Blogs mnartists.blog mnartists.org

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography On How to Move Bodies in Space

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about some of the many behind-the-scenes variables that go into the making of a new dance work: the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of novelty, and […]

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about some of the many behind-the-scenes variables that go into the making of a new dance work: the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of novelty, and “sensory deliciousness.”

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

What have you guys been doing since Super Nature premiered?

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography)

Oh, grant reports.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography)

Identifying missing cables, buying thank-you gifts that don’t arrive at their destinations, booking plane tickets for New York, wondering if all of our cast is coming, which we’ve finally confirmed, one month before we’re all due in New York. Anything else? Trying to get some sunshine. Teaching in Ohio.

Otto

Re-adjusting to not having babysitting five to seven hours per day.

Kristin

This is actually great, because I want us to get this out of our systems—the logistics and the career and the fundraising and the tickets. Let’s not talk about that stuff.

Olive

Great! I love it. Yes.

Kristin

And maybe to get it out of my system, I’ll say where I am. I flew out of Las Vegas today, and I feel like I’m kind of tripping. But I was thinking about where I’m at right now and how it can help us talk, because I loved Las Vegas, just the sensory deliciousness, the lights, the scale, the visual, so as I was transitioning out of that I was thinking about your show, and how you dealt with scale and space and sensory deliciousness.

So there’s half—and just before Las Vegas I was at Figure Space [at Earthdance] with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, and that felt—well, one thing we were really working with was undifferentiated space. Which for them, I think, was space on an architectural scale, and space inside the body on a microscopic scale, and working in a place where you lose track of which space you’re in. I think of that as BodyCartography territory, too, so I’m not surprised to see you’re nodding to what Steve and Lisa were talking about. I’m interested in surface—just what the audience saw—and how you dealt with the [Walker Art Center’s] McGuire Theater, those ideas of space, in the actual making of the piece.

Just grab whatever part of that you want to talk about.

Otto

I think, with this piece, we always knew where it was going to be: at the McGuire Theater. For those who haven’t been there it’s a black box theater that’s 60-feet deep by 60-feet wide. It’s pretty big and the seats go right down to the floor – the first row of seats is right on the stage – which I always like. It’s a very high fly space, a very high ceiling in the theater, higher than your average contemporary dance venue. The visual artist we were working with, doing sets and costumes, originally wanted to put a drop ceiling in the theater, but we decided that would be just too much material to contend with when we were going to tour. We’ve already done a lot of shows with set elements, and we thought it seemed really excessive. Then we went on a residency on a farm —Lilysprings Farm [in Wisconsin]—and there was a really beautiful washing line. Olive had an idea to crash the washing line with the drop ceiling idea so that when people came in there would be a rope attached to the top proscenium arch and going back into a vanishing point on the upstage right side of the space. We wanted to change the scale of the space, to create a sense of dynamic change or shifting power.

Olive

Yes – between the bodies and the space itself.

Otto

So, if you were in the space underneath the line, the rope came to about five-and-a-half feet at the back wall; it functioned like a little room. Someone in the talkback said it annihilated the black box feel of the stage, to have the vanishing point just disappearing behind the wall. That’s pretty evident in the first half of the piece: it’s just black, and you have this vanishing point, and the first section—or the first beginning—has a lot of interruptions, a crash between the social and the physiological. In the second half of the piece a mobile forest comes in, and there’s fog, and, at least to me, the space changes a lot because of the trees and fog and different lighting. In the beginning [the activity feels more social], you have a sense of cause and effect, of one thing happening at a time. You can see that all change once the fog and the trees come in: the line of sight really spreads horizontally, and many different things are happening at the same time.

Olive

And to speak to this kind of undifferentiated space, we shift from a space we know to a space that we experience unconsciously, that we only know on a cellular level – on the level that’s more about biology or intuition or landscapes or things that are happening in the dark. There’s something about that horizontal space that makes it no longer about these people, or this social space. It’s bringing in many other beings, creatures, landforms, and going micro, inside ourselves at the same time.

It took a long time to figure out what the geography of the second half of Super Nature would be. It had to arrive organically, but we still had to get it there before there was a premiere [laughs].

So, that meant speeding up either the geography or the biology somehow in order to figure out what the structure of that second half of the work would be.

Kristin

Are you talking about the hurry to get it there in terms of what the performers had to traverse to be ready to be in that state at that moment?

Olive

They have to get to a point where they’re in that state, but we also have to come to an agreement ahead of time. It’s really hard for performers to make good improvisational choices around timing and space because of the sensory deprivation involved in most of the second half of the work – they’re not able to perceive everything going on around them. Some are stuck inside the mass of others’ bodies; or, somebody else’s full weight is on them, and they can’t move quickly. Some of the performers literally can’t see: they’re under a blanket, or they’re in the fog [laughs]. Some are under a tree. There’s something limiting their ability to perceive the space around them. So, the work’s structure did eventually form itself, but it was a long time coming.

I want to back up a little bit. In our history of making site-based work, it’s been hard for us not to go into the theater and use that theater as the site – that is, we’re always tempted to really play with everything that’s in the space itself. But Super Nature started with an installation piece in the gallery, with research: it began in this incredibly intimate space with one audience member at a time. After that, we needed to go into the McGuire, so the question was: How can we translate that intimacy, that level of move-or-be-moved-by-whomever-else-is-in-the-room immediacy? How can we bring it into the theater? How can we super-actively work this space to affect and be affected, as performers, and also to affect our audiences? To allow ourselves to be seen on every side of our body, but also to really create transformation in how people are watching us? Those were the questions that informed many of the structural and choreographic choices of the work, too.

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

Do you think there was something to learn from the McGuire Theater?

Olive

There’s something indulgent in it. It’s so lovely to work in that space, to have that kind of fly space and wing space, but also to have such intimacy, to have the benefit of that compressed space with the audience. I feel like it will be hard to put this work in different spaces and see how the work changes, because Super Nature was so constructed with the McGuire in mind.

Otto

What I mentioned about the first row of seats going all the way onto the stage—you don’t find that at all theaters. And in the McGuire, we were really able to use that intimacy: there are two aisles and we could move people between the house and the stage easily. We found that kind of zoom-in to be really helpful in achieving what Olive was talking about. Knowing that there are people all around you—it knocks out a degree of passivity. I didn’t see the piece, so I don’t know its effect on the audience first-hand. But I imagine, and I heard from people who did watch from the audience, that the first sections of the work, in particular, disrupted their expectations. You’re watching the stage and then something is happening in the house where the audience is, and now it’s just on the stage again, but then someone new comes in among the audience. There’s a lot of interruption – of space and of activity – and we learned the ways that we wanted to do that from the context of the McGuire.

Zeena [Parkins] didn’t compose the score to relate to the space, but she did spatialize the score specifically for the McGuire, in terms of speaker placement. The whole score emerged from behind the audience, or at the proscenium arch, or on the speakers on the stage; she also had a speaker set up in the pass-through, in the back hallway, and she had people doing live Foley up in the balconies. So, she was using different sounds and different speaker placements to try to do much the same thing we were doing in our play with proximity and affect.

Olive

I also learned what fog does in that space when you have an audience, and where the fog goes: It leaves the theater really quickly when you have an audience. So, that was another thing, on a really practical level, that I learned about that particular venue [laughs].

Arwen

You’ve worked with this composer before. Did you learn anything from working with Zeena again here?

