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In()Flux: Contact Improvisation & Steve Paxton

I was suspended for a moment on my partner’s shoulder before falling to [the] ground… I softened, spread, and rolled… folding to continue the dance, I caught the pelvis flying toward my chest… As he dove I grounded, finding a one-legged apex of balance held only for seconds… and we continued… For the last few […]

BodyCartography Project workshop/Fritz Haeg’s Domestic Integrities at the Walker Art Center. Photo: Gene Pittman

I was suspended for a moment on my partner’s shoulder before falling to [the] ground… I softened, spread, and rolled… folding to continue the dance, I caught the pelvis flying toward my chest… As he dove I grounded, finding a one-legged apex of balance held only for seconds… and we continued…

For the last few weeks on Monday evening,  the Cowles Center Target Studio has played host to participants engaging in contact improvisation, a dance form developed in the 1970s, instigated by Steve Paxton. Often done in duet or small groups, it has been described as an “art-sport,” combining elements of social dance, rules of physics, aikido, wrestling, and modern dance.

“The dancers in contact improvisation focus on the physical sensations of touching, leaning, supporting, counterbalancing and falling with other people, thus carrying out a dialogue.” (Cynthia Novack, Sharing the Dance)

Contact Improvisation (CI) has been alive in the Twin Cities for a long time. HIJACK has been teaching a class at Zenon’s dance school since 2000, and Morgan Thorson has taught a beginning CI class at the University of Minnesota since 2002. Patrick Scully, a pillar of the Twin Cities dance community, is an anchor for contact improvisation. He has been an advocate for the form, its teachers, and practitioners, and he has continued to attend jams over the years. In collaboration with the CI series, he will present a fireside chat on CI’s presence and evolution in the Twin Cities. Former resident Chris Aiken, now an internationally known CI teacher, taught locally from 1989 until 2000 and was the first ongoing contact improvisation teacher at the University of Minnesota. The emergence of this new series feels compelled by the upcoming events with Steve Paxton at the Walker Art Center this fall.

Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson. Photo: Paula Court

I’ve been imagining contact improvisation as a room with many doors. For me the practice of CI is a rigorous commitment to embodied listening, agency, and spontaneity. This practice can lead many directions and be used as a tool to create community, to foster self-awareness, to inform partnering choreography, to understand a three-dimensional body in space, and to inspire nuanced choreographic structures.

The form can be used to inspire or train for performance and as its own performance modality. Within the dance world, improvisation is sometimes referred to as lazy, unrefined, “doing whatever you want,” but now we have an opportunity to reset this idea. Through the CI series and the performances and events surrounding Steve Paxton’s and Lisa Nelson’s visit, dancers and audiences can explore the many layers – physical and intellectual – that contribute to the phenomenon that has endured for more than 40 years. Witnessing the sheer magic that lives in an unplanned moment, executed by individuals with a mature practice in the unknown. In a way this series is readying our pallet for Paxton and Nelson’s upcoming work and his longtime commitment to structures of improvisation within performance.

…pause, I gesture with fingers and knee simultaneously to the body on the other side of the stage, he responds, I respond, then we are together…moving as a two headed, multi-limbed being, surfing pelvis over pelvis, upside down, I’m head over heels and weak in the knees… I’m exhausted, not knowing what might come next, I shout “Go”…and we continue.

To find out more about Twin Cities Contact Improvisation classes and lectures, visit BodyCartography Project’s upcoming events.

Writer Taja Will is a Twin Cities based choreographer, educator and improviser. This year’s WAC Choreographer’s Evening, curated by Kenna Cottman, will include an improvised work by Will and long-time collaborator Blake Nellis.

Wanna Dance with Somebody?

So you think you can dance? In anticipation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas’ performance at the Walker Art Center, Oct. 15–17, Northrop and the Walker are asking you to step up and record your own performance of Rosas danst Rosas for a #ReRosasMN video submission contest! Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal work Rosas danst Rosas (1983) […]

Screen shot 2014-09-11 at 9.45.46 AM

So you think you can dance? In anticipation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas’ performance at the Walker Art Center, Oct. 15–17, Northrop and the Walker are asking you to step up and record your own performance of Rosas danst Rosas for a #ReRosasMN video submission contest!

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s seminal work Rosas danst Rosas (1983) is a mechanical, sensual, and compellingly emotional choreography that established her reputation as an artist in the post-modernist movement. Believe it or not, the simplicity of the dance makes this work accessible and it can be reproduced by practically anyone (it was even copied by Beyoncé!). De Keersmaeker says all you need is a chair.

Beyoncé, or as many know her as Queen Bey, received a little hoo-ha surrounding the reproduction of a Rosas danst Rosas for her music video “Countdown,” but De Keersmaeker took all of the negative publicity and turned it into a positive creative effort. That’s where you come in. Re:Rosas! The fABULEUS Rosas Remix Project started at the request of De Keersmaeker so that anyone and everyone could recreate Rosas danst Rosas.

In a video message posted on her website, De Keersmaeker said, “You can change the order of the movements, make your own movements… Have fun and I’m a very curious to see the result!” There have been more than 1,500 reproductions of her dance from over 30 different countries, each with their own individuality and creativity expressed.

