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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.”


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.”


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.


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

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)


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? […]


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.

Review: SuperGroup on Momentum with Pramila Vasudevan and Jennifer Arave

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, SuperGroup shares their perspective on Thursday night’s Momentum: New Dance Works, featuring works […]

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, SuperGroup shares their perspective on Thursday night’s Momentum: New Dance Works, featuring works by Pramila Vasudevan and Jennifer Arave. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in Comments!

Pramila Vasudevan, F6


The stage was crowded with other audience members. I realized their attention was on the seats where several performers sat facing the stage. Kenna wandered through the crowd, finding space for her feet, giving sly looks at the audience.

What spurs discussion? Does just saying what the piece is spur a discussion? Or should we give opinions too?

As the members of SuperGroup we are trying to write an overnight review.

I had an impression of verging on a post-apocalyptic world where a society was being built by these characters that were left in this space, and they had to make a deserted island home out of these seats. They reminded me of characters. One had a ponytail, one had a fascinator; there was dramatic, romantic make-up.

The balance struck me – it seemed like they balanced on smaller and smaller surfaces. The challenge increased.

I wondered if they were going through the motions of a typical audience’s behavior: they laughed, they clapped, and they tried to get comfortable. Abstract, gestural movement punctuated that. It also evolved. There was slow, zig-zaggy movement leading up and down the aisle. I remember that and the image of very slow perching.

Are we supposed to be thinking about levitation?

The performers seemed to have a heightened presence and focus. They forced a close interaction, like when they brushed knees with us, but there must have been some rules of engagement that we were not necessarily let in on. They gazed intensely, but when we gazed back, they were ethereal, impenetrable, and separate. It wasn’t cold, but it felt like creatures checking out a different species.

The rhythms in Kenna’s solo were so precise and satisfying. The acceleration, the stopping and starting were…. Cool. Sharp. Spot on.

I have something else to say about the rules of engagement. The traditional rules were turned on their head, so I felt distracted by my relationship to other audience members. I was distracted by my own comfort and the viewing comfort of others. I was not fully invested in watching the performers because I was balancing that preoccupation.

I had a moment during the solo, where I wondered if something was being whipped up.  Meanwhile the formality of the rest, the triangle of light, the other performers’ slow, straight walking, these things were conflicting.

The sound transported me, especially when the slide didgeridoo started. I loved the bells on Kenna’s costume. As the didgeridoo got further and further away, in contrast to the shrinking triangle of light, the space and time were altered. It became vast, constant, expansive, and complex. There were those juicy guttural drones. Her movements were controlled and precise, but the sound had a water-like element: tense with possibilities.


Jennifer Arave, Canon

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She came out in a mask. She had those coveted red shoes and that powder blue coat.  These vestiges of girlhood, flippantly tossed alongside punk aesthetic – ripped tights, white t-shirt.

In general, I thought there was an awkwardness, from beginning to end, that drew me in. It was tantalizing. I was curious about it from the very start when she was in the corner, rocking, in preparation for this strange performance.

It was loud for sure. I was impressed by how loud it was in the space. I’m glad I used earplugs and I’m proud to admit it.

I didn’t use earplugs.

Good for you.

It was documentation or a representation of a kind of anger. Was she really angry about something?  Does it matter what the anger was directed at?

All members of SuperGroup are now admitting that we have never been to a punk show.  We speak with no authority when we talk about punk.

One time I was at a sort of ska-punk show. It was not cool.

The disassociation of the punk voice from the punk body made the movement a fascinating mix of aggression and impotency. These scenarios kept getting set up and then would fizzle out before there was a big payoff. It felt like a conscious choice, connected to the omission of the voice.

I wanted to be closer. I wanted to be put upon, to be made weaker in the power dynamic.  There’s something so safe about being so far away.

I think that was the point.

Even though the drums were visceral, the distance made me view it as a representation of something. If I had been down there, looking up at her, it would have been different.  The experience was still in the realm of a dance concert.

Yeah, that was the point.