Olive

Interesting question.  I feel like this was a more fully articulated development of ideas from Half-Life and also Mammal, our previous collaborations with her. So, in some ways the ideas in play weren’t new to me, but Super Nature represented a fuller manifestation of those ideas.

For me, being in an audience, I’m just focusing on being in the work – I’m not tracking which speaker the sound is coming from, but I do have this—whoa…whoa!—thing going on; I mean, it works on me whether I’m aware of it or not. I learned from what Zeena did that people loved that combination of live and recorded sound moving through the space; and audiences really responded to the physicalization of the sound. That’s why we were working with her, because we love that too! [Laughter] 

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen

I ask because you’re talking about working with space, and with undifferentiated space, and she’s sending sounds from different parts of the performance area, really helping to shape that space. And what’s interesting is that there was this huge difference between the audience space and the dancing space in terms of how the sounds were perceived.

Otto

Right – I mean, how you can perceive all that when you’re focused on doing your work, when you’re dancing.

Arwen

That’s where your focus is.

Otto

Yeah. Some sections of the show, I could really feel what was happening; but other times, it took a while for me to really hear what she was doing. All the sound stuff got finished near the end – Zeena is in New York and we’re in Minneapolis, so it wasn’t like she was playing along with the rehearsals.

Kristin

The real compositional choice-making was in deciding to work with Zeena again, it sounds like. Because we [HIJACK] so often use found sound, it’s striking to me how different that must be—it’s like a big saying yes and then working out the deadline. I’m sure however rich the negotiation is about little details at the end, it’s just something you said a big “Yes!” to — you’re excited to see what her sound contribution is going to be.

Otto

Well, Zeena did come here twice before the premiere. We also had sound Zeena recorded that Olive was able to play during rehearsal and at showings.

Olive

But even so it’s always different when she’s there, playing live. It’s a totally different experience, because she’s playing harp, and then she’s conducting the Foley; she was really calling the cues during the performance, even at the Walker, for various reasons. And that direct participation is a completely different thing than just our playing recordings of her music. The spatialization of the score makes sense in a different way. Some people felt, when they heard the sound in the context of an early showing – the recordings – that the score was disjunctive, like “Oh, I can tell she’s not here working with you all the time.”

Otto

One person said that.

Olive

But it was interesting feedback. I’ve never heard that feedback before. That’s an interesting, different perception of the interplay of the dance and the score. “What do you want music to do?” would have been my question back to that commenter, but I wasn’t in the conversation.

Otto

What you’re saying also brings up the importance of casting.

Olive

Casting is a choreographic choice.

Otto

Casting is the biggest thing.

Olive

For us, in our work.

BCPSNfaunSeanSmudaRamstadShogren

Pictured: Otto Ramstad and Anne Marie Shogren. Photo: Sean Smuda

Otto

But also in theater, performance, film. I read something once, a review of film, something like: “Casting is 75% of the work of the film or of what makes a film successful.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to put a percentage on it, but for our work, it’s very important. Then again, who doesn’t [think casting is important?] I’m sure there might be some people working with dancers who don’t generate their own material for whom it’s not so crucial, but if you’re going to have people making the dance with you…

Olive

Then you better love ‘em!

Otto

Better love ‘em. What you brought up with the sound, Kristin: the idea that, if you’re not controlling the music, you want to trust the person that is.

Olive

Within the sound itself, too, we’ve got layers of history with Zeena. We’ve done recordings with her that she used with the Lyon Opera Ballet – recordings from Mammal, and that we did out at Theodore Wirth Park and at the Walker. I don’t think we used any of them in Super Nature, though—

Otto

I think we used the breathing—

Olive

We used the breathing. But there’s this collection of sounds from us that she’ll use again somewhere, or that might come back again in another piece we make together. And that sort of history of collecting is interesting, too.

Kristin

I’d love to jump on the idea of continuity with your past work. I really want to ask you about Super Nature, and how successful you thought it was. It feels especially timely, like it’s a contemporary statement from you and about the culture at large.

When we, Arwen and I, are making a new piece, I’m struck by how much that process also involves thinking about old pieces. I’m surprised by how much I get out of that recollection, how much I’m enjoying saying: “Oh, that thing we made eight years ago, that was the sweet spot. And then we made some transitional pieces…”

We’re poorly equipped to assess what we’re making now, but continuing to make new work is a way of getting some distance on what you’ve made in the past; it means being able to have a really strong opinion about one’s own past work. Can we talk about some of your earlier work – say, Half Life or Symptom? Having made Super Nature, what do you now know about those pieces that you didn’t before?

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Olive

I can speak back to Holiday House now [laughter]. I can also say that Mammal was totally the idea of taking all these great moments in our work, because we didn’t have enough time with the Lyon Opera Ballet. We had 18 days there – we didn’t have enough time to invent a whole new thing, to get to know those dancers and develop a whole new piece with them. The process of making Mammal was more like: How can we pull in what we know and what we know we can teach, what we know will work and is exciting?  So, we took a whole bunch of stuff from Holiday House—scores, not choreography—and then reframed it. Really, that was the seed – those new things that started happening out of that piece – that birthed Super Nature, in a way.

That’s one tangent. And then it feels like Half Life was a whole other one – like it speaks to Super Nature in the sense that both works are responding to the environment in some way, but they’re talking about it in completely different languages. Half Life was really dark – bogged down by research and bogged down by trying to figure out how to simply bring it to fruition: how to get a visa and how to get the dancer we wanted. It was a real struggle for that work to be made manifest. Super Nature has a kind of magic, a kind of levity around it. This work easily manifested what it needed.

And then Symptom is just a completely different thread altogether from these. It’s like two people – a visual artist and a dancer onstage together – really addressing this conversation between the gallery and the stage, between the spheres of visual art and dance. Symptom just feels worlds apart. But I guess each piece that you make in some way responds to what has come before, like – “Oh! I want this piece to be really physical!” Everything bounces off—

Kristin

It’s like the antidote—

Olive

Right, a new work is the antidote, somehow, for the last experience. Symptom is the piece we made before Super Nature; it was this really cerebral work, so we knew the next piece would be super physical.

Otto

The experience of doing Mammal,  going through our previous work and taking out scores that we knew worked in other pieces and that we could effectively direct—

Olive

With people who don’t improvise a lot—

Otto

Or, who don’t already know about our work – that was very interesting and validating. Just to try to start with something not-new. I mean, you’re making something new out of existing things, but that’s not to say it feels like you’re making something old, just because you’re using things you’ve used before. Something else is still happening – because of the different casting or because you’re organizing your materials in a different way. Even just having the extra space–

Kristin

The extra space for shaping the final product, because not as much energy is invested in inventing the process – right.

Otto

There’s such a high value on novelty in contemporary dance—or whatever you want to call this field we’re in, so much pressure to create something new, always to do something different.

Olive

To reinvent your whole process.

Otto

But no one’s trying to say that to Robert Wilson!

Olive

Or Mark Morris!

Otto

Mark Morris?

Olive

Or even Bill T. Jones! [Laughter] Just to name a few… [more laughter]

Otto

Why is there such high value put on the new? Why not redo what you’ve done before and see what other things come out of it? For instance, I was trying to direct this thing we’d been doing, this one-on-one score responding to the changing space between two people; the performers weren’t really getting it, so we just did the piece as a group of people instead. And that new interpretation was the basis for a lot in Super Nature.

