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The Limitations of Theater Are a Gift: Fire Drill on Richard Maxwell’s The Evening

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on […]

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, local artists Emily Gastineau and Billy Mullaney of Fire Drill shares their perspective on The Evening by Richard Maxwell/New York City Players. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Let’s place comic books on the proverbial opposite side of the coin from theater. Both media have intuitive mechanisms for engaging the reader and audience, respectively, with medium-specific holes or gaps in what is presented to the viewer. In both, the audience looks for cause-and-effect relationships to imaginatively fill in these gaps–which skilled artists and writers in either medium exploit and leave open to the imagination. In literature, for example, readers imagine the sights and sounds of books with only the printed words as suggestions. The holes in theater and comics are particularly interesting since they seem to be close inversions of each other.

The mechanism of comic books engages the reader by showing framed, still images of the world it presents–the environment, the characters, what they say and think–leaving the reader to fill in how the characters move between frames, how they speak and sound, and justify the larger-than-life actions that occur. An example:

Frame 1: Character A rears back from Character B, fist clenched.

Frame 2: A zoomed-in image of Character A’s hand making contact with Character B’s face. (“Pow!”)

Frame 3: A zoomed-out image of the entire planet Earth as seen from outer space. Character B flies into the frame, as indicated by a motion line originating somewhere in the center of the North American continent.

What a gift! We don’t say, “That’s impossible,” “Nobody could…”, “Nobody would…” It’s up to the reader to justify the physics of the situation. Conclusion: He was punched into space. Corollary: Superpowers. It’s why the ideal medium for space opera and mutant heroes is the comics: the most delicious action happens between the frames. There could be a series of frames between 2 and 3, showing “how” it happened–maybe breaking through the ceiling, or passing a flock of birds on the way up–but the closer to 24 frames per second, the closer to the comparison with real life (here, real physics). It says, “This is how it happened,” and it cannot be as grand as we’d ever imagine.

The mechanism of theater, on the other hand, shows how the characters speak and move, and suggests what they look like, but it is up to the viewer to build the world. The audience of The Evening fills in the details–not just the architectural details of the bar the characters inhabit (and mountain and ocean and outer space, but more on that later), but also their interior worlds, the emotional landscape that propels them to the behaviors they perform. Rather than actions in between frames, we fill in the emotional past and narrative future outside of the stage picture. An example:

Scene: Character A and B are dancing together. Character C joins them, instantly provoking a fight between B and C, which is just as quickly won. Cash is literally thrown around, they reconcile over jello shots, and then character A pulls a gun on them.

What a gift! Instead of saying, “That’s impossible,” “Why would she do that?”, “Where’s the motivation?”, we are invited to connect the dots on our own, through our own emotional and narrative understanding. This is what theater does best: the most delicious action happens in the interior worlds of the characters. How appropriate, then, this acting style that refuses to justify these (here it is again) larger-than-life emotions and behaviors. These are emotional superheroes, and they are capable of much more than justifiable in systems of realism, any more than we can justify punching someone into space. From Sarah Benson’s interview with Maxwell on the Walker blog: “Yes, things can happen to characters that can’t happen to people. You can put characters in situations that we aspire to or are afraid of and can’t embody as people.” So this acting style is not merely a neo-Brechtian withholding of catharsis, this is giving us (like the comics) the imaginative license to fill in the gaps without showing us “how it really happened”. The beauty of archetype is that we’ve seen these characters before, hundreds of times. We don’t need Richard Maxwell to insist they actually sound like this, they move like this, etc.

So these archetypes—who are they? First we have Cosmo, the pleasure-seeker, the free-loader, the one who’s given up. “I want to get high. I use people.” He’s old, he wears a velour track suit and a gold chain, he’s carrying a pizza, he doesn’t give a shit. Then we have Asi, the fighter—a literal fighter (UFC) and an emotional fighter (misogynist). Cosmo tells him he should retire and Asi boxes his ears. He feels loss as a threat, he’s one of those insecure macho dudes, he feels the pressure of time running out. “I want to fight. I want one more fight.” Something has happened with him and the woman and he’s full of regret. Last we have Beatrice, the lone, young female—the seeker, the restless, the escape artist. The men order her around and she’s not surprised, she just gets them another beer. She wants to go to Istanbul, she’s been saving up. “I need to change camp.” She wears sequin shorts and she’s too big for this small town.

We’ve met them all before, and we’ve probably been them all before. They form a smooth surface for emotional projection. They’re a triangle of crossed desires, base-level drives that bounce off each other and ricochet off the drab walls. Both men kiss the woman the first time they enter. There’s a complicated history between them—Asi refers to when he and Beatrice used to live together, but they don’t anymore. Cosmo has given her money to go to Istanbul and Asi wants to know what she did for him that he gave her that money. They’ve all wronged each other but they’re resigned to sharing space.

And these archetypes, they’re like action figures that repeat one of five phrases every time you press a button. “I want to get high.” “I want to fight.” “I use people.” The woman mechanically opens a beer. The fighter draws back his fist again and again. The pleasure-seeker action figure is one of the kind that would walk straight into the wall and keep walking till his batteries ran out. We know who these people are because they tell us over and over. They can’t help themselves. “I want to fight one more time.”

The setting itself forms a spatial archetype in much the same way. We see terrible beige flats, the outline of a standard-issue small town bar. A TV plays sports silently in the corner, but it’s greenish like an Instagram filter and it blends in with its surroundings. A generic band plays off to the side, just loud enough for the performers to need to raise their voices, like you do. It’s just a sketch but we’ve been at that bar hundreds of times.

In fact, the quality of “sketch”–vis a vis these archetypes–is a mechanism to help viewers relate to the characters and situations. Comics use a range of drawing techniques, from photorealistic images to an outline as simple as a smiley face. The conceit is that the less “photorealistic” the image, the more relatable it’s supposed to be–so we see the bad guys drawn specifically and the protagonists drawn sketchily, and the reader identifies with the good. Functionally, the more specific they get, the less we can fill in, because they become objective realities rather than a subjective canvas. This extends to our trio in the bar: Any details, a hometown, a sibling rivalry, a favorite color, a penchant for scrapbooking, any desire beyond the most broad archetypal yearning, would make these characters into more objective “others”.

When you start looking, it’s hard to miss other connections to representational practices in comics. In addition to these open, pulpy characters, the exposed frame of the flats suggest a comic panel frame. The poses and choreographies of the characters are chock full of Brechtian gestus, gestures and still poses that show the “gist” of a relationship or attitude, distilling power structures into tableau-like arrangements. This recalls the still frames of comics, where position in frame must convey relationships and psychology when movement can only be represented by motion lines.

