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Bringing Backstage into the Spotlight: Karen Sherman on Soft Goods

In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains […]

L to R: Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman's Soft Goods (2016)

Joanna Furnans, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Ross Orenstein in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

In the theater world, a raft of technicians—often clad in black and hidden just out of view of audiences—bring the work of dancers and theater artists to life on stage. They break down staging and sets and wrangle lighting units, adjust sound levels and manage “soft goods,” all the cloth elements used in productions, from drapes and curtains to scrims and masking. Their technical skill is matched by an ability to recede from view. In her new, Walker-commissioned dance/performance work, Minneapolis-based artist Karen Sherman looks at another type of “soft goods,” bringing the humanity of these crew members—and their vulnerabilities and mortality—into the spotlight in an arresting examination of labor, life, and loss. A longtime stagehand (including for many Walker productions) and independent dancer and choreographer, Sherman explicitly interweaves the two for the first time in Soft Goods. On the eve of the work’s December 8–10 world premiere, she sat down with scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson, who served as dramaturg on the show, to discuss Soft Goods, the tragedies that sparked it, and the challenges of crossing between worlds as performer and technician.

Kate Sutton-Johnson: Can you give us some basic background about Soft Goods? When did you first conceive of the idea that would ultimately become this new work?  

Karen Sherman: I’ve been a stagehand for as long as I’ve been a dancer/choreographer—since the early ’90s. The fact that I’ve worked both sides of the stage for so long has always informed my work in both fields: as a technician I understand where artists are coming from, and as a choreographer I know how to realize my work from a technical standpoint. But until recently I’d never considered making a show explicitly about this dual perspective.

I often backdate the project to 2012 when two technician friends of mine died within about a week of each other—one from alcoholism and one from suicide. One had been dead for a week before he was discovered, and the other’s body wasn’t found for four months. Production work requires you to disappear so expertly, and it struck me that these guys managed to slip away unnoticed even in death. The week we found out I was working a load-in at the Walker, where I’d first worked with both of them. We were hanging lights and trying to talk about it all, but there was no time and space to process the loss because, well, we had a show to install. The irony of that struck me. I began thinking about all of the death imagery in technician culture—the long hours; never seeing daylight; wearing black all the time; drinking too much and not sleeping enough; listening to disembodied voices over your headset; being entombed in booths, wings, dark cavernous spaces; thinking about the load-out as you load-in, which is thinking about endings even as you’re building and creating… I thought how spending so many hours steeped in that mindset influences how you experience the world outside of work—and yet the hours are so demanding there rarely is a world outside of work.

I’d long been aware of this, of course. I had a technician friend commit suicide more than 20 years ago. Her memorial was held in the theater where she worked and was mostly attended by production people, so of course afterward everyone went up the street to a bar, even though it was the middle of the day. She had hanged herself with electrical cord, and I remember one of the guys saying admiringly that she’d gone out like a true electrician. I was shocked by the deification, but I recognized the tendency, particularly in young male stage electricians, to revere self-brutality. Yet they are also a smart, literate bunch in the business of creating things, so they can appreciate artful gestures—as hers was. Still, the exaltation was chilling. So Soft Goods looks at the reality of the hazards but also the fetishizing of them in the industry. I’ve been careful not to pathologize the field—people struggle with depression and alcoholism in every profession, and to the degree the show is looking at those issues, we’re simply using the images and tools of our work to do so. The reason I called it Soft Goods was to get at this idea. “Soft goods” is an industry term for stage curtains, but here I mean it as a reference to the humanity, vulnerability, and mortality of the crew. They are the soft goods.

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

Karen Sherman. Photo: Aaron Rosenblum

Sutton-Johnson: I hadn’t thought of a double meaning for that term. I love that. I totally agree about the fetishizing of destructive habits inside the industry. I see it all the time, and I’m not entirely outside of it myself. It’s easy to fall into this kind of boundary-less mode, working an absolutely absurd number of hours for example. It becomes normalized to neglect your family, friends, and your own health. And there’s a strange pride in the sacrificing. Maybe it’s the neglect of what we need that proves how truly indispensable we are to the work. All of this is quite dangerous, actually, as we both know. So, yeah, this world you’re cracking open, I certainly recognize it.

Sherman: The indispensable thing is huge. In both dance and production you’re given the message that the project can’t happen without you (which is why you have to miss out on so many things or why you push yourself so hard), and yet it’s also implied that you could be replaced at the drop of a hat. It’s a very cruel dynamic.

To address this through tangible means, we’ve partnered with Behind the Scenes, a charity that provides financial assistance to production personnel struggling with illness or injury. I approached them about starting a new grant designed specifically to help alleviate the costs of mental health and substance abuse counseling. They’re launching it in conjunction with the show. We’ll be raising money for it, and the Walker is generously donating $1 of every ticket sold to the fund. It’s like the real-world social service version of the project.

Sutton-Johnson: Wow, awesome. Can you talk a little bit about how this piece was created with the ensemble of performers?

Sherman: I’ll do my best! First off, we’re calling it a dance but it’s really more of a dance/play/performance/exhibition of manual labor. The performance itself is structured like a live load-in, tech, and rehearsal for a show that never happens. We couldn’t make it in a rehearsal studio because we needed access to gear, equipment, lights, which as tools of the trade contextualize the human beings. Plus, the movement and choreography of the gear is part of the larger idea of “dance” in the show. So we made it almost entirely in production residencies in fully equipped theaters. Production residencies are rare in the dance world but we were very fortunate to have several partners who offered them, including the Walker, Alverno Presents, Concordia University, and LUMBERYARD.

Sherman Soft Goods sidearm cartphoto by Gene Pittman

An equipment rack, built by Walker lighting supervisor Jon Kirchhofer, in Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman

I went in with a long list of images, ideas, and themes, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to manifest them. Rehearsals consisted of a lot of experiments in examining how the two worlds could overlap. For example, the crew had five minutes to verbally describe how to hang a stage curtain—no gestures or acting out the task—while the dancers wrote down whatever words, phrases, or images stuck out to them. Then the dancers had five minutes to create choreography based on their notes. In another example, the dancers had a trio that moved through the room with each dancer orbiting around the other. They taught it to the crew—just where they went in space and in relationship to each other, subtracting any “dance.” Then crew used that pattern while executing very basic tasks. We each made “memorials” using only lighting cues, shutter cuts and bodies in space. We used the IATSE [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] vocabulary test prep sheet to create text and original movement (there’s a move called “trim chain”). There was a lot of this culling from each others’ work and worlds.

Sutton-Johnson: Oooh, the “trim chain” move. Nice. I may have to learn that one to be ready for when you’re auditioning set designers for performance roles. Hey, it could happen, right?

Sherman: Maybe it already is happening and you’ve already been hired! 

Sutton-Johnson: Ha! So, speaking of casting, there are distinct roles that the performers play that reflect their real-life identities. Did this make the work harder or easier? What were you looking for when you cast the piece?

Sherman: Well, there are 10 core people in the project—dancers, technicians, designers, administrators. Everyone performs in the role they usually perform in their working life, and to some degree they may be performing as a version of themselves as individuals. But the great thing about live performance is that we get to point to, yet free ourselves from, our real lives. So in this show people are being somewhat true to their nature but only to the degree that it is being shaped and mediated by the story we’re telling. I’ve asked the performers to represent external identities, ideas, and certainly stereotypes to a greater degree than I typically do. They’re representing points of view that they don’t necessarily align with and are stand-ins for ideas about sex, gender, and power in our professions. In terms of what I was looking for in casting, I was pretty open-minded. But I was looking for a sensitivity to and awareness of the emotional, psychic hazards of living your life in a theater. Everyone in the show has been incredibly generous, insightful, brave, and willing. I imagine they could have made this show without me.

L to R: Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, Joanna Furnans

Ross Orenstein, Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Krista Langberg, Jessica Cressey, and Joanna Furnans in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: Mm-hm, sure they could. [Audible sighing.] Well, speaking of your faint, hardly necessary presence, I know that during the creation of Soft Goods you wrestled with what your role should be inside the piece. Can you talk about that?

Sherman: The performer/technician crossover is not uncommon in the theater world, but it is rare in dance. The tech world is male-dominated and male-populated. Dance is dominated by women and gay men (though men have more power and opportunity in the field). So the fact that I’m a queer woman who is both a technician and a dancer is actually unusual. Of course, there are many variations and places on the spectrums of identity, but this project was trying to root itself in the complications of the status quo—I stayed true to a lot of stereotypes that have been my observed reality (most technicians are male, most dancers are female, most people working in either field in the contemporary touring dance world are white, etc.). Because of this, the reality of my duality had no place in the piece even as it was the locus for it. Yet presenting myself as only a dancer or only a crew member felt false. Still, there was no escaping that I was in control and directing things. So I’ve tried to acknowledge that.

Sutton-Johnson: Interesting. I’ve never heard you talk about it that way, but I completely understand what you mean. I’d like to touch again on the other two groups of performers: dancers and stagehands. Does it matter who has more power or which group the audience may identify with more strongly? Was it important to maintain a sense of balance in the piece? Is it important who controls the narrative?

