Minneapolis, Minnesota

Like a suave dinner guest, regional arts conferences never come to visit empty-handed. They present and offer numerous culinary delights for their host communities in the form of performing arts morsels served in scores of showcase performances at venues all over town. When coupled with more than a dozen samplings at the opening of a new dance center, one has way too much good art on which to nosh.

Oh, the joy of such indulgent gluttony!

Downtown Minneapolis was the scene for this five-day feast, Sept. 7-11, with the arrival of the 24th annual Midwest Arts Conference and the grand opening of the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. The concurrent events provided multiple stages where potential buyers could sample the wares of artists and ensembles from throughout the western hemisphere.

The Midwest Arts Conference: Trade Show for Arts and Culture

While the incarnations of artistic impulses may emerge with few financial requirements or impediments, their distribution and sale through systems of production and marketing place them, for better and worse, in the realms of commodities and commerce. Enter the regional trade shows of the arts, whose showcases serve as large-scale auditions for the curators who choose the programming that appears on the stages of colleges and universities, performing arts centers, and civic auditoria throughout the land.

To be selected for one of the adjudicated, or Spotlight, showcase slots represents a coveted opportunity for artists to perform in a quality-controlled setting, in prime time, to a captive audience. For those not selected, there are the equally competitive independent showcases.

Spotlight Showcases

The 2011 Spotlight showcases featured 18 acts (I attended 15), selected by a panel composed of presenters, managers, and agents, presented in 15-minute segments on Thursday and Friday evenings at the Pantages Theatre. By virtue of their selection, most of the ensembles have attained a robust level of artistic accomplishment. All merit the chance to find multiple performance havens where there is a match of interests and means.

ScrapArtsMusic, a five-member ensemble from Vancouver, Canada, first recycles industrial scrap material of all kinds (accordion parts to artillery shells) into good-looking-and-sounding wind, string, and percussion instruments. Then it proceeds to blow the roof off with a highly infectious and tightly choreographed performance of sensuous rhythm and energy – lots of both. The group has performed throughout Canada and the United States, and in Mexico, Australia, Ireland, and more. As I did, you may have caught their televised performance at the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

The members of Project in Motion, a modern and aerial dance troupe based in New Mexico, perform in the air, on the ground, and on a variety of custom-built set pieces. At the Pantages, two dancers employed a column of two strands of fabric, hung just-right of center stage, and two pieces of sculpture that appeared to be made from thin, metal piping. The performance featured excerpts from two vignettes in “The Palace at Night,” an evening-length work from 2010 inspired by the 20th century sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Although the dancers were pleasing to watch, a more intellectual eye than mine might appreciate the finer nuances of the dadaist and surrealist underpinnings of their work. As a pedestrian observer, I found the truncated selections neither interesting nor innovative.

More provocative was Patrick Garner’s channeling of Thomas Alva Edison, the flagship of his several presentations for schools and corporate training sessions. Can you cut a hole in a 5″ x 7″ piece of paper that is large enough for a man to step through? Garner-as-Edison does so by looking at the problem from a different angle as he demonstrates Edison’s four lessons and the value of hard work. A 20-year veteran of street fairs and Broadway productions, Garner also brings to life Harry Houdini, Benjamin Franklin, and others.

The Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theatre, based in Minnesota since 2000, blended movement, voice, and design with “Tales From the Book of Longing.” First presented in 2009 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, “Tales” was created by Artistic Co-Directors Stuart Pimsler and Suzanne Costello, inspired by the poetry of Leonard Cohen and music by Antony and the Johnsons. Excerpts, performed by seven dancers including Costello, featured dancer Brian Evans singing “Your Precious Love” a cappella.

Representing all of its repertoire by multiple choreographers would require more than 15 minutes of performance by Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. As an alternative, the globally-acclaimed troupe featured some of the jazz-infused styles of which its highly trained movers are capable. Jon Lehrer’s “A Ritual Dynamic,” from 2008, drives 10 dancers to the pulsing beats of White Derbakeh and DJ Disse with the look and feel of concert modern dance performed in a disco. A lovely, adagio duet offset both the earlier piece and the ensuing “Sabroso,” Del Dominguez’s jazzy and athletic tour of ballroom dance. The company will celebrate its 50th anniversary season in 2012/13. Its next major engagement will happen Oct. 21-22 at Chicago’s Harris Theater.