Arwen

I’m interested in the translation from score into movement, the manifestation of that and, from here, the translation from movement into language, or maybe audio into typed-out words. Could you describe Super Nature’s movement as movement? That is: Could you pick one section and just talk about the dance – not as if from a score, but from the perspective of seeing it? What did the dance look like? How were the performers moving?

Olive

Like a traveling, evolving individual of multiple species.

Arwen

Keep going!

Otto

Olive, you stole what I was going to say [laughter, and a long pause]. There’s a solo in the show that looks like a crash between someone who is enacting recognizable dance vocabulary, but they’re doing it in a social manner; at the same time their breathing pattern seems out of sync with what they’re doing, and then it matches what they’re doing – the breath matching the movement and the movement changing the breath coming out.

Olive

There’s a solo that turns into a trio of shooting planets, or stars that are imploding or exploding.

Kristin

I’m sure it’s hard to detach from the savvy of the intention…

Otto

That was not the intention behind the choregraphy, at all.

Arwen

But it also makes sense that you’re in a different position, being in the piece, seeing the breath score. Of course! You’re still doing this piece.

Olive

In one section, the movement coalesces in piles of bodies, like complex jigsaws.

Otto

Or, just piles of bodies where it’s hard to discern whose body parts are whose.

Kristin

I love the body puzzles. I realized in our last rehearsal with HIJACK, that we’d essentially re-choreographed your show. So, look forward to seeing your material on the McGuire stage in a year! [Laughter]

Arwen

I hadn’t recognized that till now. I’ll be sure to put “move 562 and 563 courtesy of BodyCartography” in the program.

Otto

Didn’t that also happen in Fetish?

Kristin

What? Where we stole from you? Oh yeah, there was a quote! Arwen and I had to make some moves, each of us, and the score directed us to “tell each other what we did last weekend.”

Arwen

I had cleaned the house, and Kristin had rehearsed with you! [Laughter]

Kristin

When you refer to the space-in-between score, it just makes me laugh – as if it’s this albatross, “The Score.” That’s always going to be in every piece – it’s the choreography that you’re making, of course, but it could also be a metaphor for what your collaboration is, how, as BodyCartography, you’re combining two people’s voices. And if we had another half hour—or another three hours—Arwen and I would grill you on your collaboration!

Speaking of which: I could describe our partnership, with HIJACK, a little bit. We’ve gone through phases of emphasizing different things, both for others and for ourselves. There’s sometimes been an understanding that HIJACK is a single, united voice; an authorship obscuring the fact that it’s made of two people.  But maybe now we’re in a phase where our understanding of the collaboration is more sensitized to how it’s a crashing of two individual authorships, in the choreographic process and onstage, and not necessarily always unified in so doing.

With BodyCartography, what are you-all doing?

Otto

Olive and I are making the same thing, but we’re both approaching it in our own ways: we each have different roles within the chronology of time, or different parts within the process where one of us is adding more. In Super Nature, our contributions were pretty different because Olive was watching and directing, and I was in it – so that made a big difference. Just to speak grossly, I was mostly generating scores that would either remain improvisational or become fixed, and Olive was doing more of the structuring, organizing—

Olive

—I was figuring out what the whole thing would be. Otto’s role was bringing in all those initial seeds, and manifesting them from the inside; then I was directing from the outside, figuring out how all those parts needed to speak to other parts of the piece.

Otto

I also work with details – housekeeping details, like “don’t look to the right, look to the left,” that kind of directing.

Kristin

Do you think you’ll use a setup like this again? Or, do you think you’ll seek an antidote, like a project where Olive is inside and Otto directs from the outside?

Olive

No. I think this is just what we do. I think it’s what we’ve been doing for a while now, actually, and we’re just getting clearer about articulating that.

HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning “Contact Improvisation” class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon and Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye into a piece for awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org.

Grand Rapids Border Control: Interview with Pitch Night Winner Bjorn Sparrman

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members […]

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members and a jury of experts, ranging from the practical to the conceptual.

For the uninitiated: ArtPrize is one of the largest art events in the world, attracting over 400,000 visitors last year. The festival transforms downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan for three weeks, covering parks, restaurants, stores, museums, and sidewalks with art.  Its structure fosters a tension between professional and populist views of art, awarding large cash prizes to artists selected both by jury and by popular vote.

After some deliberation, the Pitch Night jury selected The Grand River Checkpoint Project by artist Bjorn Sparrman to receive $5000 and a coveted venue at the sixth annual ArtPrize.  His piece will be installed on Gillett Bridge, a major thoroughfare in the midst of the festival, from September 24 to October 12, 2014.

mnartists.org asked Sparrman a few questions about the ideas behind his piece.

Entering Western Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

What’s your previous experience with ArtPrize?

I’ve attended ArtPrize most years since it began back in 2009, but this is my first time participating. I went to college in Grand Rapids, and as a young artist, ArtPrize was overwhelming: the crowds, the diversity of the works, the spectacle. Now that I’ve had some separation from the city and ArtPrize, I feel this is a good time for me to return and participate.

Describe your winning project. What’s the elevator pitch?

I will be erecting a border control checkpoint on the Gillett Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Grand River and connects the eastern and western sides of the city. There will be a guardhouse womaned by a Gillette Bridge Border Control Officer. Along the bridge will stand several signs, some that demand “NO PHOTOS” or “NO CELL PHONES”, and others stating, “You are now entering/leaving Eastern/Western Grand Rapids.”

How do you hope the public interacts with your project? What do you want them to experience?

The piece will bring up a lot of different images and memories for different people, some of which might be very difficult or saddening. However, I do know that everyone will be forced across this border together. If there is something specific I want people to experience, it is a feeling of temporary equality within communal constraint. I am anxious to see the various kinds of responses. There is definitely a bit of shock value.

Gillett Bridge Border Control

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

Tell us about the political implications of the project - it seems to work on several levels.

I want the border to act more as a political/national backdrop which people traverse, or are forced to traverse. We cross these kinds of borders every day. I’m just making the experience more visible. When I was thinking about the bridge and the river, I could only see fit to amplify and play with the implicit border and movement of people that was already there.

How do you think your work be read within the context of the whole festival?

I must admit that the idea came from a somewhat cynical view of ArtPrize, and of large festivals in general. You go and take pictures of the spectacular artworks. You’re encouraged to vote for your favorite pieces with your phone, but the border I’m installing will have signs expressly prohibiting photography and cellphones. Pedestrians have so much access to the city during ArtPrize, I want to make sure they aren’t taking it for granted.

What’s coming up next for you, and how can we learn more about your work?

I’ll be moving to Massachusetts this fall to begin working on a master’s degree at MIT through their Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program. I currently have a small exhibition in a Copenhagen storefront, but if you can’t make it there, you can see my work at: greenlocomotive.wix.com/beta

Pitch Night

Photo courtesy of Emily Gastineau

Road Songs: Denver

I was invited by several dear friends to see a metal concert in Denver, Colorado, featuring the city’s own Speedwolf. The state’s capitol may be filled with laid-back jocks, but this band draws a different sort of crowd. Morbid, fast, and hell-bent, “Denver 666” is just one of their popular tunes. Despite a proclivity for such diabolically […]

Watercolor Impressions of the heavy metal performance style by the author.

Watercolor impressions of a Denver heavy metal performance by the author.