The first time she really got to let her voice be loud and clear was when she ate the microphone. There was no constraint, finally, and there was a satisfying synchronicity between body and voice.

She deconstructed and re-contextualized most of the punk experience, leaving only the drummer and the lead singer’s movements.

I have a little more to say. Calling it “Canon” felt like a study, it felt clinical. So, I enjoyed her going into the medical scene. There was something symbolically sterile and exacting that referenced her process. This grand gesture, this surgery, represented the climax of failure, which ultimately satisfied.

We have to talk about the swinging microphone. It sounded like breathing; the image was like captaining a ship, being at the helm – the wind, the sound of the foghorn. The striding beat had dropped out and I was able to step out of the situation and have imaginative play.

Review: Momentum with SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski & Leslie O’Neill

I walked in with my homegirl at 7:55 to directions – instructions:  Choose a group, follow the movement and try to repeat the words you hear.  I kicked off my sandals and got to work – trying to flock and mirror and echo/respond.  Being a dancer in this community means it’s not that big a […]


I walked in with my homegirl at 7:55 to directions – instructions:  Choose a group, follow the movement and try to repeat the words you hear.  I kicked off my sandals and got to work – trying to flock and mirror and echo/respond.  Being a dancer in this community means it’s not that big a risk to copy some homies on the Southern stage, so I tried hard to follow my directions.  Still, I cannot remember one phrase or word that I repeated.  Very challenging activity, but me and my homegirl* appreciated the outlet for anxious energy. I think it was Jeffrey who finally told me “ok have a seat.”  We grabbed our stuff that we had flung down and by the time we found a seat, there was more work happening on stage.  I realized that the curtain talk was being given and I had no time to read my program or even orient myself.  This was a good place to be as I entered the world of it’s [all] highly personal.

SuperGroup has a dance film where I remember them being very tiny.  I felt shrunken down to the size needed to build a tiny shelf and then shot inside of the collective mind of the group like InnerSpace.  Once inside the mind, I’m getting buffeted from place to place, text firing at me like synapse in the brain.  Bits and pieces jump out and stay out “we do what we can,” “sometimes we don’t,” “this is what we do.” I keep bouncing back and forth between following the text thread like a conversation and just letting the cacophony of voices wash over me like a soundscape.  Ah white art.  My homegirl said the piece felt very white, like culturally white. I’m always searching for the content I can identify within white art, because I have a lot of white dance/art homies. Like white noise though, this is kind of relaxing, but like eavesdropping through the cubicles at work, this is kind of disturbing.  I’m trying to grasp what these words are about – are these empty platitudes, like super general astrology readings?  Are they deep insights?  Or are they just every possible qualified sentence that can exist?

It is the movement that makes people laugh, draws us in.  The snarky gossip, the bored housewife, stoner, wanderer, captain.  I always say that I don’t like unison too much, so this piece really put that preference to the test.  There were so few moments of unified movement , everything was so individualized.  (spoiler alert) I dug using my binocs to zero in on one person at a time.  The rare moments of sync were strong and well oiled.  I used my binocs like a telescope to make everybody tiny. I liked the way the ensemble would seem to click into place and then just as easily break back into themselves – moving independently but not in isolation.  There was a kinetic feeling of connection and moving in concert, even though nobody was doing even close to the same thing.  And this group was seriously super.  They spoke and orated in accord, while moving, singing, dancing – it even got choral at one moment.  And the jumpsuits… the jumpsuits are amazing.

leslie oneill 2

Leslie O’Neill‘s Fortress started with a world created for and by kids.  Laura Selle Virtucio and Erika Hansen really managed to convince me of their childlike mentality through movement.  So much so that I became unnerved by the possibilities.  There were more than a few treacherous moments – movement-wise.  There were precarious positions and super-charged couplings that spoke to me of violence.  There was such a physical sense of foreboding, my homegirl described it as ‘heavy.’  The physicality reminded me of some less embodied people, and also young people who don’t know their own strength, who are hard on their shoes, who are gangly and unsteady on their feet. My homegirl doesn’t like when adults play kids on stage, and I might be with her on this point.  Or maybe I was just unnerved by the way Laura and Erika took it to the darkside on so many occasions.

