Dancer, choreographer, curator, producer, scientist, assistant college professor, podcaster and mentor, Maia Maiden exudes a commanding calm.
Her dreadlocks cascade down the sides of her face, and she wears a collection of bracelets from South Africa, where she recently visited, and from Kenya, which were a gift.
A decade ago, she saw a lack of opportunities for hip-hop artists — especially artists of color.
“I got sick of that,” she says. “That’s how ‘Rooted’ came to be.”
Ten years after launching her signature showcase, “Rooted: A Hip Hop Choreographer’s Evening” makes its way to St. Paul’s mainstream Ordway Center for the first time Oct. 25, as part of a new hip-hop festival called “From the Ground Up,” for which Maiden serves as project coordinator.
When the Ordway first approached her, Maiden said she declined.
“I was like, ‘Ah … I’m good.’ Sometimes when I see hip-hop culture presented in [larger] venues, it may be watered down, they may not let you do certain things, they may not want it in its entirety, or they may want it to look a certain way. The Ordway’s never been like that toward me, but I’ve seen it happen.
“For me presenting ‘Rooted’ anywhere, it has to maintain its initial premise: its culture, its histories. If you can accept all that, then I’m in. If you can’t, then I’m out.”
Dayna Martinez, the Ordway’s artistic director of programming, proposed the venture shortly after Jamie Grant became CEO in 2016 and asked for innovative programming ideas.
The festival is part of a larger effort by the Ordway to become more welcoming to diverse audiences. Those efforts date to the early 1990s with the formation of community-based advisory groups, and 2010’s Taking Our Place Centerstage initiative, which deepened relationships with historically marginalized communities in areas such as programming and marketing.
A low point was the Ordway’s 2013 production of “Miss Saigon,” which sparked protests. “I wasn’t sure whether we would be able to continue our progress after that,” Martinez said. “We have some amazing community members that we work with, and so supportive of what we are trying to do, that we were able to make it through. It hasn’t been easy, I can tell you that.”
Maiden said the tipping point for her decision to be part of the festival was Martinez’s authenticity. “Her approach was, ‘I really want to do this festival, and I really want you on board with this,’ ” Maiden said.
Martinez first saw ‘Rooted’ a number of years ago, and has also attended “Sistah Solo | Being Brothas,” which Maiden produces in alternate years.
“I admire the work that she’s done for the community and for the world of hip-hop dance,” Martinez said. “I knew that she would be a person to be able to curate this kind of event.”
The festival also includes “Caravan: A Revolution on the Road,” a collaboration Oct. 26 by composer/trumpeter Terence Blanchard, choreographer Rennie Harris and visual artist Andrew Scott, as well as panel discussions, workshops, a visual arts exhibit and community events.
When Maiden first produced “Rooted” in 2009 at tiny Patrick’s Cabaret, she saw it as a one-time venture. “The first one, I would say, was momentous because it was making a statement: Here we are and here are all these people.” The show sold out, with a line around the block. Subsequent installments also have sold out.
With “Rooted,” the Ordway isn’t just bringing Maiden to the Ordway, but a whole community of hip-hop artists at all stages of their careers.
“Once Maia Maiden told me that ‘Rooted’ was going to be at the Ordway, I was super excited because that’s a door that is now open,” said Herbert Johnson III, who specializes in a hip-hop style of dance called krump. He’ll perform in “Rooted” and also lead a workshop at the Ordway on Oct. 26.
Johnson credits Maiden’s tenacity for raising the profile of hip-hop in the Twin Cities.
“ ‘Rooted’ set a blueprint for street styles being on the stage,” he said. “It opened up what could be done as far as being a dancer in Minnesota and what that means.”
For Maiden, creating opportunities for other hip-hop artists is part of her vision, and part of why she stepped away from choreographing and dancing herself, and moved into producing, and also serving on grant and award panels, where she brings her knowledge of hip-hop to the table.
Thanks to her work on “Rooted,” she says “people are still trusting me, people are still admiring what I do, because it’s excellent. I don’t do anything without excellence.”
She’s also constantly visiting rehearsals, battles and performances, to find out the new talent coming up.
“It’s really supporting the artists where they are,” she said. “It’s saying: I see what you’re doing, now come over here. ... I’m going to teach you some stuff. You need to be business, you need to do it like this.
“I’m sending the soldiers out. Once you get done with ‘Rooted,’ you should have some tools and knowledge, so if the Ordway calls you, you know what to do.”
Sheila Regan is a Twin Cities arts journalist.