So, how do you get started? Watch the step-by-step tutorial that breaks down the movements, structure, and full choreography. The contest starts today and runs through the night of October 13. Post your completed video through Vine or YouTube and tweet it with the hashtag #ReRosasMN. The submissions with the most retweets have a chance to win a grand prize package. The package includes:

If you aren’t too psyched about debuting your own performance of Rosas danst Rosas, you can still participate in #ReRosasMN by retweeting a video that has been submitted to the contest. Everyone who retweets a submission will be entered in a drawing for:

  • 2 tickets to Rosas danst Rosas (opening night)
  • 4 drinks while you enjoy the performance

All video submissions can be viewed here. Good Luck!

ReRosasMN

The fine print:
1. Contest open to legal residents of the United States of America.
2. All videos submitted must be original work.
3. All videos submitted must be received between 12 a.m. September 10, 2014 and 11:59 p.m. October 9, 2014.
4. You agree that it is your sole responsibility to obtain all permissions necessary for the grant of rights contained in full contest ReRosaMN Rules.

Choreographers’ Evening 2014: Audition Announcement!

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Kenna-Camara Cottman are seeking choreographers to be presented as part of the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Choreographers’ Evening will premiere on Saturday, November 29th at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. All forms of dance are welcome! WHERE: The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403 WHEN: Wednesday, […]

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Photo: Gene Pittman

The Walker Art Center and Guest Curator Kenna-Camara Cottman are seeking choreographers to be presented as part of the 42nd Annual Choreographers’ Evening. Choreographers’ Evening will premiere on Saturday, November 29th at 7 pm and 9:30 pm. All forms of dance are welcome!

WHERE: The Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave, Mpls 55403

WHEN: Wednesday, August 20 from 6-10pm
Friday, August 22 from 2-6pm
Saturday, August 23 from noon – 4pm

– You will receive a call or email confirming your time slot

– Auditions are in 10 minute intervals

– Pieces are usually 3-6 minutes in length and may not exceed 7 minutes

– DVD and vimeo submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred

– Works in progress are accepted

– Schedule your audition soon, as slots fill up quickly

For more information and to schedule an audition, please email performingarts@walkerart.org or call the Walker at 612.375.7550

Additional questions may be directed to Anat Shinar at anat.shinar@walkerart.org

Talk Dance: Aparna Ramaswamy on Song of the Jasmine

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire […]

Song of the Jasmine

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists, produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance, whose Walker-commissioned work Song of the Jasmine (a collaboration with Rudresh Mahanthappa) had its world premiere in the McGuire Theater May 15-18, 2014. Listen to the entire podcast here.

I’ve heard the saying, in one form or another, that you should never mix business with family, but that is exactly what Aparna, Ranee, and Ashwini Ramaswamy are doing.  When I sat down to interview Aparna Ramaswamy about her family’s dance company, Ragamala, and their upcoming premiere of Song of the Jasmine, I was particularly curious to hear about what its like to make art with family.  I’m married to an artist (a theater director), and we’ve collaborated a few times. Though we both survived the experience, we’ve learned that although we highly value the others feedback, we do our best work on our own.  There are many examples of partners making art together – even a handful in the Minneapolis dance community (BodyCartography Project and Chris Yon + Taryn Griggs to name two) but the examples that come to mind are couples who have chosen each other as life partners.  However, collaborating with someone you didn’t get to choose seemed unique to me.  When I asked Aparna about her choreographic partnership with her mother, Ranee, she was very direct: “we  create almost every movement together … our bond is so strong, it works for us, and we feel we create much better work together.”   I was also inspired by the family bonds within the company, which includes dancers Jessica Fiala and Tamara Nadel (everyone does more than dance, including grant writing and marketing work); as Aparna says, “to this day, when we tour, we eat every single meal together.  We really like hanging out together.”

A primary inspiration for Song of the Jasmine is the work of 8th century mystic poet, Andal, whose poetry casts the creator god, Krishna or Vishnu, as her lover to signify her deep desire to achieve a spiritual union with the infinite.  Aparna spoke of how Andal’s poetry is a guiding inspiration for this piece, “this idea of the human soul wanting to unite with the divine or the cosmic consciousness, we use that.  We use human love and sensuality as an allegory [...] so its a very contemporary feeling that all of us can understand, but really, its this feeling of transcendence and soaring and spiritual union.”

Aparna and Ranee create their work using the vocabulary of the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam.  “For us, tradition is something that we hold very closely.  We are very proud of the tradition we come from, and when we say tradition its a very specific thing.  We come from an ancient form that is codified but within that form we come from a certain school and within that school we come from a certain teacher who comes from a very specific lineage and we are the next part of that lineage.”

I was curious to hear Aparna speak about how, as a contemporary dance company working within this centuries-old tradition, Ragamala stays true to form while creating work that resonates with contemporary audiences.  She likened their years of study of the form to learning a language, “its like having a dictionary.  Its all this information that you have embodied because you have done it for so long […] poets use language very freely to create new work and we create work with many different dimensions and layers that use Bharata Natyam, but that will look very different and feel very different, because of the music and all of the different strategies we’re employing.”  It seems that their collaboration with avant jazz composer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is taking their explorations at the edges of  tradition to new places: “he’s so grounded in jazz and [jazz musicians] have all of these different structures and different ways that they approach music that’s very different from our experience. It just makes one push oneself so much more.”