Maxwell’s gestus lives even through movement; when the men are fighting, Beatrice places a hand on both of their chests, simply conveying her intimacy with each of them as well as her efforts to keep them apart. Realistic physical exertion or realistic caressing would destroy this double-image and reduce it to one or the other. It’s very Brechtian…but then again Maxwell ultimately out-Brechts Brecht because in the end there is no clear pitiable Mother Courage or detestable Ui, no side you “should” take, just three archetypes lost in space and each other.

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

The Evening by Richard Maxwell / New York City Players. Photo: Sascha van Riel

Yes, by the end they’re out of the bar and in outer space. So this huge changeover provides an interesting catharsis–but rather than a narrative catharsis we get an aesthetic catharsis. Clean bright light, camouflage suits, no architecture, three figures evenly spaced against a white wall. The representational practice of the first 5/6ths of the piece is about visually defining the characters’ positions in space (a bar) relative to where they are onstage, and the duration of the performance is equivalent to the amount of time that elapses in the story. When the changeover occurs, however, the rules change as well: we are wherever and whenever Cammisa says we are. They are doing whatever Cammisa says they’re doing: climbing a mountain, diving into the ocean, etc. It becomes an oral comic book. The frames change as she speaks, and we imagine these impossible stage directions, over great amounts of time. Really, it’s Maxwell giving these stage directions (they use actor names instead of characters now.) If this were a comic book the narration would simply appear in bubble text hovering above the image, rather than spoken by any of the characters.

The representational practices following the changeover, while it definitely breaks from the preceding performance, does so with tactics that strike us as precious, tasks we’ve seen a lot of: speaking stage directions, using actors’ names instead of character names, use of a live band. It dips into the twee instead of taking us to outer space. This is in contrast to an earlier moment in the bar, in which both men reveal the blood packs used to simulate their gunshot wounds. They didn’t need to reveal artifice throughout, because this significant yet understated moment accounted for all of it. Once they got to the white environment, there should have been even less need to tell us how to feel.

The style of performance deployed in The Evening is not just stylized in order to be different or avant garde; the techniques offer negative space for the viewer to interpret and project. Maxwell offers a formal alternative for live performance that is opposed to the hyper-real standard set by television and movies, rather than trying to replicate it. In the same way that impressionism reacted to the rise of photography by seeing what painting could do that photography could not, The Evening shows what theater can do that film cannot. It is formally generous, in that it allows the viewer’s experience to diverge from what is actually happening onstage. Because our contract as the audience is to submit to theater time as it unfolds (we aren’t going to close the browser window), we can project our own emotional fictions and personal associations with the archetypes. This ultimately feels more “real” than the real sweat on the football players on the TV screen. Maxwell’s work trains us as viewers to connect the dots ourselves, although the alternative remains present for those viewers who don’t want to do that work. If you want everything to be justified and given to you, there it is on the screen in the corner, in full color HD.

Note: Fire Drill is on tour during the performance weekend, so this blog is in response to the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night.

 

 

Like Brothers, Lovers, Proto-Humans: Miwa Matreyak on Still Standing You

In her film/performance works, Los Angeles–based artist Miwa Matreyek interacts live, through her projected shadow, with carefully crafted videos, to dreamlike and kaleidoscopic effect. Her multimedia work This World Made Itself will be presented January 29 as part of both the Walker’s Out There and Expanding the Frame series. Invited to participate in the Walker’s […]

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Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

In her film/performance works, Los Angeles–based artist Miwa Matreyek interacts live, through her projected shadow, with carefully crafted videos, to dreamlike and kaleidoscopic effect. Her multimedia work This World Made Itself will be presented January 29 as part of both the Walker’s Out There and Expanding the Frame series. Invited to participate in the Walker’s recent series of artist top-10 lists, 2014: The Year According to                      , Matryek selected another Out There work, CAMPO/Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido’s Still Standing You, as her favorite performance of the year, describing it as “almost childlike but simultaneously emotionally complex.” In advance of the January 15–17 presentation of the piece, we invited her to expand on her experiences with Still Standing You.


I saw Still Standing You last year at Fusebox Festival in Austin, and it’s one of my favorite shows ever. I tend to like or dislike shows with my gut feelings rather than by checking myself intellectually, and this show has a lot of great raw gut.

As the doors open, Pieter Ampe and Gui Garrido are waiting for the audience in plain clothes—jeans and T-shirts. From this first moment their duet has established a distinct dynamic: Pieter is on his back, holding Gui in the air with his legs like a human stool. As Gui starts the show by casually chatting up the audience, Pieter struggles until we start to worry that his legs are about to give out, growing a bit uncomfortable with Gui for clearly putting Pieter in pain. We in the audience are already drawn in to the drama of empathy, curiosity, and unease that we experience throughout the show, as the performers push the boundaries of what two male bodies can do on a stage together.

The dynamic is often childlike but violent, like two giant toddlers who don’t know the limits of their own bodies or the limits of each other’s bodies and their thresholds for pain. They use and abuse each other, sometimes controlling each other’s bodies like fleshy props, there to conveniently toss around or step on—sometimes confrontationally and whole-heartedly upping the ante with their violence towards each other, like Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in a ever growing arms race.

And there is a lot of abuse in this show.

I found myself trying to interpret micronarratives as the pair organically shifted from one relationship dynamic to another. Sometimes they seem like lovers, tenderly knowing every part of each other’s bodies or holding on to each other violently as if nothing existed outside of themselves. Sometimes they are like brothers, playfully and slightly cruelly competing with each other. And sometimes they seem like violent, crazed proto-humans or baboons in a zoo, duking it out without an awareness of social taboos like some neolithic fight club. Throughout these moments, my feelings as an audience member ran the spectrum, from guilty voyeur to mortified bystander, bemused anthropologist to the witness moved almost to tears.

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido. Photo: Phile Deprez

Both Pieter and Gui are trained performers/dancers, but for this piece, most of their movements are stripped of formalities and very familiar. Watching, it was easy to find within myself visceral memories from childhood: competing with my brother to see which of us could punch the other’s shoulder harder, or, alternately, liking someone so much you wanted to bite them just to the threshold of breaking skin, to test them and test yourself.

I don’t know if it was specifically the crowd in Austin, but I’ve never felt so connected to the collective people that comprise the audience as when we experienced this show together. We all laughed, gasped, cringed, worried (a lot), and melted a little bit as the duo’s dynamic shifted from violent to tender, cartoony to hypnotic. I felt that the show was intelligent (more in an EQ way than IQ, although I also think they’re smart) in the way these artists could draw out so many emotional complexities on stage, while also pulling the audience along, unaided by text or a formalistic performance structure or narrative, with just their bodies unfolding over time.

