The Irresistible Laurie Van Wieren
Lightsey Darst profiles Laurie Van Wieren, a busy independent choreographer who's worn any number of hats in the local dance scene, known as much for her unflagging support of new talent as she is for her own critically acclaimed work.
I’VE BEEN WANTING TO WRITE ABOUT LAURIE VAN WIEREN FOR A WHILE. She’s one of those people you see everywhere in the dance scene (and on its fringes); choreographer, curator, presenter, performer, avid viewer, she knows everybody, goes to everything. Yet, when I sat down with her the other day, I realized I had no idea what she actually does.
Windows, it turns out. For years, Van Wieren worked in retail, setting up those tchotchke paradises that entice you into Bibelot even when you’re sure you don’t need tangerine hand cream, confetti plastic plates, or a scarf like the wing of an extinct Andean butterfly. Somehow, though it’s just her day job, this crystallizes something about Van Wieren for me: her style, her aura of insider knowledge and, most of all, her dances, with their brightly-colored baubles of movement, character, gesture, moments you want to pick up, turn over, replay, take home.
Simply put, she’s irresistible.
But Van Wieren is not doing windows at the moment. Her last full-time gig was curating at the Southern Theater. She got into this the same way she seems to get into a lot of things — sideways. She was asked to apply, and though she never set out to be a curator, she realized that “it should be done.” Right — and she was the ideal person to do it. I remember the excitement of the season she put together: rising out-of-towners with local connections, local choreographers cresting the rise of being brilliantly ready for their first big show, and long-time stalwarts. I wanted to see everything. Then, of course, came that sequence of unfortunate events, and Van Wieren has not had a job job since.
Not that she’s been idle. Right now, she is
- choreographing a quartet that will appear somewhere, sometime;
- running 9 x 22, the monthly dance salon she started at the Bryant-Lake Bowl (BLB) in 2003;
- working on SCUBA, the inter-city performing network;
- curating Dances Made to Order, a new online dance film project;
- and some other things — thinking about this, talking about that with so-and-so, ushering various ideas through embryonic stages, etc.
These projects are all unique; they cannot be described quickly because they are not like anything else that exists. Take 9 x 22. Every month, three performers or ensembles show work in progress at the BLB (the name of the series comes from the dimensions of the BLB stage); then the artists discuss it with Van Wieren and the audience. The choreographers are diverse in dance form, background, experience, prestige; the questions are sharp, the answers honest; the feeling is not so much that of attending a performance as being in the midst of a choreographic lab, meeting place, community. Last time I went, Van Wieren had Karen Sherman (avant-garde/theater, established), Kenna Sarge (African/performance, on the rise), and Emily Gastineau (performance/modern, emerging). The house was sold out, flush with dance folk; a disgruntled dancegoer or a freak storm could have taken out the Twin Cities dance scene right there. — Except for Van Wieren herself; she was out sick.
Van Wieren has a blonde pixie cut, tres chic matte black frames that set off her wide-awake eyes, and a birdlike way of turning her head rapidly, angling it this way and that. Learn her form: when you see her, you’re in good company. She may look like a startled chick that’s just hopped out of the nest, but she knows where to go among established local dance artists as well as touring groups, visual art, theater, etc, and, most impressively, the maze of the up-and-coming. It’s famously difficult to tell which young artists are worth following; you can talk about talent all you want, but how do you tell tedium from obsession, vacancy from incubation, a steaming pile of something from a hot mess?
Van Wieren has a knack for it, and when I ask her about her overall vision, what drives her fervent service to the community (for which she received a 2008 Sage Award Special Citation), she talks about young choreographers. She’s interested in finding and helping the artists who “have a little spark that I think should be seen more,” artists for whom “something’s going on now, something’s exciting.”
Practically every rising or shining Minneapolis choreographer or theater artist has some link to Van Wieren — Megan Mayer, Charles Campbell, Chris Schlichting, Hijack, Morgan Thorson, Anna Marie Shogren. Without her, it’s hard to imagine what this scene would look like.
Her short list includes Kenna Sarge, Laura Holway, and Pramila Vasudevan — the artists who’ll be making video dances for Dances Made to Order, an online project started by Los Angeles artist Kingsley Irons, the Minneapolis segment of which will debut this July. She’s also had her eye on Angharad Davies, who’s presenting work April 20-22 at Patrick’s as part of SCUBA. Beyond that, practically every rising or shining Minneapolis choreographer or theater artist has some link to Van Wieren — Megan Mayer, Charles Campbell, Chris Schlichting, Hijack, Morgan Thorson, Anna Marie Shogren, etc. Without her, it’s hard to imagine what this scene would look like.
Not that Van Wieren stands on a pedestal or even thinks of herself as a powerbroker. When I asked her what she was up to, before she listed all of it, this was her short answer: “Oh, I’m not doing that much right now.” And she doesn’t work from a master plan for improving our dance scene: “I don’t have any answers, except to just talk.”
You may have picked up by now that Van Wieren is not young. Last year she celebrated 40 years in dance with a retrospective called Who Made These Videotapes? Forty years means Van Wieren’s not even mid-career; she’s in a bracket we don’t have a name for because there are so few people in it, and especially so few independent choreographers. “It’s been hard to see all my colleagues leave,” she says. But “you get tired of not having health insurance.” She credits her own longevity in the field to flexibility — “the only reason I’ve survived is that I haven’t stayed with one thing” — and financial restraint: “When I don’t have a grant, I’ll do a solo.”
Think about that for a second: 40 years in the field and Van Wieren still can’t blithely rent rehearsal space. It’s as if a veteran painter — and a successful one too, with plenty of awards and positive reviews –went back to sketches every so often, too poor to afford paint. But no, that’s not right, because it implies that her solos are somehow less than her group pieces, and that isn’t the case at all. Like all of her work, her solos open a window onto another world, which, however briefly glimpsed, stays in the mind. I can still see her transforming herself into Anthony, a boozy gallant she embodies with just a boxy suit, a pencil moustache, and a regal swagger.
Her current work builds on a piece from her retrospective (Van Wieren loves to revisit, warp, reverse, remix), in which four dancers (Van Wieren, Joanna Furnans, Sally Rousse and Kristin Van Loon) perform the same solo, one after the other. The solo itself is wry, moves and mistakes with little commentary on the moves — tripping and then looking down as if to blame the floor, as all dancers do; pausing to push up her glasses before a repeat — as if you’re watching someone think through something at once ordinary and crucial, and somehow revealing. Watching the iterations of this solo in sequence, I found myself rejecting each new interpreter at first, only to eventually fall in love with whoever it was, and then reject whoever came next. At last, I wanted to take it all home with me, but I couldn’t; the dance asserts its separateness. What I can take home is how the work made me think — that detailed attention to the moment, that constant awareness of relation.
Related information and links:
The 9×22 Dance/Lab falls on the fourth Wednesday of every month. The next is April 25, 8 pm at the Bryant Lake Bowl; featured artists are yet to be announced.
SCUBA National Touring Network for Dance, for which Van Wieren is a co-producer, will hit Minneapolis, featuring work by Angharad Davies, at Patrick’s Cabaret in Minneapolis April 20-22.
She is also curator of the July 2012 installment of the online dance/film series, Dances Made to Order. Three Twin Cities artists will be featured: Kenna Sarge, Laura Holway, and Pramila Vasudevan.
You can keep track of all Van Wieren’s projects and find additional background information on past, present and future work on her website: www.laurievanwieren.com
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.