I was invited by several dear friends to see a metal concert in Denver, Colorado, featuring the city’s own Speedwolf. The state’s capitol may be filled with laid-back jocks, but this band draws a different sort of crowd. Morbid, fast, and hell-bent, “Denver 666” is just one of their popular tunes. Despite a proclivity for such diabolically titled songs, my friends assured me that metal die-hards are, in fact, gentle-hearted folks underneath it all. And Speedwolf, in particular, is known for going back to metal’s early roots, forgoing the usual Cookie Monster vocals (officially dubbed the “death growl”) and superfluous antics of hair metal.

So, I arrived at the Hi-Dive venue as an unwitting cultural anthropologist, a visiting folk musician intrigued by the darker side of the craft. I was encouraged to think of mosh pits as merely a thinly veiled orchestration of camaraderie. Even so, I stood towards the back of the crowd while the more physically engaged members of the audience shoved at each other.

I know several fans of the genre, but my own experience with metal is mostly limited to an appreciation of its aesthetics. Walker Open Field hosted a popular Death Metal Drawing Club two summers ago, and Christophe Szpajdel designed a stylish metal-inspired logo for the institution. Spoofed by Spinal Tap, and revitalized by Anvil!, the genre strikes me as more beloved black sheep than bête noire.

Earlyman_900

Once into the Speedwolf set, I distinctly heard the lyrics and song title, “One Percenter from Hell.” I was intrigued by the title – both angry and critical, bizarre and a little creepy. After some internet detective work, I found that the term “one-percenter” has two very different but equally plausible meanings in this context. Hear the word, and the first that comes to mind refers to a member of America’s wealthiest class. The alternate option I found: a member of an outlaw bike gang. The rebels of the road have been called one percenters since the 1950s when, as legend has it, the American public was assured that 99% of motorcyclists were upstanding citizens.

Speedwolf merchandise. From the band's Facebook page.

Speedwolf merchandise: “THE SCION/Funny Cars That Look Like Microwaves Tour.” From the band’s Facebook page.

Free PORK issues were on offer at the show. Portland’s PORK was founded by husband-wife team Katie and Sean Aaberg, both of whom grew up in the relaxed vibe of the 1970s East Bay in California; Sean is the son of New Age pianist Philip Aaberg. Everything about PORK is done in purposefully bad taste and resistant to anything politically correct or “square.” Self-classified in the category of “weirdo art and rock n’ roll,” PORK liberally employs the pictorial lexicon of lowbrow American culture, bodily fluids, and gallows humor. Inspiration includes Art Spiegelman’s Garbage Pail Kids, R. Crumb, and punk culture in general.

In a PORK interview with Mr. Aaberg, Speedwolf lead man Reed Bruemmer was asked about his favorite musical accessories and gear. “[Being] a ‘vocalist’ or pro yeller or whatever the hell I do, I’m not really a gear guy,” he says. Aaberg clearly appreciates this “back to basics” sound of Speedwolf and goes so far as to contrast their old-school style with the “million nonsensical sub genres [of metal],” some of whom “even [use] Art Nouveau art.” It seems that’s the ultimate insult – to leave the harsh and often tasteless metal aesthetic behind in favor of soft, French-inspired beauty.

Excerpts from PORK Magazine, Spring 2014.

Excerpts from PORK Magazine, Spring 2014.

Even based on this limited information – a one-off heavy metal concert in Denver and a free Weirdo magazine – I find I have developed a soft spot for genre and a lingering curiosity for this Pandora’s box of campy-grotesque counterculture. I mean, sure, Speedwolf’s drum set appeared to be blood-spattered, and many of the songs revolved around the themes of death, anger and the devil. And yes, there was beer propelled and sprayed over the audience; I saw a crowd surfer in a Peyton Manning jersey and wolf mask, and even caught wind of an off-color jab at folk musicians (the horror!). And yet, there is a discernible respect for craft in this music.

At the end of the concert, a man stood directly in front of me. Cautiously, he turned around. “I’m not blocking you, am I?” he asked. I shook my head. No worries.

drums_900

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

The Columnest Goes to New York

Went to New York a few weeks ago. Everyone says that New York has never been more and less central: the capital of the world, agglomerating liquid power, know-how, and UHNWIs (what’s that? Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, of course), expelling artists and beekeepers to the outer boroughs and beyond. Indeed, Brooklyn struck me mostly […]

Louis Lozowick, New York, oil on canvas, ca. 1925. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Louis Lozowick, New York, oil on canvas, ca. 1925

Went to New York a few weeks ago. Everyone says that New York has never been more and less central: the capital of the world, agglomerating liquid power, know-how, and UHNWIs (what’s that? Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, of course), expelling artists and beekeepers to the outer boroughs and beyond. Indeed, Brooklyn struck me mostly as a lot of Durham—or Uptown Minneapolis, or Portland, etc, etc—plus, yes, brownstones, street fashion, and fantastic museums. New York is still New York, where you fall in love seven times a day, get your ass handed to you about as often, and then stumble into the tenderest silence in the shade of the Temple of Dendur.

View of the propylon gateway from inside Wadi Gharby Dendur / Dandour Temple, by François Chrétien Gau, 1819. Via.

View of the propylon gateway from inside Wadi Gharby Dendur / Dandour Temple, by François Chrétien Gau, 1819. (Via)

New York preaches the gospel of standing out from the crowd. I can see why so many New Yorkers have tattoos: you can’t be the buffest guy or the prettiest girl, you can’t have the shiniest hair or the most de mode haberdashery (because in New York there are people who make these things their jobs), but you can think up an original wing or word to emblazon on your shoulders or across the first joint of each finger. Dye your hair pink, for god’s sake! But not just any pink: cotton candy’s taken. I’m talking appearance because a flashy front is the quickest route to attention, but the same holds true in any arena. I recall a composer friend, resident in Brooklyn, running through genres in which other people could do as well as he, genres he accordingly dropped in favor of the one category in which he excelled everyone he knew. Shave yourself to a point. It makes sense!

That is, it makes sense in New York. Four days in the metropolis honed my game to the point where I vowed I’d never wear a less-than-magic blue (one tick off that teal and my eyes don’t glow) or write a line without fireworks, but the minute I got home to North Carolina, I chilled out. People, like plants, live relatively; put me in a rioting jungle and I will strain to reach that single crack of light, but set me on a rolling plain and I will spread this way and that, lackadaisically.

But is that really the question? Isn’t New York reality—everyone bunched together, the better to see where you stand? People go to New York to find out, and New Yorkers—by which I mean, as they mean, people who’ve lived there long enough to say they’ve survived—will fervently tell you their stories of clawing through to the real me: the lasting individual genius. Do you want to play the big game? New York asks you, and damn it’s persuasive about what that game consists of. The little island of Manhattan, bristling with buildings and bright all night, tunneled with subways, plastered with signs, every inch taken: this cityscape forms a spatial representation of the density of historical time. The skyscrapers are Shakespeare, Dickinson, Stein; or Picasso, Cezanne, Raphael; or Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire, Merce Cunningham. Walking those streets, you are an aspirant ant, and you can see exactly how far you have to go.

I’m making it sound terrifying and depressing, but as anyone who’s been there knows, it’s exciting! The streets are full of ants gazing upward, and the city hums with that hope and ambition: it is possibly the most optimistic place in America.