Bharata Natyam is expressed in two ways, as a more abstract and rhythmic dance and, as a narrative form, through the use of facial expressions, costume, emotion, and word-like hand gestures, or mudras.   Aparna mentioned that audiences’ desire to understand the specifics of the story and the meaning of the mudras sometimes gets in the way of their enjoyment of the work.  Aparna’s response: “When I see contemporary dance I don’t understand all of the inspirations [...] but I find different entry points or different things to appreciate or to be challenged by.  It’s the same thing. Just because its rooted in another culture doesn’t mean you don’t understand.”

Jazz + Mine: Sally Rousse on Song of the Jasmine

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and […]

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Aparna Ramaswamy of Ragamala Dance. Art and photo: Ed Bock

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, local dance artist Sally Rousse shares her perspective on the opening night of Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Song of the Jasmine. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Five dancers in a line on the right facing five musicians to the left; several bells hang at various lengths above the dancers while subtle smoke and lights begin to warm the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center.  I like the lines, the minimalism. I like the small cast, the parity, the program notes that promise “feverish urgency” and “the inverted.”  A teenage female mystic poet. I might like this show more than any other Ragamala Dance performance I’ve ever seen over the past 20 years.

Song of the Jasmine – a collaboration between Minneapolis’s Ragamala Dance and New York-based jazz saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa – cites the writings of 8th century Tamil mystic poet Andal as inspiration. Legend has it that Andal was a sort of foster child, found and raised from birth by Vishnuchitta, a Krishna-focused poet. Brought up with these poems, songs, devotional texts, it’s only natural that the girl would refuse to marry any mortal. Instead, she had a spiritual marriage with a deity of the lord Vishsnu and was consumed into light. Her Nachiyar Tirumozhi, the composition guiding Song of the Jasmine, was Andal’s second and final work, regarded as sacred text on par with the Sanskrit Vedas. She was only fifteen.

One stunning scene has the three beautiful Ramaswamy women in an extended trio that, in variations, seems to tell the story of a girl longing with all her heart to be united with her Loved One, the Divine: He makes her heart beat; He’s like a bee finding nectar in her flowering youth; there is no aroma to compare to that of the Divine; love has invaded her veins.  I think there are snakes, too. And there is compelling floor work, drawing in the sand, writing it all down.  I saw Ranee “loosening the braids of reason” and Aparna dancing the line “my vow to him courses through my body.”  Then, it turns sad, there are tears of unrequited love: “while I pine and sigh for his love, He looks on indifferent.” Teen angst.

But Andal keeps her eye on the prize. Hindu religious aspirations are intense and they do not shy away from seeing their God as Friend, Mother, Child, Self or in this case Lover. Writer Priya Sarrukai Chabbria says in The Autobiography of a Goddess “Andal sings of her individual need for spiritual and sexual congress with her chosen god and of an abundant female desire explicitly sited in the body which, too, is holy.”

The performance had the traditional Bharatanatyam costuming (jewel-colored pleated fabric, bells, red painted hands and toes), and postures (bent knees, arched lower back, slight smile, expressive roving eyes) as well as the percussive marching backwards, articulate mime, and what I like to call “Indian waltzing” in ¾ time. But Ragamala is committed to dynamically weaving their classical South Indian dance form into their American existence. And so much more. I saw some interesting extensions into contemporary movement that includes supple arms and backs and a softness that took Aparna to the floor and somehow back up again like no one else but Hijack’s Arwen Wilder can do. Whoa.

Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy’s choreography and Mahanthrappa’s jazz-Indian music drove each other powerfully and was surprisingly sensual.  The drumming anchors the movements while the sax often leads the narrative. There are star turns by everyone: the guitarist, Rez Abassi, playing really weird stuff; solos for the always joyful Tamara Nadel and incredible lunges and balances from Jessica Fiala. The Carnatic Violinist, Anjna Swaminathan who has been working with Ragamala in recent years, makes it look easy.  (If you’re wondering, like me, whether “carnatic” has anything to do with “carnal” or “carnivorous”, it doesn’t. But Swaminathan does play the violin like she’s hungry).

When the flutist Raman Kalya takes over for a bit it’s amazing how his positions match Ashwini Ramaswamy’s arms and torso, as though she, too is holding and playing the music.

Ashwini is a gorgeous dancer, so strong and exacting with a really satisfyingly flexible, playful neck. Rock solid balance and delightful, every single moment. Aparna — what more can be said about her as a performer? She’s confident, brave, intelligent, and in her prime, yet she shares the stage generously, with a new maturity that is alluring. Ranee, who just won a prestigious Doris Duke Artist Award, is stunning: the most present and hip, just oozing natural experience and knowing. Andal should have lived such a life.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa perform Song of the Jasmine in the Walker’s McGuire Theater May 15-18.

Choreographing Music, Composing Dance: Rehearsing Song of the Jasmine

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa […]

Hybridity, fusion, interdisciplinarity, globalization… the 21st century is an era of mixing, collaboration, and multiplicity in which art and identity intertwine in both innovative and time-honored ways. This week the Walker presents Ragamala Dance and saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa in Song of the Jasmine, a Walker commission and world premiere. The work, a collaboration between Mahanthappa and Ragamala’s artistic directors Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (a mother-daughter team), brings together music and dance, tradition and innovation, jazz and Carnatic music, India and America, and the spaces between.

I visited Ragamala’s studio in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood a few weeks ago to observe a rehearsal of the piece with Mahanthappa and the musicians, many of whom had flown in from the east coast. I came away in awe of the talent, creativity, and collaboration I observed that morning—not to mention the incredible work they were creating.

