Surprise Me – Hunting for New Dance at “Renovate”

Lightsey Darst gives the lowdown on the performances at the 3rd Annual "Renovate" choreography showcase at the Ritz, detailing the mix of surprises, familiar pleasures, and valiant failures among this year's offerings.


WHEN I FIRST STARTED WRITING ABOUT DANCE, everything was new and exciting. I saw every piece as one of a kind and wrote about each one as a universe unto to itself, with its own rules. Then, after a year or so, I started figuring things out. Then, the pieces I saw were no longer entirely new, but they were still exciting because they were links in a larger chain, pieces of the little world of dance here in the Twin Cities. But when I had things more or less nailed down, when I’d interviewed the people who fascinated me and dropped in on hundreds of rehearsals, then, I have to admit, I started to get a little jaded. Been there, seen that: it sounds awful, but it’s hard to be moved when you’re familiar with the machinery that’s trying to move you. When you recognize what the artist is driving at, you can still appreciate it, but you just don’t feel it.

So, when you reach this stage, what do you do to stay interested? You have to hunt for surprises. A choreographic showcase like the Ritz’s Renovate (now in its third year, curated by Lisa Conlin, with help from Mariusz Olszewski and Vanessa Voskuil) is the perfect place to find them — whether in the form of new artists, artists taking new risks, or artists who are always surprising.

Let’s start with the new artists — specifically, with Brian Evans. Renovate might as well be subtitled “A Brian Evans Evening,” because this charismatic dancer is featured in five of thirteen pieces. Evans isn’t entirely new to me — I’ve seen him in Stuart Pimsler’s company — but he looks to be having a breakout year. And why not? Explosions of athletic young male energy are always a thrill, but they’re rarely combined with emotional nuance, intelligent details, and that light touch, now whimsical, now modest, that Evans supplies. To put it another way, despite his talent, ego doesn’t roll off him in waves, and you don’t get tired watching a flashy exterior. Instead, Evans brings you inside.

Renovate also features a slew of new choreographers, some young, some new to the Twin Cities, some complete unknowns to me (the Renovate program includes no bios). Elizabeth Bergman‘s I don’t feel it is necessary to know exactly what I mean tries to make sense of her ballet background in a postmodern world. My jaded eye works against her in a few spots where she falls into cliché — running in a circle, bits of ballet-hate, her light-climbing ending. But here and there the new vocabulary she’s striving for comes into tantalizing focus. When she articulates an arm through the space directly behind her body, Bergman brings a balletic point and grace to the forbidden gesture (in ballet, back-space does not exist).

Taja Will springs from and works with decidedly avant-garde artists (BodyCartography, for one), but what I’ve seen of her own work is surprisingly accessible. Terpsichore Told Us To opens the often hermetic world of contact improvisation to a mass audience by allowing us to hear the score the dancers are following. “Point, kick, shimmy, pose,” a voice instructs Will and Blake Nellis, gradually speeding up and merging into catchy disco tunes. It’s fun to see how Will and Nellis attempt to follow the rapid-fire instructions — How’s she going to jump from there? Oh, he found a new way to fall! It doesn’t hurt that Will and Nellis are top-shelf movers and movement inventors, turning by the end into nerve blurs, like synapses jumping.

Julie Warder and her krump collaborator, Kortland Jackson, are both new to me, but their mixed media multi-dance form narrative extravaganza, Abandon Me, shows ambition and some finesse. It’s emotionally predictable, heavily driven by its rap track, and altogether too busy to reach the poignancy it aims at, but there’s promise here.

In Rebecca Eats Dust, Erin Drummond shows off her own platonically smooth dancing. Apparently this piece is based on a character from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I found myself mostly wondering about Drummond: What Zen level do you have to get to to move like a planetary body?


John Munger produces a pile of crap and then glorifies it. No, really: I’m just summarizing. For sheer chutzpah, Munger has no equal.


