From on stage, back stage and the theater seats, the Performing Arts blog illuminates the intersecting worlds of dance, theater, and music.
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’ […]
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.
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.
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.
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.
The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew […]
The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew of trance rhythms, acoustic jazz, and electrified rock, post-’70s hard-core funk, free harmonics, and African polyrhythms all held some seeds of punk, Afro-futurist rock, and hip-hip to come (see Slate’s useful tracing of Ornette’s influence on non-jazz music innovators). The sounds knocked me sideways, introducing me to a musical language that carried so much magnetic mystery and human emotion that my incomprehension felt inconsequential.
When I first began curating music three decades ago, an early dream was to try to do something that would honor Ornette Coleman’s enormous contribution. I sought out Ornette’s drummer-manager son, Denardo Coleman, and we began a 12-year, on-and-off-again process of planning some kind of festival. Throughout, Denardo remained as genial as he was elusive (he would fall out of touch for months or sometimes even years, but when he resurfaced he remained as encouraging as ever). I will always remember a two-hour planning meeting with Ornette, arranged with Denardo, in the East Village the year before the festival, where I sat with rapt attention listening to this sweet, gentle, but fierce philosopher-poet of music and art, grasping only every third or fourth idea — not unlike my first introduction to his music. It was a meeting I found both baffling and mysteriously transformative. Ornette Coleman thought and worked on another plane altogether, and yet there I sat, furiously trying to scribble every word in a pad. I felt like I was clearly in the presence of a profound and generous spirit.
In April 2005, Ornette, Denardo and I were finally able to mount a three-day celebration of Ornette’s work — a copresentation of the Walker and Headwaters Music — encompassing a sold-out concert at the University of Minnesota’s 1000-seat Ted Mann concert hall, featuring his then-new quartet (which six months later would record the landmark, Pulitzer Prize–winning recording Sound Grammar); and a separate evening of Minnesota-based bands (including both Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, not to mention their rare recombinant, Bad Apple), all playing their versions of Ornette tunes in the Walker’s brand new McGuire Theater. Ornette sat in the audience, listening with attentiveness and grace. I walked him through the green room after as thanked each hero-struck musician who had played, telling them how much he enjoyed and appreciated their take on his work. The final event of the festival was a 10-hour marathon of wildly diverse and innovative music, concluding with a premiere of a Walker-commissioned set of works by Ornette and the avant-classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars (BOAC). With so many performers, the concert ran very late. I remember Ornette warming up with great patience and generosity on our loading dock for nearly two hours. Finally hitting the McGuire stage at 1:15 am with Bang on a Can All Stars, he played a breathtaking set of new music with his inimitable, deeply mournful, timeless alto soaring above the complex BOAC-played compositions to the hundreds of intrepid Minnesotan true believers still in the house.
Ornette wrote to me later, saying, “The Walker is a harmolodic place if there ever was one!” We will forever miss you Ornette, and remain always grateful for your transformative gifts.
Philip Bither is Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center.
Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (1947–2013) was an influential force in contemporary music, part of a long line of iconoclastic American visionaries ranging from Ives to Ornette, Cage to Braxton, Riley to Harrison. Aside from being a distinctive jazz and experimental music cornetist, composer, and arranger, he originated “conduction” (a term he took from physics) in 1985, a system of structured improvisation in which Morris directed large groups of musicians using codified hand and baton gestures, creating symphonic composition “in the moment.” During a conduction, each musician interpreted Morris’ visual cues through their own cultural perspective and through the sound of their individual instrument.
“Some of (his) gestures are familiar classical music conductor’s signals, some are particular to Morris,” wrote jazz journalist Ed Hazell. “There are gestures to indicate that the ensemble should sustain a chord or a continuous sound, repeat a motif, or memorize a theme and play it whenever called for. Gestures can also suggest melodic movement or rhythm in a kind of real-time graphic notation.” In recent decades, Morris traveled globally, teaching conduction and leading improvising orchestras in Europe and Asia. In 1996, he released Testament: A Conduction Collection on New World records, a 10-CD box set of 15 conductions. “The basis of conduction is dynamic communication between eye, mind, and ear, between people- their psychology and imagination,” Morris said. “I’ve often felt I was in a triangle with ensemble and audience that reverberated energy, each passing it on to the other.”