Sherman: No, the identification doesn’t matter. I think there is balance between the groups, but it’s through them being shown differently than you are used to seeing them; we get to know the dancers by how little they do and the crew by how much. And let’s be honest, these are two very arcane professions that don’t hold societal power anywhere outside of a theater. They are each beautifully metaphoric for so many things—labor, power, death, race, sex, gender, loss, aloneness, suffering, isolation, self-erasure, aliveness, the body, relationship. I could make a million shows from this show. My goal was to pull them all into one piece. Which is impossible but also not. I think if you go in to this show with an agenda of what you want to see—a display of technical virtuosity, a meditation on loss, a cheeky lament on the lives of dancers, a visual poem—you will find that thing. I know that comes somewhat at my expense; I’ll want you to have all agendas and you may only have one. But that’s show biz.

Sutton-Johnson: So perhaps this has to do with my vantage point and what I’m looking for in the piece—my agenda, as you say—but I’m aware of a palpable tension throughout the piece between the stagehands and dancers. Sometimes this sense of conflict seems comical, and at other times, painful. Can you talk about the element of tension in the piece?

Sherman: Well, can you say more about your role as a designer? Someone who is neither crew nor performer but a unique role entirely? (I feel like my place in this piece is with the designers—I literally sit next to the lighting designer. In terms of the hierarchies, Designer is to Crew as Choreographer is to Dancers.)

Sutton-Johnson: Well, yeah, for me it feels a bit like a straddling act between the stagehands, the performers, and a third thing: the artistic vision. I want the performers to feel empowered and taken care of inside the process. I want the same thing for the stagehands, and I also want them to feel like the project—the artistic vision—is worthy of their best work and commitment. Demanding a lot of the crew without alienating them can be very difficult, and an absolute nightmare process is one where the crew is totally resistant. I find that I’m usually met with skepticism or at least some wariness when I step into the space with them, and so the initial impression I make on the crew is critical, I think. A make-it-or-break-it moment. Behind what I always hope is a relaxed, confident façade, I’m usually feeling pretty desperate for the crew’s help, their problem solving, willingness to hustle, focus, etc. It’s a neediness I hate, but at the same time, I have no interest in making art alone. Having to give up control comes with the territory, but it’s not easy and so, yes, clearly I’m very conscious of tension. It very well could be that I’ve zeroed in on this in Soft Goods. Perhaps I’ve even noticed it where you didn’t intend it. What do you think?

Sherman: I relate to so much of what you’ve said here, Kate: “the third thing”; taking care of people; wanting people to feel a part of the vision while also having to ask them to do things; the neediness against the difficulty in ceding control. The fact that I do both jobs complicates how crews see me as well as how I present myself to them initially when I’m “the artist.” It has sometimes worked well for me when my production background is known right away. Other times it raises suspicions. I’m sure the fact that I’m a woman complicates this even more. I think if I were a male artist/technician most crews would be more likely to right away believe that I knew what I was doing (even if I didn’t).

L to R: Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Ross Orenstein, Emily McGillicuddy

Andy Kedl, Zachary Humes, Ross Orenstein, and Emily McGillicuddy in Soft Goods. Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: Do you feel like this piece is in conversation with any of your previous work?

Sherman: I think often my work deals with a certain amount of violence, loss, and a scrappy beauty, though the violence is usually more implied and internalized than acted out. For sure, these themes are present throughout Soft Goods and certainly within the reality of my day-to-day work as a stage technician and dancemaker. Both fields deal with self-sacrifice whether the public is aware of it (the romance of the suffering, passion-driven dancer) or not (the invisibilized stagehand who worked 70 hours that week). My work is also usually quite funny and wry. Soft Goods deals with a lot of big themes, but it’s also funny and beautiful and (deceptively) simple. I think that would describe most of the work I make. I hope.

Sutton-Johnson: Can we circle back to something you talked about earlier regarding the rather unusual tech demands associated with rehearsing this piece? The necessities of a theater space and a significant amount of lighting gear made the creation of Soft Goods a serious logistical challenge. Can you speak to that and also to how this will impact you as the piece tours and plays in different kinds of spaces?

Sherman: I refer to it as the show that eats itself. From a logistical standpoint, this is the hardest show I’ve ever made. Just finding rehearsal spaces that suited our needs, that were available when all 10 of us were, and raising the money to pay for it was extremely involved. I’m used to making a piece in a rehearsal studio over a couple of years with time to come and go from ideas. But with Soft Goods, every time we worked it would be for a solid 40- to 60-hour week. It was basically like being in constant tech, which as you know is not the most low-stress environment! Then the week would end and I’d spend months just writing grants, trying to set up the next residency, and having no hands-on creation time. It was very all or nothing. Making a show under those conditions was definitely a new challenge. The show has turned out to be quite tuned to its own poetics; how to make those resonate in different venues requires more adaptations than I’d like. We go to PS122 (New York) and Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (Los Angeles) in 2017. They’ve co-commissioned the show along with the Walker. The Walker is one of the few US venues presenting contemporary dance of this genre that actually has a fly system, so we were always going to have to adapt it to fixed grid houses on tour. But we did turn down a few opportunities due to lack of a suitable venue. That was very hard, but it was the right thing to do. You can’t always know at the beginning the constraints you’ll have built by the end. I’ve spent years having to adapt shows to challenging conditions so prioritizing rather than sacrificing the needs of Soft Goods has been a lovely line to hold.

Sutton-Johnson: Yes, that also makes me think about how defining the limitations of the art can be the biggest challenge but ultimately the thing that feels the most freeing. Seeing the edges of it means that you finally know what in the world it is. I think that’s been my experience as an artist, anyway.

Sherman: Yes, as if the world did turn out to be flat after all!

photo by Sean Smuda

A ball of gaffer’s tape in Soft Goods (2016). Photo: Sean Smuda

Sutton-Johnson: So, big picture: what are your hopes for Soft Goods?

Sherman: Well, Kate, as you know, Soft Goods has been fraught with some pain for me because my lighting designer and our close, mutual friend, Carrie Wood, died unexpectedly in March, midway through the process. After that, every time I went back to work on the project it felt like renewed trauma. I wasn’t sure how I could even continue the piece. (I felt a related feeling after the election: how do I go back to work after this?) I eventually found my way back, but there was just so much… I don’t even know… the word ”pain” almost ties it up with too pretty of a bow. There was something profoundly fatiguing and enervating in there. A looming dread that I had shackled myself to. But recently, I could feel how the show had grown its own legs and set out on its identity. It’s cliché and hokey, but we give life to these projects and then they exist outside of us. So that has freed me, released me from much of the pain and struggle. I feel proud and moved by what we’ve made so far. And incredibly lucky to work in such a beautiful, expansive medium. I’m looking forward to shepherding Soft Goods along. It’s like my new companion. It’s very alive, which is ironic considering some of its themes. It’s also weirdly uplifting. But I’ve come to think that our work can be a place to alchemize sorrow and cruelty and turn them into energy and image, something beyond ourselves. It’s like burning off the excess to be left with a substance more pure. So I hope that for the show as well as for myself.

Karen Sherman’s Soft Goods makes its world premiere in the Walker’s McGuire Theater December 8–10, 2016. 

Meet the Artists of Choreographers’ Evening 2016

In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking […]

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Left to right: Paula Mann, Greg Waletski, Taja Will, Koua Mai Yang, matt regan, Charles Campbell, Megan Mayer, Magnolia YSY, Erin Drummond, Holo Lue Choy, Laura Selle-Virtucio. Photo: Gene Pittman

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Left to right: Iris Meszaros, Deja Stowers, Jaime Ramberg, Alana Rucker, Madelyn Yang, Joelle Fernandez, Zack Nguyen, Akiko, Andy Mor, Bella Roberts, Vera Meszaros, Frankie Hebres. Photo: Gene Pittman

In the upcoming 44th Annual Choreographers’ Evening, curator Rosy Simas brings together a group of 11 choreographers in an inclusive look at dance being made in the Twin Cities. Simas, a well-known performer/curator/Native American activist/educator, selected works that “complement each other, dances that reflect the times we live in, and dances that will create thought provoking conversation among audiences.”

In advance of their performances, I asked the participating choreographers a few questions about the nature of their work, their artistic process, their influences, and their thoughts on being involved in Choreographers’ Evening. What follows is a brief introduction to each of the artists, who together represent a wide range of vital dance makers in Minnesota.

Erin Drummond

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Photo: Emma Voorhes

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in the shifting wild presence that lingers in places and moments beyond the contours of linguistic comprehension and ordinary perception. I’m compelled to tap into currents in this liminal realm to help mobilize and heal stuck, scarred aspects of our communal web.

What interests you about an “interdisciplinary” approach to dance-making?

Disciplines are only temporary designations, meant to hone particular skill sets and modes of expression. I’m interested in dancing beyond the edges as a means to liberate the needs of the art: if this little art ghost wants to live between the bridge and water, so be it. I’ll give it spider’s silk to fly there.

Joelle Fernandez

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Photo:  Julius “Juicee” Johnson

What kinds of techniques and dance forms influence your choreographic style?

Hip Hop, House Dance, Krump, Karate, and Filipino Folk Dance influence my choreographic style. While I possess a strong foundation in those dance forms, I ditch mirrors and I base my choreography off of feeling rather than appearance. My anger admittedly fuels me. There are so many injustices all over the world. As an artist, I feel a duty to use my platforms to say what needs to be said as clear as possible. I don’t want audiences leaving with their own interpretation of our personal stories. I want audiences to leave knowing exactly what we meant to say. I am inspired by real world issues, my family’s immigration story, my friends and students, and my dedication to authenticity of the styles I do and the communities I belong to.