Angharad Davies‘s Security is a polar opposite to Drummond’s sustained moody involution, as Davies and Alex Grant break into weird little pose — or mime — dances between snatches of awkward conversation, coffee breaks, and security guard duty. Now I know why The Office has never clicked for me: it needed to be made into a dance. The Office leaves me cold, but Davies’s slo-mo, sped-up, superlatively insecure deconstruction of work life cracks me up.

Renovate also features a few familiar performers testing their choreographic skills. Of these, Cade Holmseth does the best: his Just One More features Brian Evans retelling, then dancing about to a George Carlin bit. Why is it so much fun to see someone dance to words? The dance brings out rhythms and points up dynamics — that leap on “except in Indiana” — that we might otherwise miss. Give Holmseth credit, too, for subtlety of imagination: he’s as much into little whimsical featherings as big macho leaps.

Alanna Morris’s Dreams: A Solo has the distinct advantage of Morris, herself, as a performer. Strong, intense, and bitingly quick, Morris (of TU Dance) could enliven anything. And her choreographic work isn’t bad: yes, this is a kitchen sink dance, a dance about everything, but Morris keeps it open. When she laughs, is it release or madness? I’ll be curious to find out more.

Kari Mosel‘s A Word With You Dear recreates, she tells us in her program notes, the moment in a relationship when you find out “if you love enough to let go.” This dubious sentiment results in a dance that is layered — chopped up dialogue between one couple, high-risk partnering between the other — visceral, and entirely unpleasant: it’s a dance for divorcing to. Ouch all over.

Denise Armistead, a long-time standout with Zenon Dance (now retired), has been choreographing for some time now, and I can’t say I found much surprising about her In Between-Between Places, which looks like it sounds — meandering and vague. We do get to see Armistead’s love of movement in some Pilobolesque people-piles.

There’s nothing new about John Munger, but I never cease to find him surprising. In Wrath, he produces a pile of crap and then glorifies it. No, really: I’m just summarizing. For sheer chutzpah, Munger has no equal.

Jennifer Ilse‘s Love Triangle, an excerpt from Off-Leash Area’s recent full-length show The Jury, doesn’t do so well on its own — the dramatic arc gets lost — but Ilse is such a riveting performer and such a chameleon that she always offers something new.

Finally, Jaime Carrera has been offering up sweet little prop-assisted solos for a few years now, always exploring slightly different aspects of his gay, Mexican, ex-Catholic identity. Madurez, with its childlike bravado, just adds a bit more to the picture he’s gradually building for his audience.

So, I found some surprises in Renovate, but I don’t mean to make it sound like a smash hit. I was frequently bored — by the musical choices, by the psychodrama, by that one move in which dancer A holds up reclining dancer B by his or her neck, and then they hop along like that in a way that must be meant to evoke emotional support in a tenuous world but that really calls to mind nothing more than a human centipede. Or, a centaur attempting to strangle itself — you know that move? It’s really time to can it.  I was bored by that move, by random stage placement, by one-dimensional thought… And yes, I know, only boring people are bored, everyone is trying hard, but perhaps we could all try harder. Next time, I will bring five extra layers to my thought. Okay? And the artists, and you (whichever side you fall on), can do the same.

I did have a few moments of trust, of reverie. I trusted Angharad Davies; during Security, I didn’t stop to think to myself, I didn’t sink from experience into appreciation. Some physical seconds still flash in my mind: Elizabeth Bergman’s foot suddenly articulating through a ballet point, Blake Nellis’s blur, the sweet whiplash of Alanna Morris’s arm. And, though I didn’t expect it to, Erin Drummond’s Rebecca Eats Dust has grown in my mind in the days since the show. Its soot-tinted images — Drummond dragged offstage by an invisible force, Drummond making a perfect circle with her arms — hold some lasting mystery.


Noted performance details:

The 3rd annual choreographers’ evening, Renovate, curated by Lisa Conlin with help from panelists Vanessa Voskuil and Mariusz Olszewski, took place May 20-22 at the Ritz Theater 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 has just been published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship. She hosts the writing salon, “The Works.”