The Dance

As the musicians practiced at the beginning of the rehearsal, the five dancers trickled in, sitting quietly at the side of the studio and listening. Often, their arms and hands would move as if of their own accord, feeling the music and channeling the movements of the dance. Aparna and Ranee listened closely, consulting each other and their notes, approximating the intricate motions of the dance with their upper bodies as they followed along with the music. Soon, they were up and dancing: slapping the ground with the soles of their feet, spinning in unison, telling intricate stories through their whole bodies—from the sharp movements of their fingertips to the expressive brightness of their eyes. I could feel their excitement at having the piece coming together, the performance approaching… during a break, dancer Ashwini rushed over to show me pictures of the set they were working on at the Walker: hundreds of bells suspended majestically over the McGuire Theater stage.

Founded by Ranee Ramaswamy in 1992, Ragamala Dance performs Bharatanatyam, a type of traditional south Indian classical dance historically performed in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Based in Minneapolis, Ragamala has an extensive history with the Walker. In 1998, Ranee Ramaswamy performed a solo, Where The Hands Go, The Eyes Follow. Presented in one of the Walker galleries, it was four performances of a collaboration with Minnesotan poet Robert Bly, Jim Moore, Janet Holmes, Mary Easter, Coleman Barks, Janet Hirshfield, and jazz musician and harmonica player Howard Levy. In 2004, Ragamala performed Sethu (Bridge) in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with Balinese gamelan ensemble Çudamani, and collaborated again with Çudamani in 2009 to perform Dhvee (Duality). Aparna Ramaswamy has additionally performed with Penelope Freeh as part of the Walker’s Momentum: New Dance Works series in 2004, and curated Choreographer’s Evening 2012 with Patrick Scully.

Another Walker-Ragamala connection is Jessica Fiala, a Walker guest blogger and tour guide who has been dancing with the company since 2006. In a short phone interview, Fiala elaborated on the style of Bharatanatyam: based on structured positions and movements, the foundation of the dance is a grounded stance with the knees bent and the feet turned out. Some of the poses and figures in Bharatanatyam are even likened to sculptures, echoing the positions of statues of Hindu gods. But beneath all of the structure, Fiala, explained, there is an emotional basis that informs the movement and expression of the dance, involving every part of the body from the feet to the eyes.

Ragamala artistic directors Ranee and Aparna studied Bharatanatyam with dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli, considered a master of the dance in India. But while they are committed to the style of Bharatanatyam, their art reflects the space in which it is created—as traditional Indian dance in contemporary America. In a Star Tribune article celebrating Ranee and Aparna as Artists of the Year in 2011, Aparna addressed the importance of “[preserving] custom, but with a contemporary twist,” explaining how Ragamala aims to stay true to the tradition of Bharatanatyam, while not being bound by the tradition. Similarly, Ragamala describes itself as “[exploring] the dynamic tension between the ancestral and the contemporary… [making] dance landscapes that dwell in opposition.”

Dance

Aparna Ramaswamy and Ranee Ramaswamy (both in orange) discuss choreography with dancers Tamara Nadel, Ashwini Ramaswamy, and Jessica Fiala. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

The Music

As I entered the studio, the musicians were running through the piece, stopping and starting to discuss certain phrases or make notes on their parts. Led by Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto saxophone, the band includes Rez Abassi on electric guitar, V. K. Raman on South Indian flute, Anjna Swaminathan on violin, and Rajna Swaminathan on mridangam, a type of south Indian drum. On occasion, the instrumentation was rounded out by a smartphone, which produced a drone mimicking a traditional instrument called a tanpura. The tone of the rehearsal was focused, but lighthearted; at one point when the musicians slowed down, Mahanthappa joked, “We all need to hit Dunn Bros early and often.”

The music of Song of the Jasmine is based in the Carnatic tradition, a style of classical music from south India (its counterpart being Hindustani music in northern India). The foundations of this style of music are talas, beat cycles that determine the rhythm, and ragas, musical modes that determine the melodic line (though with notable differences from Western musical modes). The mridangam drum brings everything together: the ragas, the talas, and the rhythms created by the dancers’ feet, which often beat in counterpoint to the music.

So what does an alto saxophonist with an MFA in jazz composition have to do with Carnatic music? For Mahanthappa, born in Italy to Indian parents and raised in Boulder, Colorado, both Indian music and jazz are integral to his art. A defining moment, he explained in an interview with NPR, came after a recital at Berklee College of Music, when his brother gave him a copy of Saxophone Indian Style by Kadri Gopalnath. Through alternative fingerings and modifications to his embouchure, Gopalnath had created an innovative way of playing the tonal modulations present in Carnatic music on an instrument that was not designed for that musical style. The CD, initially intended as a joke, provided a way for Mahanthappa to conceptualize bringing together his background in jazz saxophone with his interest in Indian music.

Mahanthappa’s compositions and performances likewise reflect the influences of jazz and Indian music on his work. In an interview with CapitalBop, Mahanthappa elaborated: “The core of my journey stems not only from musical interest but more from defining and describing my hybrid identity as an Indian-American. It’s always been important for me to treat both Indian music and jazz with the utmost integrity, as selling either short would be equivalent to selling my soul cheaply.”