The environment made me uncomfortable to start – two girls whispering inside a tent.  These girls’ friendship started to remind me of the friend I had who called me a n—— one time. We were pretty close but she still took it there.  There was a dark edge to the way these two girls did everything, and I began to get a sense of the secret world of childhood that grown-ups are not a part of.  Now we all know it exists because we were all children once, yet the dark corners get blown out in this work.  I was getting the feeling that these girls were powerful in different ways.  One girl was more classic – strong and daring and bossy.  The other girl was deeper and had complex ideas and twisted emotions, she was subtle with her power.  Now why did these girls feel like they were so connected and had to drag each other in and out of dark places? And like all kids, they were attracted to the dark and the light at the same time. They wanted to be scared and comforted all at the same time.  There was much unknown in this piece, and I felt like I didn’t get it.  Or I thought I was getting  something and then something threw me off that track near the end…

*my homegirl: an amalgam of all the homegirls i talked to throughout the night.

Momentum: The Processes, Challenges, and Expectations of Emerging Artists

On Thursday, the 10th installment of Momentum: New Dance Works premieres at the Southern Theater. Since 2001, the Walker and the Southern have been co-presenting cutting-edge work by local, emerging choreographers. This year’s line up includes SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski/ Leslie O’Neill (July 11-13) and Pramila Vasudevan/ Jennifer Arave (July 18-20). In preparation for the […]

pramila1 supergroup1 leslie oneill 1 jennifer arave 1

On Thursday, the 10th installment of Momentum: New Dance Works premieres at the Southern Theater. Since 2001, the Walker and the Southern have been co-presenting cutting-edge work by local, emerging choreographers. This year’s line up includes SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski/ Leslie O’Neill (July 11-13) and Pramila Vasudevan/ Jennifer Arave (July 18-20). In preparation for the upcoming performances, local dancer, educator, and commentator Justin Jones sat down with this year’s artists in TALK DANCE to discuss their processes, challenges, hopes, and expectations. To shake things up, Jones ventured from his typical question and answer format and had the choreographers interview each other.

Check out the full interview here.

Jennifer Arave, Canon

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Photo: Gene Pittman

Emerging out of a culture of increasingly formalized music and music performance, the punk rock era rejected virtuosity in favor of uninhibited expression. Despite its ultra-modern, progressive philosophies, punk rock was male dominated. In Canon, Jennifer Arave studied gestures from punk rock music videos to generate movement and presents the male-driven experience through a feminist lens.

In this piece, [generating movement is] relatively easy, because I’m taking YouTube videos of punk shows in the 80s and basically stealing the movement and then recontextualizing that movement into a narrative of some sort… We projected video on the wall and basically copy it as much as we could, physically. Sometimes, they’re in the middle of a move and you have to figure out what foot they’re pushing off of or what they’re doing once they’re in the air and we get as much as we can and then we improv with it. So, it’s kind of like what stays is what’s left when things slough away.


SuperGroup + Rachel Jendrzejewski, it’s [all] highly personal


Photo: Gene Pittman

For their newest work, it’s (all) highly personal, trio Erin Search-Wells, Jeffrey Wells, and Sam Johnson team up with playwright Rachel Jendrzejewski to examine the daily events that unnoticeably change and transform us, juxtaposed with our conflicting desire to experience both ritual and risk. When asked by Arave where the line is between a work being a collaboration vs. when people are working collaboratively under the helm of a director, SuperGrouper Sam Johnson explained:

This discussion of collaboration is obviously really interesting to SuperGroup. With each of our processes, we sit down and we ask ourselves how we want to work and work with each other and that changes a lot. So, just because we’ve worked a number of times collaboratively, we don’t have a way that we’ve always worked. There are times when one of us will come forward and say, “What is this? Or, “What are we doing?” Or with those [questions] that kind of stop the process.