Frank O'Hara, 1965. Photo: Mario Schifano. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Frank O’Hara, 1965. Photo: Mario Schifano. Courtesy of Wikimedia

But let me interrupt myself for a moment: whence these adverbs, these exclamation marks, these enthusiastic eruptions? Obviously, I’ve been reading Frank O’Hara, preeminent poet of the New York moment. “I have in my hand only 35¢, it’s so meaningless to eat!” he exclaims in Music, a poem (like many of O’Hara’s) devoted to the temptations, sensations, and flurries of the immediate present, which nevertheless winds up with a wistful glance at the coming holiday season, in which there will be

no more fountains and no more rain,
and the stores stay open terribly late.

Note the adverb: O’Hara relies on these much-reviled parts of speech to suggest the ways the world’s colored by the perceiving mind. Now I am put in mind of the adverb “hopefully,” which we have all given up trying to use correctly—it means, or it used to mean, “full of hope,” as in “He grinned hopefully,” and it is misused in an expression such as “Hopefully, the door will open”—and this strikes me as somehow connected—because we are unable to keep our emotions, our hopes, from washing over the world we see.

That’s what New York does to me: theories and clauses springing, leapfrogging one over another. Half the time I can’t make sense of my notes when I get home.

At home just now, the tree people (mistakenly labeled “Tree Experts” on the side of their truck) have insulted rather than injured a massive and interfering ivy and butchered a maple, feeding half its canopy into their mobile chipper. There’s no sense saying anything to them. They’re just kids who’ve grown inured to their ugly task. But the poor tree! Yesterday it was full and proud, and today it’s a malformed, asymmetric straggler. Or is it a struggler? Pathetic fallacy! But O’Hara wouldn’t care as long as I ran with it:

here I am on the sidewalk
under the moonlike lamplight thinking how
precious moss is
so unique and greenly crushable if you can find it

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

6 Things to See and Do at Northern Spark

As in previous years, Northern Spark 2014 promises to bring together an enticing mix of well-known out-of-town artists, local favorites, and emerging artists. Wondering what to do and see? Every festival veteran has his or her own system. Do you get there right at the start? Take a disco nap first and show up at […]

Janaki Ranpura, Egg & Sperm Ride :: Hide & Seek, Northern Spark 2011. Photo: Patrick Kelley.

Janaki Ranpura, Egg & Sperm Ride :: Hide & Seek, Northern Spark 2011. Photo: Patrick Kelley.

As in previous years, Northern Spark 2014 promises to bring together an enticing mix of well-known out-of-town artists, local favorites, and emerging artists. Wondering what to do and see? Every festival veteran has his or her own system. Do you get there right at the start? Take a disco nap first and show up at 3 a.m. for the last stretch? There’s definitely something to be said for planning your night to a T, so you can be sure you won’t miss the pieces that you’re excited about. But there’s real value in just winging it, too. Wander aimlessly around the night’s offerings, and you’ll make discoveries and encounter work you might not have sought out otherwise. Even though I’ve already earmarked a few projects in the line-up I’m eager to see this year, I’d be willing to bet I’ll have new favorites by the night’s end. That said, if you’re looking for a place to begin, here’s what’s on my shortlist of things to see:

Sean Connaughty, Ark of the Anthropocene

Sean Connaughty, Ark of the Anthropocene

Sean Connaughty: Ark of the Anthropocene

Part science fiction, part biblical metaphor, part time capsule for future generations, Sean Connaughty’s Ark of the Anthropocene creates a handy getaway egg, just in case there’s a 500-year flood. Inspired by the Golghar in India that was built after the famine of 1770, Connaughty’s Ark encapsulates a whole ecosystem within its concrete structure, as if preserving life for future generations. Take a peek inside and you’ll see the grapevines and willow saplings, sustained by photosynthesis created with artificial light and glass lenses. As in his previous works, Connaughty has created art that is living and breathing, celebrating life’s cycles as he also manipulates them into sculptural forms. Find it at the Weisman.

Roman Verostko, The Magic Hand of Chance

Roman Verostko, The Magic Hand of Chance

Roman Verostko: The Magic Hand of Chance

Projected onto the outside wall at MCAD, Professor Emeritus Roman Verotsko’s Three Story Drawing Machine, was a huge hit at Northern Spark 2011. This year, the algorithmic artist presents The Magic Hand of Chance, a work he pioneered using BASIC with a first generation IBM PC in 1982. With only 200 pixels of horizontal resolution and three colors per frame, the automated drawing uses computer sequences as improvisation, creating retro-looking images with improvised and striking forms. Find it at MCAD.

Ananya Dance Theatre. Photo: V. Paul Virtucio

Ananya Dance Theatre. Photo: V. Paul Virtucio

Ananya Dance Theatre: Blue Dream Journeys

Last year for Northern Spark, Ananya Dance Theatre (ADT) presented one of the best pieces of the festival: an epic ode to water along the Mississippi river, collaborating with American Indian community members and elders in a powerful piece that stressed our connection to the water through celebration and ritual. This year, the company is back with Blue Dream Journeys, which will occur every hour on the hour from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Along with guest artists and musicians, ADT invites audiences to join in dancing their dreams, moving from the David M. Lilly Plaza outside Northrop Auditorium to an area beneath Jack Becker’s cloudscape installation in the Hubbard Broadcasting Rehearsal Studio.

Asia Ward, Electric Hopscotch

Asia Ward, Electric Hopscotch

Asia Ward: Electric Hopscotch

Artist Asia Ward re-invents the timeless game using electronic memory sensors and LED lights. Here’s how it works: one person hops on the sensors with a specific pattern, which the LED lights repeat with blinking lights. Then the next person has to repeat the pattern. The lights blink red if you make a mistake and you have to give up a turn. As new players join, the jump pads can be reset to add variety throughout the night.  This is definitely one to visit if you have kids in tow, or for the competitive among us. Who will be the Northern Spark Electric Hopscotch champion? Test your skills at the Convention Center Plaza.

Karl Unnasch, Glassicles

Karl Unnasch, Glassicles

Karl Unnasch: Glassicles

Turning recyclables into art, Karl Unnasch presents Glassicles, three light installations at the Weisman, Loring Corners and the “Parklot”, Made Here’s pop-up park in the Orpheum parking lot.  Made from repurposed bottles and drinking devices mounted on a steel framework, these chandelier- like installations add a touch of off-beat grandeur to the festivities.

tephen Vitiello Finding Pictures in Search of Sounds, 2008. Photo courtesy the artist.

Stephen Vitiello, Finding Pictures in Search of Sounds, 2008. Photo courtesy the artist.

Stephen Vitiello and Michael J. Schumacher: The Audible Edge 

Amidst the frenzy of activity that is Northern Spark – with all the walking, gazing, interactive activities, food trucks, and more – it’s nice to plan a few breaks where you can just sit and relax. Stephen Vitiello and Michael J. Schumacher’s The Audible Edge is a perfect respite, offering cushy seating and cool sound installations created by a bunch of different artists. In Hidden Noise, produced by Independent Curators International (ICI) Exhibitions in a Box series, Stephen Vitiello curates projects by a number of nationally known artists, as well as his own work. Among the designers are Andrea Parkins (who BodyCartagraphy Project fans may remember for her groundbreaking sound design in Symptom in 2010), Taylor Deupree, Jennie C. Jones, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Peters, Steve Roden and Michael J. Schumacher, who was a visiting artist this spring at the U of M’s School of Architecture. Also included in The Audible Edge will be student work from Schumacher’s workshop, plus artworks lent to the exhibition by local museums. At the Katherine E. Nash Gallery.