What do you hope to learn from presenting your work at Choreographers’ Evening?

Presenting White Privilege at Choreographers’ Evening is going to be exciting. Community/authentic hip hop is rarely put on large stages. My colleagues and I will learn how the general Twin Cities population feels about not only our art form, but our message. When we performed this piece at our own show in July 2016, the audience felt healed and inspired. Performing this piece for an audience that is mainly white and not exposed to underground hip hop will be truly interesting. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers all over to conform to the mainstream industry’s expectations like entertaining huge audiences to clean and happy pop music with flashy moves. There is a lot of pressure for hip hop dancers in the Twin Cities to be highly influenced by modern and contemporary dance because there’s a lot of that here, to put it simply. It is imperative to us that we stay raw and true to ourselves.

 

Robert Keo

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Photo: Clarence Chan

How do you describe your style of moving/making?

My style of moving is deeply rooted in Popping and couples with sounds from my upbringing in the Bronx or sounds that speak to my life and experience now. I usually begin with a personal point of tension or question around issues of individuality, fatherhood and marriage, masculinity, racism, and privilege, like what it means to stay true to my street dancing roots as my locale and context have changed. I think my dance is really an attempt to make sense of, negotiate, and ultimately embrace change, conflict, and complexity.

My choreography is shaped by the physical space I’m dancing in and by the audience I’m dancing in front of, which is why I’m a firm believer of not doing the same performance more than once.

What unique contribution do you hope to bring to this Choreographers’ Evening?

My personal narrative and perspective on life, which I hope other working people can relate to. For Solo Dolo No Mo, I am going to dance like nobody’s watching because I feel like I’m always on and going through the motions inherent to being in a capitalist society. Dance enables me to break away from those confines as it becomes less about mass consumption and exploitation, and more about individual meaning and expression. This performance, in particular, is a vulnerable, solitary, and rebellious act of materializing my thoughts and feelings while being present.

 

Paula Mann

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Photo: Courtesy of the artist

How does teaching influence your artistic practice and/or choreography?

This is my 44th year of dancing, and my 28th year of teaching. As a mid-career choreographer, I have survived long enough to have experienced many cycles in my work. I created my first dance at age 14, very soon after I began studying Modern Dance and Improvisation. During the post-modernist movement of the late 1970’s-1980’s, I attended N.Y.U. and was part of the downtown dance scene in New York for 10 years.

The process of teaching and creating dances are inextricably linked for me. They feed each other; when practiced together, I can tap into the creative current more readily. Both require a deep understanding of energy and out flow. Teaching is a service to others, but also engages me creatively and challenges me to fully embody the material I’m teaching. Dance making is more insular in the first stages; I have to go within, become absorbed in my imagination and then translate the ideas in some way.

How has you work shifted over your career?

My work continues to evolve over time; in the early days I was inspired and influenced by ideas and aesthetics that were different than mine. I was learning, soaking everything in. Later I began to discern and evaluate my own vision. What is uniquely mine that I can contribute? I began to look for articulation and distinction in movement more specifically.

What is unknown and perhaps unknowable?  I allow myself the freedom to experiment and investigate incongruent ideas. It doesn’t always work out. I try to blend together a story, a structure, and an idea that has meaning for me, expressed through the energy of my movement. Somehow I try to reconcile my observations of the external world with my unexplored inner material, the story beneath the story.

I’m still able to tap into the excitement, the physicality and the energy release that is dancing to me. I continue to be engaged in an emotional, imaginative and magical place. What excited me was how moving through space and time connected me to my inner self, to the depth of emotions that felt like I was experiencing the “real” reality, not just business as usual.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at making my work more specifically distinguished from the work of others, and really looking inside myself by being honest about what I have to contribute to this field.

 

Megan Mayer

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Photo: Megan Mayer

What are some key words or phrases you use to describe your aesthetic?

I obsess over minimalism, mimicry, tenderness, wry humor, loneliness, fake bad timing, exacting musicality and understatement. I like to explore internal terrain, subtlety and tiny emotional undercurrents that resonate in the body. I am an artist working with choreography, dance, experimental video and photography. I construct a unique perspective of what dance can be: virtuosity in vulnerability and a victory in a gesture. Drawn to the edges of the experience of performing: the anticipatory rapid heartbeat before going onstage, and the regretful relief after exiting, my work often reveals where that switch lives in the body. I feel most like myself when I am onstage being other people.

How do you incorporate your interests in experimental video and photography into your practice/performance?

For the Choreographers’ Evening piece, which is part of This is supposed to be my fertile window, an evening-length work I premiered in 2016, I studied photographs of Cecile Richards and tried to copy her gestures and facial expressions as she testified in front of Congress on behalf of Planned Parenthood. Videotaping myself is another way to extend and curate the frame and focus; sometimes video is part of my process of choreographing, and sometimes the choreographic process results in a fully-realized video work. With video, I have more control over framing, editing and time than I do in a live performance. Sometimes, if I’m feeling stuck choreographically, I’ll set up the camera up and improvise something seemingly unrelated to the piece I’m making. Reviewing that footage often provides a breakthrough and tells me where I should go next in the dance. In general, I use film clips and still images from film or photography as a starting point for creating movement. Photographs are useful in that they reveal movement quirks and unique physicalities and suggest what to enhance or feature. My first goal is to try to make a compelling stage picture; locomotion is secondary. When working with a group, I often photograph the performers talking casually before or after rehearsal and pore over them later. The chemistry I see amongst the cast in the photographs and who they are as individuals tells me where I need to focus.

 

Crystal Norcross

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Photo: Jenelle Abts

Describe the starting point of the piece you’ll be presenting at Choreographers’ Evening.

Well first off a little history on the dance. It started in the southwest region of the United States. Many tribes lay claim to this visually appealing dance. But is has recently sprung up across native America and is very special dance that tells stories and teachings about life. When the dance is first started the dancer will start with one hoop. She will eventually work her way up to however many hoops she desires. You will see all kinds of transformation from plants to eagles to spiritual beings.

What is appealing to you about being included in this Choreographers’ Evening?

I am so happy to share the knowledge and wisdom that this dance has. I’m happy that I can give a piece of who I am to the audience. This dance varies from each dancer. So for me to give my story and my heart to the audience brings me great honor.

 

Akiko Ostlund

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Photo:  John Lombardi

You often use the word “fusion” to describe your work – what does this describe about your dancing?

I think about the word a lot. The genre of dance I do is called ” tribal fusion belly dance,” and I am definitely trained within the genre for the first three years of studying dance. So when someone asks me what type of dance I do, there is no way around it but to use the word “fusion.” But it’s not my favorite word because it sounds less serious, less authentic, less genuine, and less sincere.

The word “fusion” describes that I am continuously learning elements from different dance styles and try to fuse them with what I already know. I am always wondering how I can do so without ending up stealing and poorly copying other dance styles.

How does your work fit into the themes of Simas’ curatorial vision for this Choreographers’ Evening?

My work is about the hassle of, not only cis women, but all femme presenting people in rape culture.

Now, that didn’t start this year, it’s not a new thing. Misogyny and rape culture, however, are still problems we face today. So I brought this piece to the CE audition.

 

Laura Selle Virtucio with Holo Lue Choy

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Her Kind with Holo Lue Choy. Photo: courtesy of the artist

You were once referred to in an interview as having “no ambition to choreograph.” How has that changed?

I have been a dancer in this community for a long time; it sometimes seems that choreography is expected of me at this stage. It has never been a goal for me. I care very much about what is being made when I’m working with a choreographer. My ideas and movement are often pulled into what someone else is making.  I have felt respected as a collaborator during much of my Minneapolis dance career. But I have trepidation about what I might be able to accomplish as a sole dance-maker. The times I’ve created work have been when a young dancer has looked to me for collaboration and mentoring. I see it as an opportunity to support an individual voice and to practice craft. That process I have enjoyed immensely. So, with this iteration of Her Kind, the work is my structure, but Holo and I have co-authored the details. Three dancers have contributed their voices while performing this work in the past and now Holo will share her voice. There is a parallel journey that these dancers have had in doing this particular work to my own journey working with the choreographers who have shaped my career. I hope to reflect back what I’ve experienced: a community that makes room for diverse voices and that challenges one to overcome fear.

 

Deja Stowers – BLAQ

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Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Where does this piece fit in the general trajectory of your creative work, and what are the most important questions driving your work right now?

My work is derived from real life experiences. I am interested in reliving and processing these experiences for artists in order to learn from them. I am most interested in how Black people in “America” are surviving and thriving in a world that was built by us but not for us. I explore the homelessness and displacement of my people but also soak in the vastness of what it means to be Black. How we stretch and shrink in the presence of joy and heart filled laughter. It is important that in BLAQ’s process we live through both. BLAQ is a company uninterested in performance but is drawn to “observance.” I believe that the observers are just that, observers. They play a role just by being in the room. WE SEE THEM. But our process is not packaged for them. It isn’t a message in a bottle. and it most importantly isn’t a truth that is open for critique. Though my work is geared to evoke social change and is in fact a social gathering, everyone has the right to give or get what they want from the process. BLAQ is process-based. The product is the process not to be bought and sold, but kept sacred and respected.