Morris’ imprint on the Twin Cities creative music scene was profound. The Walker invited Morris to Minneapolis for two influential residencies: in 1987, to conduct the then newly-established IMP ORK, a 25-member ensemble of improvising musicians that continues to this day, and then in 1998 with his Japan Skyscraper project, which brought a group of 11 master Japanese instrumentalists performing conductions under Morris’ direction. The weeklong residency and final concert at the Walker involved visiting Japanese musicians as well as IMP ORK, working separately and together. My memories and interactions with the gentle, wise, joy-filled, animating Butch Morris, who I got to know in New York in the mid-80s and then worked closely with when we invited the Japan Skyscraper project to the Walker in my first season of programming, remain rich and meaningful to me to this day. The loss of this creative force and friend (to so many) to lung cancer this past January was, and continues to be, deeply felt.
Butch Morris’s life and contributions to the Twin Cities music scene will be celebrated this weekend at Minneapolis’ Ritz Theater during Open Door Music #1, – A Conducted Improvisation and Free Style Music Festival Celebrating the Legacy of Butch Morris. Four of the area’s most adventurous improvising ensembles gather over two days to pay tribute to Morris and a documentary on Morris will be shown each night. To commemorate the event and Morris’ legacy, we asked two musicians deeply involved with the Walker-sponsored Morris projects — John Devine, director of IMP ORK, and Michelle Kinney, cellist/composer (and recent participant in the Walker’s John Zorn @ 60 celebration) — to share their personal and artistic reflections on Butch Morris.
Butch Morris was my friend, mentor, and colleague. I have many fond memories of talking, hanging out, and working together, but some of the most vivid memories are of the times he was in residency with IMP ORK in 1987 and 1998, each culminating in a performance at the Walker Art Center. In ’87 he conducted the group utilizing written elements of compositions written by various orchestra members; in ’98 he returned with the Japan Skyscraper, an ensemble of Japanese musicians playing traditional instruments. On that occasion he conducted one piece with the Skyscraper and I conducted one with IMP ORK, using conduction methods he had taught me and some gestural vocabulary of my own. The concert ended with Butch conducting a combined ensemble of the two groups. I’m proud and pleased to be a part of this concert paying tribute to the genius and soul of my friend Butch Morris.
I’m excited to approach the event we’ve planned this weekend at the Ritz to honor the legacy of Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, and all he contributed to the health of the Great Spirit of Creativity that is revealed through music. We gratefully remember all he has shared, with us specifically, and with the world at large.
When Butch came to work with IMP ORK in June of 1987, we were a freewheeling orchestra of composers and improvisers with a manifesto of chaotic democracy, which felt just great. Audiences roared with laughter during our large group improvisations that would build and build, until they literally shook the walls of what is now the Walker Cinema. The laughter was part of the music, a thrilling, deep, and cathartic release!
Butch came into our process and started to shape this wild energy with sharp, intense looks and fierce physical posturing, waving his baton and demanding “LOOK AT ME!” IMP ORK wasn’t used to this culture; in fact we were consciously creating the antithesis to anything resembling a hierarchical classical orchestra led by a conductor. Those of us with classical training snapped into position, instantly at his beck and call. Those with more of a jazz or free background chafed, smirkingly. There was tension!
But over the week, there was glorious resolution! Butch had us working together like one kick-ass instrument played by a virtuoso. He broke us like herd of wild horses, but gently, like a horse whisperer. He understood that we needed discipline and leadership, but that we also needed respect and free expressive reign. He gave us both, and ultimately we understood that this is how conduction works.
We came to not only trust Butch Morris (probably the only conductor IMP ORK would have been able to take seriously at that time), but also to love him deeply, as a person and as a great artist. He hung out with us that week, socializing, talking into the wee hours of the Minneapolis summer about art, music, devotion and spirit. He saw in each of us what we could contribute to the whole, and brought forth a performance that was a peak experience for us not only as a band, but as musicians and people.