Whatever your plans for the festival, make sure you bring a water bottle and a little money - while the art is free, you’ll want to have enough cash in your pocket to make a few food truck stops along your journey. Besides that, keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to play like a kid – some of the best times you’ll have at Northern Spark happen when you engage with the interactive elements.

Related links and information:

Northern Spark 2014, themed “Projecting the City,” will feature 76 artists’ projects scattered in and around nine venues throughout Minneapolis. This year’s nuit blanche runs from dusk on Saturday, June 14 (9:01 p.m.) until dawn, Sunday, June 15. Schedule your night and find complete details on the Northern Spark website.

Lost in the Stacks

There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or […]

Thomas Allen, Teeter, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

Thomas Allen, Teeter, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or stagnation. The Field Guide to Fields from National Geographic is on the stack, too, and oddly thrilling in its very straightforward explanations of bramble and sugarcane coupled with bright, inviting art. I give this number not as a bookish type of braggadocio, but by way of offering some concrete example of a reading life that has overcome its presumed owner. The animals have, quite obviously, taken over this zoo.

Let me take a step back. Until somewhat recently I was a professional reader. Or, at least, I was a bookseller, and part of that duty included giving suggestions to lots of kinds of readers. In any given hour, I might have dealt with a woman buying a present for her thirteen-year-old niece she calls “smart, like, very bright. But her parents are pretty conservative, so let’s stay away from  the vampires and any bad language.” Next through the door, I’d get a regular whose taste in reading material has no discernible pattern – something that makes helping him both difficult and pleasurable in equal measure. He’s the sort who shoots down eight or nine possibilities before we find the exact right book. (By “we” I mean that he found it. That’s perfectly fine.)  Finally, I’d have a book club come in, looking for suggestions for the upcoming year. It’s important to come up with a mix of things, titles they’ve likely heard about as well as things they’d not otherwise run across. And again, our success rate with those suggestions will be pretty low. That is almost always the case.

So, given all that, for the past 15 years I’ve needed at my professional disposal an at least competent understanding of: picture books, YA/teen lit, obscure translations, the latest shocking memoir on the New York Times’ list and enough other of-the-moment bookish trivia to come up with a fair response to anything else that a customer might hit me up about. Or, you know, they might ask me for “that book with the orange cover that was sitting right here two weeks ago.”

At the end of January I decided I was done with bookselling for now. Once a civilian reader again, I very quickly realized that in the past few years I had become a grazer of books, reading mostly in snippets and bits. I read lots of reviews, both in print and online. I started (and stopped) a lot of books. I was always armed with a long list of “Things I Should Definitely Read Next” filled with suggestions from both customers and publishers’ sales representatives. I don’t mean to overstate the job-related stress — no one’s long-term health or wellness is on the line in bookselling — but still. The gig comes with some pressure.

I’d developed this coping strategy over the last few years, where I attempted to read from three different categories at one time: I would pick up an ‘older’ book (generally fiction, in the neighborhood of the 1920s to1950s), at the same time that I was reading from one newish title (current frontlist to three years back) and one advance reading copy of some forthcoming book. The third type, especially, was an ever-shifting category, heavily influenced by sheer caprice (and pleas from a favorite sales rep to finish something and get back to them with a response). I also joined a book-club a couple years ago, a very cool group of men whose tastes diverge from mine in ways that are challenging and exciting. But I have to admit, in the context of everything else, even that modest reading commitment represented a loss of personal choice that I mildly resented.

Now, here I am, three months removed from all that. The newfound liberation of my reading life has now come to resemble the kind of unstructured anarchy any reasonable government (or parent) fears. It turns out, being able to choose whatever I want, whenever I want, from the vast world of literature is as paralyzing as it is freeing. There is something to be said for a restaurant with a very short menu. I know well from experience that I can only really handle three or four books at once — beyond that, characters and plot start to jumble in my mind; I lose track of dates and narrative sequence, not to mention names. While I admire a certain aesthetic that involves books on furniture or even becoming furniture I also recognize this: two ragged piles of 24 books on a nightstand isn’t conducive to good reading. Trying to do so much at once is a fine way to get nothing done.

I know that sounds like a bad proverb or something out of fortune cookie, but it’s nonetheless true of my reading life.

Thomas Allen, Topple, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

Thomas Allen, Topple, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

So. With all those piles, am I actually reading anything? Somewhat recently I finished John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe, which seems like it should be an elegy, but it’s not. I crashed through Walter Kirn’s latest book, about his bizarre relationship with a German national who claimed to be a Rockefeller. Blood Will Out is not the second coming of In Cold Blood, but it is a revealing glimpse into the sort of world a person can create when they act with certainty and a willingness to prey on the good faith of other people. Also read recently: Celeste Ng and Scott Cheshire both have debut novels out, and both escape the first-book trap of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, so that they satisfy on nearly all levels.

Mostly, though, I’ve savored the time lately spent with Pinckney Benedict’s dogs of god. Published in 1995, I have no idea where I bought this book. (Magers and Quinn? Sixth Chamber? Powell’s? Maybe a yard sale? All fair guesses.) And how had I even heard of this title? I doubt it was the cover that convinced me to pick it up. It certainly wasn’t the Joyce Carol Oates blurb calling Benedict “…one of the most distinctive voices of his generation.” Actually, this is a book that would fit nicely with a lot of the rough and tumble stuff being published to much praise right now. Think George Singleton, Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock. Or, if those names are a bit obscure you could look to most anything hailing from the Ozarks or Appalachia or West Virginia: authors like Chris Offutt and Daniel Woodrell. It seems inevitable to compare such a novel as Benedict’s with those of the high priest of all things dark, menacing, gothic or in any fashion ‘manly’ – Mr. Cormac McCarthy.

I’m about 50 pages from finishing Benedict’s book as I write this, and in most ways it doesn’t much matter to me how it ends. I’ve enjoyed the time spent in its pages plenty already. But more than that, you have to admire a book sufficiently compelling to push past all the flotsam to get even a scattershot reader like me to pay attention.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

Road Songs: New Orleans

I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate […]

new_orleans_street_900

I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate like Polly Pockets. It is hard to watch one’s feet when the environs are so very eye-catching. The buildings reminded me of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, but more French - Painted Mademoiselles, maybe. One storefront was dripping with gauzy, gaudy ribbon wrapped around its columns.

new_orleans_blue_900

I feel the need to saunter in New Orleans, to say hello to passersby; the porches, perfect for lazing about, beckon you to come sit a while. New Orleans has so many of genteel outdoor spaces—with ceiling fans, sloping floorboards, verdant topiaries; like the homes, they are painted colorfully and well-manicured. Cats slink from these porches, sparing a little sideways look in your direction as you pass.

new_orleans_fence_900

In one small store, I found several copies of the artful nudie mag, Momma Tried (a clever nod to Merle Haggard). The print magazine is playful eye candy. One review calls the magazine “non-heteronormative,” and the fanciful spreads indeed embrace all sorts of folks and all sorts of delights. I get the impression that New Orleans embraces the Mardi Gras-fueled aesthetic of drag, comfortable near-nudity and self-display in many contexts and times of the year. It is as if one could step out of Jem and the Holograms or some Victorian bodice-ripper, and saunter along with the rest of the city with ease.

momma_tried_900

Momma Tried, Issue 1. From the website.

