Shall we dance (take 1)
Polka during a pandemic? It seemed unlikely, even unnecessary. But one summer night, a band's oom-pah-pah rhythms filled an outdoor hockey rink in Grand Rapids, Minn. As Mollie B & Squeezebox played, couples tapped their toes and did the two-step — each within their own 6- by 6-foot squares, chalked on the pavement. Polka pods: another safety-first innovation dreamed up by the Reif Performing Arts Center. The Reif was the first venue in the state to host a drive-in concert, staging a musical duo on a scissor lift. It put on drive-in movies, too, with socially distanced cars in its lot. Then it tried boat-in concerts, with bands playing across the waters of Pokegama Lake. But the polka concert was something special — a night where couples who'd loved this music for decades emerged from their houses for something more than a trip to the grocery store. Distanced and masked, they danced.
Rebirth on Lake Street
You could still smell the charred ruins of the nearby Third Precinct police headquarters and Minnehaha Liquors store when live music returned to the Hook & Ladder Theatre on June 21. That the community-driven venue survived the Lake Street riots three weeks earlier felt like a miracle. That it returned to action in time for Davina & the Vagabonds to be the first of its many high-quality HookStream virtual concerts was pure luck; Davina Lozier (booked many weeks earlier) actually lives in the ravaged neighborhood, and thus bellowed her buoyant jazz and R&B songs with the force of a New Orleans voodoo healer after Katrina. That I got to be among the few in-person attendees, and to feel the band's thump in my chest rather than the lump in my throat, would've been a highlight even in a good year.
Breaking the code
Board games may seem like a pandemic no-no, but it turns out that Codenames works even better online than it does in person. It's a word-association game where teams of two people or more use one-word clues to get each other to connect random words. I grew up in a board game-playing family, and having now enjoyed Codenames with four different sets of friends and family in the past few months, it feels terrific to connect and do an activity that almost resembles the beforetimes. All you need is a teleconferencing connection (so you can see each other) and the horsepaste.com website for the online version of the game.
Coach of the year
Jason Sudeikis' gift for playing earnest characters, which served him well during his time on "Saturday Night Live," is back on display in "Ted Lasso," Apple TV Plus' rah-rah sitcom about an American football coach trying to soothe a broken heart by taking his can-do attitude — and crazy-legs dance — to a British soccer team. The series might be funnier if Lasso had more flaws, but it wouldn't be nearly as big of a kick. In an era when most TV protagonists harbor deep, dark secrets, Lasso was the rare cockeyed optimist, a hero who would never let a losing team — or a pandemic — dampen his spirits.
Shall we dance (take 2)
Laurie Van Wieren's moonlit dance performance "South of You," on a gorgeous October night at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony, offered a cathartic embrace of all that the natural world has to offer. The moon rising in the sky mirrored a glowing prop moon, one of many ways Van Wieren's cast of contemporary movers held a conversation with nature as they emerged in different spots around the park. The audience promenaded from the visitor center to Silver Lake, led by naturalist Dan Donovan, and ended up eventually at the lakeshore for a joyous ritual of earth, sky and water.
With clubs and concert halls shuttered, starved music lovers from St. Paul to Minnetonka transformed their yards into live music venues. Bring a lawn chair, wear a mask and fill the tip jar for some of Minnesota's finest, work-starved musicians. On Lincoln Avenue in St. Paul, two ambitious retired couples staged separate series — Tiny Porch Concerts (the Andersons) and Lincoln Center of the Block (the Cohns) — with 33 and 20 shows, respectively. The likes of Prudence Johnson, Jearlyn Steele, Curtiss A, Alma Brasileira and the Copper Street Brass entertained from May to early November. What was a welcome alternative in 2020 could become a trend in 2021.
A 'Bug' in October
In chats with sidelined theater folk the past few months, one thought almost always comes up: "How glorious is it going to be when we all can sit together and watch live theater again?" Some got a taste of that during the last stretch of bearable evening weather in October when "Bug Girl" played seven chilly, sold-out, masked and physically distant performances atop the Bakken Museum near Bde Maka Ska. With fingers freezing and the Minneapolis skyline visible off to the left of the stage, watching the puppet/drama hybrid didn't feel normal but it did, indeed, feel glorious.
A walk in the park
There was nothing like art and the great outdoors to keep your spirits up during this year of isolation. Franconia Sculpture Park provided the ultimate mini road trip for those seeking solace in a rural, art-filled environment. Just an hour northeast of the Twin Cities, the 43-acre park is home to more than 100 dazzling sculptures. You could swing from monkey bars on Risa Puno's "Infinite Play," or ponder '90s nostalgia and the control of media in a global society while viewing Bayeté Ross Smith's "Got the Power: Minnesota," a tower of old boomboxes. And by this weekend, ice skaters should be able to twirl on a new community rink featuring a light sculpture by Jason Peters, which will be open daily through February, weather permitting.
The word plays on
Early in the pandemic, it seemed touch-and-go. Could thousands of people gather in downtown Minneapolis in May to listen to a stupendous lineup of writers, mingle and buy books? But it soon became clear: The Wordplay literary festival and its autumn counterpart, the Twin Cities Book Festival, would have to go online. Those events — one sponsored by the Loft, the other by Rain Taxi — proved to be bright spots in a year of endless Zoom. Wordplay spread out over six weeks with podcasts, interviews and other events. Rain Taxi followed suit in October, expanding from one to three days online. Between the two, anyone who logged on could watch conversations with Ayad Akhtar, Naomi Shihab Nye, James Patterson, Kwame Alexander, Curtis Sittenfeld, Charles Finch and scores of others — and you still can at loft.org and twincitiesbookfestival.com.
At home with Superman
Rounding up musicians for the Star Tribune's virtual state fair in August proved to be a cinch, since the fair might be the one thing all Minnesotans can agree on. As you can still see at startribune.com/statefair, it was a down-home affair — literally so in the case of COVID-19 survivor Nachito Herrera, who invited us to film him at his White Bear Lake rambler, where a massive Steinway grand nearly fills the dining room. Armed with iPhone and mask, I arrived, a bit nervous, to find the Cuban piano great hanging in the backyard with his family. But was like watching Clark Kent become Superman as he swiftly got to business, attacking the keyboard so forcefully you wouldn't imagine he'd been on a heart-lung machine, fighting for his life, just months before.