It's a typical Saturday night at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater. Dancers Nic Lincoln and Penelope Freeh, dressed in formal wear, press their bodies against the wall, a bouquet of flowers crushed between them. The sound of crashing bowling pins offers a faint soundtrack as they slowly maneuver, their limbs grasping and flailing.
This is the opening scene of "The Hardest Word," Lincoln's eloquent meditation on love. Both dancers have performed in grand theaters, but on this particular evening they have just 198 square feet of stage space.
It introduces another level of invention into Lincoln's dance making. The trick, he said, is to make the space feel larger by playing with light and sound.
"What's exciting is flexing your brain while considering the size," he said.
The Twin Cities are known for several internationally regarded arts institutions, but equally notable is the wide variety of small venues such as BLB, which is celebrating its 20th year of presenting dance. These plucky spaces, many of which boast long histories and hundreds of shows a year, enthusiastically boost new voices and encourage experimentation from more established artists.
On most nights, Twin Cities audiences can select from a bounty of adventurous and budget-friendly offerings, including dance, performance art, music and comedy.
Small spaces fuel the creative fire by making it possible to try, perhaps fail, but then try again.
"There is a real value in trying to nurture the creative impulse that I believe exists in all of us, by doing what you can to diminish people's fear about judgment," observed Patrick Scully, founder of the landmark performance space Patrick's Cabaret.
A gauge of cultural health
Despite their rough-and-ready attitude, smaller organizations operate on tight budgets that make their very existence precarious. Patrick's recently lost its lease. Outside forces — from escalating overhead costs to gentrification — are always a threat.
"A lot of us find ourselves in the position of thinking about how to afford the space without passing the cost off to the artist," said Maren Ward, co-founder and performing director at Bedlam Theatre. "One of us is always on the brink of closing."
Whether they close truly matters, particularly if you think of the arts community as a network of performing spaces that rely on one another.
"Sometimes people who aren't involved in the arts judge a city by its top museum and orchestra and ballet company, but they don't look at the next layers down," said Walker Art Center performing arts curator Philip Bither. "The health of the overall cultural community is dependent on the whole spectrum of the organizations that work with artists."
Eleanor Savage, senior program officer at the Jerome Foundation, said these spaces are often the best places to tap into the beating pulse of local ingenuity.
"There's a spirit to these events where it's a social, cultural, creative mash-up," she said. "I go not just because [of my job] but because I'm interested in the ideas and the people who are going to be there."
Resourcefulness, personal sacrifice and commitment are required to operate a small space. Sometimes this spirit of self-reliant survival can be liberating.
"It's not because we don't want money or attention, but it allows for a lot more independence," said Charles Campbell of the performance company Skewed Visions. "You can take your ideas in very strange and unprofitable ways that aren't going to happen at Cowles Center."
Last year Skewed Visions and like-minded troupe Fire Drill joined to open a space in south Minneapolis called Fresh Oysters. "We wanted a place for works in progress," said Emily Gastineau of Fire Drill. "We're riding it for as long as it works for everyone."
Some performers prefer small
Twin Cities choreographer Emily Johnson, who tours nationally, began at venues such as Red Eye Theater. "Those spaces are so rich," she said. "The experience taught me about how and why I wanted to present work."
But while some may perceive small venues as stepladders to wider visibility, this sort of linear trajectory doesn't apply to all artists. Many prefer an intimate space and seek out opportunities that allow them to really sense who is watching their work.
"There's a whole community where the push to go to larger venues is not in their DNA," said Red Eye co-founder Steve Busa. "We have a lot of artists who look at the 'smallers' as a career."
Choreographer Laurie Van Wieren, who curates BLB's 9x22 Dance/Lab series, is drawn to such venues: "I can control the space, I can frame it with my body, control the music and the sound, be closer to the audience."
Physical proximity also helps to create community within a venue, breaking down the fourth wall and inspiring impromptu dialogue between artist and audience.
"They can yell out; they stand up and dance with us," said Maia Maiden, creator of Rooted: Hip Hop Choreographers' Evening, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary at Intermedia Arts.
Intermedia executive director Eyenga Bokamba views moments such as that as a natural outgrowth of an organization committed to art as a means of social change. "If we see collaboration as a deeply rooted artist process, collaboration becomes the fabric of democracy."
Although their resources may be minimal, many small venues provide significant support to artists, ranging from publicity and grant-writing assistance to advice on career management.
Open Eye Figure Theatre recently started providing fiscal sponsorships to help artists raise money for their projects. Producing artistic director Susan Haas enjoys helping artists figure out what they would like to do and how they will get paid for their work.
"That's exciting to me because it means the space is needed," she said.
Haas noted that established performers such as Kevin Kling and Bradley Greenwald and directors such as Joel Sass turn to Open Eye as a supportive venue for new ideas. "We allow these artists to be able to work on this scale without having the high pressure of a commercial gig," she said. "It's renewing for them and feeds them."
In a close partnership, "the artist can define what they think success is and what they think will be entertaining," said Kristin Van Loon, who books Bryant-Lake Bowl and is one-half of the performance duo Hijack.
BLB's operating model differs from that of spaces dependent on grant funding.
"We're not a nonprofit," Van Loon said. "We split the door with the performers, and we're lucky to be inside of the whole restaurant, bowling alley and bar. That's our safety net. I empathize with the performers' risk because we're all taking the same risk together."
Red Eye helps artists develop work "from conception to realization," Busa said, with a focus on "pushing the boundaries in form and content." To do this, the organization engages in a feedback process with the artists it presents in its Isolated Acts Festival, which wraps up this weekend.
Miriam Must, who co-founded Red Eye with Busa more than three decades ago, remembers the 1990s, "after the big National Endowment for the Arts dust-up when funding was cut for independent artists. We thought there was a role for us to play."
Ultimately, though, it's all about what happens onstage.
"There's an intimacy both in the conversation and the experience," she said. "You can't buy that in a larger venue."
Caroline Palmer is a Twin Cities dance critic and arts journalist.