By the end of the show, I certainly felt a bit wild-eyed, like I either wanted to doggie pile someone or play bloody knuckles or just enjoy having someone (a friend, a sibling, a lover) close enough to me that I could play hard with them, to the point of almost hurting them… something I’ve forgotten as an adult but that lurks somewhere deep in my psyche.

 

2014: The Year According to Grant Hart

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti and artist Alejandro Cesarco to animator Miwa Matreyek and futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to       […]

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To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from graphic designer Tiffany Malakooti and artist Alejandro Cesarco to animator Miwa Matreyek and futurist Nicolas Nova—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                                 . 

Best known as a founding member of the fabled punk band Hüsker Dü (with Bob Mould and Greg Norton), Grant Hart is a drummer, songwriter, vocalist, and founder of the band Nova Mob (1989–1994). In 2013 he released his fourth solo album, The Argument, a 20-song double album inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and “Lost Paradise,” a short story reinterpreting Milton’s classic, by his friend, William S. Burroughs. Next June, Hart will be featured in WISE BLOOD, an immersive second-line opera and exhibition based upon the southern gothic novel by Flannery O’Connor. The work, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center and The Soap Factory (where it will be presented), features music by Anthony Gatto, a visual installation by Chris Larson, a cast of singers, brass bands, percussion lines, string players, and singers. Hart will play the role of blind street preacher Asa Hawks.


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William S. Burroughs, 1977. Photo: Wikipedia

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As time goes by, more young people are surprised by the fact that William S. Burroughs actually wrote books and wasn’t just a freaky old man who influenced Kurt Cobain. True, the happiest looking photos of Kurt show him at William’s home looking out from Bill’s home made orgone accumulator. William loved interaction with intelligent creative people, and to this day any gathering at a Burroughs event continues this tradition.

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Jeff Petrich

Jeff Petrich’s “Smoke and Croak”

Minneapolis’s West Bank has seen a lot over the years, but its Golden Age was long ago. During its heyday it was Mecca for jazz and folk artists who frequented the bars and cafes. A local fellow did his art there, producing an illustrated calendar for the Triangle Bar which featured photos of locals as well as notables from the outside world.

Jeff Petrich died this year. His death capped off a great year in which he showed his artwork in Finland as well as participating in a group show at the Belmore in Minneapolis.

When he suspected something was wrong, Jeff walked to Hennepin County Medical Center and was eventually told that he had cancer in more places than you can count with both hands. Treatment was as debilitating as the disease. Heroically, Jeff embarked on a project with his son William and William’s mother, Marie.  Entitled “Smoke and Croak,” this mission involved creating as much art as they could, smoking as much cannabis as he wished, and spending all of his time with the people who loved him the most. He stared death in the face, and I would not doubt if he saw death blink. There will be an exhibition of his work in 2015.

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Avjar. Photo: Ivana Sokolović, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Ajvar

September is the beginning of Ajvar (pronounced eye-var) season in Croatia. Sometimes ajvar is called “Yugoslavian caviar.” I think the reason for this is because people love to eat it rather than due to any snob appeal it might have. It is a simple paste made from roasted peppers, eggplant, and olive oil. Simple to make but recipes for making it will stray from that simplicity and suggest adding things that don’t belong in ajvar. It is not meant to be hot, but it’s warm and savory, rich and satisfying.

Nearly every Balkan country claim it as theirs. I have had it from northern Croatia to Bulgaria and it varies little from place to place.

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Stargaze

This is a group with roughly 20 members who rotate depending on the size required and the instruments involved. Stargaze teams up with songwriters to perform their music with an orchestra who shares this dream. I had the pleasure of spending a week with these fine players rehearsing and performing two concerts and watching them working with others.

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Haldern Pop

Situated near Cologne, Germany, the town of Haldern rolls up its sleeves every August and puts on what is arguably the most pleasant music festival in the world. Three days of music every year since 1984, Haldern Pop is devoid of billboard-sized corporate logos and all of the nonsense that distracts from a good musical experience. Set in a huge equestrian park, there is a very large stage and a “spiegel tent,” an antique portable venue that collapses to fit on a semi trailer. Off site in the town center are a bar and a 12th-century church that feature music indoors. Most of the tickets for next year have already been purchased.

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The “Joan Anderson letter,” written from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac. Photo: TIME

The Joan Anderson Letter

The very recent re-discovery of this legendary letter by Neil Cassady to a girlfriend, Joan Anderson has the world of literature flipping. Cassady was the inspiration for the Sal Paradise character in Jack Kerouak’s much overrated On the Road. For the rest of Kerouak’s life, people assumed that he was Paradise and Cassady went on and eventually was the bus driver for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Justice will be served by the attention this discovery brings to Cassady as the master of hip argot.

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RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic

Titanic Controversy

With each passing year, more people are coming around to the theory that the White Star liner Olympic was switched for the Titanic and sunk in her place by swindling board members of a huge multinational cabal. Much like 9/11 and JFK, the sinking that shocked the world has captivated folks who won’t believe that anything or anyone so great could be brought down by simple means or by simple men. Such is the nature of men and myth.

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Still from Heavy Rotation (2011), featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Whitney Biennial

This year I had the honor of attending this Super Bowl of American art with one of the featured artists, Chris Larson of St. Paul. Work by Charline von Heyl stole my heart like little else, but I was there for the shrimp.

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Union Depot, St. Paul

It was the largest building I ever saw when my family saw my brother off on his trip to Seattle in 1967 from this landmark. Back then, the gleaming brass of the William Crooks Locomotive was on display to excite the fantasy of a six year old and the ceilings looked as high as the sky. The first train in Minnesota, the Crooks is now at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth and the station in St. Paul has assumed its place as the gateway to the city once again.

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The new Vikings stadium under construction. Photo: Lars Hammar, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

Stadium construction

Whoever thought that blackmail could be so pretty! As a lifelong believer that professional sports should house themselves and not be parasites sucking resources from the city, I was surprised to see how visually stimulating the tower cranes and skeleton of the new downtown stadium are. Stadiums are much more attractive than low income housing or new schools with good teachers. The salaries paid to pro athletes are sometimes greater than the cost of building a school, but who needs schools when you can be Champions!

2014: The Year According to Eyvind Kang

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from filmmaker Sam Green and musician Grant Hart to artist Shahryar Nashat and animator Miwa Matreyek—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                        […]

Eyvind Kang

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from filmmaker Sam Green and musician Grant Hart to artist Shahryar Nashat and animator Miwa Matreyek—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                        .