Music

Rajna Swaminathan, Rez Abassi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, V. K. Raman, and Anjna Swaminathan in rehearsal for Song of the Jasmine with Ragamala Dance. Photo: Lydia Brosnahan.

“See the Music, Hear the Dance:” Bringing It All Together

The creative union of music and dance in the studio was evident in the steady back-and-forth between dancers and musicians as they composed, choreographed, and rehearsed. Bars of music were deleted and repeated, footwork clarified, and tempos adjusted—in one instance, Mahanthappa even revised a part of the composition to be played twice as fast, to match the feeling of the choreography. Throughout the rehearsal, Aparna maintained close communication with mridangam player Rajna, whose steady drumming united the rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dancer’s feet.

“See the music, hear the dance” is a philosophy fundamental to the work of Bharatanatyam master and the Ramaswamy’s teacher Alarmél Valli (it is also the name of a show by Valli). Indeed, the raga in Ragamala’s name is no coincidence: literally translated, Ragamala means “garland of ragas”—i.e. Carnatic melodic modes. Music has always been an inextricable facet of Bharatanatyam, in which footwork and melodies, rhythm and danced shapes are closely connected, whether in concordance or opposition. Additionally, the term Ragamala describes a type of medieval Indian paintings, each of which is associated with a raga, as well as a specific poetic verse—an early example of art drawing from multiple disciplines. In its first performance as a dance company, Ragamala took inspiration from these paintings and their corresponding verses and melodies, bringing them to life through dance.

Song of the Jasmine carries on the tradition of interdisciplinary work by uniting music and dance in a productive meeting of minds and creativity. The piece, and the process through which it has been created, is exemplary of the immense creative potential of the 21st century and beyond: collaboration across disciplines, states, and countries; hybridity of genres and identities; and the symbiosis of tradition and innovation.

Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa will perform Song of the Jasmine Thursday-Saturday, May 15–17 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 18 at 2 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Loaded, Long-form, Laughable, Lettuce, Love It

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on the opening night of HIJACK at 20. […]

HIJACK at 20

Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon of HIJACK. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on the opening night of HIJACK at 20. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

HIJACK, the beloved dance duo collaboration comprised of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, turns 20. Their newest work, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, brings all that experience, and then some, to the Walker stage. It is apparent that the creation period took three years. This is a vast and multi-layered group work that, miraculously, has plenty of room for the imagination to enter, to linger, to just hang around.

After a piano prequel the work officially opens with all the performers onstage executing an adagio. It comes off as grounded and tentative at once. Ballet barres adorn the space, as does a grand piano. The costumes are loose and white with patches of red peeking out. Two of the performers are wearing white horse-head hats and red capes. I’m not sure of the symbolism here, but I know they are decadent and set the tone for the entire piece. The world they create is fractured and fast moving. It shape-shifts with the help of the barres, the perpetual costume changes and the brilliantly compiled and edited soundscore.

The first approximate half is ornate, a splendid array of objects, costumes and spacial divisions. The group is very active and featured. Kristen and Arwen take a backseat as performers to let their craft, the shaping of others and the space, take precedence. I am reminded of Diaghilev-era abundance and busyness. I feel as though I’m in the wings and watching the bones of a production take shape, with half-dressed performers multi-tasking, executing complicated steps then running off to the next order of business.

Morgan Thorson, performatively compelling as ever, has several star turns throughout the work. A longtime HIJACK colleague, she seems to intuit their modus operandi, from inception to open-ended conclusion. Her articulate body and kinesthetic smarts render her a muse of sorts, wild-haired and tough yet vulnerable. She is a medicine-woman, a storyteller.

The piano gets pushed offstage, curtains condense the space and HIJACK, the beloved duo, begins to do what they do best. Perhaps it’s inevitable, that this “best” is in duet form and composed of them specifically. Perhaps it’s my desire to see those 20 years in those two bodies of experience. Whatever it is, I truly fall into the piece here, in this moment of duo-ness and single-minded pursuit.

I recognize the beginning movement material: the slow arching backs, the feet sliding way out in front of their bodies. It’s uncomfortable, under-tempo and because I am familiar with it, I have a satisfied feeling in my gut. My red insides begin to peek out.

For most of the remainder of the piece there is this duet, several duets, versions of versions that repeat in different contexts. It condenses such that for one passage they are forced way downstage. There are awkward partnered manipulations, awkward stool-sitting with home-girl vamping against balletic grand pliéing, awkward non sequitur texts. Repetition satisfyingly seems to mean something new each time around. It is funny, hilarious even, then poignant, then sad. It means everything and nothing. It is significant and meaningless. It is memorable and I have amnesia.

I wonder what didn’t make it into the piece. This work is stuffed. Hijack’s brilliance lies in many arenas not the least of which is editing. I am sure we are seeing a fraction of what we could see. There must be so much more in their archives to display. I look forward to their next long-form work. What a treat.

HIJACK performs redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye December 5–7 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Stay after the performance on Friday, December 6 for a Q & A discussion with Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder moderated by Miriam Must, co-founder of Red Eye Theater.

After the show on Saturday, December 7, all audience members are invited to join a SpeakEasy conversation about the work, facilitated by Walker Tour Guide Mary Dew and local artist Eben Kowler.