 

Taja Will

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Photo: Kari Mosel

What’s important about using dance as your platform for creative expression?

I create performance with the moving body, which for me includes extensions of the body including voice and the spiritual practice of presence. I move to know the viscera of my own human body and its likeness to others, I move to listen to its intelligence, I move to research and I move to communicate. The body is my vehicle, my language for relating.

Talk a little about your practice and how it frames your choreography.

My practice is based in somatic modalities, energy medicine and structured improvisation. I work from a place of inquiry or research, in Bruja I am curious to excavate my ancestral lineage from my cellular intelligence. As an international adoptee I’ve lost my understanding of homeland and genetic resonance. This theme has informed much of my work and I still don’t feel complete with this research. The solo evolves as more of a soul’s journey, less of a human experience. I am using my spiritual practice and somatic movement research as a centerpoint to communicate with the unknown lineage held by my body. In performance the research is framed by an aesthetic of spontaneity, improvisation itself and the audience as witness to something that is immediately personal and somehow universal.

 

Magnolia Yang-Sao-Yia

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Photo: Bruce Silcox

How does your identity as a Hmong woman influence your choreography?

Not all my work engages in the Hmong identity, but my identity as a Hmong woman, Asian-American woman, and woman of color will always affect, nurture, and define the lens that I have in order to navigate through this world. The term woman is the identity that most confines and defines why I choose to address patriarchy in the many spaces I occupy. In this piece specifically, it is important and relevant to have Hmong women occupy and claim the performance space, and to make our presence known and extant considering the demographics of the Twin Cities. My choreography is always an extension of me and my experiences, and a reaction to our times. It’s time to make our stories and histories be seen as relevant.

Describe your relationship to social justice in your work.

I would have never came to a social justice approach to my work if it wasn’t for my mentor, Ananya Chatterjea. All dance is political. Nothing is apolitical. Therefore, intentionality and craft is really important for me in order to get my message across in the way that I want it to come across. Personal interpretation is inevitable, but if I can engage my community and audience members through the images and energy I am producing, then I have also engaged them in social justice work. Social justice is the continuous force that drives my passion for thinking, making, helping, loving, creating bridges among our differences, and my work is the outlet in which it is being manifested.

Choreographers’ Evening 2016, curated by Rosy Simas, takes place on November 26 at 7 pm and 9:30 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

The Walker’s 12-Year Adventure with Jérôme Bel

In advance of our November 1–4 Jérôme Bel: Bookend Festival, performing arts curator Philip Bither reflects on the Walker’s decade-long commitment to this French conceptual choreographer’s work and development.  Since it began in the early 1960s, the Walker Performing Arts department has committed itself across artistic platforms and years (often decades) to key transformative artists. These artists’ […]

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Jérôme Bel. Photo courtesy the artist

In advance of our November 1–4 Jérôme Bel: Bookend Festival, performing arts curator Philip Bither reflects on the Walker’s decade-long commitment to this French conceptual choreographer’s work and development. 

Since it began in the early 1960s, the Walker Performing Arts department has committed itself across artistic platforms and years (often decades) to key transformative artists. These artists’ embrace of constant evolution and self-challenge significantly impacted their art forms—in the process changing how we think about the live arts. Whether it be Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, or Meredith Monk in the 1960s and ’70s; Philip Glass or Mabou Mines in the ’70s and ’80s; Bill Frisell, Eiko & Koma, John Zorn, or Bill T. Jones in the ’80s; Ralph Lemon in the ’90s; or Cynthia Hopkins, Jason Moran, Sarah Michelson, or Young Jean Lee in the ’00s, each of these artist-Walker relationships, many of which continue to this day, share important DNA. They began when the artists were lesser known. The commitments encompassed residencies, presentations, commissions, new scholarship, and sometimes even exhibitions and acquisition. Looking back, they form something of a spine for Performing Arts at the Walker, allowing us (curatorially) and our audiences (experientially) to go deeper with these artists, engendering heightened understanding of their ideas, their artistic processes, and the impact they were having on their art forms and on our larger world. All of the relationships are based in deep connections between staff and artists, fueled by curatorial admiration, empathy, and passion.

Our ongoing history with French choreographer Jérôme Bel is emblematic of these affiliations. Since 2005, the Walker has been the most consistent home for Bel’s work in North America. When I first experienced his work in 2003, I was not only moved by its freshness and intelligence, but also taken with the contradictory tendencies he was somehow able to balance within himself. A dance conceptualist/philosopher noted for his intellectual rigor, he is also an unapologetic populist and humanist. An artist aiming to radically subvert dance and theater, he frequently proclaims his love of both disciplines and regularly creates structures for compelling movement framed by a brilliant understanding of theatrical time. While gaining respect in the halls of academia and in the thin air of contemporary art’s upper curatorial altitudes, he had a common-man’s disheveled, self-deprecating personality and a wickedly droll sense of humor. He invents works with strict frames and hard-and-fast rules, but within them he allows for great individuality and personal freedom. He refuses to subject human emotion to derision or even suspicion but instead creates work that elicit joy, discomfort, compassion, and ennui. Like most past Walker-connected performance innovators, his work is not universally praised—it spawns apostles and fierce antagonists in equal measure.

Roma, Auditorium Parco della Musica 02 / 06 / 2004 - LA FRANCIA SI MUOVE - Festival di Danza Contemporanea Nella foto: 'THE SHOW MUST GO ON' di Jerome Bel Ph Riccardo Musacchio & Flavio Ianniello

Jérôme Bel, The show must go on. Photo: Mussacchio Laniello

Several years ago, in the early stages of planning our 2016–2017 season, we decided to raise our commitment to Jérôme Bel to a new level. We borrowed the notion of a mid-career retrospective from our visual art colleagues, but befitting ephemeral art, we conceived of it as a retrospective with an elastic sense of time. We sought to devise a sort of festival that would “bookend” the four past Bel works the Walker had shown—The show must go on (in 2005), Pichet Klunchun and Myself (in 2007), Cédric Andrieux (in 2011), and Disabled Theater (in 2013)—by presenting Bel’s newest large-scaled work as well as a remount of an important early signature work. With these two works, we aimed to close the circle while filling in essential gaps for our audiences. To allow greater depth, we added in the middle an evening-long curatorial conversation with Bel including a showing of one of his most revered dance films.

Preparing for his visit this week, a few memories of our past Jérôme Bel works came to mind. When I first saw a tape of Bel’s The show must go on in 2003, I was totally intrigued, but not entirely sure what I was seeing. It felt like a new, almost dangerous but electrifying type of proposition by a theatrical artist to the audience. Several leading US presenters (Chuck Helm at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, and Cathy Edwards at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop) joined us to build a tour for this large-scale work (more than 20 people traveling from Europe), which would be the first US exposure to Bel’s work.

When I met him in Paris a few months after locking in the tour, Jérôme remained reluctant, convinced Americans would hate his work. I reassured him, but privately I wasn’t all that sure. We planned to present The show must go on in the opening months of the then-new McGuire Theater in April 2005, but when construction got delayed, I moved the performance to the Pantages on Hennepin Avenue, where I thought the historical theatrical trappings and more commercial setting offered an even healthier friction between space and content. While we struggled to attract full audiences, the nearly 1,000 folks who came out over two evenings connected directly with the tension, intensity, radicality, and ultimately humanistic experimentation. Jérôme was surprised but thrilled that Americans responded so positively.  The total emptiness on stage at the start (as the DJ played “Tonight” from the soundtrack of West Side Story) and the other forms of minimalism and statis provoked people in different ways—nervous chuckling, shout outs, at one point two well-dressed couples out for a night on the town, jumped up in the aisles to create their own dance, the men whipping off their shirts and twirling them over their heads.  It was a wild couple of nights.  These many years later, The show must go on continues to tour the world, sometimes being re-cast and remounted by communities themselves.

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Pichet Klunchun and Myself

Our next work with Bel two years later was called Plichet Klunchun and Myself, a piece that proved a creative and educational revelation. Thai master traditional dancer Klunchun demonstrated and explicated aspects of Thai traditional dance to Bel on a bare stage, then Bel in turn danced and attempted to explain some of his minimalist movement constructions to Klunchun. Sincere, open, and funny, the work felt like a deceptively simple lecture-demonstration format, but Bel had shaped it with theatrical flair and nuance. It offered audiences both a newfound understanding of Thai traditional dance and new respect for how obscure some of the tenants of post-modern dance can be to those outside its sphere. A simple, explanatory exchange in Bel’s hands was transformed into elegantly compelling theater, independent from elaborate staging or high-end technical design.

In 2011, as part of another mini-festival we organized centered around Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s final legacy tour, we hosted Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, a portrait of the former Cunningham dancer performed in a movement-storytelling manner by Andrieux himself. Per Bel’s concept and shaping, Andrieux told and danced the story of his life, much of it built around his time with Merce, openly revealing how baffling he found Cunningham’s and Cage’s concepts at first, but sharing how after months it all clicked in for him. The autobiographical evening, shaped with Bel’s deft humanistic hand, offered audiences a new kind of window of understanding into Cunningham’s ideas.

Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Finally, in 2013, we invited a new large-scale work by Bel which seemed to represent the start of another major shift for him. Disabled Theater was a collaboration with Zurich’s Theater Hora, a company made up of accomplished actors with physical and cognitive disabilities. The work created a stir within the visual art and contemporary dance worlds across Europe, with responses ranging from rapture to critique. When I traveled to see it, I found it to be a deeply moving appreciation of the beauty, worth, and compelling individuality of each human. Many local audience members had as positive an experience as I had had, while for others it raised questions of representation, agency, and portrayal. While both Bel and detractors of the work shared the values of inclusiveness and of the importance to give voice and visibility to people with disabilities, the difference was in strategy and approach. It is a work that continues to resonate and represents a dialogue that continues to unfold, informing his latest creation that we will offer, GALA.

Having presented Bel’s works from 2003 to 2013, this “Bookend” festival covers unseen works from 2015 and 1995. GALA and the self-titled work Jérôme Bel showcase the longevity of Bel’s career and the diversity of his approaches. GALA is an unapologetic celebration of community within a rigid framework that is made fresh and new by the citizens of every city it visits. By contrast, Jérôme Bel, being remounted more than 20 years after it premiered (with its original cast), is startling in its sparseness and its efforts to strip away all but that which is essential for a dance performance—body, light, and sound—and present these elements in their most literal sense. Controversial to this day, Jérôme Bel functions as what fellow French choreographer Alain Buffard called “a minimalist manifesto applied to dance… It foils any attempt by the dancer and, likewise, the spectator, to interpret it emotionally. As a result, the subtle simplicity of this choreographic device allows for a critical reading of what is being done and undone in front of us.” I look forward to sharing with the Twin Cities the Jérôme Bel “Bookend” Festival of performances, discussions, and film screenings by one of the most inventive and debated artists of our time.

Jerome Bel's GALA

Jérôme Bel’s GALA. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Drop by Drop, the River is Formed: Emel Sherzad on Amir ElSaffar

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Emel Sherzad shares his perspective on Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound. Agree […]

Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound, performed in the Walker's McGuire Theater, October 15, 2016. Photo: Alice Gebura

Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of Sound, performed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater, October 15, 2016. Photo: Alice Gebura

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Emel Sherzad shares his perspective on Amir ElSaffar: Rivers of SoundAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I grew up listening mostly to Indian classical music and jazz. The late 60s and early 70s were a time when artists tried to bridge different cultures through music. But blending a very old tradition such as Indian classical music or the Arabic maqam with a newer style such as jazz, and to do so tastefully, is not an easy task. Older forms of traditional music can be rather rigid and hard to blend with other styles. That’s where jazz plays a crucial role. Being a much younger hybrid art form emphasizing improvisation, it works wonders as a catalyst. I think jazz lends itself better than any other genre to adapting to and adopting from other traditions.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound, a 90 minute suite for a large ensemble of 17 musicians, flowed like water. At times it evoked droplets, other times flowing streams and rivers, and sometimes the tumultuous sea.

The music was wide in scope. Cinematic. Subtle.

The meanderings of the large ensemble were fueled by the fabulous drumming of Nasheet Waits, providing the necessary momentum throughout the evening.

The music had a wide dynamic range. From quieter sections it built up tension and gained an intense driving force. The transitions between sections were smooth.

The concert started like peaceful breathing, but soon the sound became massive via an intense bass saxophone solo by J.D. Parran, where he sounded like he was laughing and crying simultaneously through his instrument.

The concert was one of the best examples of blending genres I have ever heard. Amir ElSaffar brought elements borrowed from classical composition, interspersed with Arabic classical music, but the glue that kept everything together was the language of contemporary jazz.

At times, the music sounded like Gnawa, the Moroccan trance music. Other times I was reminded of Indonesian gamelan, particularly when the vibraphone and the santur played interlocking patterns. The early music of Terry Riley also came to mind during certain passages.

The musicians were comfortable with the microtonal system. The piano was tuned in such a way that it could produce a jazz solo or play eastern scales. The violinist and the cellist were both very comfortable playing Arabic melodies. The wind instruments played the notes with subtle inflections that imparted an eastern flavor to their phrasings.

The music evoked a different place, a different time.

Layers of sound danced together as though in a dream.

Somehow, the inclusion of the Indian double headed drum, the mridangam, helped the transitions from western moods to eastern modes and vice versa.

In time, each instrument took a solo, showcasing the mastery of each musician, but the emphasis remained on the sound of the ensemble, navigating from section to section smoothly and effortlessly.

The musicians seemed to have a great time playing. The audience in turn became intoxicated by the beauty, joy, and sadness of the music.

The different genres blended perfectly throughout the various sections of the suite.

When Amir ElSaffar put down his trumpet and sat behind the santur and started singing in the tradition of the Arabic maqam, we heard a lament, longing for a lost time. In these sections,  the plaintive sounds of the oud, oboe and Turkish ney were reminiscent of the poetry of Rumi. The whole ensemble mourned like the sigh of an orphaned child.

In these times where divisive winds blow from various directions, the work of artists bridging cultures beautifully is important.

Drop by drop the river is formed.

Beauty at the Edge of Terror: A Conversation with Pavel Zuštiak

  Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest […]

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Custodians of Beauty by Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

 

Born in Czechoslovakia and based in New York City, Pavel Zuštiak is a director, choreographer, performer, and sound designer. He is also the Artistic Director of Palissimo Company which he founded in 2004 and the winner of the 2015 Juried Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. This weekend, the Walker will present the Midwest Debut of Zuštiak’s newest work Custodians of Beautyco-commissioned by the Walker Art Center, New York Live Arts, American Dance Institute, and Legion Arts. In Custodians of Beauty, Zuštiak questions where beauty is found and whether it needs our defense. With this piece, Zuštiak moves away from his usual large scale productions by focusing on a more minimalist approach to choreographing dance—picking away at the subject to find, perhaps, the truth of what beauty is.

I had the honor to talk to the artist himself over a cup of coffee and what follows is a series of questions and responses to get a better idea of who Pavel Zuštiak is as an artist, and how he went about creating Custodians of Beauty.

Ben Swenson-Klatt: So glad that you are able to sit down and talk! I thought we would start out with a few questions to get to know you. What inspired you to become an artist? Was there a particular moment or artist that inspired you the most?

Pavel Zuštiak: I was born in former Czechoslovakia in an area that is now Slovakia, and I was always attracted to the theater world as far as I can remember. I built my own lighting system for my homemade puppet theater when I was very young, then acted and sang on a very popular TV series starting at age nine. Early on I also studied piano—I almost went to a conservatory to study that—and then things kind of shifted; when I was 12, I started to dance by accident.

That’s actually a funny story. This was around the time when Flashdance and Dirty Dancing had just come out, so dancing was very popular and everybody was looking for studios to dance in. Slovakia has a very rich tradition of folk dancing, and every town had its own specific folk dance vocabulary and traditions. A schoolmate of mine wanted to go audition for a folk dance company, but he didn’t want to go alone and asked me to go with him. I said sure. We got to the cultural center where the audition was being held, but he messed up the dates and we ended up at a modern dance company audition instead. Everyone was in tights except the two of us! We both got in—he quit after a month—but for me it was a revelation. I was fascinated by the ability of dance to touch upon something that goes beyond words and yet can be very specific in communicating.

One particular moment made me recognize art making could be a vocation, and that was meeting Pina Bausch and seeing her work. She came to my hometown, Kosice, in Czechoslovakia in 1987 and rehearsed and performed at the cultural center where the dance company I was a part of resided. We observed her rehearsals, interacted with her, and eventually saw two of her seminal pieces, Café Muller (which she performed in) and The Rite of Spring. This experience blew me away and revealed how powerful dance and theater can be. It was truly a pivotal moment for me. Later I went to the School for New Dance Development in the Netherlands. Seventeen years ago I moved to New York, and that’s my journey.

But I would also say that very early on, because of all these different genres that I had explored, to me, in a theater performance, one is not more important than the other, so rarely I see set, music, or lighting just as a decorative element but as an element that can push the narrative of the piece.

Swenson-Klatt: You seem to be really aware of the sound and lighting, and I think you even mentioned that you are playing with scent in this production?

Zuštiak: Yeah, this is the first time. The show is titled Custodians of Beauty, so one of the very first tasks when talk

ing with designers was asking what is the most beautiful thing that you could witness in theater, musically, visually or scenically? So of course we

went through all this stuff including clichés, and someone brought up the scent of a rose.

Swenson-Klatt: And other scents,like perfumes?

Zuštiak: Yes, and I was reminded of how powerful scent can be in transporting you to a place or time in a very immediate way. This is the first show where I am playing with that, and I plan to explore that further in my next project, where I will be collaborating with a scent artist. So this is dabbling into something new.

Swenson-Klatt: Could you talk a little bit more about the collaboration you have with lighting designer Joe Levasseur, set designer Simon Harding, and sound designer Christian Frederickson, and how they are integral to Custodians of Beauty, in terms of pushing the narrative through transitions?

Zuštiak: I usually start with a question or dilemma around a certain subject or theme as an opening question or conversation, not only with the designers but also with the performers, who are equally contributing artists in the room. Out of those conversations and out of contributions from all of us, we start to look at a palette of possibilities. Ideas, scenes, and events start to emerge, and then at a certain point I end up with a series of… I call them images, but I don’t see it as a static moment. I start placing them in a certain order, looking dramaturgically at what kind of trajectory the show could have, and then I start shaping individual images or scenes, and their progression, throughout the show. In terms of my direction, often I come with an image or I come with a clear proposal or direction of a scene, and sometimes I know what function a transition or scene has and that’s my direction to designers, to problem solve. But it’s a lot of back and forth, a very organic process. I have worked with Christian, the composer, on five productions, and Joe Levasseur is the exclusive lighting designer that I have worked with since living in New York, so at this point they pretty well understand my aesthetic. I think we are also at a place where, we were joking, we can be like an old couple: we know when to fight over something and when to let go.

