoming “Swoon” EP, her voice sounded smooth and sweet, with thoughtful lyrics about navigating life. The audience leaned forward in their chairs, rapt.
And when Dennard added a few dance moves — in enormously tall wedge sandals, no less — it was like popping solar flares. The gallery really got grooving.
That was just on her day off. All summer long, the vocalist, dancer, actor and choreographer performed in the Guthrie Theater’s “West Side Story,” a full-time commitment requiring eight high-energy performances per week. Like many artists, she juggled these responsibilities with several other projects and gigs. But Dennard’s workload is uncommonly varied — she also teaches dance and yoga classes, and she choreographs for local theater and dance productions, all while cultivating personal projects on the side.
As she told supporters at the recent listening session: “The most important thing about being an artist is just not giving up.”
Born and raised in Detroit, Dennard studied dance at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, landing a full-time job upon graduation with the burgeoning August Wilson Dance Ensemble. She moved to the Twin Cities in 2013 to join the prestigious TU Dance company. Her résumé includes projects with New York’s esteemed Camille A. Brown & Dancers, plus dates with the Guthrie’s New Griots Festival and Walker Art Center’s annual Choreographers’ Evening.
Dennard soon will debut a new work showcasing her singing and dancing chops — not to mention her writing and acting skills. A collaboration with composer Eric Mayson, “Centerplay” promises an evening full of dance and original music.
“I really want to play around with weaving structures,” Dennard explained. “Going from singing a song that might turn into a monologue and some spoken word and then it’s all movement after that.”
At the heart of the piece is intuition, a topic Dennard has investigated with past works — including the piece she choreographed for Threads Dance Project last year and her photography for the “Black Magik Woman” show at Gamut Gallery this spring. Exploring the link between intuition and empathy, her piece ventures to define the word “intuition” — especially for black women — and how listening can change a woman’s path.
Dennard left her position with TU Dance in 2015. She remembered feeling uncertainty about full-time freelancing. “Where is the beginning? Where is the middle? When do I rest?” she remembered thinking. “I finally accepted and realized that change is the new normal. My life looks completely different every three to four months. Accepting that was a really healthy part of the journey.”
While much of her professional life has been in dance, singing was always an important part of her life. “I grew up singing in church,” she said during a break last month at the Guthrie. But her singing dropped off when she stopped attending services in college.
Then she went to an open mic and realized how much she missed it. “I was like, I love singing. Why did I ever stop doing this?” she said. That’s when she put together a band and started packing her calendar with more singing gigs.
Also in college, Dennard started taking yoga classes during a difficult moment in her dance career. Now she teaches at Twin Cities studios including Core Power, YogaFit and Radiant Life. “It taught me to accept my body for what it can do,” Dennard said. “It gave me some autonomy and a sense that I am in control of this vessel — not the teacher who does or doesn’t believe in me.
“That shift of mindframe is the greatest gift.”
Another shift occurred more recently as Dennard stopped waiting tables and taking jobs unrelated to her journey as an artist. “If you never take the leap it will never be there,” she said. “Risk is a huge part of being a freelance artist.”
Dennard’s stage name — “Vie Boheme” — speaks to that worldview. “To me,” she said, the name means “why not?”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.