The Walker Art Center celebrates the 50th anniversary of its annual Choreographer's Evening on Saturday with dance that inspires, challenges and entertains. The event gives audiences snippets (less than 10-minute performances) from a variety of Minnesota choreographers and companies, creating a showcase of dance each year.

It's a tradition that goes back to 1971, when dancer and choreographer Judith Ingber returned to the Twin Cities after a time in New York and realized there weren't many opportunities for newer artists to show their work.

"There was no room for new young people to have their own ideas," said Ingber, now a dance historian.

Ingber had a job at the Walker Art Center, and she presented the idea of a choreographer's evening to her boss, Suzanne Weil, director of the performing arts program.

The team then, Weil recalled, was "kind of a wild and wooly bunch." With Ingber as the spark, they came up with an eclectic program featuring eight choreographers using music ranging from Bob Dylan to Scott Joplin.

Weil wasn't sure people would show up, and proposed an early start time, 7 p.m. Performance night arrived, and despite being snowy and cold, tickets sold out. Some VIPs were upset they didn't get a seat. According to Ingber, Weil came backstage and asked the dancers if they'd be willing to do a second show the same evening. They enthusiastically said yes, and ever since the Choreographer's Evening has always had two shows.

The next year, the Star Tribune's Mike Steele wrote of the event: "It may be one of the most important things the Walker has done — and hopefully will continue to do — for the performing arts in the area."

Growing a tradition

By 1980, the Minnesota Independent Choreographers Alliance (later renamed the Minnesota Dance Alliance) stepped in as a partner with a plan to host four Choreographer's Evenings a year. There were even years the event was hosted outdoors, at the Nicollet Island Amphitheater.

New artists always stood a chance of getting in. In 1980, Laurie Van Wieren taught a dance class in downtown Minneapolis. She created a piece for them, and when she went on vacation, they auditioned it for Choreographer's Evening and were chosen.

"After that people started calling me a choreographer," Van Wieren said.

Philip Bither, the Walker's Performing Arts Curator, took the reins of the Choreographer's Evening when he joined the Walker in 1997. His first year, he remembers 200 people in the lobby connecting and celebrating after the show. That evening, a member of the audience approached Bither and put his finger near his face. "He's like, 'I know you're new here. But I just have to tell you … This is the absolute best thing that Walker does all year long. It's a tribute to Minnesota dancers and you'd better keep this thing going!' "

The Minnesota Dance Alliance closed in 2003, and the Walker took on producing the event on its own. Then in 2005, they opened the McGuire Theater.

"It went from this kind of charmingly modest, 16-foot-deep auditorium, which is our cinema now, to a 40-foot-deep, fully state of the art theater, which ramped up the scale," Bither said.

Years of celebration

For past anniversaries, the Walker has paired choreographers to provide a fresh lens on dance. This year, Judith Howard, a scholar and choreographer who runs the dance program at Carleton College, teams up with Alanna Morris, a dancer, choreographer and healer who has been making waves nationally creating work that draws on Afro-Caribbean traditions with contemporary dance forms.

Kristin Van Loon, from the dance duo HIJACK, will duet with J.H. Shuǐ Xiān. Laurie Van Wieren, meanwhile, teams up with cellist Michelle Kinney, a frequent collaborator. Also featured is Ao Liu, who choreographed and teaches with the CAAM Chinese Dance Theatre, and whose credits include dancing at the Beijing Olympic Games.

They'll join a legacy that has shaped the Twin Cities dance community with memorable moments, like Jewelean Jackson's "Black Choreographer's Evening" in 1977, and Emily Johnson's 2007 program that encouraged audiences to question how dance is even defined. Or a particularly powerful edition in 2014, curated by Kenna Cottman. That year's event resonated with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement. At the end, performers staged a "die-in," falling to the ground and raising their hands in a "Don't shoot" gesture.

"With each curator we select, it's in their hands to audition, and then select the people that they think make the most sense for this moment in time," Bither said.

"Each year brings its own surprises."

If you go: 4 & 7 p.m. Nov. 26, Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls., $31.50, 612-375-7600,