Eyvind Kang is a composer and violist who has released a dozen albums of original music, including “The Narrow Garden” (Ipecac) and “Visible Breath” (Ideologic Organ). He often performs vocalist/composer Jessika Kenney, in many contexts including their works of austere beauty “Aestuarium” and “the Face of the Earth” (Ideologic 2011/12). As a violist he has worked extensively with Laurie Anderson and Bill Frisell, as well as presented solo works by Christian Wolff, Satyajit Ray and Hanne Darboven. He has also been a guest musician and arranger on hundreds of albums, including those by Sunn O))), Blonde Redhead, and Glass Candy.

 


 

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Qiu Miaojin, Last Words From Montmartre

The communication in these writings is so personal, you begin to feel greatly attached, and since this very feeling is described with precision in the text, the whole experience of reading seems to fold in on itself like a black hole. At a certain point I thought, “I don’t need any other book.” The author advises that the chapters can be read in any order. At first I bibliomanced my own order, but at the moment I prefer her order. Also, there are many serious insights, both spiritual and scientific, that wouldn’t necessarily arise outside the context of high emotion.

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Ostad Mohammad Reza Lotfi

This giant of Persian classical music departed on May 2. The Abu Ata concert, a duo with M.R. Shajarian, is one of the classic documents of this music. Towards the end, he seemed to take a spiritual turn; his compositions became concentrated on the state of trance.

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Alexander Grothendieck

Departed on November 14. At this point, due to the kind permission of his family, we may all begin to learn a little more of his work during his final period of seclusion. For more information: Grothendieck circle.

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Sepideh Meshki

There are so many amazing setar players, but she stood out in this performance with the aforementioned Ostad Lotfi. From the first moments on her solo album on the incredible new Iranian label, Kherad Art House, one falls into a kind of dream. But she balances the paradoxes in the sound of the setar with perfect precision while maintaining a kind of intense communicative empathy with the listener. Although the discursive quality of the phrasing could easily lead to a cascade, she manages to keep the clarity of the musical idea up front. Also a deft combination of original/traditional.

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Taku Unami at Issue Project Room, New York

What can I say about this gig? Nothing, because nothing really happened. Most of the people weren’t aware there was a performance going on. I was about to leave because I was so bored, and ran into a friend on the steps, who informed me of the presence of a rare bee in the back of the room. Curious, I returned inside. I had previously become aware of a kind of strange aura, but by now it was really unmistakable. Like a funny party, in which very little happened, but whose aura increased as time went by.

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Alain Badiou, Mathematics of the Transcendental

An invaluable resource for those of us trying to study category theory independently. Especially huge for musicians, since it helps open the door to studying Guerino Mazzola’s epic textbook, The Topos of Music.

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Martial Canterel, Gyors, Lassú

A new album from him is always a cause for celebration, but I appreciate the change to a more up tempo sound on this one.

Remembering Robert Stearns: 1947–2014

On Wednesday, December 3, the Walker lost a good colleague and important past leader, former Performing Arts Coordinator and Curator Robert Stearns, to a short battle with cancer. He served the Walker from 1982 to 1988, producing a host of bold performing arts pieces that continue to be viewed as historic highlights. “Robert’s vision and leadership was […]

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Robert Stearns, Walker Art Center, 1982. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

On Wednesday, December 3, the Walker lost a good colleague and important past leader, former Performing Arts Coordinator and Curator Robert Stearns, to a short battle with cancer. He served the Walker from 1982 to 1988, producing a host of bold performing arts pieces that continue to be viewed as historic highlights. “Robert’s vision and leadership was reflected in the diverse programs across his six-year tenure. He spearheaded some of the most ambitious performance projects that the Walker has undertaken by leading edge artists of the time,” said current Performing Arts Senior Curator Philip Bither.

Stearns came to the Walker by way of The Kitchen, the renowned New York City experimental arts space. As The Kitchen’s first director, he was instrumental in developing a downtown arts scene that would obliterate notions of “high” and “low” culture. In a tenure that ran from from 1972 to 1977, Stearns helped bring artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Eric Bogosian, the Talking Heads, Tony Conrad, and John Cage to perform in a kitchen in the back of the Mercer Arts Center and, later, a small space in SoHo. His time in New York seemed to endow him with a determined optimism. “There was just a sense you really couldn’t fail at anything, and therefore there was a sense of you could try almost anything,” Stearns told The Kitchen’s Oral History Project.

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A March 1973 events calendar from The Kitchen, featuring luminaries like Alvin Lucier and Eliane Radigue. Source: The Vasulka Kitchen archive

After a brief stint as director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Stearns landed at the Walker. His leadership of the Walker’s Performing Arts department led to an increase in artist residencies and commissioned pieces. Of these efforts, Stearns is possibly best remembered for producing the premiere of the Knee Plays, a celebrated collaboration between librettist-director Robert Wilson and composer David Byrne. the Knee Plays was a series of interludes of Wilson’s massive twelve-hour opera, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, a six-part production that featured six separate mini-premieres in six countries around the world.  In 1984, Robert Stearns managed to secure for Minneapolis the US premiere, held in the then Walker Auditorium following a Walker commission and a nearly month-long developmental residency. Byrne’s score fused the influences of opera, Japanese Taiko drumming, and New Orleans brass bands. Stearns’ commissioning of the Knee Plays not only further established the prominent position of the Walker and the Twin Cities on the international arts scene, it also continued a tradition at the Walker of presenting unusual and visionary works that break down the boundaries of genre.

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Performance of the Knee Plays, 1984. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Stearns’ term brought many more national and international triumphs to the Walker. In 1983, he commissioned The Gospel at Colonus, a hugely successful collaboration between experimental playwright Lee Breuer, composer Bob Telson, JD Steele and the Steele Family Singers, and gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama (including Sam Butler). This work was presented twice, first as a work-in-progress in the Walker Auditorium, and later in collaboration with the Guthrie.  In 1987, he commissioned the first phase of what would later become playwright Matthew Maguire and guitarist-composer Glenn Branca’s brilliant operatic work, The Tower. Notable dance commissions of Stearns’s time at the Walker include Trisha Brown’s Lateral Pass (1985), which had its world premiere at Hamline University Theater; Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications (1987), the first of a series of three Cunningham commissions by the Walker, which premiered at Northrop Auditorium; and David Gordon’s United States (1988). In addition, the Walker brought in a number of other vital artists during his tenure: William S. Burroughs, Fab 5 Freddy, Laurie Anderson, Christian Marclay, and John Cage all made trips to the Twin Cities during the Stearns years.

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John Cage, Wordworks Festival, 1983. Courtesy Walker Art Center Archives

Robert Stearns was responsible for presenting performing artists often left on the fringes to larger audiences. With former Walker film curator Melinda Ward, he helped develop the PBS program Alive From Off Center, which featured experimental performances and short films. He also helped lay the ground work for Out There, the annual festival that continues to showcase provocative theatrical performances to this day.