Pramila Vasudevan, F6


Photo: Gene Pittman

Part of any artist’s process is recognizing and negotiating the space in which their work will be performed. Whether it’s a site-specific work or a traditional theater arrangement, utilizing the space creatively can add depth and meaning to a work, engaging audiences in exciting new ways. Unlike her Momentum colleagues, and many of her broader choreographic colleagues, Pramila Vasudevan has never created work for a theater. Having presented pieces mostly outdoors and in galleries, the conventional theater dynamic presented Vasudevan with new challenges and opportunities during the creation of F6 and in keeping with her experimental roots, she breaks the fourth wall and reverses the audience and the dancers.

For me, the very first encounter was, “how do I contend with the constraints of the space? And how do I find my voice inside of this space? And how do I also challenge myself?” I’ve never really worked in a traditional dance setting, ever. So, it’s kind of a great challenge, and because of the formality, the physicality of it was so hard to contend with, especially because of the space and the set… It’s not highly conceptual like other pieces in the way that I’ve rendered them in the past. It’s really about the physicality – the smell of it, the sound of it.


Leslie O’Neill, Fortress

leslie oneill 2

Photo: Gene Pittman

For Leslie O’Neill, the creation of Fortress came through her and her dancer’s exploration of the body and memory. O’Neill considers the layered emotions and experiences of children, which can fluctuate on a moment’s notice, without warning. During the piece, the dancers negotiate the parameters of their relationship while simultaneously discovering their individual identity.

I’m trying to portray in the body the way that I see and remember a childlike brain working. So, I’m thinking of the scattered attention and the intense focus one moment and then indifference the next. I’m thinking of the mind like a place that holds many pockets and crevices and… pain and pleasure and all those things that are being stored up constantly. Trying to get at that in the body through movement, so it’s ending up looking like the way you see a child running, limbs akimbo and all that, but then also stops where time seems to expand or shorten.

This year’s participating choreographers come from diverse backgrounds and employ a variety of techniques and processes that enable each of them to create truly unique works. Momentum runs July 11-13 (SuperGroup/O’Neill) and July 18-20 (Vasudevan/Arave) at the Southern Theater.

Choreographers’ Evening Auditions 2013: The Making of a Mixed Tape

The next Choreographers’ Evening, November 30, 2013, will be curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs. Update: The audition slots are now full. If you would like to be put on the wait list, please email and you will be informed as slots become available. Thank you for your interest! Yon and Griggs are […]


The next Choreographers’ Evening, November 30, 2013, will be curated by Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs.

Update: The audition slots are now full. If you would like to be put on the wait list, please email and you will be informed as slots become available. Thank you for your interest!

Yon and Griggs are imagining the performance line up as a selection of songs for a mixed tape, carefully chosen for someone special. They are dedicating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening to Nicky Paraiso, performer and La MaMa Moves! curator in NYC, who in their words “ has an infectious admiration for performers.  He puts together programs that are wildly eclectic, thought provoking and moving.  We are inspired by his impresario showmanship and ability to tug at your heart strings.” As part of the audition process, the curators would love to know if you were to dedicate your piece to someone or something, who or what would it be?

The details:

Auditions will be held at the Walker’s McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Avenue on Thursday, August 15 from 6-10pm; Friday, August 16 from 6-10pm; and Saturday, August 17 from noon – 4pm.

You must email to reserve an audition time; auditions are accepted by appointment only.

All forms of dance welcome.

– 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 submissions are accepted, although live performance is preferred

– Works in progress are accepted for auditions but no pitches please!

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

Additional questions may be directed to Michèle Steinwald at

Other reminders and updates about dance offerings in the Twin Cities:

Momentum: New Dance Works hits 10 editions this month! Don’t miss the next two weekends of performances and the special celebration on August 3rd. Hear about the new works as part of Justin Jones’ Talk Dance podcast series and reminisce about past works as part of Momentum’s history with pictures and stories from the artists.

If you missed the Twin Cities community dance photo announcement last spring it was because it was postponed until the fall. We are hoping to host the group photo shoot before the Sage Awards for Dance ceremony at the Cowles Center on Oct 15th so save the date!