Swenson-Klatt: You bring up seeing the overall choreographic process as visual or image-based. Do you have a connection to visual arts or a way that the visual arts play into making movement?

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Pavel Zuštiak. Photo: Maria Baranova

Zuštiak: I think there are choreographers who are creating or editing through kinesthetic feedback, and that’s how they shape and edit the work. For me, it’s seeing the work and seeing all the elements together, and I am more and more curious in reduction: how far can I push reducing expressive modes into a simple statement or gesture that would hold much more than you are seeing? Like reduction in cooking—you taste something but there is a depth—many different ingredients that went through a long process to get to that point. Or like a capsule that locks together complex layers, or a statement. I like to see how far I can push that without losing the intensity of what goes into it.

Swenson-Klatt: And the way that all the different elements that came together. In other interviews you’ve discussed the research that went into this piece, like how its title is pulled from a 2009 address by Pope Benedict XVI when he met with artists at the Sistine Chapel, as well as the influence of Alva Noë’s book, Action in Perception, and Susan Sontag’s essay, “An argument about Beauty.” Could you talk about your research?

Zuštiak: The original speech by the pope already touches on some references from history. He quotes Plato, for example, who talked about beauty as something that shocks us out of ourselves, which I find fascinating, as a way of being disarmed as an audience member, which also leads to a certain loss of narcissistic vision and makes you aware of larger issues or gives you a sense of humanity. In the show there a few moments where we are eluding to this sensibility of breaking the fourth wall, to making the audience realize that we are here in the same room, that this is something happening collectively.

I came across an article with the same title in a wonderful Dutch magazine Works That Work, published by a Slovak editor, Peter Bilak, which mentions the pope and his speech to leading art makers of the time—his insistence of holding onto beauty as something important in their art making. I was perplexed that this was high up on his agenda, although the relationship of the church and art world is nothing new. That led me to research beauty throughout contemporary art history, and I realized how problematic this subject matter is and how in certain parts of the art world, beauty has become almost taboo. Often we feel more comfortable talking about something as interesting rather than beautiful, which Susan Sontag states at the end of her article as an argument for the definition and existence of beauty: “If you are watching a sunset it would be strange to say it is interesting rather than beautiful.” I find that when we say something is beautiful we are laying our cards on the table, while when saying something is interesting we are holding them close to our chest.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s kind of like calling on people to really stand by what they believe in. I think that is an important concept to tackle especially today, when sometimes it is almost easier to not have an opinion but to instead stay on the sidelines and say, “That’s interesting.”

Zuštiak: I think the resistance towards beauty also comes from its associations, for instance as something being pretty or as something that has to be symmetrical, these preconceived ideas of what beautiful means. Who defines that? I think the question itself has also become controversial: who is in charge of the definition of what is and what is not beautiful? Although the pope is approaching the artists as custodians, the title Custodians of Beauty for me is more of a question mark, i.e. who are the custodians? Is it the audience member? Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Is it the curator, who presents the work, is it his or her responsibility? The questions that this subject raises are challenging and lack straight answers, and I found it to be a fertile ground for a new work.

Swenson-Klatt: In her article, Sontag brought up the feminine connotations of beauty, and of course in mainstream media beauty has almost become attached to the feminine. Did you play at all with gender?

Zuštiak: Yes, there is one scene that acknowledges that. I am acknowledging feminine beauty as an image or association, although the notion of beauty as the cover of a fashion magazine often relating to a product was not something I was going for in this piece. I was more interested in beauty that is at the edge of terror. You know you can be in the presence of a tornado and it can be a beautiful sight, but you are also at the edge of something that can consume you. I believe there are artworks that can produce the same effect.

Swenson-Klatt: Is there a piece of artwork that you find beautiful? That’s probably a big question.

Zuštiak: I’m sure there is. For some reason I’m going to music. I’m thinking of the work of Arvo Pärt, music I find incredibly simple yet immensely beautiful.

Swenson-Klatt: It’s a hard question! But maybe something for everyone to think about when they are approaching this piece.

Zuštiak: And by saying something is beautiful, there is also judgment, so that is part of the show, where—I don’t know how much I want to say because people should come and see—basically, it’s a subjective matter, something can be witnessed by two people but they can have polar opposite experiences. So it’s also touching on that; it’s a subjective thing relating to judgment. And that leads to perception, which leads to Alva Noë, who talks about perception as not something that happens to you but something that you do. So he is talking about perception as an active engagement with what you are seeing. And for me, not just with this show but for any show, the audience is the co-creator of the experience and it is a live thing. When that meets with what we are proposing and comes into a conversation, I feel like that’s what releases the magic of a theatrical experience, something unpredictable but alive.

Swenson-Klatt: It almost seems that by setting the context with the term beauty that you are asking the audience to be active participants and to make a decision about what they find beautiful.

Zuštiak: And I’m hoping that it’s not just about this show. I’m thinking of another performance that we did in a public space. It was called Halt! and was presented in the terminal of the Staten Island Ferry in New York City. There were three performers who were among the people that accumulated to get on the ferry, and after one of the shows I got an email from someone who came to see it, and she was saying that suddenly everything in that terminal, in her eyes, was choreographed. She said, “I left the terminal and it continued. I was on the subway and it felt like everything was a dance.” So her perception shifted and I would hope that this show could also shift people’s perception. There are many things in the show that look at subtleties, the mundane, and when you start looking at things for an extended period of time or from a different angle, you start to see things differently, so that’s also what I am hoping to achieve with the show.

Swenson-Klatt: Do you have any last words as the audience prepares for the show?

Zuštiak: I feel like non-dance audiences come to a dance show believing that there is a certain kind of experience they should be having rather than just having their experience, so I would say, go in with an open mind; have an experience first, and then start analyzing what happened rather than coming in with an analytical mind at the start of the show. The biggest compliment I received for my work was from an audience member who said, “I did not understand it but I know what it was about.” I think dance is not the best medium at telling stories but an amazing medium to tell stories in its own language.

Pavel Zustiak’s Custodians of Beauty will be performed Thursday through Saturday, October 20–22, 2016 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Colin Stetson’s Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Brandon Wozniak shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of […]

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Colin Stetson: SORROW, a reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. Performed in the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center on September 30, 2016. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician Brandon Wozniak shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of Colin Stetson: SORROW, a reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony, which was copresented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

I’m seated in the balcony, not by default but by design. It’s near the bar, and even though I only plan on having one drink, I feel better knowing it’s close by just in case my plus one and I decide we might fancy another. Fine, I had two drinks, but come on, it’s Friday night, and I’ve been trying to sleep-train my 11 month-old daughter all week.

Colin is welcomed to the stage after it’s been announced he will begin the evening’s festivities with a surprise solo set. He removes his metal mouthpiece cap, and chucks it to the floor in an authoritative manner. It came off a bit macho for my taste, but maybe it’s not machismo after all. Maybe he knows he’s going to be suffering through a physically and mentally demanding solo set where he will play continuously for about twenty minutes on a large, heavy saxophone. He doesn’t have time to be delicate about such things. He begins by playing a long drone, slowly incorporating a variety of extended saxophone techniques before building to a 12/8 rhythm, clicking the keys under his right hand. At one point, he threw his right arm out to stretch and wiggle the fingers responsible for keeping the beat. This kind of playing is all about the slow burn.  He comes back to click the keys, adding a simple melody over the top as he keeps a steady pulse with even more intricate overtones and vocalizations until he winds back down to the drone where he began.

Although I’m not as impressed as the masses who clearly love watching someone circular breathe ad infinitum, I can certainly appreciate Colin’s level of commitment to his art. It’s obvious that he’s spent countless hours honing his craft, and while it may not be my cup of tea for, say, a whole night of music, I have to give it up to him for being able to squeeze every last ounce of sound possible from that big bastard.

Next up is Colin’s “Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony,” and the full house in attendance is ready to be bathed in sorrow. Once the ensemble is set, Colin brings the bass line in on a contra bass clarinet. He’s not quite as fluid on the big clarinet as he is on the bass saxophone, but he works through the one or two initial hiccups and regains control quickly. I wouldn’t say it felt rushed, but the ensemble is clearly not breathing together. Most of the instrumental sections feel more like a rehearsal than a performance. It’s a talented group of busy musicians, with, I’m sure, limited time for rehearsals. And while the music they’re performing is very simple from a technical standpoint, in terms of stamina, it’s actually quite difficult due to the legato nature of the music.

I’ve played in situations like this before and I can tell you that it’s actually much harder to pull off something dirgeful like this than it is to play an up tempo piece with a lot of notes on the page. Classical orchestras have been doing this kind of thing at the highest of levels forever, and in the age of instant gratification, it can be easy to think you’re giving every note its due. But I just didn’t feel the note-to-note despair from the ensemble that I had hoped.