Butch Morris’ career featured this deliverance over and over again, with ensembles around the world. His work is perpetuated internationally, and trickles down through generations. He created a musical genre of conducted improvisation, conduction, that continues to reveal its importance and its place as a true genre as we speak.
He made many, many friends during his lifetime, and will be deeply missed. He had the gift of seeing the highest potential of an individual, and he accessed not only that potential, but inspired each musician to push past it, to the next new place in their artistic and spiritual development as players. He did this musician by musician, tapping into the greatness of each individual, building stunning, surprising, improvising ensemble performances. His energy and vibration were other-worldly, massive, touched, and loving.
Defying expectations and offering courageous, surprising, pure, extreme, heartfelt, and sometimes even beautiful expressions are some of the things we count on artists to do. The fact that Low was able to do them all in one 27-minute set at Rock the Garden I found remarkable. Others apparently weren’t so thrilled with the extended version […]
Defying expectations and offering courageous, surprising, pure, extreme, heartfelt, and sometimes even beautiful expressions are some of the things we count on artists to do. The fact that Low was able to do them all in one 27-minute set at Rock the Garden I found remarkable. Others apparently weren’t so thrilled with the extended version of the band’s 1996 song “Do You Know How to Waltz?”: Angry tweets and blog posts appeared, and before the band had even arrived back home in Duluth, Low’s Alan Sparhawk was on the phone doing an interview about the set. (Listen to Low’s Saturday performance and tell me you can’t find dark, redemptive beauty there.) I guess the kind of riots that erupted in Paris after Stravinsky’s premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913 now happen online.
Rock and roll long ago transitioned from solely entertainment into an art form, one that often serves as a wake-up call to boot. When Low walked on stage, the deluge had just passed, dark clouds were still hanging low but beginning to break, and wet, straggling fans were finding their way back from the underground onto the wet field. At that moment, their decision to play an extended version of “Do You Know How to Waltz?” felt inspired — one that fit the unsettled day and our unsettled times. How does a band better create a transition from Dan Deacon’s equally memorable underground parking lot digital throw-down to what would surely be more song-based, hits-oriented, high energy music coming later in the day?
Of course, strong artistic statements inevitably spark strong counter-responses, especially when presented to large, unsuspecting audiences. To my mind, Low’s set was one of the most exciting moments in Rock the Garden history. Yes, it served as a jolt to some listeners who had expected something different. It introduced noise, distortion, and drone in an artful, low-keyed, actually rather peaceful manner — cascading, swelling layers of sound, floating electronic harmonics, and patience-inducing stoppage of time. Low chose to place themselves in the company of sonic renegades from rock’s history: Hendrix, John Cale, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sunn O)))), Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, and dozens of others, including some of today’s most popular rock artists — Neil Young, Wilco, and Radiohead, to name a few. They opened a dialogue with the avant-classical side of the aisle as well, represented by artists/musicians familiar to Walker visitors: Yves Klein, John Cage, La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Rhys Chatham, even Tim Hecker. The success of Rock the Garden has for some time brought commercial and broad-based expectations of accessibility to an event never intended to exclusively carry such, certainly not with all or even most of its chosen bands.
The Walker and The Current both strive for diversity and innovation in the RTG lineup. The event grew out of a 50-year old Performing Arts program at the Walker dedicated to new sounds, new movements, and new forms of theater and interdisciplinary art, where traits like innovation and audacity rank high. Equally, on the radio, The Current has helped open up the airwaves, forging a new model for public radio nationally, actively supporting independent artists from Minnesota’s strong rock scene and far beyond. While I find some of the angry, closed-minded online responses to Low’s set dispiriting, I remain thrilled with the debate that ensued — seeing directly what the power of art, in this instance a strongly made musical statement, can evoke. Low’s set is in line with both Rock the Garden’s roots and its ongoing efforts to champion innovators like tUnEyArDs, Yeasayer, Bon Iver (then an unknown with a brand new sound), Howler, Andrew Bird, The Bad Plus, Retribution Gospel Choir (Alan Sparhawk’s last RTG appearance), and Calexico, all Rock the Garden performers in recent years.
