Minneapolis, Minnesota

A poster hangs in a stairwell of my house for the first performances by the Zenon Dance Company, presented in a studio setting at the Hennepin Center for the Arts, April 6-8, 1983. Preview performances were held a week earlier, March 30-31, at the Edina Community Center.

The occasion represented a leap of faith for the dancers and their artistic director, Linda Andrews, as they assumed the trappings of a professional ensemble, replacing their previous status as advanced students with the pre-professional Rezone [modern] and Just Jazz companies fielded by the Ozone Dance School.

Leslie O’Neill & Scott Mettille, rock stars in Zenon’s shining galaxy

The new, professional Zenon was viewed by many as an impertinent upstart, and its debut program offered what most observers at the time, and for some years afterward, considered to be an improbable and unworkable mix of modern and jazz dance choreography. The opening bill featured works by Hannah Kahn, Charlie Vernon, Lewis Whitlock, Linda Shapiro, Wil Swanson, Lynn Simonson, and Anne Gunderson.

The notion that dancers could cross-train to perform many styles of modern dance, as well as jazz dance, was considered to be something of a joke by many local and national gatekeepers who served on the staffs and granting panels of service organizations, foundations, government agencies, and the media. It took many performance seasons and grant-making rounds to convince them to open their minds, trust their eyes, and lend their support.

After 29 years, many of those original pooh-bahs consider Zenon to be Minnesota’s artistic leader in dance and a competent competitor as a national innovator.

After 29 years, the Hennepin Center for the Arts is known as the “education wing” of The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, and is connected to the new, 500-seat Goodale Theater, the first venue in Minnesota built specifically to serve the presentation needs of concert dance.

After 29 years, Zenon’s program lineup remains an eclectic mix of the modern, the jazz, the cerebral, the entertaining, the dynamic, the bizarre, and the right-on. It is one of three companies (the James Sewell Ballet and Ballet of the Dolls are the others) that can draw an audience of respectable size for two weekends of performances twice a year.

Also after 29 years, Twin Cities dance artists retain a pathological need to label, rate, and categorize each other, their work, and venues. In that, they could save themselves much drama and misspent energy. As observed by the dance writer Lightsey Dharst, many modern dance companies in the Twin Cities “share dancers, and all rely to some extent on those dancers to generate movement, which means that you get to see the same great moves in concert after concert.”

Zenon’s commissions of work from a variety of choreographers – many from afar and who are not one of us – mitigate the effects of this dynamic. This is particularly true of the standing tall program presented for the company’s 29th spring season that opened May 4 at the Cowles Center, and runs through May 13. The program shines with a brilliance that should not be missed.

The world premiere of “Wine Dark Sea,” reflecting on the connection of humans to ocean and choreographed in a modern dance style by Minnesota’s Wynn Fricke, featured a symbiotic, original composition and performance by the percussionist Peter O’Gorman. The composer’s participation represented one of the first projects underwritten by the Live Music for Dance Minnesota program of the American Composers Forum.

At rise, eight dancers in close proximity faced the audience from upstage center, heads uplifted, elbows crooked above their faces, and legs moving to lateral tendu in costumes crafted by Annie Cady. For an instant, one perceived thrilling aspects of Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” presented in Minneapolis earlier in the week by the Northrop Dance Series.

Two major movements featured two, well-crafted quartets. That for the men, Tristan Koepke, Scott Mettille, Stephen Schroeder, and Gregory Waletski, resembled voguing at times, and that for the women, Mary Ann Bradley, Tamara Ober, Leslie O’Neill, and Laura Selle Virtucio, worked on and into the floor. During the latter, the men crouched across and behind an upstage scrim, unfolding vertically while each struck, in turn, a single toned triangle in sync with O’Gorman’s larger theme.

Although an audience member was overheard at intermission to say that most dances, everywhere, could stand to be cut by five minutes, the primal and solid “Wine Dark Sea” ended with an abruptness that called out for one more movement to lend a sense of completeness.