In a one-woman show, Trena Bolden Fields delivers monologues by five African American women, each a historical figure in the Civil Rights Movement who defied the social and economic injustices of her time. Among those included are Ida B. Wells, 1862-1931, an anti-lynching crusader, and Fannie Lou Hamer, 1917-1977, a voting rights activist. Fields studied theater arts and mass communication at Augsburg College and received her MA degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota. Her channeling of the women’s lives, which collectively spanned more than a century, serves as compelling theater, social commentary, and history lesson.

Not long after performing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra at age 16, Christian Howes set out to make his mark in jazz. His nomination this year as Violinist of the Year by the Jazz Journalists Association attests to his progress on that front. So does the showcase performance by the Christian Howes Group, a quartet inclusive of piano, bass, and drums. A set of classical and jazz cross-over music had the air of a late-night jazz club combo (it performed later both evenings at the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul), and closed with Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor. Nice listening!

Equally engaging was the gig by Randy Sabien and the Fiddlehead Band, whose eponymous leader serves as the new Strings Department head at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Sabien, a native of Rockford, Illinois, and veteran guest of Austin City Limits and A Prairie Home Companion, has pulled together seven, intergenerational performers – three violinists, pianist, drummer, bassist, and guitarist – who honor the history of American roots string playing.

Opening a first Minneapolis appearance by singing “Time to say goodbye” and meaning it?! I don’t think so! Presenters and audiences will want to start saving their shekels to contract and attend performances by a most sonorous and soulful tenor, Mark Masri, a Toronto native who has performed since age 5. Accompanied by piano and guitar, his expansive vocal range and romantic, raven-haired beauty are melting hearts, dropping jaws, and burning up the world’s stages. See if your travel agent can get you tickets to cruise Europe with him, Oct. 15-22.

According to The Four Bitchin’ Babes, the word “bitchin'” is a California surfing term that means “tragically hip.” As in, “Ain’t middle age a blast?” These girlfriends are musician-comediennes who set women’s lives to music with two, estrogen-fueled shows: “Hormonal Imbalance…A Mood Swinging Musical Revue” and “Diva Nation…Where Music, Laughter, and Girlfriends Reign.”

“Any two idiots can have sex the first time. It takes two very special idiots to have it 1,000 times.” So says Larry Miller in his one-man show, Cocktails with Larry Miller: Little League, Adultery, and Other Bad Ideas, in which he shares his comic perspective about marriage, children, and drinking – and how each one leads to the other two. Unless you live under a rock, you have seen him in “Pretty Woman,” “The Princess Diaries,” or more than 100 other films and television shows. Check him out on The Late Show with David Letterman, Sept. 23.

For a group that calls itself “a cello quartet gone mad,” Break of Reality is totally grounded, and a very nice-and-lovely listen. Comprised of three cellists and a percussionist, the ensemble – all 20-something alums of The Eastman School of Music or the Cleveland Institute of Music – plays its own compositions, covers by Metallica and Radiohead, and others, and transcriptions of Bach. Following their Friday evening showcase, the musicians closed out the night’s proceedings a few blocks away at the Dakota Jazz Club.

After nearly three hours of continuous performances, one’s notes become more spare, spacey, and cryptic. About Sybarite5, I wrote “Fabulous!” and “Are they Argentinian?” While their fabulously performed closer by Astor Piazzolla probably put the question in my mind, bios for the three women and two men (two violins, viola, cello, bass), based in New York City, mention nothing about South America. They do include copious details about the commissioning of 20 new works and the paths that led to performances at the Aspen Music Festival, Lincoln Center, the Museum of Sex, and on American Public Media’s Performance Today program. The group wants to be the first string quintet to perform in all 50 states, and has launched an online Kickstarter campaign to help them do it.

Those looking for classical music with a twist can look to Toronto, home of the accomplished accordionist Alexander Sevastian. The native of Minsk, Belarus, performs impeccably the works of Bach, Mozart, Scarlatti, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and more. In addition to his solo work he tours the U.S. and Canada with Quartetto Gelato. Hear a sample of his work here.

The voice of singer and songwriter Justin Hines has been compared to those of Jim Croce and James Taylor. He grew up singing in church, and realized his calling while a teenager 15 years ago when he won a vocal competition to sing the Canadian and American national anthems at a Toronto Raptors basketball game. He since has toured good chunks of the world, and performed at the Beijing and Vancouver Olympic Games. Accompanied by a guitarist and cellist, Hines performs from a wheel chair owing to a joint condition called Larsen’s syndrome. He offers a gentle apology for the lack of choreography – “I’m working on it.”