HIJACK at 20: Looking Back, Moving Forward, Being Here

Second by second two performers crisply count opening minutes. They mark the passage of time as dancers advance, propelled by the glacial undulation of spines. In slow motion, a minute is excavated, laid open moment by moment. Comically offsetting this gentle unfolding of present into future, the early 1990s are recalled with immediacy, clarity, and […]

HIJACK: Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon. Photo: Gene Pittman

HIJACK: Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon. Photo: Gene Pittman

Second by second two performers crisply count opening minutes. They mark the passage of time as dancers advance, propelled by the glacial undulation of spines. In slow motion, a minute is excavated, laid open moment by moment. Comically offsetting this gentle unfolding of present into future, the early 1990s are recalled with immediacy, clarity, and acoustic guitar-induced nostalgia. We thought we knew the center, but don’t you see? It wasn’t like that at all.

HIJACK’s 20th anniversary performance, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, thus begins, aptly co-mingling past, present, and future through their distinct blend of absurdity, pop songs, unexpected juxtapositions, raw edges, task-oriented repetitions, and sustained moments of humble, human beauty. Alongside this mélange of time is the blurring and problematizing of common distinctions — practice/performance, dance/not dance, and high/low culture. HIJACK co-founders and collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder play with these intersections and in-betweens, all the while maintaining a generous and calm comportment that belies methodical structure, research, and reference.

Macuga

Goshka Macuga’s Redwood Blocks for Carl Andre’s Aisle (1981) installed at the Walker Art Center

Sources
Replete with often-obscured references, backstories, and structures, HIJACK’s work draws from diverse sources to create choreography connected to dense, layered references. These sources are, however, most prominent in the process stage, where they serve as an external starting point — structure, method, or image — used for generating movement. In this manner, they both permeate and stand apart from HIJACK’s work, providing rich material for developing dance that stands alone.

At a recent Walker Art Center Talking Dance lecture, Wilder and Van Loon shared some of the visual artists whose aesthetics, approaches, and methods have informed their work. Providing a telescopic view into this arena behind the scenes, they described how art comes to influence both form and content. Goshka Macuga’s Redwood Blocks for Carl Andre’s Aisle (1981) (Displayed as stored by the Walker Art Center) brought out questions of when an object is or isn’t art. Applied to dance, this opened up nebulous distinctions between warm-up, rehearsal, and performance. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers were recreated in movement or referenced in their ordered grid. The lines of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings were translated into expansive or constrained trajectories. Inspired by Karinne Kaithley Syres’ Untitled (Perth Dickinson), the hidden activity of the stop motion animation filmmaker was transformed into detached movement sequences, centered by the completion of a series of meticulous, tiny adjustments.

The abundance of these sources and methods may inspire a desire to mine the dance for citations, to dissect movements in search of origins. Wilder and Van Loon’s lecture enabled the audience to participate in this pleasure of knowing, revealing normally hidden processes, inspirations, and histories. But they emphasized as well that direct recognition is not the goal. Indeed, they explicitly reveal references when deemed important, titling past works Amelia Earharts (2000), Hijack’s Yoko Show (2003), and Kristin is Eva Peron/Eva Hesse/Eva Braun; Arwen is Imelda Marcos (2004).

Going beyond a specific focus on the transformation of visual art into movement, HIJACK’s lecture served as an immersion into the broader ambiances, stances, and practices in which their choreography marinates. Surrounding their work are John Baldessari’s numerous attempts as final product, Claes Oldenburg’s aggrandized commonplace objects, Charles Ray’s meticulous reconstruction of a chance event, Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines” of assembled detritus, Richard Serra’s list of verbs as directives for creation, and Andy Warhol’s intentional silkscreened imperfection. Running through these varied artists is a focus on the everyday, a mundane transported, transformed, and seen anew.

Charles Ray sculpture

Charles Ray, Unpainted Sculpture (1997)

Process

HIJACK’s work inhabits the space where the everyday becomes art, performed with a care and focus that pulls apart these divisions between art and being. They are performers and yet they never cease to be also people. Discussing their new Walker commission redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye with Linda Shapiro, Van Loon and Wilder described this tension between the aura of performance and the human who performs, explaining that “Our physical limits are plainly exposed… We invite The Ideal (in your imaginations) to hobnob with The Reality (of our effort).” One may grasp at perfection beyond the self, but there is beauty, too, in the human act of striving.

In this vein, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye presents multiple avenues for seeing process in the performance. In part this is present in the ballet barres that serve as varied set devices, but also connect the work to technique training and rehearsal spaces. Dance and visual arts are, however, not the sole sources drawn from in developing this work. In an interview with Justin Jones, and a short film for MANCC, Wilder and van Loon discussed their recent research into print media and narrative. Writing exercises became part of their creative process, undergirding movement with the momentum of narrative development – conflict, action, and resolution. Print newspapers reinforced interests in mass-produced disposability while also providing conceptual fodder – how can an error and an editor’s correction co-exist as part of a larger whole?

Process is also present in the welcoming of dialogue in both creation and performance. In this facet of their work, HIJACK invites complexity, explaining: “Our dances embrace juxtaposition. Believing work left in dialogue form opens itself to dialogue with the audience, we present two individuals’ points-of-view, yet un-reconciled.” They allow their distinct viewpoints to converse onstage rather than forcing cohesion, posing the question, “How can two different or contradictory elements (people/values) exist together?”

