Zenon Dance Company founder Linda Z. Andrews sat down to an interview recently with a profoundly sad look on her face. “If I break down and weep,” she said, “just ignore me.”
Citing a “lack of funding” — specifically reduced commitments from the Jerome and Target foundations — Andrews announced in March her plans to shutter the Minneapolis company she led for 36 years. This weekend’s spring season, opening Thursday at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis, will be the company’s final performances. “This is a really hard thing, because it’s not my choice,” Andrews elaborated earlier this month. “It’s just the funding is being pulled out.”
While Andrews is closing her dance company, she hopes to continue Zenon Dance School, where hundreds of Minnesotans (of all ages) study everything from jazz to ballet, from hip-hop to modern dance. She plans to get the school “situated” before stepping away from her day-to-day role, remaining involved by serving on the board of directors. “I am not going to abandon the school until I’ve got it where I want it operating.”
In fact, Andrews’ storied dance company got its start as a school. In 1979, she was teaching classes with her disco partner in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood. “Then I noticed this school in Minneapolis: Ozone Dance School,” Andrews remembered.
Ozone was located in the Warehouse District’s Wyman Building, the center of Minneapolis’ art scene at the time. Andrews took over the school, presiding over jazz, ballet and modern classes.
At the same time, she led two semiprofessional troupes — one specializing in modern dance, the other in jazz. Andrews even danced with her troupes in those early years, most notably by playing the Woman in Red in Bill T. Jones’ 1980 work “Balancing the World.” The superstar choreographer was doing a workshop at the Walker Art Center when Andrews asked if he might create something for her and the dancers. “I marched up and said I wanted him to do a piece on my group. ‘We’re not quite professional yet, but we’re working toward that,’ ” she recalled saying. “He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. You look like a dancer.’ ”
Andrews combined her pre-professional troupes in 1983, creating a full-fledged professional dance company called Zenon. “I knew I was opening a can of worms,” Andrews said, “because I would have to pay everyone instead of just producing lower-level Minnesota choreographers and dancers.”
The new name also marked a shift for Andrews’ professional role. She stepped away from dancing and choreographing, focusing instead on the role of director. That meant raising money — sometimes in unconventional ways, such as running a 1980s pulltab operation out of downtown Minneapolis’ Little Wagon bar. “That was one of my crazier escapades,” she said, hooting at the memory.
Andrews also started recruiting choreographers from outside the Twin Cities, including big names such as Tere O’Connor, Doug Varone and Bebe Miller.
“I really admire Linda,” said Twin Cities writer and choreographer Linda Shapiro. “She stuck it out. She went through hell and high water to get the choreographers she wanted.”
‘A lot more vertical’
Zenon built a distinct aesthetic that fused modern dance with jazz — especially after Danny Buraczeski moved from New York in 1989 to merge his Jazzdance company with Zenon.
“That was a really important period for Zenon,” said Shapiro, who co-founded New Dance Ensemble in Minneapolis in 1981 and later taught dance at the University of Minnesota.
Andrews and Buraczeski become Zenon’s co-directors, with the combined company permanently settling into an 18th-century Masonic Temple in downtown Minneapolis, now part of the Cowles Center complex (formerly Hennepin Center for the Arts). Then the company took a big tour to Switzerland in 1990. “It was a very intense tour but it was well worth doing,” said Buraczeski, who recently retired from teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Buraczeski’s time with Zenon was short-lived, though. “That didn’t work out because we both wanted to be in charge,” Andrews said.
But the two managed to remain friends, with Zenon continuing to commission Buraczeski’s work over the years. In fact, his 2001 piece “Song Awakened,” set to the music of Cesária Évora, is featured on this week’s final program.
After Buraczeski left Zenon in 1992, Andrews worked to raise the bar for her company, further professionalizing the corps by implementing cross-training, enlisting professional New York City trainers and even traveling to the Big Apple herself for additional coaching. “In those days, I really wanted to elevate the level of dance in the Twin Cities,” Andrews explained.
“Zenon was one of the very few dance companies that would give the dancers a living wage,” Buraczeski remembered.
“It was paying for my food and shelter and clothing,” said Tamara Ober, who danced with Zenon for 15 years before moving on last season. “I was able to commit all my time and energy and focus to that place.”
Meanwhile, a steady influx of guest choreographers helped dancers like Ober grow — both individually and as an ensemble. In the early 2000s, she was learning older modern and jazz work from elder dance artists. “Wil Swanson, Sean Curran and Bill Young were setting work on us,” she said. “They stretched me back to the ’70s.”
By the end of Ober’s tenure, Zenon was working with more contemporary choreographers. “It was an entirely different style of dance,” she said. “We used to do so much more partnering and groundwork. Now it’s a lot more vertical and a lot more technical, where each individual is independent of the other.”
In recent weeks, Andrews and her dancers have poured their energy into preparing for this week’s ambitious program, featuring five important works from Zenon’s history.
One of those works is 2007’s “Catching Her Tears,” choreographed by New Yorker Colleen Thomas when Andrews was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was about my tears and my company going through this together,” Andrews said. “It was a dark time, but I’m still here.”
Due to the rigors of rehearsals, there hasn’t been much time to grieve Zenon’s upcoming closing. “It’s all about running the pieces right now and getting through them,” said dancer Laura Osterhaus. “Three of the women in the company are in all five pieces. We will be in the best shape of our lives, right as our jobs are gone.”
However, company members felt a bit of closure in April, when Zenon performed and taught a residency in Grand Marais, Minn. “We were all in the head space that this was the last hurrah,” Osterhaus said. “We spent a lot of time together as a company, but it was really hard for Linda.”
“I got the nicer hotel than we normally we do,” Andrews said of their time together on the North Shore.
Once Andrews gets the school running, she’s not entirely sure what’s next for her. Perhaps some memoir writing. Maybe more travel.
She’s more concerned for Zenon’s performers, including six full-time company members and an apprentice. “I worry about my dancers,” Andrews said, her voice quivering. “They are the highest level of performance in the Twin Cities. Where can they go? They are settled here — some of them are married — so it’s really hard for them to know what to do next.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.