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.


Colleen Callahan Russell, left.

Colleen Callahan Russell, left, with Diane Aldis.

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.

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