Perhaps his greatest gift to the Twin Cities arts community was his unshakable faith in it. Stearns took chances on challenging works with the belief that the audiences would be there to engage with them, and he was right. In 1988, he moved on to become the founding director of the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, an important multidisciplinary contemporary art center very much inspired by Stearns’s time at the Walker. Later, he spent six years as a senior program director and curator with Arts Midwest. In more recent years, Stearns established and was president of ArtsOasis in Palm Springs, California.

Despite his relatively short tenure at the Walker, Stearns’s impact on our community has endured.

The Ecstatic Celebration: Omar Souleyman at The Cedar

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the […]

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Omar Souleyman; Photo: Molly Hanse

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Walker Performing Arts Intern Sam Segal shares his perspective on Omar Souleyman at the Cedar. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word “Hafla (حفلة)” carries the sense of both the English words “Concert” and “Party.” It might be more accurate then to refer to Syrian singer and electro-dabke wizard Omar Souleyman’s performance to a packed crowd at the Cedar on Friday night as a hafla. Slowly traipsing back and forth across the stage, Souleyman led one of the most frenzied and ecstatic dance parties I’ve ever seen in the Twin Cities. When I saw this crowd of supposedly reserved Minnesotans losing their minds like a bunch raving club kids to Souleyman’s synthesis of traditional Levantine celebration music and Western electronic dance music, I have to say I was a bit relieved.

International pop artists like Omar Souleyman are so often positioned as mere intellectual curiosities by Western press and promoters. A lot of the discussion around Souleyman seems to amount to little more than saying, “He wears a keffiyeh  and he makes electronic dance music?! How fascinating?!” When people come to shows expecting to see some think piece of a pop performance, they’re rarely ready to dance. In July, I was lucky enough to see the legendary Ethiopian pop star Mahmoud Ahmed at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Sadly, while Ahmed and his band were laying down the rawest gutbucket grooves, most of the people in the crowd were standing stiff, flaccidly nodding their heads, or taking Instagram photos. It took over half a set of the 73-year-old Ahmed’s desperate coaxing before the audience allowed itself to stop observing and start participating (I don’t think it helped matters that two hardly-danceable free jazz trios served as the opening acts that night). Thankfully, those who attended Omar Souleyman’s party in Minneapolis came to play.

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Vacation Dad; Photo: Sam Segal

The hyperactive cosmic slop of opening performer Vacation Dad provided a perfect entry point for the night’s festivities. Vacation Dad, the project of producer Andy Todryk, ramped up the BPMs on the spaced-out electronic exotica of his recordings in favor of lush, drop-heavy dance music. After a short set of Bernie Worrell meets Diplo magic, Vacation Dad cleared the stage for the man we were all here to see.

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Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Building up the tension with the skill of a true showman, the performance began with Souleyman’s master keyboardist, Rizan Sa’id, alone on stage. Over the years, Souleyman’s band has trimmed down to the solo accompaniment of Sa’id, who somehow manages to conjure an entire dabke orchestra on two old Korgs. With a slow, somber melody emanating from the keyboard, Souleyman’s ghostly Arabic greeted the crowd from somewhere offstage. “He’s saying, ‘Goodmorning,’” a guy next to me told a child near him. The guy continued to translate Souleyman’s speech for another minute, but eventually he gave up, telling the child to “think of the words as music.”

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Omar Souleyman and Rizan Sa’id; Photo: Sam Segal

Over the years, Souleyman has replaced all traditional instrumentation with electronics, leading him to develop a totally unique style of manically sped up, overdriven dabke music. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, he referred to this style as a sport: “The fast music is a kind of sport, it makes you move—it’s like any sport where you jump or run. And it’s the same for the audience as well; they tend to dance even more to the fast music.” Well, if this concert was a sport, then Souleyman was our haggard veteran coach, effortlessly conducting our boisterous participation with stoic hand gestures and the occasional affirmative grin. We clapped when he clapped, and we shouted back in call-and-response joy when he pointed the mic towards us (no doubt botching the Arabic phrase he was looking for).

Throughout the show, I was doing my best to try and figure out which songs Souleyman was pulling from his massive catalog, but outside of the fact that I don’t speak Arabic, I could hardly quit clapping and jumping up-and-down long enough to even try. I’d come in with all sorts of political questions: What does it mean that Souleyman is performing music that is increasingly becoming a historical artifact with the devastation caused by the civil war in Syria? Does it matter that this audience might not understand the ethnomusicological context of his music? How much will a Western audience project its stereotypes of Arab identity onto him? But when the skittering beat took over and Souleyman’s gruff voice began calling out poetry I could only understand as another musical instrument, those questions really didn’t seem relevant. What was relevant was the moment and the simple awe of watching a pop star at the height of his powers leading a crowd in communal celebration.

More than the Beat: Choreographers’ Evening 2014

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel […]

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Top photo, left to right: Wealthy Phonseya (INC), Travis Johnson (INC), Blake Nellis, Deneane Richburg, Lisa Berman (INC), Madeline Howie (INC), Taja Will, and Darrius Strong (STRONGmovement). Bottom photo, left to right: Arturo Miles (INC), Renée Copeland (INC), Joseph Tran (INC), Tonya Williams, Cheng Xiong (INC), Deja Stowers, Junauda Petrus, and Canaan Mattson. Not pictured: Kendra Dennard, Aneka McMullen (INC), and Ashley R.T. Yergens. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I heard that beloved artist, educator, and community advocate Kenna-Camara Cottman would be curating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening at the Walker, I knew she had a daunting task ahead of her. For an artist of color to be asked to present their personal aesthetic in such a privileged space, the honor was not without immense responsibility and heavy baggage. I’m sure the curatorial process is never a cakewalk, but for Kenna, this journey had to come with the deep reckoning that any “minority” (POC, differently-abled, Trans, queer, female, etc.) artist has confronted at one time or another: How do I represent myself? How and with whom do I identify?

These questions of representation are in fact universal, but diverse artists will tell you that we pay a special tax. There is the burden of gatekeeping, of tokenism—being that one privileged voice asked to speak for all of your kind. Decision-making becomes bogged down when one honestly faces that they may be the example, the experiment. Will there be another black curator? Will diverse artists have another chance like this to be presented and aesthetically valued?

Let me put this another way:

As a young child growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I was not only the sole black student, but often the only black girl in most of my classrooms and activities. I hated February and any discussion of U.S. history for without fail, the buck would be passed to me. What did I think about slavery? Was my grandmother in the Civil Rights movement? Do all black people laugh like that? What is up with black women and your hair?! And on and on. All heads would spin, eyes stare, and ears open as their inquiry suffocated me in its spotlight. Alternately innocent or offensive, always ignorant, these types of questions haunted me through my college years. The responsibility to be the one voice communicating the diversity of my entire race in white spaces was paralyzing.

You can imagine my relief when I saw that this was not so for Kenna and the artists she chose to present at this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. At the 9:30 pm Choreographer’s Evening performance on November 29, I witnessed 10 choreographers and countless supporting artists refusing to be frozen. Unlike most Choreographers’ Evenings, this year’s evening rode an arc of cohesion as it revealed themes of triumph and defiance. Gone was the disjointed variety show featuring the curator’s “Top 10,” instead was a unified vision making a bold and relevant statement—a feat I attribute to Cottman’s curatorial prowess.

The evening was as timely as it was clear in its statement, forcing the audience to acknowledge the zeitgeist seizing hold of our nation this past week. The grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for his shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown has ignited fervent rage and protesting beyond the city limits of Ferguson, Missouri. A new generation has awoken and arisen all over this country. We are no longer blinded by the promises of a  “post-racial society” or content with what our fore-parents accomplished. There is still work to be done, and we are determined to wail, and shout, and stand until it is finished. A clear takeaway from Saturday’s performance is the importance of artists’ role in this work and their willingness to do it.

Artists are often first responders, the canary in the mines, each singing their own song of alarm. The night’s shining star was a work by Darrius Strong of (Strong Movement) entitled Piece by Piece. Alongside four other dancers, including the powerful and captivating Ashley Akpaka, Strong charges through space summoning a collective spirit as he shows a community in breakdown. Religiously implicit motifs suggests a ceremony of induction as the group shifts between altruistic care for its members and almost cannibalistic violence upon itself, showcasing the best and worst of what happens when we all come together.

Less literal but equally relevant was Significant Nothings, choreographed and performed by Canaan Mattson. Mattson is an entrancing, gooey, and technical mover—able to organically shift through disciplines and seamlessly juggle maintaining the intimacy of his work while still inviting us in to witness the magnificent beauty of a young black man. For the work’s second section, Mattson forgoes recorded music and is joined by vocalist Eric Nordstrom onstage. Nordstrom happens to white, and as he steps on stage in his all black suit the contrast between himself and young Mattson donned in all white, is stark. The visual arithmetic is unavoidable if not intentional and for a moment, my breath caught as I watched these two young men share space and produce creativity rather than destroy life. To behold a young black man, as not dangerous, but beaming in his prime is a lesson our nation needs to learn.

TU Dance’s Kendra Dennard also hits literal high notes in her solo work Dancing With God. While the program notes aptly describe the work as an exploration of the fine line between love and hate, brilliance and calamity, it also resonated with my own experience of the Brown tragedy as young black woman. Brown’s and the countless other shootings in recent years are maddening and heart wrenching, not because I see myself in these men, but because I see my brother, my father, my partner, and I fear for my future sons. There is a loneliness in black women’s sorrow. We are secluded to ourselves but oh so affected. As we lose ourselves to grief, as we isolate ourselves for strength, the threads of ourselves start to fray. This is my own reading of Dennard’s work as she croons and morphs the melodies of Billie Holiday on a stage lit like a cell by a single overhead light. Dennard is beautiful yet tortured as she dances for composure, for relief, for hope—she dances for God to hear us.

From Ashley R.T. Yergens’ sassy Is this more ladylike? to Deneane Richburg’s Quiet As It’s Kept, all of the evening’s artists seemed to share a similar rebellious vision. Shucking cultural expectations, flipping the gaze, and honoring the artist’s civic duty to demand that culture face itself in the mirrors we hold up, this year’s choreographers delivered. An abundance of marginalized artists were given the opportunity to express themselves as so much more than our expectations. With metaphorical megaphones in hand, they spoke up and spoke out—not as tokens or tropes, but as authentic rich, lush, and complex individuals who truly see the world and demand to be seen. For that I say, Bravo! And thank you.

Meet the Artists of Choreographers’ Evening 2014

Curated by Twin Cities choreographer Kenna-Camara Cottman, this year’s edition of Choreographers’ Evening continues the tradition of providing an annual “crash course” on the local dance scene. In a recent interview with City Pages, Cottman expounds on the decision making process that whittled a long list of auditioned acts down to the program of ten choreographers selected for  two […]

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In New Company (INC). Photo: Bfresh Productions

Curated by Twin Cities choreographer Kenna-Camara Cottman, this year’s edition of Choreographers’ Evening continues the tradition of providing an annual “crash course” on the local dance scene. In a recent interview with City Pages, Cottman expounds on the decision making process that whittled a long list of auditioned acts down to the program of ten choreographers selected for  two shows on Saturday night in the McGuire Theater: “I like abstract and really physical things. Things that are clearly dance, but I’m also into weird stuff that has talking or text or different elements.” Noting a “preponderance of blackness” in this year’s program, Cottman emphasizes the importance of providing a platform to artists of color.

On Sunday afternoon, Cottman will also Hold Court in Theaster Gates’s See, Sit, Sup, Sip, Sing: Holding Court installation as a part of the Walker’s ongoing Radical Presence exhibition. She will lead a conversation with Choreographers’ Evening 2014 artists on contemporary dance and its role as an agent of sociopolitical change.

In advance of Saturday night’s performanceswe asked participating artists to share their thoughts on the questions their works pose, the vitality of performance, and the unique qualities of the Twin Cities dance community.

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Deja Stowers. Photo courtesy the artist

Deja Stowers

Original(Some)Body/Virgo

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

Original(Some)Body/Virgo will address the issue of body image and the unreasonable expectations we put on ourselves as Black full figured women. Our bodies are underrepresented on stage. So how are young Black full figured girls supposed to know what is possible? That their bodies can tell a story to the world? That there is sun and beauty radiating from their skin? This piece is also a Rite of Passage for my own body. Like everyone, I have to learn to love my body and everything it has to offer. This piece is one of the many chapters to helping myself heal and create. I am making myself available to be a reflection.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

I use Dance and “performance” because it gives me the freedom to tell a story in my own language. I feel it is the only way to get an accurate view of what is going on in my mind. It’s liberating.

Tonya Williams. Photo courtesy the artist

Tonya Williams. Photo courtesy the artist

Tonya Williams

Slaveship

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

One of the primary issues that I tackle through my work is identity, lack of  triumph, and the absolute power of perseverance. When you consider the African American journey as a whole, it is an ever changing story that lives and thrives with the people. So often our voice goes unheard.  I have been given an amazing gift to allow the boarder public the chance to experiences that cultural voice through vibrant, organic art in motion.   My overall goal is  to increase the cultural and historical  acknowledgement for the African American Journey. I would like for people to take away from my pieces the absolute reality of our story.

What makes the Twin Cities dance scene unique?

It is artistically diverse and always evolving. It is creative place-making at its best.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

At my very core I am a performing artist. There is an overwhelming need to express my artistic perspective.

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Kendra Dennard. Photo: Uchechukwu Iroegbu

Kendra Dennard

Dancing with God

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

This work addresses the dark and complex emotional spaces that we sometimes find ourselves in. Loneliness can be a beautiful gift of relief but it can also be a constricting space with the potential to swallow you whole. It is our freedom and our pain. It can be our space to come to recognize our true selves or run from our true selves. Dancing with God is a glimpse into one woman’s interaction with these ideas.

What makes the Twin Cities dance scene unique?

As a new member of this community I would have to say its vastness, accessibility, and stability are what make it unique. Other than Chicago, NY, and LA, most cities in the US have small communities that either aren’t well funded or don’t have anywhere near as many long-running, stable dance companies and dance centers. From TU Dance to MDT to James Sewell to Zenon, these companies have some of the strongest foundations I’ve ever seen all in one city (The Twins) remaining under the same leadership from their inception. This community is large enough to have its own award ceremony and multiple dance artists to be nominated in each category! I was humbled by the strength and vastness of the dance community at this year’s Sage Awards. All of these things and more make the Twin Cities dance scene very unique to me and very admirable.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

Performing provides me a visceral connection to people. It is not enough for me to simply do a song and dance; I desire to reach people and share my knowledge, wisdom, and life experiences in hopes that someone can look at things a bit differently. Life can certainly become mundane and, these days, overwhelming with shock and sensationalism in ways that render our emotions and interactions with others very one-dimensional. Performance is my way of keeping myself aware and reminding others of the multidimensional nature of humanity.

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Canaan Mattson. Photo: David Melendez

Canaan Mattson

Significant Nothings

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

My piece originally started off as a story of self-refinement, determining ethics, or  finding out a way to better yourself. As the process went on I couldn’t help to know that the topic goes even deeper and it all simply comes down to the act of noticing these good and bad forces that take hold of our thoughts. The piece focuses on different perspectives of this awareness, and how different types of people deal with this refinement.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

Humans have evolved to an oral being that can discern many feelings with the use of language. For me, performance breaks down that barrier of language causing your body  to ultimately say what your mouth cannot. This speech is an intense force as it reaches parts of the brain that deal with interpretation and focus. Movement can be just as strong as words in the articulation of feeling.

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‘cides Unseen (2013) by Ashley R.T. Yergens. Photo: Dean P. Neuburger

Ashley R.T. Yergens

Is this more ladylike?

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

During the fall semester of my senior year at St. Olaf, I conducted an independent study called “Queer Female Body in Dance” with Professor Heather Klopchin. As a movement study, I responded to Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures as a way to explore the social construction of gender and sexuality in performance. The study developed into a piece that provides an illuminating, slightly sarcastic look at femininity through gestural material. The gestures aim to deconstruct our own preconceived notions of what it means to be “ladylike” in performance.

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Darrius Strong. Photo: Dani Werner

Darrius Strong

Piece by Piece

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

At a young age I was unable to find a way to express myself and speak about my feelings, but over time creating work and performing has given me the tools to physically speak my expressions. Everyday, I witness people who are living day-to-day without thoughts of how society is shaping them. Race, gender, and ethnicity have always been a concern. My question is: Why does it remain a problem? Finding something in common with every race, gender, and ethnicity is a segue into making a change toward this problem. Being born in a predominantly black community in the south side of Chicago, then moving to a mostly white community in the suburbs of Minnesota has helped me find my identity as an African American male in this society. It is hard for me to understand why as people we don’t realize the power within societal norms, and the way in which we as humans use this against one another. I feel that we as individuals need to wake up and realize that unity is the greatest power.

Deneane Richburg. Photo courtesy the artist

Deneane Richburg. Photo courtesy the artist

 Deneane Richburg

Quiet As It’s Kept

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

I am really interested in experiencing substantive connections to my ancestral and cultural history as a means to gain deeper insights into who I am and the present journeys I find myself taking. As a result, my work is centered around experiencing these histories and the narratives that characterize the histories.

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Junauda Petrus. Photo: Valerie Caesar

Junauda Petrus

Black Solitude/Autonomous Wildness

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

In my aerial/dance work I reflect on how black people can experience themselves in the absence of limitless investigation and the self-consciousness of oppression. To be embodied,  and sensually and transcendently so. My whole life, I have seen and psychically responded to black people’s bodies being invisibilized, adored, chewed up, mauled, rubbed, loved, experienced, confused, misrepresented, absorbed, mocked, edified, attacked, desired, politicized, and most essentially commodified in Westernized culture and society. And my whole life I wanted to fly. I explore this journey in Black Solitude/Autonomous Wildness, using corde lisse, aerial rope, an apparatus I choose in part because of the violent and murderous relationship of ropes and black people.  The rope is tough and capable and connects earth to limitlessness. I try not to be too philosophical or academic about it, but visceral and free when I work with the rope. I try to be something transcendent and whimsical. I just focus on the alchemy of letting go, into myself in ways untouchable and inconceivable to the constraints of this society for black people. Today is an interesting time to answer this question. Tamir Rice, 12 years old, was murdered this weekend by Cleveland Police and the Michael Brown verdict is hours from being announced. The weight of  this moment is fascinating and I am in my heart with it.  I think of them and all of the “black bodies swinging” that there have ever been , that need to be known and seen and loved and humanized.

What makes the Twin Cities dance scene unique?

I think people really show love and support. I think it is also experimental and free, in ways that keep me excited and studying. I have gotten to perform in so many amazing pieces and with so many powerful artists. This season alone, I have gotten to co-choreograph with Nicolas Collard an aerial piece for Barebones, performed in a piece by SuperGroup, did a collaboration with photographer and dancer Bill and Kenna Cottman, musician, Lewis Hill III and photographer Kevin Obsatz which we performed on huge screens. I look forward to seeing and learning more of what the dance scene has to offer by way of the performers at CE.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

It assuages my ego, by making me vulnerable and open and bold. It is a beautiful ritual for me. I like to process my life’s journey and offer it to people to ponder with me and also make whatever sense of what I do for their own purposes and pleasure.

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Taja Will and Blake Nellis. Photo: Jim Smith

Taja Will 

Terpsichore Told Us To: 23 Gestures, 11 Poses, 2 Solos and a Duet 

What questions/issues do you address in your work?

We [Taja Will and Blake Nellis] are a collaborative team going on ten years old. Much of our work is rooted in exploring the moving relationships of intimacy and risk within our partnership. Our work is dedicated to exploring spontaneity, agency, instinctive choice-making, and instantaneous choreography. We are improvisers.

Why do you use performance as a platform for expression?

Performance is a means to share embodied research, which I believe facilitates a remembering of the human body’s ability, complexity, and magic.

….

Choreographers’ Evening 2014, curated by Kenna Camara-Cottman, takes place on Saturday, November 29th, at 7 pm and 9:30 pm in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

Islands of Imagination: Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson

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, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of […]

Photo: Paula Court

Photo: Paula Court

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, dance artist Blake Nellis shares his perspective on Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s performance of  Night Stand (2004), part of Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

SPOILER ALERT: This piece will never be the same.  If you saw it last night, you should go again. Keep in mind that what I am about to write happened last night between 7:50pm and 8:57pm (give or take an hour).  It was a time warp in a theatrical jungle filled with wise, old children, living props and movable obstructions for the imagination.  Oh, and they danced.

We line the staircase, buzzing with excitement.  The lobby seems full of people eager to witness something unknown.  What we do know is that we are here to watch Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson inhabit the McGuire Theater for an eight o’clock show.  And it’s almost eight.  What they will do and how it will look is a mystery to us all, including the veterans of improvisation already on stage.

And so it begins… We enter the theater together, some carrying coats, others still wrapped up tightly to fend off the wintry air they carried in from outside.  We hang our coats and head to our seats.  There is a beautiful lightscape happening on stage.  It’s very dark, but there appears to be a moving constellation spiraling towards us.  The piece has been happening, before we came through the doors and long before we arrived here tonight.  The last few audience members trickle in and a few brave souls wander to the stage to sit (with great alignment) on a few pillows that have been placed in front of the first row.  “Oh cooooool,” I hear a woman next to me say.  I look at her and see that she has just realized that Paxton and Nelson have been on stage the entire time.  The lights fade and the second scene begins (or was that the prelude?)

Nelson is wearing a black and white striped t-shirt, dark pants, dark stocking cap and bright red socks.  She is almost comical, but holding a stick she becomes a serious sort of wizard.  Paxton sports a dark top and bottom with his signature slippers.  He looks a man who has been dancing for more than fifty years and understands how he works (he’s the same age as the Walker Art Center, 75).  The two dancers take in the space and move carefully.  Nelson is nimble, articulate, and spritely.  We ask ourselves, almost audibly, “and how old is she?”  Maybe we have traveled time and space.  They move these carpeted flats around stage, creating new rooms and do-si-do-ing smoothly while we watch and listen. The sound is spacious, even sweet at times.  The invitation to observe is clear and generous.  We see them building something and watching each other, as we watch them. This is a gift.

In this beautiful museum we are watching a living exhibit.  It has an exquisite light design by Carol Mullins which was highlighted during my favorite moment in the piece.  It’s what Nelson calls “an event.”  This is one of the few things that Paxton and Nelson expect to happen during the course of the evening.  Even though it may be apparent from the outside as well, its beauty and play allows us to get lost deeper inside their world.  The sound collage morphs and warps through moments of French, whispering and moaning.  It’s nostalgic and ephemeral but sometimes strange and emotional.  Paxton and Nelson never seem in a hurry to show us any one thing.  (Will they get to that box of tissue and five-gallon pail? Who knows.) Their consciousness shifts like a group of children deciding to play a game.

Night Stand transcends narrative.  It allows us to look in from afar or join them on their islands of imagination.  The demeanor of these two performers inspires exploration and curiosity.  They design playfulness, attention, and friendship.  They infuse just enough weird with the beauty.  Images linger in my mind, during and now.  As they are ending, I feel confident and content.  But how do we know this is the end?  They have taught us how to see again.

AFTERWORD: Nelson and Paxton joined the community for: drinks, questions, compliments, laughter, the usual.  I approached and asked for an autograph.  (What else could I do?!)  But instead of handing over the pen I proposed we make a 60-second drawing together.  They obliged.  Each of us with one hand on the pen, waiting, listening, wondering “what the heck is happening?”  In the end, I have two drawings, one by Steve & me, the other by Lisa & me.  They look like memories of the night I saw Night Stand.

Composing Forward: The Art of Steve Paxton continues tonight, November 22, 2014 with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson’s second performance of  Night Stand in the McGuire Theater.

Winter Processes: Dawn of Midi + Nils Frahm

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and […]

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi,  Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani).  Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

Dawn of Midi (left to right: Qasim Naqvi, Aakaash Israni, Amino Belyamani). Photo: Falkwyne de Goyeneche

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, Dylan Hester shares his perspective on Saturday night’s performances by Dawn of Midi and Nils Frahm, a Walker co-presentation with the SPCO’s Liquid Music Series at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall in St. Paul. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Dysnomia, the second full-length album from Brooklyn-based experimental trio Dawn of Midi, is a single suite made up of nine individual tracks. On paper, it’s avant-garde jazz informed by classical minimalism, a 47 minute record that works just as well in headphones as it does on a loud stereo. In person, it’s a stirring and immersive nine-part cycle.

Bassist Aakaash Israni starts, and Amino Belyamani joins shortly thereafter on electric piano. Both repeat one note over and over. Qasim Naqvi then enters with a bass drum, creating an off-kilter polyrhythmic structure. From here the band’s sound transforms further: it’s jazz, then funk, techno, math rock. At times, I’m not sure whether I trust my own ears.

As their final song (“Dysnomia”) grew softer, I thought I heard the sound of a low-quality cell phone video a few rows behind me. But I was wrong. Actually, I was only hearing the soft ambient chatter and bar sounds from the back of the venue. After spending an hour immersed in Dawn of Midi’s intricate rhythmic structures, my sonic palette had been completely jarred.

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Nils Frahm. Photo courtesy the artist

Berlin-based composer Nils Frahm‘s most recent work is Spaces, an album which juxtaposes the analog and digital, live and studio, acoustic and electronic. Though occasionally referred to as  modern classical, it also touches on minimal synth, glitch, and even dub. It is a testament to his music’s versatility and precision that set opener “Says” also appeared on  a recent mix by Swiss techno dj Deetron. Nils closed with “For–Peter–Toilet Brushes–More,” Spaces‘ seventeen-minute centerpiece which involves the use of toilet brushes as percussion. It won him a standing ovation.

The first time I encountered Nils Frahm was in a title of a song by his friend Peter Broderick. “Hello to Nils” is the last track on Broderick’s How They Are, an album that helped get me through my first winter in Minnesota. Nils’ music likewise helps to ease the melancholy and emphasize the transcendence of the winter months. He does not shy away from sentiment: at one point last night, he introduced a song from his Screws album as a “little bit cheesy” piece of music he wrote after breaking his thumb. But he played it with complete, moving sincerity. It was only appropriate that a fresh layer of snow had appeared outside by the time the show ended.

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