Witnessing Low’s set Saturday, I admit to my own initial confusion, which melted quickly into gratitude and then awe as the piece unfolded. So much so that when the set ended I rushed backstage to give Steve, Mimi, and Alan my thanks and my well wishes before anyone else could reach them, wanting to counter in advance any unhappiness or criticism I assumed — correctly, it turns out — was likely to follow.
Philip Bither is the Walker’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts.
I feel like I could read interviews with dancemaker/poet/musician/interdisciplinary artist Miguel Gutierrez all day (which I am doing to prepare for my Curator’s Interview with Miguel in a few days). He is so smart, soulful, unpretentious, and honest. Last year, Gutierrez was asked by Bay Area choreographer Jesse Hewit: “In general, how are you feeling about […]
I feel like I could read interviews with dancemaker/poet/musician/interdisciplinary artist Miguel Gutierrez all day (which I am doing to prepare for my Curator’s Interview with Miguel in a few days). He is so smart, soulful, unpretentious, and honest.
Last year, Gutierrez was asked by Bay Area choreographer Jesse Hewit: “In general, how are you feeling about dance these days?”
“Great! Confused. Happy. Thrilled. Convinced it is the most perfect thing. Convinced of its irrelevancy. Subjugated by it. Liberated through it. Completely bored by it. Moved to tears a lot by it. Knowing, and sage-like even, at times in my viewing of it. Surprised by finding something new in it still. Frustrated that I don’t allow myself to do it more. Secretly convinced that it’s the best way to just figure it out. Content to walk arm in arm with its weirdness, its smallness, its privacy and naivete. Intrigued by everything I still don’t understand about it. Constantly gauging when I’m going to stop doing it.”
Glimpsing the segments of his large-scale new work And lose the name of action I’ve seen in development here at Walker the last two weeks, I think we will all be grateful he has not stopped doing it yet.
And lose the name of action opens this week (Sept 19-22) at Walker for its world premiere. See more info and buy tickets.
Photos: Chris Cameron
One of the joyous — and sometimes stressful — things about curating performance for the Walker is that our institution’s mission doesn’t just allow us to take artistic chances but actually requires us to do so. With a stated commitment to new artistic forms and work that pushes dance , performance or music in new directions, we […]
One of the joyous — and sometimes stressful — things about curating performance for the Walker is that our institution’s mission doesn’t just allow us to take artistic chances but actually requires us to do so. With a stated commitment to new artistic forms and work that pushes dance , performance or music in new directions, we are often in the role of helping to translate and interpret work that might not always be easily to read on one’s own.
But sometimes we choose to focus this same impulse on innately more accessible and even commercial art forms, like the American musical or indie rock (for lack of a better term). The results can be just as surprising or as innovative as our work in experimental music or theater; it is just working within a different tradition.
Two and a half years ago, at the strong recommendation of former Walker Director Kathy Halbreich and visual artist Paul Chan, I carved out two hours at the insanely jam-packed Association for Performing Arts Presenters conference in New York to head to a small theater/club on the far west side called the Zipper Factory to catch a DIY music-theater work with the odd title of FUTURITY by a Brooklyn indie-folk/rock/Americana band named the Lisps. The music, the youthful spirit, the rabid fan/crowd response, the unlikely dense ideas embedded in the work, the moments of noise and musical chaos, even the poignant ending, all captured me and set me on a long journey of helping this band see its first theater work to the next level.
A flow of e-mails and various meetings and concert showings of the work unfolded and I agreed to have the Walker help commission the work’s further development. Neither of us knew exactly how we would get there, but Cesar Alvarez (leader of the Lisps) and I agreed that this work should be on the Walker’s 2011-2012 season.
As months turned into years, exciting things began to happen. Visionary, generous British born director Sarah Benson (and artistic director of Soho Rep in NYC) came on board to direct the work. Then American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, a semi-classic theater with an edge and adventurous spirit, joined in as lead producer. Just six months ago friend and remarkably creative choreographer/director Annie-B Parson (Big Dance Theatre) signed on to create the choreography. Many other talented people — writers, designers, stage managers, singers, performers — signed up or were hired by ART.