I retain my earlier assessment that “Booba” (Hebrew for “doll”) from 2008, represents “an odd set of excerpts” from a full-evening work by Andrea Miller, a graduate of The Juilliard School. Set to music by Balkan Beat Box, the work engages with a series of personality-expressing divertissements, opening with a stage-right-to-left shimmy led by Schroeder, followed by O’Neill, Mettille, Ober, Koepke, and Bradley. Miller’s choreography resembles a cross between disco and breaking, and Schroeder and O’Neill shine in a duet that could reflect characters from The Big Bang Theory.

If anything will instill in me an appreciation for postmodern dance that moves beyond grudging, it will be the dances of the choreographer Morgan Thorson, whose work has been recognized and supported by nearly every major funding entity in the field. She accepts, on an elemental level, that dance should include at least a minimal amount of intelligent movement that also does not require an advanced degree to follow and understand.

In her new, second creation for Zenon, “All Parts ˆAre Welcome,” she crafts a mesmerizing world that seeks to “stare down our worst conflicted feelings about life.” Thorson immerses herself holistically in the details of her creations, holding credit here for costuming in addition to choreography, and sharing billing for lighting design with Mike Grogan.

She has described “All Parts ˆAre Welcome” as bringing “everything that makes us human into the choreographic process by way of observation, same sex attraction, flipping, dominance, rejection, a desire for intimacy, lies, compartmentalizing, obedience, manipulation, wanting to be seen, arrogance, love” and more.

Some of her parts struck me as weird, but very pleasingly so. From the opening moment when Selle Virtucio burst through the curtains upstage center, we took a journey both light and dark with music created by Chris Schlichting and occasional vocalizations by the dancers. On first viewing, the ending appeared to fritter away weakly in contrast to the intentional composition that preceded it, almost as though Thorson lost her nerve or her interest, and walked away.

In the dance’s latter minutes, Thorson has the leggings, the curtains that mask the sidelights and offstage walls, rise into the fly-loft, seemingly because they can. The time-worn gimmick adds nothing here and, frankly, her work has outgrown it.

With no sets or gimmicks, a wearied and troubled world needs the moments of joyful and spectacular uplift delivered by “Pink Martini,” the evening’s closer.

Since its debut last fall, “Pink Martini,” has served a heart-melting grin from beginning to end, and as the capstone work of Zenon’s sterling, 2011-12 season. It represents a level of sleek and chic choreographic and performance sophistication that the town needs in its collective dance repertoire. With some smoothing of sound transitions between musical segments, one hopes it might become a signature work for a company that has never known one.

For audiences present at the work’s creation, however, any future cast will be hard-pressed to match the accomplished appeal of the present ensemble of eight, collectively the strongest and best of Zenon’s 29 years. The choreographer, Marius Olszewski, created it for them and they own it totally.

Crafted as a series of ballroom dance vignettes using cha-cha and mambo styles set to music of Rosemary Clooney and Perez Prado and His Orchestra, “Pink Martini” offers the dancers star turns that exude confidence, drip with sex appeal, and glow with glamour.

The opening solo by Mettille, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program, set the exciting tone and standard for all that followed. When joined by O’Neill for an ensuing duet, their combined effort was electric. The pairing of these natives of Minnesota (him) and of Wisconsin (her) created a charisma that elevated them to rock stars in the company’s shining galaxy.

Additional pairings – of Waletski and Bradley, Selle Virtucio and Schroeder, Ober and Koepke, O’Neill and Schroeder, Mettille and Waletski, and Bradley and the guys, along with quartets for the men and for the women – combined to evoke a huge “Yes!” and ovation from their audience.

Over time, dancers and dance companies, like athletes and sports teams, experience seasons of triumph and loss. For one who discovered the idea of Zenon before its debut performances in 1983, the company has danced through periods difficult to watch. Not so in recent years. The triumph of the present season holds cause for much celebration and higher aspiration for the times to come.

For tickets to Zenon Dance Company at The Cowles Center for Dance, call 612.206.3600.

Gary Peterson served as managing director of Zenon Dance Company from 1986 to 1991. Photos by Steve Niedorf.

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