I read an interview on the Liquid Music blog where Colin inferred that he didn’t alter any of the notes on the page, and that the reimagining of this piece was more about the musicians, instrumentation, and electronics. However, in this performance, the winds and strings dominated the piece, making the electronic and “black metal” connotations hard to make out. Maybe it’s just the way the musicians were mic’d on that particular evening. Regardless of the reason, there was something lacking.

That is until the sublime Megan Stetson enters. She was clearly in command from the first note she sang, giving herself completely over to the mournful text. Her elevated performance was so powerful that at times it dwarfed the ensemble, making them sound as if they were coming through a portable bluetooth speaker somewhere from a galaxy far far away.

After the performance, I checked out the record, and I think it’s a great representation of Colin’s vision for the music. Thanks to The Walker for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and thanks to Colin and the rest of the musicians for the music.

I will be there when you die?: John Fleischer on Alessandro Sciarroni

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, John Fleischer shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of UNTITLED_ […]

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Edoardo Demontis in UNTITLED_I will be there when you die. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, John Fleischer shares his perspective on last weekend’s performance of UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die by Alessandro SciarroniAgree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Friday evening. The house lights in the McGuire Theater dim, gently signaling the imminent beginning of Alessandro Sciarroni’s UNTITLED_ I will be there when you die, and the room falls silent. After a few moments, five male performers walk quietly onto the bare white stage. Four of the performers arrive carrying sets of juggling clubs, and after each deposits all but one of his clubs to one side of the stage or the other, he moves to one of four staggered positions on the expanse of marley. Each stands motionless, eyes closed, facing the audience. The fifth performer, dressed in black, arrives empty-handed and moves to a station of electronic devices off in the shadows.

I watch the performer closest to me for a while — Lorenzo Crivellari. Pastel green trousers. Eyes closed. Breathing. The performer in the back — Pietro Selva Bonino. Head tilted. White high-tops. Eyes closed. To his left and slightly forward — Victor Garmendia Torija. Curly hair. Eyes closed. Broad shoulders. Left and slightly forward again — Edoardo Demontis. White T-shirt and jeans. Thin beard. Eyes closed. I revel in moments like this, the focused pause before the act, the viewer present and participating. Sometimes it can get a bit sticky, of course. Extended? Indulgent? Almost theatrical? But this feels natural — the time it takes to fully arrive. Eventually Demontis opens his eyes. I try to imagine the harsh intensity of his visual experience as he looks slowly around the house, at each of his fellow performers, and then up, directly into the lights. I feel him shift his attention to the object in his hand. And finally, still looking upward, he tosses the club into the air above his head.

Empathy?

I arrived this evening still processing my experience of yesterday’s performance in the Walker’s Cargill lounge, where Sciarroni presented CHROMA_don’t be frightened of turning the page. Waiting there in the lounge for the performance to begin, I overheard someone say the words work-in-progress. I think I heard someone else say meditation on spinning. When the artist finally arrived, he began by walking. He paced back and forth along a diagonal, the distance between his counterclockwise turns contracting until he was spinning. Yes, slowly at first, but increasing in speed and intensity over time, arms rising, hands folding and unfolding overhead like a double helix, gradually down the forehead to the mouth like a baby, spinning like summer afternoon in the grass, spinning because it’s just so incredibly wonderful to spin, but also intentional and precise. Heroic? I’m thinking about practice. I’m thinking about endurance. I’m thinking about skill. All this to a slowly shifting pulse of electronic sound particles, punctuated at first by every twelfth beat, and then dissolving into increasingly complex waves and washes. Sciarroni spins for … fifteen minutes? Twenty? Still spinning, arms extended, he moves outward toward the viewers circled around him. He spins a counterclockwise lap at the edge of the crowd, increasing the risk of falling into the the group, and then moves back to the center, gradually coming to rest. Yes.

Alessandro Sciarroni performing CHROMA_don't be frightened of turning the page at the Walker Art Center,

Alessandro Sciarroni performing CHROMA_don’t be frightened of turning the page at the Walker, September 22, 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

Dimensions of time?

Still looking upward into the lights, Demontis catches the club with the opposite hand. Although I know he has done this thousands of times, I feel in my chest the real possibility of a miss. All of us focusing now on this isolated catch. He pauses for a moment, and returns the club to the air. Another catch. Another toss. The slap of the club in his palm gradually becomes a rhythm. Another performer opens his eyes, looks around, upward, and tosses his club in the air. Soon there are a pair of rhythms, then a trio, and finally a quartet. The rhythms phase in and out of sync with each other. They synchronize again, and the performers simultaneously catch and release the body of the club instead of handle, shifting the timbre of the percussive beat. The fifth performer — Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld — introduces a sparse mix of recorded clicks and slaps from somewhere in his stack of electronics, and the piece is spinning.

Obsessions, fears, and fragilities?

Occasionally, one of the performers walks over to the side of the stage and grabs another club. Are the cues for this shift in the music? The lights? Or do the performers decide when to shift? I sense a negotiation taking place, but I’m not sure. Sometimes one, sometimes another? Gradually, more and more clubs are flying through the air. Two clubs per juggler. Then three. Four. I find myself wondering where I placed those bean-filled juggling bags I picked up a few years ago. The bags came with an instruction manual, and I still remember practicing the first lesson — the drop. Throw all three bags into the air and let them hit the ground. It was a bit on the nose, but I recall appreciating the intentional space it created for failure, the miss, the mistake. UNTITLED cultivates a space like this, and occasionally one of the performers misses a catch. He watches the pin as it rolls along the mat, and after it slows to a rest, he calmly retrieves it. Usually he looks around at his fellow performers for a moment. Sometimes he smiles. And then he begins juggling again.

Theatrical framework?

Witnessing a demonstration of the skills that emerge over hours upon hours upon hours of practice is a pleasure and an inspiration. So I must confess I am a bit disappointed when the music and lights interfere with my ability to see and hear the jugglers excel at what they do. When the music gets louder and more dense, I can no longer hear the rhythms of catching. I no longer hear the performer nearest me breathing. I suppose an argument could be made that — like the clubs — the sound samples are being juggled in real time. But there is also this slow, emotional progression of piano chords, and I feel manipulated.

Finally, after a patient, slowly shifting display of juggling tricks and patterns, the music stops, and Crivellari launches five clubs into the air. His breathing is more strained now, and his feet scuff sharp sounds from the mat as he positions and re-positions his body beneath the clubs hovering above him. I’m amazed at how they seem to hang there, spinning in midair. At times it even appears that the clubs are juggling the performer. Yes. Wonderful. Just this man repeatedly tossing objects in the air, keeping them afloat. I see the precise, mundane, sweaty reality of years of practice, and its relationship to a skillful performance.

When the music begins again, the overhead lights go down, and the jugglers are dimly lit from the floor. They cast tall multicolored shadows on the scrim behind them as they pair off and begin passing clubs as duets. I immediately recall another tidbit from my misplaced juggling manual — juggling is not about making great catches, it is about making great throws. The passing continues as the duets entwine, cycling around and between each other. I struggle to watch their exchanges, but the colored background takes over. Dozens and dozens of spinning colored shadows are difficult to ignore. I try again to focus on the jugglers, their amazing entangled performance, but I keep seeing sperm.

Traditional definitions of gender?

Tomorrow I will think about how much I enjoyed the way Bonino sometimes separated his tosses into three distinct heights, one club spinning quickly near his chest and face, another more slowly above his head, and the third almost languid toward the ceiling. I will wonder what this bit of writing would have looked like if I had chosen to excavate the layers of time in this single toss. I will try, repeatedly, to make sense of the line in the program about gender, and I will swap texts with a friend who will critique Sciarroni’s use of talent from other disciplines. I will wish I could witness yesterday’s spinning performance again. Maybe I will even spin a bit. I will also try to find those juggling bags.

Luminous Non-Intention: John Killacky on The Selected Letters of John Cage

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.” —John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology […]

John Cage reads from Muocye at the Walker Art Center, Februrary 1980. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

John Cage reads at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Glenn Halvorson

“I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened by old ones.”

John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992)

One of the most singular artists of the 20th century, avant-garde composer, philosopher, visual artist, and writer John Cage transformed modernist aesthetics with his embrace of randomness, chance operations, and early adoption of technology in his artistic practice. And yes, silence. His seminal composition, 4’33” (1952), wherein musicians sit in silence and do not intentionally make sounds for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, taught us all to listen more deeply.

Our paths crossed a few times. Once, while I was on tour in the mid-1980s with the Trisha Brown Dance Company in France, I sat in a hotel lobby with him watching the French Open on television, and then shared a taxi with him to the theater. On the drive over, he repeatedly lowered and closed the window, amused by its squeaky sounds.

Then in 1990, when I worked at the Walker Art Center, I invited him to do a reading to celebrate the opening of the Jasper Johns: Printed Symbols exhibition. Cage had written about Johns earlier in their careers, and for this performance, he randomly rearranged his text utilizing his computer and presented this.

We had gotten a request for ASL interpretation. Cage was concerned, warning the interpreter the speech did not really make any linear sense. During his performance, he repeatedly stopped and watched the interpreter, who, of course, also stopped. The bemused Cage then continued reading. Afterward, Margaret Leng Tan performed Cage’s compositions on a toy piano.

While his public artistic persona was expansive, Cage was reticent about his private life. When asked about his relationship with life partner choreographer Merce Cunningham, he would often politely reply, “I do the cooking, and he does the dishes.” Although openly gay, neither of them chose to discuss their homosexuality publicly.