Looking Back, Moving Forward

redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye draws to a close, echoing across time the beginnings of HIJACK. Two women dance together, each carving into the negative space created by the other, each complementing, contrasting, and reinforcing her partner. Over the years, Van Loon and Wilder have showcased their abilities for humor, energy, grappling bodies, exaggerated costuming, elaborate partnering, and art references with teeth. Here, they present a quiet, intimate scene. Tracing pictures in air, they invite us into their world, where their bodies weave through space together, always in relation to each other, yet always distinct.

After 20 years, HIJACK provides a reminder that every performance is part of a process, a full and all-consuming event within a life of artistic development expansive in its explorations. Like the Sankofa, one strives to look back to move forward and to embrace this process of searching. Between compounded memories and the incertitude of the future, we have the chance to meet here to experience this moment together. At our most vulnerable, joyful, or daring we need only request of those closest, please, “save me a place.”

HIJACK perform the world premiere of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye December 5–7 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.

Artists’ Toast: After the opening night performance on Thursday, December 5; join us in the balcony bar for a toast to the artists.

Q&A with HIJACK: Stay after the performance on Friday, December 6 for a discussion with Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder, moderated by Miriam Must, co-founder of Red Eye Theater.

SpeakEasy: Join us in the Balcony Bar following the performance on Saturday, December 7, for a conversation about redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye facilitated by Walker Tour Guide Mary Dew and local artist Eben Kowler.

Gilding the Frame: Penelope Freeh on Choreographers’ Evening

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday’s performance of Choreographers’ Evening. Agree or disagree? […]

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Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites local 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, Penelope Freeh shares her perspective on Saturday’s performance of Choreographers’ Evening. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Choreographers’ Evening 2013, curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs, was the best such evening I’ve seen. It was framed in a way that provided a semblance of context, giving us viewers something to hang our hats on.

Their idea was to design the evening as though it was a mixed tape. The curators dedicated the evening to a close friend and used that as an imaginative jumping off point for choosing work. They asked the choreographers to likewise dedicate their dances. Like the statement on the exterior of the old Walker wing (bits and pieces put together to create a semblance of a whole), these dedications provided just enough for us to view the work with the confidence of knowing there was something (and someone) specific in mind.

The show started with a bang as six bespangled tweens tap danced their way to center stage and stopped in formation. Clad in white costumes resembling ice-dancing outfits, they proceeded to talk. Together they respectively described their dance, listing their steps specifically and in order, all the way to the bow. “…and then I do a double pirouette…”, “…and I do suzie-q, suzie-q…”, “…and then I…”. When finished they shuffled off one by one. By choreographer Jes Nelson, this disarming dance was about the innocent vocabulary of young performers, alert yet kinda squirmy in front of an audience.

Laurie Van Wieren’s 1964/1994 was a solo-for-self that also made great use of the voice. It began with hurtling semi-classical forms and a long look to the audience, part dare, part declaration. Then a mysterious wig was donned, a microphone taken up and the body’s articulations shifted to the vocal chords. A sentence repeated; words were lingered upon. It was fractured and odd and beautiful.

Juan M Aldape also performed in his smart solo work Cacartels, Cacaffeine and Cucumbia. Literally dark, clad as he was in black fabric that covered his head and arms while the rest of him wore jeans, plaid shirt and cowboy boots, this work did a sharp left turn somewhere in its’ conception. The body, personal identity and politics were inseparable. And it was funny. The movement vocabulary consisted of deep and satisfying back contractions/contortions, scootches, lurches, sauntering and posturing.

Known as a contemporary tap dancing guru, Kaleena Miller’s yes yes no no took place unshod. Four performers spread out in a line danced in deadpan unison. The beat was hot, accommodating the rapid shirt changes that just barely interrupted the movement. Tap-like steps performed barefoot are still specific yet somehow a level more interesting, being that much closer to the ground.

DANCER read the t-shirt of Otto Ramstad for his solo Untitled. Sometimes the simplest statements are the most descriptive which is true here but I would also add SCIENTIST, DAREDEVIL and SMARTASS. Otto’s dancing is a visceral joyride. He truly sources movement from the inside out, so hard to track but if you try you will go deep with this guy. Splendid was my watching experience.

THROB from Anghared Davies utilized sixteen performers clad in utilitarian white jumpsuits. The work led them through organized chaos layered with extreme emotionality. Facial expressions, contortions really, leapt out at us given the neutral backdrop coupled with dramatic spotlights placed in the stage space. Exciting was to see seasoned and raw performers alongside one another.

Morgan Thorson created and performed Dead Swan with the onstage help of Evy Muench and several owls, plastic and stuffed. The physical language of birds was fun to trace in the well-danced movement. Occasional references to Swan Lake choreography were also interwoven. Morgan was perpetually busy while Evy was on and off, placing arrows of tape on the floor, bringing on a table, an owl, even dancing with her during one pass. Another instance of framing: a solo with visitors.

Curtains framed Theresa Madaus in her solo For Cody. A short and funny lullaby, this dance felt sincerely made even though the humor was wry and dry. Well, ok, a little wet. There were fake guns, a mustache, eye rolls, two cowboy hats, and all-around macho physicality. A checked blanket appears and cutout sun and moon pass across the sky in turns. Sweet home on the range.

Still Too Long by Joanne Spencer was a sort of showstopper. Wearing their hearts on their bare arms, the choreographer, Dana Kassel and Judith James Ries recalled the dancing style that brought them together in JAZZDANCE! By Danny Buraczeski. Joanne is most certainly a choreographer in her own right, making lush traveling steps and gestures that were at once fluid and percussive. It was a great pleasure to see these three dancing together again.