Enjoy the summer and see you around!

Sourcing Dance Through the Body: BodyCartography Project’s Creative Process

Cutting-edge dance artists “tend to explore anything that transports them closer to the inside, closer to an understanding of how and why they work the way they do,” writes Gill Wright Miller, editor of Exploring Body-Mind Centering: An Anthology of Experience and Method. Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, BodyCartography Project’s co-directors/choreographers, are two such artists. […]

Cutting-edge dance artists “tend to explore anything that transports them closer to the inside, closer to an understanding of how and why they work the way they do,” writes Gill Wright Miller, editor of Exploring Body-Mind Centering: An Anthology of Experience and Method. Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad, BodyCartography Project’s co-directors/choreographers, are two such artists. Their approach to creating dances is a layering of influences that is rooted in somatic techniques and philosophies. With attention to the micro (the body) and the macro (the community), the somatic values that BodyCartography Project employ in performance access a deep recognition of the power of the individual, on stage and in society, to make a difference and bond with an audience by invoking the viewers’ somatic response to their choreography. When dancers are grounded within thorough mind-body process, every aspect of the individual changes physically, aesthetically, socially, spiritually, and even physiologically, and these shifts are felt in performance.

Bieringa founded BodyCartography Project in 1997 in San Francisco and offered free weekly in-studio laboratories to explore improvisational practices for performance. Two years later, Ramstad joined the company as co-director. Together they have developed improvisational and set dance scores for outdoor happenings, dance films, site-specific performance installations, and stage presentations. I interviewed them together to discuss their creative approach at a highly productive time when BodyCartography Project was preparing for the world premiere of their group piece Super Nature, opening October 25, 2012, at the Walker Art Center.

While the BodyCartography duo and I are now part of the Twin Cities dance community, Bieringa and I once studied together as dancer/choreographers at the European Dance Development Center (EDDC) in Arnhem, Netherlands, in the early 1990s. Bieringa starts, “Post-modern dance training was a gateway to get into all these other source points or beginning points for me. The frame of dance is the creative field. How do we integrate it, play with it? How does it become our own? How do we use that? I am interested in an open field and getting into the idiosyncrasies of other peoples bodies and what is happening in their bodies in relationship.”

She continues, “Many techniques have come into our practice but it is hard to be really clear about what all the pieces are because they have become so integrated into my practice since Arnhem. Numerous somatic influences brought by the post-modern choreographers teaching at EDDC have become an interweaving of practices. Body-Mind Centering is now the main [investigation] in our process because it is so clear for accessing materials of the body, so straight forward, not simple but straight forward and easier to define than other forms. I had previously studied the body through many other forms like tai chi, shiatsu, traditional Chinese medicine, contact improvisation which was inspired by aikido, release technique, other postmodern dance traditions, and in addition, Otto has also studied capoeira which creates a certain type of mind-body integration, and all those pieces start to layer as approaches that we can easily categorize as not generating a certain style of moving but generate a certain way of focusing as a way of generating movement.”

The field of somatic inquiry emerged in the early twentieth century and has been applied to dance for some five decades. As Martha Eddy, Director of Somatic Studies at the Moving On Center and Director of the Center for Kinesthetic Education, explains in her seminal article, “When the dancing body is approached from a holistic perspective, which involves experiential inquiry inclusive of physical awareness, cognitive reflection, and insights from feelings, the dancing is somatic.” Somatics–from the Greek sōmatikos concerning the body, from the root sōma meaning body–is a loose grouping of body-based exercise or repatterning techniques, primarily therapeutic, that were initially developed through research and inquiry beginning just before the turn of the century and heavily evolved into the early twentieth century. The term was only later assigned to this trend of consciousness-raising body training techniques in the1970s by the philosopher and somatic practitioner Thomas Hanna.