Six weeks ago, I flew out for the official press opening for FUTURITY, which now had such an unlikely cast of collaborators and institutional partners that it was written up nationally in American Theater magazine. It was a great leap of faith by ART, which applied its theater creation know-how to the inspired DIY civil war vaudvillians rock musicial. Now it has landed on our doorstep and Minnesotans only have three opportunities (April 26–28) to see it, before it continues what is sure to be a long future life.
After 24 hours of travel this February to Johannesburg (or “Jozi” as it was now called by locals), I landed in what looked like a transformed city, at least since my last visit in 2001. Meme, a young driver awaiting to shuttle me into town, said that South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World […]
After 24 hours of travel this February to Johannesburg (or “Jozi” as it was now called by locals), I landed in what looked like a transformed city, at least since my last visit in 2001. Meme, a young driver awaiting to shuttle me into town, said that South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup led to many new roads, upgraded buildings, and a city-wide cleanup. Clearly, she seemed optimistic about the future. After dropping off bags and getting a quick shower in a guest house in the “trendy” Melville neighborhood, it was off to the first of more than a dozen contemporary dance performances (including 23 different companies or choreographers) that I’d see in the coming week. Several purposes drove my journey: a key three-day meeting of the African Consortium, a group of nine U.S. based organizations (including the Walker) and six African affiliate artists or arts centers; the chance to attend the annual Dance Umbrella Festival, a diverse three-week showcase of South African new dance and performance; and an opportunity to independently seek out music, visual, or theatrical work and make connections with interesting local artists.
Driving over the trippy, multicolor, illuminated Mandela Bridge that first night, I was sleep-deprived but also re-energized, ready to throw myself into as much dance as I could and connect with African artists and colleagues. We arrived at the legendary Market Theater, in the heart of the city’s semi-redeveloped downtown arts district of Newtown. In many ways, the Market — famed as the theatrical “home of the struggle” in the ’70s and ’80s, where many works by Atold Fugard, William Kentridge, Mbongeni Ngema and others originated — remains a theatrical center of Johannesburg.
The festival started out strong, with a premiere by Gregory Maqoma, one of the acclaimed dance leaders here. His Exit/Exist is a dance-music reclamation of Black historical memory, a semi-abstract dance rumination on the renowned 19th century Xhosa chief Maqoma, a distant relative of the choreographer and a black hero of the “frontier wars,” a conflict which felt similar to American Indian-White settler conflagrations in our own history. While primarily a solo work, inclusion of projected text and visuals and live music by the South African a capella vocal quartet Complete and Italian fusion guitarist Giuliano Modarellies made its scale and ambition feel larger.
Finally catching up with the intense, fiercely committed movement work of Maqoma was something of a revelation. The post-show interview by the grand dame of South African dance critics, Adrian Sichel, ended with a Xhosa audience member, another of Chief Maquoma’s distant relatives, giving a moving testimonial about how just a few months earlier he’d organized a rescue and reburial of Chief Maquoma’s remains from Robben Island (where he had died in prison). A few days later, Gregory explained to me how little of the pre-European history had been taught in schools: “We had basically been taught that history began with the arrivals of the Dutch.” This would not be the first time in the coming days that I felt how fresh and bitter land-rights issues remain here.
Sunday gave me polar-opposite dance experiences: a morning witnessing more than a dozen youth ensembles performing short works with simple, often naïve choreography, but also performed with great heart, joy, and often breathtaking physicality — a sheer pleasure. The evening was spent with the nearly three-hour raw, site-specific work Qaphela Caesar by Durban’s Jay Pather (head of the Performance Studies department at University of Cape Town), which extended throughout the deserted offices, halls, and the trading floor of the abandoned Stock Exchange in downtown Johannesburg. Beginning with a walk-through of six rooms of living installations in empty ’70s-era offices, the expansive performance spectacle shifted seating and viewing perspectives at least six more times, even after it got down into the very odd, film-set-like, deserted old stock market trading floor. The sprawling work included a teenage Afrikaner punk band, free glasses of wine, a live exotic dancer, choral song, recorded music, videos of anti-apartheid rallies, and more. Many scenes were visually and aurally powerful, and the ensemble cast was strong. The echoes of collapsed economic power were resonant throughout the space during the two hour-plus South African riff on Shakespeare’s power play.
