A Critic’s Reflections on Choreographers’ Evening 2009

Lightsey Darst reflects on the offerings at this year's Choreographers' Eve showcase, curated by BodyCartography Project, and on the lively (often heated) audience conversation online that has followed in its wake.


LET ME START BY SAYING that if you’re interested in Choreographers’ Evening 2009 (curated by Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, aka BodyCartography), you’ve got to check out the Walker blog: What follows is the considered opinion of one critic, but what’s going on over there is the real on-the-ground struggle. Read up and dig in.

But before you do, let me just make a point about taste. Why are we so unwilling to view taste in art the same way we view taste in food? Let’s say, for example, you don’t like brie. You’re not wrong about that — how can you be? — it’s your taste. But, at the same time, I’m not wrong to like it. Plus, if you want to, you can develop a taste for brie just by trying the stuff a few times. Once you’ve developed taste for brie, that doesn’t mean you have to like all brie, or that you can no longer appreciate Cheezits, or that you’ve become a snob: it just means you’ve educated your palate.

Taste in art is the same. It’s not innate or monolithic, but dynamic: it can be broadened and refined over a lifetime. Isn’t that the pleasure of a lifelong encounter with art — discovering what else you can understand, can resonate with, can love?

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what I saw.

How do you see that dance?

The question “Is that dance?” bores me. It smacks of gate-keeping, and gate-keeping is dull and politically questionable, not to mention pointless. Anyway, from a spectator’s point of view, dance is arguably less what you see, more how you see it. If you don’t believe me, try this experiment: look out of your window and take whatever you see as a dance. Sparrows jittering, branches rustling in wind, moving vans plunging off into perspective, even prolonged stillness — see how that all becomes a dance? And to see that dance, you’re using pretty conventional dance-viewing rules: noticing how foreground slides against background, how different rhythms or qualities of movement overlie each other. Now, imagine what happens when we find new ways to perceive dance. Right: the viewable world doubles, triples.

My favorite new dance-viewing idea comes from Chris Holman’s The Pine Kings. Outfitted in retro kitsch, Holman bounds through an animated PowerPoint lecture, telling us how T.B. Walker (with other lumber barons) stripped Minnesota’s white pine forests, and then cleaned up his cash by investing in art (hello, Walker Art Center). Holman’s eagerness, his silly clothes, and his loose-jointed slapstick physicality make the lecture funny, even as he’s telling us how the timber felled in Minnesota could be laid three times around the world. But when he stops his lecture on a black-and-white snap of a virgin white pine forest, snow drifting among the giant trunks as in a dream scene — and dream scenes are all we’ve got, since those forests are gone — cues Michelle Kinney’s mournful cello, and pantomimes that expanse of lumber, arms stretched out, dashing across the stage, into this wing, out of that one, and back across the stage, or pantomimes a sudden axe swing, hopping forward with an audible chuff — then the enormity of the loss comes home.

I take The Pine Kings as a dance negative. Holman’s not trying to show you the forests; he’s showing their absence. The shape and weight of that absence can flicker into the magic of that presence, but it’s overlain with harsh reality. Watching The Pine Kings is like watching the inverse of the snow scene from The Nutcracker; I love them both.

Or, consider Mad King Thomas‘s Every day I die a little bit, and I get that much colder. Wearing floppy white animal suits, the trio vie for the spotlight, knocking each other over, batting their eyes at us in their brief moments of calm. That’s it, the whole thing. Slapstick, right? But what started to get me, as they kept knocking each other over, and Judy Garland kept singing, was how many different ways they could collide with each other (a low blow, a gentle thump), how their costumes and bodies folded at the moment of impact. Watching slapstick for the sensuous — that’s new.

Dance-theater’s nothing new, but several choreographers and groups explored its infinite gradations. Charles Campbell‘s Progeny Piece, a neat exercise examining the desire to live through one’s children and the eventual obsolescence that engenders, clung to the theater side — by which I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not dance (there’s movement), but that it draws most of its impact from the theatrical.

I couldn’t put the two sides of Penny Freeh‘s Pilgrim together: her theatrical character — a helmet-bobbed, high-heeled supershopper — didn’t seem to match her dance, Freeh’s characteristic hair-trigger, brainy, torqued movement.

Interact Theater‘s I Play and Sing left me in a quandary. With any other performers, I’d have taken this lip-synch spectacular for a send-up of American Idol-style, “everyone’s a star!” “reality” “performance”. But Interact specializes in performers with disabilities (of all kinds). So, then we’re what… reveling in the real fantasy that American Idol plays upon, the deep-seated desire to be a star, to wield a cordless mic, wear gold lamé, and bask in waves of applause? Sure, okay, I can do that… or, maybe I should quit worrying about the performers, perhaps that’s insulting to them. Clearly, this is a kind of cheese I haven’t gotten used to.


Word to the wise: nothing in the program is worth what you’ll miss by looking at it. Abstract dance demands attention that is simultaneously diffuse (keeping track of the dance as a whole) and concentrated (seeing that one move).