“According to Hanna, somatics is the study of the soma, not as an objective ‘body,’ but an embodied process of internal awareness and communication,” clarifies University of North Carolina at Greensboro dance professor and Somatics scholar Jill Green in her research. “Process is an inherent concept in this field. In this sense, somatics focuses on an inner experiential body, not on a body as an objective entity or mechanical instrument. Further, some somatic theorists and educators move into a more macro sociopolitical sphere and address how our bodies and somatic experiences are inscribed by the culture in which we live.”

Both Bieringa and Ramstad are certified Body-Mind Centering (BMC) teachers. It is common for North American contemporary dancers to pursue a healing practice for insight into their own longevity as a performer in the dance field and as an additional source of income. Bieringa was introduced to BMC during her time at EDDC studying with Lisa Nelson; Ramstad began experimenting with dance improvisation and BMC at the age of six through the teaching of Suzanne River. The founder of BMC, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen was an occupational therapist, Certified Laban Movement Analyst, and dancer who developed the system in 1973 for accessing cellular consciousness through actions.

“It is empirical science,” Ramstad emphasizes. “It is based on many different people’s experiences, comparing and contrasting them over time. BMC has [methods] for identifying [patterns] and two big categories of how you approach the experience are by looking at anatomy books and then exploring [concepts] in order to have a new experience–one of the closest ways I have to experiencing new movement because you might be doing the same shapes, pathway or pattern of movement but getting at it through a new access point so it feels like a new movement–or identifying sensations that are familiar and then naming it. It is interesting for performance to privilege the dancer’s experience over the external bodily form. BMC takes such a long time to deeply get into the approach to gain the confidence of what you are experiencing; [it] can be from the cell membrane, for example. It seems impossible, like magic, before you have had enough experience with it to trust [the senses].”

In terms of building movement vocabulary in their new work, they rely on skills from BMC training to quickly provoke deep body awareness and original movement creation even if the dancers are not authentically performing BMC. Ramstad continues, “So with dancers in the piece, it would take a long time to build up the palette of experiences that you need to do certain things, you don’t have enough time. BMC is part of the process of making the piece which becomes more like set choreography. We are not asking people to perform BMC. If you are going to get on stage, there are so many factors happening that it would be very difficult to have a real detailed somatic experience–being able to deal with performing and remembering and being present for the others in the right timing–because there are so many other energetic elements to keep track of. If there was a reason then you could do it, but it would be a challenging thing to do. You would need to be fluidly moving through all those different ways of using your attention because there are so many factors in performance.”

With the artistic innovations of François Delsarte (1811–1871), Émile Jacques-Dalcroze (1865–1950), Rudolf Laban (1879–1958), Isadora Duncan (1878–1927), and Mary Wigman (1886–1973), the turn of the 20th century was a pivotal moment of artistic inventions. The application of somatic techniques to movement creation and performance was highly influenced by these individuals. Eddy confirms, “They shaped the culture in which the primary somatic pioneers were working. As dancers they were breaking rules; as people they were reintroducing non-Cartesian models.” Dancers became critical contributors to the second wave of somatics as practitioners and by creating over eleven of today’s most predominant somatic movement approaches from their work in dance. These techniques include Bartenieff Fundamentals, Body-Mind Centering, Continuum, EastWest Somatics, Ideokinesis, Anna Halprin’s contributions at the Tamalpa Institute, Kinetic Awareness, Patricia Bardi’s program in voice and dance integration, Skinner Releasing, Somatic Coaching, and the Topf Technique. By 1977, the American Dance Festival had moved to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and integrating somatics into training workshops in their summer programs. This further integrated the natural evolution and relationship between professional dance pedagogy and somatics awareness. The benefits were clear as dancers were able to move more fluidly, efficiently, and expressively.