The next day, spent traveling through the historically important black township of Soweto on the outskirts of Joburg, was alternatingly fascinating, infuriating, and inspiring — if nothing else, it felt essential to understanding the context of so much here. Black residents were forcibly removed (dumped?) here throughout much of the 20th century by both the British and Dutch apartheid regimes. This sprawling settlement, with a population of at least 1.5 million (locals insist it’s more like four million), now sports recently opened parks as well as shrines to the anti-apartheid struggle, including Nelson Mandela’s modest home and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, named after the 13-year old who was shot and killed by police during the ’76 Soweto uprising. These stand in stark contrast to the still-remaining sprawling shanty towns like Motsoaledi, which despite deep poverty seems to retain a strong spirit and sense of self-organization — collective day care, mini-play areas, small gardens, even makeshift driveways for the few who are able to afford cars. But there’s also no running water in homes, unpaved dirt paths, fragile-looking shanty homes. Many new larger housing units have been built to replace migrant worker hostels, but we passed long stretches of them sitting empty due, I’m told, to bureaucratic delays. People we met seemed remarkably resourceful and even hopeful, but the entire day served as a visceral damnation of the apartheid system and the entrenched inequities and humiliations that continue today and, likely, will continue long into the future.
In six days, one can only begin to untangle dense layers of history, racial and economic dynamics, post-colonial and, more important, post-apartheid challenges still facing the country. I was reminded at many turns that there are 11 African tribal languages spoken here, in addition to English and Afrikaans. Aside from the Black tribal-affiliated populations (the largest being Khosa and Zulu), there are white, Indian, Colored (mixed race), and, at the bottom of the economic ladder, diverse African immigrant communities.
The seeming danger and intensity of urban Johannesburg feels like it has softened considerably in 11 years, yet as a (white) visitor from the West, it is not the easiest city to navigate. With streets in many areas still considered unsafe to walk in, at least at night, one has to depend on prearranging rides or on the rare appearance of “maxi taxis,” making spontaneous travel difficult.
Nonetheless, I saw 23 contemporary dance works spread across 12 programs in six different venues. A few things were clear: the interest and energy around contemporary dance has only grown in recent years, while the infrastructures in place remain as challenged as ever, particularly around the lack of what we think of as presenters or performing art curators who are actively helping artists develop and offer their work to the public and direct necessary support for artists. For the handful of the most prominent artists, European (or occasional Asian) commissions help pay them to be able to present their work here, essentially self-producing. An exception is, of course, the Dance Umbrella Festival and, while the relationship between the Festival and many of area artists seemed a bit strained, it at least continues to offer a rare platform.
There was a lot of uneven work, but that’s not unusual for a festival focused exclusively on its own national dance scene (as opposed to a more international orientation). While powerful, often virtuosic physical dancing was very strong, sometimes amazingly so, the choreographic ideas didn’t feel like they were breaking a lot of new ground. Many artists locally concurred: they discussed the need for outside stimulus, choreographic training programs, and exchanges.
Other performance highlights of the week included: Neli Xeba’s Angels and Uncles, a sophisticated feminist performance solo plus live video manipulation that interrogated the Reed Dance, a traditional celebration of virgin girls which has made a revival in the age of AIDs; Inter.fear by Johannesburg dancer Athena Mazarak and Barcelonan Hansel Nezza (about states of fear and paranoia); and Boyzie Chekwana’s intriguing but opaque three-minute performance work (part of his Influx Controls trilogy, which he characterized as just a starting sketch of some new ideas). Robyn Orlin’s work provoked the most discussion and debate, both about its highly stylized and elaborately anarchic, extremely well produced slapstick performance art, and its racial underpinnings, which, depending on one’s point of view, was either boldly courageous or racially/historically insensitive. Other artists showing intriguing aspects of their work included Alfred Hinkel, choreographer/dancer Otto Andile Nhlapo (from the major feeder company Moving Into Dance), and PJ Sabbagha.