The final work of the evening was Salsa Rumba Cubana created and performed by Yeniel “Chini” Perez. A sort of oblique bookend to the opening sextet, this dance satisfied the dancing expectations initially established. It began in a spotlight center stage and took us across the fourth wall into the audience and back. Joyful and sinewy, this solo was the perfect way to end a remarkable evening.

The water of our dance community can be murky. While most of our dances get made in vacuums, placing individual parts into a greater context can makes for a sudden shimmer of clarity. Kudos to Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs for accomplishing the nearly impossible task of capturing an accurate and compelling overview of our current Twin Cities dance scene.

Talk Dance: A Game of Chance with HIJACK

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with local dance duo and longtime Walker favorites HIJACK in aniticipation of HIJACK at 20. Listen to the entire podcast here. I’ve interviewed HIJACK once before, for a […]

hijack blog photo

Photo by Justin Jones

Talk Dance is a podcast series devoted to in-depth conversations with dance artists produced and hosted by local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones. In this installment, Jones speaks with local dance duo and longtime Walker favorites HIJACK in aniticipation of HIJACK at 20. Listen to the entire podcast here.

I’ve interviewed HIJACK once before, for a previous incarnation of this podcast (TALK DANCE MPLS) in anticipation of their 2006 show, “HALF.” Even then, I felt that there was something about HIJACK’s resolute dedication to experimentation that required an altered interview format. In that case, the alteration was a portion of the interview where I took my questions out of the picture and let Kristin (Van Loon) and Arwen (Wilder) interview each other. I wanted to continue somehow on that path with this interview and remembered that Kristin and Arwen often use chance devices (a la Cage/Cunningham) in their choreographic process. I wanted to find a way to bring chance into our interview,  so I devised a game that would determine the topic of discussion (e.g. Origin Story, Music/Sound, Job or Hobby) and the duration (30, 60, 90 and 120 seconds) allotted to discuss that topic at random.

HIJACK were totally game, and the pressure of time seemed to have great effect on how they chose to articulate their thoughts. Watching and listening to Kristin and Arwen attempt to fill time, compress ideas, cut to the chase and search for words was fascinating.

The interview ran about 40 minutes, and I’m attempting to make all the TALK DANCE episodes clock in at 20 minutes this season. So I was in a bit of a pickle as to how to edit their words while still honoring the wonderful ways in which they responded to the rules of the game. The answer was obvious, both Kristin and Arwen mentioned that their upcoming Walker commission redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, features a healthy dose of multi-layered text. Using that idea as a starting place, I decided to keep all (almost) of what they said and stacked it on top of itself while trying to make it as understandable as possible.

If you do listen to the podcast, I suggest listening with headphones. Here’s a smattering of their responses, preceded by the topic they’re responding to.

On Design

Kristin: They [the props onstage] were in a way, a way to approach the question of how to work with narrative. And I like how the objects stay the same and stay in place, left behind after they’ve been useful and used by the dancers, and in that way, express the past while the dance has moved on.

Arwen: Something that I think about design and HIJACK is how often we do our own… partly because we like the Do-It-Yourself, and because we consider [design] so much an intergral part of the composition itself, that it’s weird to outsource it. But also because we’re already collaborating and that is so much to add another voice into [the work].

On Why Dance?

Arwen: We sometimes have fantasies of being other things, like other kinds of artists, but we’re not, and then it’s fun to try to figure out how to get what we would get out of being those other artists, in dance.

Kristin: One reason I’m glad to choose dance is that I think of it as one of the most pathetic art forms, and I feel an affinity with pathetic forms such as print journalism, postal mail, sculpture…but now sculpture’s cool.

On Music/Sound

Arwen: I like to dance in silence. I like to make dances with silence. I like text a lot, and I like to try to figure out how there can be text in dance. And music is very mysterious and manipulative, and sometimes I like that problem….

On Language

Kristin: Not every word [in the show] can be heard because sometimes several layers of language are happening at the same time, and that’s been a real pickle for us to figure out if that’s okay. In general, I’m really into flat composition right now – everything layed out very plainly for everyone to see and hear, and those are some of my favorite parts, when the words are flattened out…

On Appropriation

Arwen: Figuring out what is the line between inspiration and appropriation is massively complicated and interesting.

Kristin: …to make things interesting, it’s nice to have scores for what can I use and what can’t I, and sometimes those aren’t the legal ones.

On Content/Form

Arwen: I’m reminded of being an activist, and everybody always talked about the ends and the means and how they had to match.  And I think that is the same in choreography, the content and the form are the ends and the means.

Kristin: I love it when one slips from one to the other, the material does.

On High Culture/Low Culture

Kristin: There was an early version of this piece … that the sound score toggled back and forth between Stockhausen’s “Mantra” and Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”…  I was very interested in the phenomenon of being in one of those and craving anything but what you’re listening to.

Arwen: I see the card “High Culture/Low Culture” and I think, oh that’s exactly what we’re interested in… and then I get really bristly at that and at those definitions and start to want to argue with the possibility of anything belonging to either of those categories.

Hear the rest of Jones’ conversation with Kristin and Arwen on the Walker Channel.

HIJACK at 20 takes place December 5-7 at 8 pm at the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

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