The field of Contemporary Dance increasingly demands more complex understanding and execution of performance and creation techniques. From BodyCartography Project’s perspective, even if the starting point for their movement scores are not purely BMC, they use BMC as a directorial device to bring out certain aspects in a performer, to amplify qualities, to identify what elements are missing, and to layer sensations (i.e. more ‘bones’ in order to create more extreme shapes). The BMC language becomes a tool that is useful for their choreography. Words like tensegrity (balance between tension and compression), turgidity (bloated), yielding (give under pressure), terms that are common in BMC work, are useful indicators for movement qualities explored in the studio. However, they often need to be explained to find a shared meaning. Bieringa elaborates, “Even with the word bones, you are recreating how people think about their bones because people think about their bones as dry brittle things, but actually they are living tissue full of blood and they bend and they are full of nerves and fluids, and so you are creating a new value system around each word you are using. It is this play between language and sensation and the gaming that exists within that process of BMC–of either naming something that is familiar or having new experiences and then putting names to them or pretending that you get it until you actually get somewhere–are tools that are super useful as part of our creative process.” This tension and dialogue created through somatic work is “a creative interplay.”

The fundamental somatic value of non-judgmental observation is fruitful when defining and instigating the impossible, and encouraging the exploration within that state from a fake-it-until-you-make-it stage in the creative process. Choreographers can amass plenty of choreographic material to draw on, plus also foster an environment of generosity amongst their cast and collaborators. Dancers contributing to the creative process through somatic exploration of states of deep embodiment of concepts and choreographic directives, such as in BodyCartography Project’s approach, need to provide feedback. This feedback will build a shared vocabulary and establish language for layering choreographic intentions in order to fine tune the final performance scores. Dancers in this environment are essential collaborators in building the content for the performance:

Their ‘truth’ is linked to their experience and as such their voice is a construction of their reality. Their multiple meanings are constructed, rather than found, according to their values, context and interests. Socio-constructivism emphasizes the collective generation and transmission of meanings.—Research in Dance Education

By empowering the individuals within a communal experience and drawing wisdom through bodily experiences, we open our communication up to each other and create a system of empathy and connection that challenges authoritarian and dominant meaning systems. Other contemporary choreographers use somatics and specifically BMC to inform their process. RoseAnne Spradlin utilizes BMC to make the dancers’ experience more essential, stripping them of layers of excess, information in order to expose their core as individuals. Choreographer and BMC practitioner Darcy McGehee mines the most subtle and obvious aspects of movement communication to promote the social contract within a performance.

In an interview the day after the world premiere of his latest group piece, Miguel Gutierrez credited somatics and their philosophical outcomes in the creative environment that produced this project. Gutierrez, “Making And lose the name of action for me was about tapping into the specialness of that present moment with those people, and the very specific contingency of those bodies in that time and in that situation, which feels like a somatic value, tapping into presence. Invested in the process of creation is an internal excavation. It is about sensitizing yourself to what is happening, sensitizing the situation, creating a shared body with the practitioners in room. Somatics inform that with a relationship to listening, a relationship to the politics of a situation, trying not to establish hierarchies.”

Gutierrez is currently pursuing certification to become a Feldenkrais practitioner. He acknowledges the values that were instilled in his creative process are being reconfirmed. Important to Gutierrez are Feldenkrais principles about not making assumptions about the situation, supporting what is already happening, supporting what is already present. He holds these same notions as strong directorial values while balancing a perception that is both based in specificity and globality. “Somatic values that come from somatic practices, like go micro and macro, have a holistic consciousness of what is happening in the piece. You need to be in a state of receptivity and physical preparedness for that.”

The somatics applications accessible to dance artists have elevated the expressive potential of dancers to new levels of potential as highly conscious individuals. The field of somatics has branched off into three categories of inquiry and application: somatic psychology, somatic bodywork, and somatic movement. At the core of somatic movement is ‘listening to the body’ and creating new pathways for movement experience by raising awareness of habits and exploring alternatives. Repatterning movement choices is extremely useful to expand the palette of options for a choreographer’s research and expanding a dancer’s range. The outcomes as internalized observations are innately beneficial to each person’s daily life as well as performance career. For Bieringa, “Everything is possible. It is possible to repattern your behavior. Bodies open up to that paradigm shifting, to bring in more fluid transitions, and create more ease. On a level beyond bodywork or dance making, it is a super useful tool for life and how can we apply that on bigger and bigger levels. How do we make use of that?”