My favorite dance-theater crossover came from Emily King and Ryan Underbakke’s We Are Crafty. Clad in pseudo-vintage underwear (white undershirts for him, frilly pantaloons for her), the two creep around stage, mime fedoras, mug like silent movie actors, and engage in Rube Goldberg gesture sequences (his upticked arm clicks her jutted shoulder hinges his head-swivel, etc). King and Underbakke are crafty, definitely, lovable like the criminal heroes of a jazz age cartoon, and entirely watchable.

The resurgence of abstract dance

The subhead above sounds bold, doesn’t it — as if I’m about to declare a new era in Twin Cities dance? The thing is, abstract dance doesn’t quite exist. Bodies, whatever they’re doing, always mean something. For proof, look at Chris Yon’s Flashback: The Very Unlikeliness (I’m Going to KILL You!). Yon and Taryn Griggs flash, flip, and strike away in one non-denotative move after another, their sequence defying connotation (soft and swayed, martial, still, in no causal chain). Then Yon swings his arm up and Griggs’s head rebounds. You can’t help but see it as a blow. But that’s one of the games abstract dance plays: it tickles that line between fact and interpretation.

I worry, though, that audiences weaned on narrative and entertainment don’t know how to watch abstract dance. Cara Ann Krippner‘s quiet Flotte sent heads diving into programs. I watched one woman miss an entire flight of subtle shoulder wiggles; she probably thought nothing had happened. Word to the wise: nothing in the program is worth what you’ll miss by looking at it. Abstract dance demands attention that is simultaneously diffuse (keeping track of the dance as a whole) and concentrated (seeing that one move). Sometimes, though, it’s as simple as counting. At one point, two of the three performers stood center while a hand extended from either side of the stage.

Audiences also have trouble entertaining movement without connotation, to judge from the responses on the Walker blog. Several people commented disparagingly on the fact that Kripper’s dancers rarely faced front. I can see that if your nephew kept his back to you through Thanksgiving dinner, you’d be annoyed, but this isn’t your nephew. Backs are interesting; these were sometimes lovely. I admit, Flotte was spare, but it had moments.

How can you get better at watching abstract dance? Return to that dance out your window for a second. If you can start seeing resonance and echo there — rare in real life — the symmetries of abstract dance will fall before you like diamonds.

But the best way to see abstract dance is to see it again. The first time I saw Yon’s Flashback, I liked it, but this time I thought it was a smash, a nuclear meltdown, an orchestra in itself. I prefer Justin Jones’s ElegyElegy to any other work of his I’ve seen. Its self-generated soundscape of breath, hums, and gutturals, set against the stark, at times broken, geometry of Jones’s body, really gets under the skin. But then the piece ends suddenly. Is that, apropos the title, the point? I’m not sure. I need to see it again. The suggestion to re-see is going to irritate some dance-goers, but why? We accept that many forms of art must be revisited in order to be truly appreciated: why should dance be any different?

One last note on this category: you’d think that abstract dance and dance-theater would be opposites, but I’m tempted to slide We Are Crafty in this category, too — more proof that King and Underbakke are on to something.

That looks familiar — with a twist (or without)

Buckets and Tap Shoes (Rick and Andy Ausland) delivered reliable clickety-clack fun, with a slight difference: their Mozart Tap was set to, yes, Mozart (his Turkish waltz, specifically). The brothers elegantly skimmed through the music, letting Mozart’s virtuoso rhythms speak for themselves.

Taja Will brought in a modern dance solo, (not) My Blood, “manifested through somatic practices and [snooze] authentic movement meditations;” it was rather anguished and claustrophobic, but the thing is, Will is a galvanizing performer, the kind who makes every move felt. I can still see her dropping from a tense fingertip push-up to stretched out on the floor — an utterly languorous rest in a second or two.

Tina Flewellyn and Hype did some nifty hip-hop tricks in their ADAM (A Different Animated Movement) — one-handed, upside-down splits, super-low limbo, and flips aplenty, including one in which I swear the guy landed on his head (with Clark Kent glasses intact, no less) — but they didn’t look like they’d had much experience with staged dance. Their unison sections were brief and not quite unison, and they projected out at stage level, rather than up into the audience.

Kenna Sarge and friends opened the evening with West African drumming in the lobby. (Apparently, there was some dancing, but I didn’t see it.) As with many traditional forms, there’s a freshness here that never stales; no matter how many times you hear it, the music signals celebration, freedom, dance. Judging by the Walker blog’s slugfest, not everyone came away from this Choreographers’ Eve feeling celebratory. But why not? I saw a lot to like, a lot to look forward to in the coming year of Twin Cities dance. If it didn’t all open up instantly, so much the better: We’ve got new ground to explore.


Noted performance details:

Choreographers’ Evening, an annual showcase of new work by local dance artists and curated by BodyCartography Project’s Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, took place in the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on November 28.

You can read and participate in the ongoing, lively discussion about this year’s show on the Walker Blogs.

Related event:

On Thursday, December 3 (7 pm), Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad of BodyCartography Project will lead a free, movement-based tour through the Walker’s retrospective exhibition, Dan Graham: Beyond.


About the writer: Lightsey Darst writes on dance for Mpls/St Paul magazine. She is also a poet who served as the founding coordinator of mnartists.org’s What Light: This Week’s Poem publication project, and the founder and host of a monthly writers’ salon, The Works, at the Bryant Lake Bowl.