Photographer Erik Bookhardt’s Geopsychic Wonders (1979) famously captures and pulls together imagery of New Orleans’ mystique. Writing about the phenomenon of Mardi Gras as both a political and cultural event, curator Claire Tancons shares this Bookhardt quote: “Carnival almost always is an innately anarchic and psychodramatic event … that enables everyone to visualize how things can be different and make them different, at least for a day, and that in itself is an inherently valuable, liberating, and potentially revolutionary practice.”

new_orleans_bywater_900

Big Freedia (a.k.a. Freddie Ross) is beloved in New Orleans, a hip hop artist famous for ordering people to dance, shake and bounce. To many, Big Freedia is a needed ambassador for self-expression in a town that clings to the relatively-traditional French and jazz roots that still soak the French Quarter.  (His new album is aptly called Just Be Free.)

We happened upon an open mic in which we previewed Cirque du Gras, a humorous and heavily-tattooed New Orleans circus troupe styled somewhere between street performance, Vaudeville and burlesque. They described themselves as “apocalyptic,” and sang hedonistic songs about seizing the day and searching for love. We rounded out our evening with Walter Craft, a folk-singer-activist who came to New Orleans in the sixties to pursue a troubadour lifestyle.

new_orleans_crawfish_900

I ate crawfish for the first time at an all-you-can-eat boil, grateful for for the vegetable sides (garlic, onion, celery). The thought of eating crawfish without such accompaniments was just too graphic. By the end, piles of crawfish were strewn everywhere on the lawn where we’d all gathered. It looked like a tiny army had rolled through, leaving piles of red body parts heaped up willy-nilly. It was a gory spectacle, but the mud bugs were delicious, nonetheless – spicy, peppery and soft.

In the dark of the evening, the air felt damp. A freshly-cut tree stump crawled with cockroaches and slugs, and the waxy-leafed tropical plants drooped over fence posts. The air seemed to buzz a little bit, hinting of full summer just around the corner.

new_orleans_yellow_900

We headed North from New Orleans in the evening. It felt like we were leaving some Venice of the bayou - the trees next to the highway were immersed in water, as if wading in a strange, submerged landscape. I noticed an enormous form on the side of the highway, light in color and long. As we drove past, the indistinct figure resolved into view: an overturned, dead alligator, and a big one at that. I had never before seen an alligator besides Claude, the albino gator at the California Academy of Sciences.

We had to keep driving.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

Cheatsheet to Northrop’s “Solid but Safe” 2014-2015 Season

Now that Northrop is ensconced in its shiny new home and is no longer just a dance series and house-for-hire (the jazz season is no more and the newly renovated building is also home to several university programs as a center for interdisciplinary study and collaboration), they recently announced the next performance season. Since joining […]

Martha Graham Dance Company, Errand Into the Maze. Photo: John Deane

Martha Graham Dance Company, Errand Into the Maze. Photo: John Deane

Now that Northrop is ensconced in its shiny new home and is no longer just a dance series and house-for-hire (the jazz season is no more and the newly renovated building is also home to several university programs as a center for interdisciplinary study and collaboration), they recently announced the next performance season. Since joining Northrop in August 2012, Christine Tschida, Northrop’s director, has been working in part with selections confirmed by her predecessor, Ben Johnson. He always scheduled at least one or two internationally renowned dance companies with highly intellectual content, innovative choreography and flawless presentation that, whether you’d seen them before or not, were palpably anticipated by audiences.

The 2014/15 season, “curated by Northrop Presents” as the website states, has a strong international lineup, some with marked cross-cultural influences. There’s a lot of ballet—to appeal to the core subscriber audience—a Canadian jazz-fusion company, and two heritage American modern dance companies. The verdict? Solid and safe.

Photo: Michel Cavalca

Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne/Compagnie Käfig. Photo: Michel Cavalca

The international companies include Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne/Compagnie Käfig. Created by Mourad Merzouki in 1996 in Créteil, France, the troupe is trained in a choreographic style that blends Merzouki’s training in circus skills, martial arts and hip hop (which is huge in France) with such street dance forms as capoeira. The all-male company, which includes Brazilian dancers with roots in the favelas, also looks to incorporate a strong visual element. The works on the program are Correria, Portuguese for “running,” and Agwa (“water”). Expect high-intensity physicality.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker/Rosas. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Also crossing the seas from Brussels, for a program co-presented by the Walker Art Center, is the dance-theater company Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas presenting the work that made De Keersmaeker infamous 30 years ago, Rosas Danst Rosas. The piece, with its much-imitated minimalist choreography, has become so much a part of popular culture even Beyonce was inspired by its costumes, set and movement; you can see the influence in her video for “Countdown.” Submit your own version here.

Eifman Ballet, Rodin. Photo: Nikolay Krusser

Eifman Ballet, Rodin. Photo: Nikolay Krusser

The highly theatrical Eifman Ballet, based in St. Petersburg, is known for its dramatic storytelling and has performed Red Giselle, Russian Hamlet, Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin on Northrop seasons previously. More recently choreographer and artist director Boris Eifman has gotten his head out of the books and looked toward art for inspiration. The Guardian called his new work, Rodin, inspired by the life of the French sculptor, “visceral and extreme” for movement that tends to “bend and contort [the] dancers like choreographic Plasticine.” Rodin’s love affair with Camille Claudel is at the center of the ballet; so is his work as the piece includes Rodin in his studio “wrenching and pummelling a heap of nearly naked dancers into sculptural forms.” That’ll be something to see.

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. Photo: Gregory Batardon

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. Photo: Gregory Batardon

Hong Kong Ballet, on its first visit here, performs a Turandot by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir. Perhaps better known as an opera, this ballet version is indeed accompanied by Puccini’s original music. Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, often referred to as the “feel-good company,” makes its Minneapolis debut with three works that showcase the troupe’s fusion of dance styles and choreographic variety, including the duet Closer by Benjamin Millepied. The classicism continues with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which showcases Balanchine repertoire. Dance Theatre of Harlem also returns with a ballet program. And then there’s the return of two modern-dance warhorses.

Paul Taylor Dance Company. Photo: Paul B. Goode

Paul Taylor Dance Company. Photo: Paul B. Goode

Paul Taylor Dance Company “sings the body electric” with Beloved Renegade, inspired by the life of Walt Whitman and set against Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria.” The New York Times called the work “one of the great achievements of Mr. Taylor’s long career and one of the most eloquently textured feats of his singular imagination.” That’s saying something, considering the other work on the program, Piazzola Caldera (which will include live music) is also considered a classic Taylor work for exploring the public and private domains (see Taylor’s autobiography) of the tango with “sensual, electric couplings.” A must-see.

In his early days as a dancer, Taylor was part of the Martha Graham Dance Company, making the two companies’ presence in the season an intriguing coupling. Northrop has scheduled two evenings of Graham’s works, which may sound like a dance-history lesson in the works. But viewing Graham is never old hat: Her work continues to be shocking, awe-inspiring and revealing as it was when first performed. Her 1935 social-protest work Panorama will include 24 University of Minnesota dance students. Classics works of mythological intensity, including Lamentation Variations, Maple Leaf Rag and Errand into the Maze will also be performed.

McKnight Dance Fellows. Photo: Tim Rummelhoff

McKnight Dance Fellows. Photo: Tim Rummelhoff

The season also goes local with an evening of six world-premieres by the winners of 2012 and 2013 McKnight Dancer Fellowships, performing works made for them by a choreographer of their choice:  Taryn Griggs, Stephen Schroeder, Ashwini Ramaswamy, Kari Mosel, Tamara Ober and Greg Waletski.

The Walker Art Center’s lineup for the 2014-2015 season is more super-charged and risky, especially with the return of Faustin Linyekula, Ralph Lemon, Tere O’Connor, and a Steve Paxton fest. Relative to that, Northrop has put together a conservative lineup befitting its new home, but it’s a season with plenty of opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction.

Camille LeFevre is a long-time dance writer in the Twin Cities and the editor of The Line, an online publication about the creative economy of the Twin Cities..

There Is No Required Reading

I’m not interested in writing reviews of books, not in the usual sense, at least. I’ll be writing about reading here, but I won’t spend much time telling you what to read or what not to read. My reading life is messy, as haphazard as anyone else’s. There is no a-then-b-and-c to my choice of […]

Hans Weyandt. Photo: Ben Weaver

Hans Weyandt. Photo: Ben Weaver

I’m not interested in writing reviews of books, not in the usual sense, at least. I’ll be writing about reading here, but I won’t spend much time telling you what to read or what not to read. My reading life is messy, as haphazard as anyone else’s. There is no a-then-b-and-c to my choice of books. (If there’s any sense to it at all – and sometimes, there isn’t – the logic looks a lot more like a-q-d-b-y-c.)

I read for armchair traveling; I love travel guides, atlases and maps. Books have taken me to Poland, World War II-era France, Japan, Mississippi, Canada, Vietnam, Boston, Dublin and small towns in states, counties, provinces and countries all over the world. I like cookbooks, too. I dip into genres like mystery and true-crime. I read to make sense of things and to get totally lost. I read because it makes sense and because it, frequently, does not. I’m an ecumenical reader – I read magazines and newspapers and books in all of their ever-changing forms.

It was not always this way. My gateway to words didn’t come in a classroom. I did not hide in my bed at night to finish just one more chapter. My mother, with a decent amount of shame, once admitted that I really learned to read from the backs of baseball cards. When I was a kid, I did not love books and I did not love reading. (That’s not quite true: I loved Sports Illustrated.) But I was surrounded by the written word. Both of my parents are avid readers and their house, then and now, is filled with books. Reluctant reader or not, I had no choice, really. Their appreciation inevitably seeped into me.

In the past year, I have read more books than most of you. That’s just a guess and not a challenge – I was a bookseller until recently, and reading a lot is just an occupational fact. I’ve read travel writing and Midwestern family histories, war reportage and poems. I’ve read about football and poker and Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read about suicide and mythology and Houdini. So far, I’ve gotten through about two-thirds of E.B. White’s Stuart Little with my sons, six and four-years-old. White is a tonic for the soul — his language is precise and basic and, on page after page, charmingly old-fashioned.

There’s usually no particular rhyme or reason to the sequence of things I pick up. I just read because I do. You can find plenty of help, lots of recommendations, but we all must find our own way in the world of books. In this space, you won’t hear me saying anything like: “I hope for this to be a dialogue between myself and the reader(s).” And yet, I very much do want to hear from you about what you are reading, and also what you think I should read. If nothing else, my wish for this as-yet-undetermined bookish thing is that it not just be a place where I blather into the electronic black hole.

So, what are you reading?

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

TU at 10

Wow: All this for a local dance company. As we gazed, wide-eyed and stunned, at the nearly full house for TU Dance’s 10th anniversary concert in the Ordway Center last Saturday night, I asked my companions: Why, really, do you think TU Dance is so popular? Accessibility, openness, technique, humanity, authenticity were among the reasons. […]

Alanna Morris-Van Tassel in Hikari. Photo: Brandon Stengel

Alanna Morris-Van Tassel in Hikari. Photo: Brandon Stengel

Wow: All this for a local dance company. As we gazed, wide-eyed and stunned, at the nearly full house for TU Dance’s 10th anniversary concert in the Ordway Center last Saturday night, I asked my companions: Why, really, do you think TU Dance is so popular?

Accessibility, openness, technique, humanity, authenticity were among the reasons. The Knight Foundation has noticed, to the tune of $500,000, “to support the diversification of the dance community in St. Paul by expanding TU Dance’s capacity to cultivate donors and increase programming.”

We also agreed: It really does start at the top. Co-founders and co-artistic directors Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands are beloved for legitimate reasons, among them the above-mentioned list of descriptors. After this weekend’s anniversary concert, a performance unlike any the company has previously put forth (and that alone says a lot of this tremendously accomplished group), let’s add one more. TU Dance is also aspirational, a rare quality; what’s more, the company is realizing its aspirations.

Meaning: the summer dance project Sands and Pierce-Sands started in 2003-2004 at the University of Minnesota—Space-TU-Embrace—has in one fast-paced decade grown to include a thriving dance school in St. Paul next to the Central Corridor’s soon-to-open Green Line light rail, in addition to a company that can fill nearly 1,900 seats with appreciative fans of smart, approachable dance. Simply put, those accomplishments are thrilling.

In a nod to their origin story, Pierce-Sands and Sands (former dancers with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) opened the 10th anniversary show with the balletic “Twin Cities” duet from Alvin Ailey’s 1970 work The River. Performed by Sands and guest artist Laurel Keen, the piece overflowed with grace and was greeted, at its conclusion, with a roar from the audience.

The program also included the ever-popular Lady. Choreographed by Sands, the work was performed with impeccable technique and narrative nuance. With its delightful storytelling, rich depths of rhythm, (once again) tremendous sense of authenticity, and a Toni-Uri duet that plumbed the nuances of a relationship with real feeling, the work felt as fresh and relevant as it did during its 2003 debut.

One, which Sands originally created for Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company in honor of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell, was a tantalizing mystery. (Lacks was an African-American tobacco farmer whose cancerous cells were taken without her permission in 1951 and used for such groundbreaking medical advancements as the polio vaccine and in-vitro fertilization.) Wearing gray dresses reminiscent of Martha Graham’s shrouds, the eight women dancers pulsated with robotic movements, opened their hips against the floor in Graham-like poses and, while painfully stooped over, extended quaking arms and tremulous hands. They could have been clones, or hard-working cells clustering and separating, or supplicants gesturing and genuflecting to the powers that be, until basking in a shower of silver confetti.

With the world premiere of Sands’ new work, Hikari, the company and its choreographer entered new artistic territory. Commissioned by the Ordway, the bold, breathtaking work was inspired by Hawaiian wood-block artist Hiroki Morinoue, whom Sands visited as he was creating the choreography.

The set consists of 14 of Morinoue’s gorgeous, floor-to-flyspace, semi-sheer, black-and-white fabric panels. Together, they establish an environment of biomorphic forms, grids and patterns that could be a forest, a solar system, or a painter’s canvas on which the company plays out the choreography’s abstract narrative. Wearing snappy white jackets and pants, and black socks, the dancers careen about the stage as if insects, or dabs and slashes of paint, or regiments of corporate drones. Alanna Morris-Van Tassel is the most fantastical of these creatures, writhing and beckoning from behind the scrims. At times, the dancers shed their jackets, now clad in crop tops or t-shirts that free their torsos and limbs. Enacting an embedded drama only they’re privy to and fascinating to observe, the performers of TU Dance animate Sands’ vision in a work that would be at home on any major stage in the world. Hikari catapults the choreographer and the company into a brave new world of dance and art making at once aspirational and achieved.

Camille LeFevre is a dance critic, arts journalist, and the editor of The Line, an online publication about the creative economy of the Twin Cities. 

Next