In the "before" times, dancer/choreographer Alanna Morris-Van Tassel's career was skyrocketing. She was about to open a show at Cowles Center in Minneapolis. She was headed to New York to tour a different work. She'd been cast in a musical in Washington, D.C., and planned to travel to the Caribbean for research.
Then COVID-19 bared its teeth. "It was all gone," she said.
It's been quite a year for Minnesota performing artists. A surreal 12 months of uncertainty, tremendous transformation and, perhaps, glimmers of things to come.
Morris-Van Tassel — and Cowles Center itself — re-emerges this month with "Merges in March," a series pairing choreographers of different disciplines. Originally planned a year ago, it's now being offered as streamed events over the course of three weekends.
It starts Friday through Sunday with work by Helen Hatch and Darrius Strong, followed next weekend by Morris-Van Tassel and Penelope Freeh, and finally a dance/theater collaboration with Berit Ahlgren and Nathan Keepers.
Flashback to March 8, 2020: Morris-Van Tassel met Freeh for a Sunday rehearsal with designer Valerie Oliveiro. Their duet "Bring it down under your feet" was to be staged in just two weeks, along with solo works by each dancer.
The artists talked about the growing threat of the virus. Broadway hadn't shut down yet, but it would four days later.
"We basically decided we didn't want to continue with the show," Morris-Van Tassel recalled. "We didn't feel it would be responsible."
When performances halted, a "tremendous existential crisis" rose in their place, she said.
"I still defined myself by what I do. With all that gone, I questioned who I was." For the first few months, "I don't remember any e-mails. I don't remember anything but darkness, breath, stillness, meditation, sitting in satsang with my guru — that's all I remember."
She eventually became mobilized as an activist, but in August an injury brought her to the breaking point. "I could not walk, I could not stand for a week," she recalled. She left her job with TU Dance company, where she'd been an artistic associate. She stopped volunteering and organizing.
"I left everything. It was so, so hard."
Working with a healer, she restored her body and mind. By December, she was moving again, returning to her collaboration with Freeh as well as a solo piece, "Black Light re: Search," which draws on West African and Caribbean traditions in an exploration of Blackness and the divine feminine.
Adapting to the moment
The "Merges in March" series has been rescheduled more than once.
"Our whole spring season got disrupted last year," said Joseph Bingham, who codirects Cowles Center with Jessi Fett. "In planning this season, we knew we wanted to honor all of those artists' contracts. We were hopeful initially that we'd end up with in-person shows by the spring, or a hybrid of in-person and streaming, but clearly things are still the way they are with the pandemic."
For Twin Cities performers, streaming has taken numerous forms. Some theater companies, like Park Square and the Jungle, have embraced a radio format. Others, like Ananya Dance Theatre, made short films of outdoor performances.
Park Square Theatre used Zoom for a production of Anne Frank that won national recognition, while performance artist Emily Michaels King employed it to create a compelling experimental live performance weaving together recorded videos and a live bodycam.
Still other creators have sought to create in-person experiences, whether outdoors or for a very limited audience indoors. Puppetry wiz Michael Sommers recently showcased the dark and haunting "Snowman," by Kira Obolensky, for an audience of six in his south Minneapolis studio.
The Cowles has tried in-person performance as well. Last fall, the venue presented "6 Feet/6 Solos," a response to the pandemic and the uprisings happening across the country. There were 25 people in the audience, the limit for the Cowles' smaller Tek Box space. A week later, it streamed a recording of the piece for 50 people online.
"Not a full house, so to speak, but we were thrilled," Bingham said. Expectations have been upended in the past year, to say the least.
The Cowles was able to get emergency relief through the CARES Act, and NEA funds allowed the venue to pay out commissioning dollars in 2020. "That helped maybe bridge the gap a little bit for the artists and get them going again," Bingham said. "Then we invested in putting livestreaming equipment into the Goodale Theater."
The transition to streaming has been an eye-opening experience for Ahlgren, whose "Merges in March" piece, "Give Ear," will finally premiere March 19.
She and collaborator Keepers originally played with the idea of how long they could let audience members sit uncomfortably in silence — something that doesn't translate well to online. Last fall, she experimented with showing a snippet of the work outdoors, where trying to tune into her dance partner presented a new challenge: "The world just feels so noisy. What do you tune into? How do you tune things out?"
For the virtual version, "We're totally pivoting and we feel really good about it," Ahlgren said. It draws on a dress rehearsal recorded last year, some "vulnerable moments" as the collaborators dissect their work and the "conversations that we're having about listening today versus a year ago," in light of the pandemic and demands for social justice.
While we wait for vaccinations (and warmer weather), artists continue to lead the way in defining how we might gather, how we entertain, and how we tell stories.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist.
Merges in March
When: March 5-7, 12-14 and 19-21. Livestream at 7:30 p.m. Fri. and on demand Sat.-Sun.
Tickets: $21. thecowlescenter.org.