Independent Showcases

More than 100 independent showcase performances were presented at seven venues in downtown Minneapolis on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights, the majority of them at the Hilton Hotel and its ballrooms. I have never heard of anyone attending all of them; probably, it is not physically possible to do so. Time slots for independent performances can vary, usually lasting from 10 to 30 minutes. There are venues and audiences to bless all of the individuals and entities presented independently; it is a matter of mixing and matching the elements of interest, need, scale, and cost.

Following the conference’s opening reception on Wednesday evening, the Ananya Dance Theatre, based in Minneapolis, opened a five-day run of “Tushaanal: Fires of Dry Grass” at the Southern Theater in the Seven Corners District. The 70-minute original work examined the conflicting dynamics that produce the beauty of and desire for gold along with the violence and adverse impacts on people that accompany its mining, production, and distribution. The performance by 11 women of color represents work at the nexus of artistic excellence and social justice. Ananya Chatterjea, artistic director, choreographer, and dancer, also serves as professor and Director of Dance in the Department of Theater Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota. Her choreographic work, which she envisions as a “call to action,” draws on the Indian dance form of Odissi, the martial art of Chhau, and yoga. Earlier this year, Chatterjea received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in choreography.

Later on Friday evening, I ventured among the second floor ballrooms of the Hilton Hotel, discovering there a mesmerizing world of magic and musical mayhem.

Mallory Lewis and Lamb Chop grew up as sisters, introduced to each other at an early age by their mother, Shari Lewis. When Shari’s death in 1998 brought an end to her work with Lamb Chop, Mally stepped up to keep the puppet magic happening far and wide. Lamb Chop, whose wardrobe has expanded beyond the simple sock of her early days on television, has worn the years well and lost none of her innate charm and insecurity. Although the extended family members Charlie Horse and Wing Ding have not been seen for many years, Hush Puppy made a brief return to Minneapolis this evening from his home in Function Junction, Arkansas.

Just down the hallway, the five guys from Presidio Brass in San Diego held court with their “Sounds of the Cinema” program, opening with the fanfare from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” then moving on to excerpts from “Star Wars,” “Wayne’s World,” “West Side Story,” and “Peter Gun.” For some reason, my notes reflect that at least one of the guys “should show some skin” during “I Feel Pretty.” At any rate, I left feeling pretty sure that these two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba are a force to be reckoned with in American brass chamber music.

It was Joshua Kane‘s publicity that initially drew me to the Hilton with its promise of a psychic show that would allow me to discover my inner superhero and decide if Kane can really read minds. There was no hiding from this guy, who insisted that all the lights be turned up to full, and I somewhat regretted sitting in the front row. I left feeling a respectful admiration for an engaging performer whose shtick is based on old Victorian parlour games. You have to like a performer who says upfront that he doesn’t care if you book him so long as you enjoy him in the moment.

The Second City Touring Company from Chicago looks and feels a lot like the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. The troupe has kept ’em laughing since 1959 with social and political satire presented via sketch comedy, improvisation, and music. It did my heart good to see young people with a current knowledge of the world and a facile ability to comment about it with wit and a razer sharp edge.

Last, but not least (because I stayed for a second-and-last, closing-down-the-Hilton-performance), MOJO and The Bayou Gypsies nearly removed my molars with the energetic vibrations of their Zydeco and Cajun music. Theirs is music you should dance to, and dance we did. Four guys and one gal – multiracial and intergenerational – retained cool control over an inexorable rise in frenzy with their vocals, accordion, rubboard, fiddle, drums, and bass guitar. On Saturday morning, I greeted Mr. Mojo at his booth in the exhibit hall with the question, “Where have you people been all my life? Have you had a good conference?” To which he replied, while offering me a praline, “When I hear greetings like that it’s always a good conference!”

“David danced before the Lord.” –2 Samuel 6:14

Before the music of the spheres, humans experience in their bodies the rhythmic pulse of their hearts, laying the foundation for worship through dance. Dancers and choreographers, at work in the temples of their studios and stages, strive to touch on aspects of the sacred and the divine. When they make the connections, nothing else matters.

In our times, only a few cities or states have been called to erect temples – performing arts centers, if you will – designed and dedicated to celebrate the divine through dance. Such a calling was realized in Minneapolis, Sept. 8-12, with the opening weekend activities at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. The activities included Thursday and Friday evening dance morsels for Midwest Arts visitors, and Sunday open house samplings for the community.

I attended 19 of the 27 dance showcases presented on the mainstage of the 500-seat Goodale Theater and the presentation studio of the James Sewell Ballet. You can read about most of them on the calendar pages of the Cowles Center‘s website.

You can read the observations of my friend, Linda Shapiro, about the Center’s grand opening on the mnartists.org website.

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