However, The Selected Letters of John Cage (2016, Wesleyan University Press), with more than 500 letters, brings readers intimately into his personal life, beginning in the 1930s when he was a 17-year-old dropout traveling in Europe and Algeria to shortly before his death in 1992. His affable nature resonates throughout this luminous collection and gives the reader insight into his prodigious intellectual and artistic pursuits.

When a nascent musical student, we read his pleas to study with Arnold Schoenberg, acquire expertise on Erik Satie and Virgil Thomson’s music, and build relationships with Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and other emerging mavericks. These composers performed each other’s works in concert, and often wrote about the other, since few critics understood the new aesthetic frontiers they were fomenting.

Frustration is present in Cage’s missives to orchestral and museum directors around the world as he struggles to earn a living and be taken seriously as a composer. For decades, he was his own booking agent and asked people to help underwrite concerts. As well, he pleaded valiantly trying to establish a center for new music at Cornish School, Bennington College, and Mills College—all for naught. Tellingly, he wrote to young composer, “I never made enough money (from my music) to live on until I was fifty. Interrupted my music in order to do odd jobs in order to eat, etc.”

Throughout his life, Cage remained a cultural omnivore. Interwoven into The Selected Letters of John Cage are details as to how his study of the I Ching and Zen Buddhism, his burgeoning interest as an amateur mycologist (love of mushrooms), and his embrace of a macrobiotic diet informed his life and art. He aspired to have “all distinctions between art and life removed.” This blending of eastern and western traditions put him at the epicenter of the American avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s.

His early notes to Merce Cunningham are beautifully innocent, “I think of you all the time and therefore have little to say that would not embarrass you, for instance my first feeling about the rain was that it was like you… I would like to measure my breath in relation to the air between us.”

Cage became musical director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and together they disrupted prevailing notions of modern music and dance. Aiding their revolution were visual artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, often collaborators on scenic and costume elements. These relationships, and the masterworks they created, are gloriously annotated throughout the book.

Cage did so much more than music for the Cunningham dance company. Early letters show him writing to festival promoters to book engagements, sending fundraising appeals to donors and funding agencies, and pleading with fellow artists to donate artwork to make up shortfalls from touring.

His persistence, entrepreneurship, and unequivocal questioning of the status quo as evidenced in this volume could in fact be a textbook for modern day artists struggling to forge a career. Ever the courageous anarchist, Cage states, “I think my activity in the arts is analogous to political activity. It gives an instance of how to change things radically.”

The Selected Letters of John Cage is revelatory, illuminating his creative processes, as well as the heart and mind of this multifaceted individual who has influenced generations of artists—essential reading for understanding 20th century American art history.

John R. Killacky is executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

 

The Flaming Lips at Rock the Garden: 360 Degrees of “Race for the Prize”

Smoke guns and confetti cannons were out in full force during the final set of Rock the Garden 2016—and videographer Chuck Olsen of Visual was there to capture the experience in immersive, 360-degree video. Watch as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips perform “Race for the Prize,” off the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. (See if […]

The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne at Rock the Garden 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne at Rock the Garden 2016. Photo: Gene Pittman

Smoke guns and confetti cannons were out in full force during the final set of Rock the Garden 2016—and videographer Chuck Olsen of Visual was there to capture the experience in immersive, 360-degree video. Watch as Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips perform “Race for the Prize,” off the 1999 album The Soft Bulletin. (See if you can spot the Walker bumpersticker—“Think about honking if you [heart] conceptual art”—on the leg of Coyne’s duct-tape pants.)

Held on Minneapolis’s Boom Island on June 18, the fourteenth edition of our annual festival featured eight bands on two stages: Plague Vendor, GRRRL PRTY, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Hippo Campus, M. Ward, Poliça, Chance the Rapper, and the Flaming Lips.

Rock the Garden 2016 was a copresentation of the Walker Art Center and 89.3 The Current.

Chance the Rapper Colors Outside the Lines

There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the […]

Chance the Rapper at the Pemberton Music Festival, 2014 Photo: Rob Loud, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Chance the Rapper at the Pemberton Music Festival, 2014. Photo: Rob Loud, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

There is no single voice in DIY music culture making as much of an impact as Chance the Rapper. As an artist who has given away the majority of his music, without major label influence, Chance has been able to speak directly to the soul of young people without having his hand forced by the recording industry. On his new gospel-laced mixtape Coloring Book, that soul shines through from track to track. As he states on the song “Blessings,” “I don’t make songs for free/I make songs for freedom.”

On June 18, Chance joins Poliça, The Flaming Lips, and others at Minneapolis’s Boom Island Park for what is destined to be the largest Rock the Garden street festival yet. Over the past two years we’ve seen Rock the Garden diversify its lineup with acts like golden-era MCs De La Soul and Afrobeat legend Seun Kuti, among a handful of others—and with Chance’s inclusion the event further ventures into unchartered territory. Which begs the question: where does Chance fit in a festival that has boasted a past of mostly white indie-rock giants? And what does his presence mean to this coloring book and who gets the crayons?

Let’s take a minute and talk about the often-overlooked city within the city of Minneapolis. The Twin Cities has undeniably been heavily influenced by our closest major city neighbor, Chicago, Chance’s hometown. In the late 1800s, the Chicago, St. Paul, and Minneapolis railways were consolidated to create a consistent stream of people and goods throughout the region. Simultaneously, in 1865, you had the abolition of slavery, which quickly created the largest migration of people in the history of the United States. In the 1920s, more than six million formerly enslaved people traveled North for better wages and opportunity. My grandparents on both sides of the family moved from Mississippi and Arkansas during this period. Both of my parents relocated to Minnesota in the last year of the 1970s. Being Black growing up in inner city Minneapolis, you are constantly reminded of Chicago’s influence. Transplants from that city speak with such pride and sorrow in the same sentence. They speak of struggle, pain, and, ultimately, the hope for a brighter future. A similar duality is the somber playfulness that you find in Chance’s music. This is the spirit that touches Chance’s followers in a way that many outsiders may not understand. It’s an authentic voice piercing its way through a cloud of doubt.

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Cover image for Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape

In the city that produced the likes of the Smashing Pumpkins, Styx, Earth Wind & Fire, and Chief Keef, Chance the Rapper finds a way to walk the proverbial line musically. Inside of his productions you will find both a wide range of musicality and a blunt directness that only Chicago hip hop could produce. He slips back and forth between rapping and singing within the same line of thought. He also freely moves between preproduced instrumentals and his live band, The Social Experiment, flexing skills over odd time signatures. The amount of gospel influence may sound way out of the box for the fair-weather listener but makes perfect sense with someone like the Coloring Book author. At 23, Chance has been influenced by an age of direct access to the “other.” By this I mean young people are much more free to explore their tastes and interests in the privacy of their own homes without judgment, thanks to the internet. This gives young artists more time to explore their ideas and openly create. His do-it-yourself approach to creating music allows him to easily move between tracks with his soulful live band, songs with gospel icon Kirk Franklin, and tracks like “Mixtape” with viral stars Young Thug and Lil Yachty.

All throughout Chance’s new project you find hidden messages. You have to think of what a coloring book represents. Though mass-produced, a coloring book gives every person who utilizes it an opportunity to create their own version of reality. You can choose to use lighter or darker colors. You can draw inside the lines or stray away from the format. Either way we are all given some basic outline of how to exist, and we have to fill in that space with whatever makes the most sense to your personal experience.

On “All We Got,” the first song of Coloring Book, Chance features Kanye West and the Chicago Children’s Choir. Constantly shrouded in controversy, West is arguably the biggest artist to ever represent the working poor in the city. The Chicago Children’s Choir was founded in the mid-1950s at the height of the Civil Rights movement, serving more than 4,000 youth annually. Through the choir, young people have been able to travel throughout the world and perform with acts like Beyoncé, Luciano Pavarotti, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In the center sits Chance rhyming, “This for the kids of the king of all kings/This is the holiest thing/This is the beat that played under the Word/This is the sheep that ain’t like what it herd.” This alludes to the idea that we are all children of a higher power but do not need to be followers to anyone’s ideas. Later on in the chorus, Kanye sings, “Music is all we got/so we might as well give it all we got.” This is the metaphorical rose growing from concrete.

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

Chance the Rapper. Photo: Zoe Rain

The historic brutality that has plagued the city of Chicago traces back to segregation, Al Capone’s rampant rule of the streets, police violence, and the violence inflicted by neighbors upon each other. We constantly hear the statistics about the loss of life in the city. Rapper King Louie coined the phrase “Chiraq” as a response to statistics that showed more people killed in the Chicago than in active combat in Iraq. There most certainly is a problem and everyone has their own way of dealing.

Chance states that he’s here to “clean up the streets so my daughter has somewhere to play.” That is the beauty that is rarely seen or heard in the way Chicago is portrayed. We have to ask why the most negative images of the Black community are so freely bought and sold for profit. This is at a time when young artists of color in both the Twin Cities and Chicago are literally dying because they don’t feel like they have any other way into the music industry except through displays of violence. Much of Chance’s new album sounds like a prayer for the youth of his city and proof that you can make it out of hard times when you express your best self. Don’t miss your chance to join the choir live at Rock the Garden.

Chance the Rapper performs June 18 at Rock the Garden 2016.

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