One of the big disappointments was not being able to access more live music. The music scene in Johannesburg seems to have shrunk, with the ascendance of South African House (primarily DJ-based) music fully overtaking Kwaito (black South African Rap/hip hop) as the dominant form. A few jazz and reggae clubs are open on Friday and Saturday nights, but my sense is they’re not breaking much new ground and primarily serve an older audience.
By midweek I had befriended Thando Lobese, a 20-something award-winning costume designer from the Market Theatre, who was willing to connect me with some other artist and musician friends that she felt were right for the Walker’s interest. Thando along with Nomvula Molepo (Market Theatre’s resident lighting designer) drove me to the upscale neighborhood of Bramley to attend a rehearsal of the indie-Afro-futuristic rock/performance collective The Brother Moves On, made up of five accomplished musicians and three performance artists. A mix of blacks, whites, and artists of Indian descent, the playfulness and DIY aesthetic was infectious, and I only wished I could have seen them in full performance, like the one scheduled for a few days after my departure. Still, it felt good to music/performance that felt young, fresh, and fearless.
The next day, Thando and young theater director/writer Princess Zinzi Mhlongo and I went to the hip hop club Kitcheners for an art opening for pioneering graffiti artist Themba “Dreader” Malaza and a host of DJ’s, rappers, and young graf artists who were painting out in the courtyard of the sprawling club: homemade beer, lots of interesting artists, administrators and producers, good (again only DJ-based) music. We left at 2:15 am with the club/opening in full swing.
On my final day, I escaped town with Laura Faure, director of the Bates Dance Festival; Neli Xaba; Memella Nyamza; and Makgati Molebatsi (who is on the board of the Bag Factory visual artist residency center) and a few others to drive an hour into the country to visit the The Cradle of Humankind site, which lies mainly in the Gauteng province.
The seven members of the U.S. Consortium there met for two long meetings over three days, joined by three of affiliate artists from South Africa and written updates from four others from Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, and as well as much discussion of associated artists and organizations from West and North Africa. The consortium was continuing to plan the latest in its ongoing efforts around building deeper relationships between performing art scenes in U.S. and Africa. Plans were discussed on how or whether to expand the network, how to encourage more U.S.-African choreographic or performance collaborations (versus. touring and educational exchanges), where new funding might come from in the U.S., how to help influence/support arts organizations small and large to support artists and the development of new work, and how the work of this nine-year-old consortium might continue to develop and thrive, despite limited arts resources on both sides of the U.S. African divide.
Amadou’s blues-infused Malian electric guitar playing is inventive and infectious; Mariam’s seemingly effortless singing, often skittering above or weaving around and then right in stride with Amadou’s deep voice, grabs your attention immediately. But most impressive is their openness to new sounds from all over, which has helped them redefine 21st Century African music.
After a decade of trying, I nearly gave up on bringing Mali’s Amadou & Mariam to the Twin Cities. Over the years, Rob Simmonds at the Cedar Cultural Center and I have tried to cook up many efforts, looking into possibilities for large venues at the University of Minnesota, outdoor events like Rock the Garden, or shows at First Avenue or in one of the historic theaters on Hennepin. For one reason or another, it just never seemed to work out. The worldwide demand for the blind husband-and-wife team, the gracefully cool blues/Malian rockers, just seemed to make a tour of the Midwest less and less likely.
But stars have aligned, and three organizations—the Cedar, Sue McLean Presents and the Walker–join forces to finally bring the duo our way this coming August 7. It’s sure to be one of the great nights of international music of the year in the Twin Cities.
So what drove the last decade’s worth of effort? First they’re personal heroes of mine. Then the music: Amadou’s blues-infused Malian electric guitar playing is inventive and infectious; Mariam’s seemingly effortless singing, often skittering above or weaving around and then right in stride with Amadou’s deep voice, grabs your attention immediately. But most impressive is their openness to new sounds from all over, which has helped them redefine 21st Century African music. American R&B, Cuban Son, Egyptian and Syrian traditional music, Euro electronica, Puerto Rican Salsa, and tabla-based Hindustani music can all be heard in their recent recordings. But it never even hints at the kind of forced fusion we sometimes heard in an earlier era of world music; it seems to simply define who they are. After all, as Amadou mentioned in a very good recent Songlines article, his earliest influences were Hendrix, Cuban music, and John Lee Hooker. African music of an information age.