Although Gutierrez romanticizes about the tyranny of a traditional theater director, he supports a caring environment to situate his dance process but wishes there were more examples of the “somatically kind” director. “As a director, my role is to share, not withhold. I found that it was such a weird gift to have these people willing to listen to me. I gave no homework so instead we researched everything together during our creative residencies. But I have to ask myself: What are you as a director or as a person in a piece? If nothing else, you are this energetic instigator. Why does a person need a director? What is different about a person taking charge of something versus things just happening?”

In Berlin, a collective with choreographers Isabelle Schad, Alice Chauchat, Frédéric de Carlo, Frédéric Gies and Odile Seitz, trained as Body-Mind Centering practitioners and presenting work under the name Practicable, are pushing that aspect of BMC and performance by letting more of the choreography just happen. The aesthetics of their works contain minimal design elements and the performers may or may not be trained dancers. The internal landscape of the individuals in the cast become one whole as an external expression of the states they embody. BodyCartography Project’s use of BMC instructions and Gutierrez’s use of Feldenkrais principles are highly crafted theatrical events that embody values and creativity by deepening the physicality and dialogue of the contributing cast.

Gutierrez continues, “Their mode, what energy the performers can bring into the room, what they can actualize in the room between people, I am intrigued by that as a director and as a person. How can I disseminate a value that can be shared between people, to be experienced with each other?” Somatic values create community and teach us to be in community within the cast, within the performance, within the space, within the audience, and back to the cast. The feedback loop, based in a movement language and choreographic logic developed through somatic research, is palpable to all experiencing the work. Gutierrez says, “I think it is love. It has to be. I mean there has to be this sense of desire to want to participate to birth this thing together and to understand the time you are spending in a performance together. I can’t think of a word that is more appropriate. That is a big part of it. That is why what we do is so fucking weird.”

The truths that are housed in our bodies reveal unique and universal sensations to be shared in performance under the sensitive direction of somatic practitioners. While BMC has been a strong influence on their process of mining their dancers for material and shaping their choreographic scores to create fully formed states of expression, Bieringa adds a few other guiding principles passed along from her studies at EDDC, “An influence that I carry from Deborah Hay’s work is that moment of just ‘do the impossible.’ When you have this set of instructions that you don’t really know what it is and you just try to embody it, this list of words. There is something about that that I really love and have carried into my own work. And then Eva Karczag’s practice–coming out of the Alexander work but which is actually really BMC that she is doing in combination with Ideokinesis–that unknowing hands-on practice and the magic of the space that she would create in a classroom. It is really important to me in my generating and making dance practice to go there myself and be able to bring others to that space, the invitation and generosity to find their full engagement. Otto and I are not telling people what to do but bring ideas of things to try together. Those are key pieces that are still there.”

Somatics, as a loose collection of consciousness-building, body-based sensations with a goal towards a generous state of well being and bodily comfort even when pushed to the physical limits as a dancer in performance, can manifest into a residual behavior of self-betterment and community engagement. From Research in Dance Education,“Our heightened awareness has the potential to change the way we see the world around us and to render us more capable to act intentionally and effectively in it.” This next wave of somatically-inspired dance artists have the potential of great artistic expression and civic contribution. It is possible for the performances by BodyCartography Project for example to affect a deep transformation in the audience simply by their witnessing the actions on stage. Everyone can experience the pleasures of dance when viewers are somatically in tune with the values of these choreographers. By privileging the body-mind connection, dance literacy comes naturally and audiences with open hearts and mind have full access to the content and context of work performed. Although when a performance is produced and sourced from an internal experience, somatic-based choreography can seem less obvious to the average dance goer. However, since this work has been drawn from a shared process and displays both universal and personal bodily experiences, everyone is able to understand, simply by being present.

I wrote this research essay as part of my studies at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance and invite any feedback you may have. Thanks!

Walker Art Center is a NPN Partner of the National Performance Network (NPN). Michèle Steinwald was supported by the NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative to attend ICPP. Major contributors of NPN include the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.  For more information: