Northern Spark Does Lowertown

Lightsey Darst offers a diary from this year's Lowertown iteration of the night-long Twin Cities festival saying, "It’s beautiful and it’s bullshit all at once. What you see depends very much on where you choose to stand.


Ed. Note: With the 2014 Northern Spark just around the corner, before we begin our coverage of this year’s festival, we thought it would be fun to revisit last year’s St. Paul iteration once more. Read on for Lightsey Darst’s charming dispatch from the June 2013 nuit blanche in Lowertown.

NORTHERN SPARK STARTS FROM THE MISSISSIPPI where Ananya Dance Theater and friends are weaving a water blessing with words and music and riverine arms. You could learn these arms in advance from videos ADT posted on the web, and a surprising number of people have, so when the procession gets going up Sibley towards the green space in front of Union Depot (stop, cars! it’s art!), a multitude of hands in the air follow Ananya Chatterjea and her dancers, with Michelle Kinney on squeezebox and a guitarist dragging his amp uphill on a Radio Flyer and some other musicians following behind, making a minor-key, wavering, wandering music to accompany our gypsy journey. I fall in behind a gaggle of young men, Native drummers who aren’t playing but laughing and making jokes, their long black hair tumbled under puffed-up ball caps. They clearly find this ridiculous, this mixed group of mostly white people sincerely celebrating an invented holiday with half-made up, half-borrowed music and dance. And they’re right: It’s beautiful and it’s bullshit all at once, and what you see depends very much on where you choose to stand.

I’m standing off to the side of the action as we circle up around the plaza and ADT’s dance winds to a halt. Then it’s the guys’ turn: they start drumming and their cool attitude drops. With their eyes tight shut and their mouths wide open, they sing in hoarse, aspirated, piercing voices that sound like they hurt to make. Their sticks go high in the air on the “honor” beats; the sound echoes off a thousand panes of glass on the building opposite.

“I like it. Do it again!” one spectator cries out when it’s over. Chatterjea announces that the performance is done for now; the next installment will be towards midnight. “Hey! Do it again!” shouts the guy, a little drunk—and to my surprise, the drummers do start up again. This time several women join in singing, and the drunk guy and some others kick up a dance in front. Then all of a sudden I’m about to cry. It’s the entranced expression on the face of the pregnant woman singing that does it; it’s how her fingers absent-mindedly lace under her belly. It’s the music—soul music, soul of this place—echoing off the city, almost shattering. I feel lost and found at once.

But let’s get moving! At Northern Spark, one participates, and one of the key anxieties of the festival is whether one is participating in the coolest thing possible. Is screen-printing worth the wait? Is it enough to get a little dizzy from the smell of spray paint, or am I missing something if I don’t grab a can and a stencil myself and engage in a faux Arab Spring in this Minnesota summer? Should I try to pedal a bat, or erase my way into a poem, or commission someone to write me a love letter? The love-lettrist, Clarence White, wears a lovely pink Oxford with the cuffs undone, and he’s working on a Smith-Corona with a carriage return; would it be a special, memorable experience to watch those cuffs flap as he clickety-clacks out a letter for me? Well, how special? Because there’s a line, and meanwhile something more special might be happening elsewhere.

How I get from 7:30, when I arrive at the first ADT performance, to 8:58, when the sun sets and the festival officially begins, I have no idea, but the next thing I know it’s 9:30, and I’m behind or under Union Depot, where people are stumbling all over the tracks in participatory glee. Who knew there were this many people capable of staying up past nine in St Paul? Whose city is this anyway? Christian Jankowski’s film of hula hooping on rooftops projects onto a nearby building, like a joke on Trisha Brown’s Roof Piece. In true Spark spirit, there are plenty of hula hoops for people to play with; unfortunately they’re the cheap kind that won’t stay up for a minute.


The next thing I know it’s 9:30, and I’m behind or under Union Depot, where people are stumbling all over the tracks in participatory glee. Who knew there were this many people capable of staying up past nine in St Paul? Whose city is this anyway?


Piotr Szyhalski’s Permanent Labor provides a more lasting diversion. Here, a small army of young people move in precision, dragging shovels, exchanging shovels, standing around with their arms stiffly at their sides, like robots in waiting, pushing wheelbarrows in unison, and generally finding sternly organized ways to take nine hours moving a couple of piles of dirt. It’s an impressive show of proletarian discipline—or would be, if I didn’t recognize most of the participants as MCAD students. Or does that make it more impressive? Seemingly, work is fun again. My fellow spectators seem itchy to join in. Where are our shovels? Never mind—a burst of bubbles breezes across from something else, and oh! there’s the Amtrak rolling by (safely on the outside track, don’t worry). Everyone cheers. I see a few bewildered passengers staring out the windows: where are we again?

Inside Union Depot I blitz by one mad brainstorm after another: Paul Herwig tucked inside a white plastic enclosure, wearing a hard hat and working at something; impromptu films; printing presses; a kazoo band. I’m fading fast; clearly there will be no Prairie Fire Lady Choir, no burning houses for me (Chris Larson’s Celebration/Love/Loss). I do have time to stop by Lea Sorrentino’s Forever Young Dance Installation. This is a little scrap of genius, a rec room set in which people dance in silence to the music on their headphones, which is piped to the installation’s radio station by a DJ in the corner of the set. That’s the idea, but I can’t really tell that they’re all listening to the same song; mostly, it’s like watching the out-of-synch dancing in a French film. Besides, it’s not actually silent, what with the screamingly loud rock coming from elsewhere in the depot. Before long, my drunk friend from earlier has climbed onto the stage, without headphones, and is dancing to whatever he hears.

Last stop: the sock hop. Seeing two girls in poodle skirts earlier on made me determined to stick it out until the Whitesidewalls started to play. And I’m not the only one — a crowd’s impatiently watching these guys in their bowling shirts and greased-back hair set up. The program promises instruction, but once the doo-wop starts there’s no space for it: the floor fills with a riotous mix of people, young and old, clueless and skilled. Watching dance as much as I do, considering it as a performance, a profession, and an art form, it’s easy for me to forget what it is to most people: a delight that yes, you might sometimes have to get tipsy for, but if the time or the place or your state of mind gives you that permission to cut loose — what a delight. Soon, the sock hop overflows the bounds set up for it. Skirts spin, feet step lively, hands clasp, and the depot floor is bouncing.


Related links and information:

Northern Spark 2013 took place throughout Lowertown, St. Paul from 8:58 pm June 8 to 6 am June 9. According to a report by Minnesota Public Radio, the official tally for attendance this year is a record-breaker: more than 45,000 people turned out. The festival included 76 projects put on by 137 artists and 156 collaborators. Next year’s Northern Spark is scheduled to take place in Minneapolis.


About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She writes a weekly column on dance for