I also think it’s cool that they met and fell in love more than 35 years ago (at the National Institute for the Young Blind in Mali), got married and had three kids (one of whom now leads the Malian hip hop group S.M.O.D.), and have been touring the world since. Their gigs, which began in small clubs in Bamako and then Paris, are now held at events like the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert, the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Championship in South Africa, and huge rock festivals like Glastonbury and Lollapolooza.
Their new Nonesuch recording Folila (out in March) reflects the couple’s ever-expanding range of influences and collaborators, featuring guest turns by TV on the Radio; Nick Zinner of the Yeah, Yeah Yeahs; Theophilus London, and Bassekou Kouyate. Check out their collaboration with Santigold from the record, the first cut to be released.
Come August, I can’t wait to welcome Amadou & Mariam, at long last, to Minnesota.
Note: If you’re a Walker member, don’t miss out – special window to buy your tickets now, before they go on sale to the general public on Friday, February 10.
Gob Squad is the hit of New York’s Under the Radar Festival! I just returned home today from the exhausting, and sometimes exhilarating Association for Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York, which now umbrellas four simultaneous performance/dance festivals, hundreds (maybe thousands) of showcase performances alongside dozens of panels, meetings, gatherings, and on the […]
I just returned home today from the exhausting, and sometimes exhilarating Association for Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference in New York, which now umbrellas four simultaneous performance/dance festivals, hundreds (maybe thousands) of showcase performances alongside dozens of panels, meetings, gatherings, and on the fly conversations with artists.
Within an hour of arriving there last Friday, three colleagues all stopped to tell me the same thing, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (you never had it so good) was the must see event. This mantra continued unabated over the next four days…of course these folks didn’t realize the show was already coming this week to the Walker.
The Walker first introduced the work of Gob Squad to Minnesota more than a decade ago. I travelled to Stockholm nearly two years ago specifically to see Gob Squad’s Kitchen, was totally knocked out by it, and I have been working on bringing the show to Minneapolis since then. Mark Russell, good friend and brilliant producer of Under the Radar Festival in New York, is also a fan of Gob Squad’s and didn’t have the chance to see this latest piece live. And, remarkably enough, Gob Squad had never yet shown their work in New York. I am grateful Mark trusted in my enthusiasm around the piece and was thrilled that it was such a hit with presenters and the public alike.
If you’re interested in new performance, theater, contemporary art and ideas, and of course all things Warhol – or, if you just want to have a great time in the theater – you owe it to yourself to see this unique, smart, joyous show.
Here is New York’s Culturebot review that I think captures it perfectly:
“If there’s one show that’s already played over the last week that’s generated real buzz, it’s Gob Squad. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked with has had nothing but praise for the London-Berlin based company’s take on Warhol’s filmic work…” Click here to read more.
I look forward to seeing you in Gob Squad’s KITCHEN this weekend!
– Philip Bither, Walker’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts
Click here for tickets to this weeks performance running Jan 13th-15th.
Renaissance man; band leader of multiple great groups; astute follower of fashion, design, architecture and active collector of visual art; tour de force solo pianist; forward-thinking composer; self-directed jazz historian and good friend of the Walker, Jason Moran was just awarded the coveted MacArthur “Genius” Award. Moran has performed at the Walker five times, in […]
Renaissance man; band leader of multiple great groups; astute follower of fashion, design, architecture and active collector of visual art; tour de force solo pianist; forward-thinking composer; self-directed jazz historian and good friend of the Walker, Jason Moran was just awarded the coveted MacArthur “Genius” Award.
Moran has performed at the Walker five times, in a wide variety of contexts, since 2001. One was a stunning music-video theatrical concert called Milestone (involving collaborative compositions with conceptual artist Adrian Piper), a moving farewell solo for ex-Walker director Kathy Halbreich, a brilliant large group post-modern tribute to Thelonious Monk, and unique collaborations with Greg Osby and Sam Rivers. He was not only one of the few performing artists to receive a MacArthur Award this year, but he was also one of the youngest. Congrats to Jason for this much deserved honor!