Minneapolis, Minnesota

Last week, the Twin Cities hosted three dozen curators and presenters of dance hailing from domestic and international venues. These visitors attended showcase performances presented over five days by 50 contemporary dance makers and organizations based in this community.

One of those visitors, from New York City, works at bringing presenters from European venues to the U.S. to expose them to new or updated perspectives about the currents in dance on these shores. We spoke following three showcase presentations at the University of Minnesota’s Barbara Barker Center for Dance on Friday afternoon.

She observed that many of the conceptual modern dance works she had viewed during two days here – works based in Western styles and traditions and created by different choreographers – shared a distinct and apparently hermetic sameness. “I want to ask them,” she said, “what it is you think you are trying to communicate to me?” She added that it would be nice to send choreographers on the road across the country for a year just for the sake of their exposure to and challenge by other choreography.

I concurred with her comments about the similarities and, without conclusion, we speculated about the reasons for this seeming lack of diversity, and attributed some of it to the influence of the University of Minnesota’s Dance Program and the many dancers and choreographers it has trained to common purposes and loosed upon the community over the years. The visitor also wondered if the strong, close-knit dynamics of the old Minnesota Independent Choreographers Alliance might yet retain influence among dance makers and pick-up companies in the Twin Cities.

That conversation bore vestiges of another I had two weeks earlier with an accomplished, longtime choreographer and dance instructor. How, I asked, would she describe to a neophyte the differences between modern dance and jazz dance? Between modern and ballet? Between modern and post-modern?

Interestingly, none of her proffered descriptions cited splayed fingers, pointed feet, legs turned out or in, bent knees, or any other physical manifestations that would suggest visual images that one could use to make comparisons. It occurred to me as we talked that if the collective we have difficulty describing what we do by what it looks like, then we probably aren’t communicating all that well, verbally or through movement, about our esoteric choreographic intents.

“Huddle” • Jacob Melczer, Gabriel Anderson, John Beasant, Timmy Wagner • Dan Norman Photography

Whether or not they can explain why, most dance makers think they want and need an audience. Those who do not care if their work can be described want their audience to make of it whatever they will. Then, when audience members make little or nothing of it and return rarely, if at all, there is genuine perplexity about why. Sometimes, dance makers even blame the audience. I have mused about this for years.

My musings received fresh life following a recent visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for its “Rembrandt in America” exhibit. The galleries were jammed elbow-to-elbow with an age, gender, and ethnic diversity that would do any outreach worker proud. People moved in an improvised dance more engrossing than many I have seen on stage. More than 105,000 tickets were issued during the run. Exhibit hours were extended for weeks on end. How many dance venues can claim such demand for an entire season let alone one show?

Were all 105,000 attendees experts about art, Dutch painting, and Rembrandt in particular? Did they know on arrival that some of these works were pretty good copies made by students? Assume that they were expert. Why then were so many led around by docents or by self-guided headphone tours? Why did so few fail to read the placard information on the walls? If the information, in whatever form, detracted from the quality of their experience, then why did they avail themselves of it? Did having the information make them unhappy, unappreciative, and less likely to return in the future?

The concept of differentiation, and the notion of describing, explaining, and analyzing it, is not foreign to Mathew Janczewski, a graduate who bounded out of the University of Minnesota to dance with the companies of Shapiro and Smith Dance and Danny Buraczeski’s Jazzdance before-and-while founding ARENA Dances as a vehicle for his own modern dance choreography.

“These Yellow Sands” • Dan Norman Photography

For 17 years, Janczewski has given account of himself and garnered invitations to teach and choreograph for colleges, universities, and other dance companies, commissions to create new works, and resources to create a body of work with – of late – a relatively consistent ensemble of dancers, most of them alums of the University of Minnesota or St. Olaf College. He has assembled a small but effective board of directors and a roster of nearly 70 individual annual donors.

His artist statement acknowledges a responsibility to his audience: “A central challenge in contemporary dance is the degree to which it has become rarefied and dislocated from the culture in which it exists. … I am deeply concerned with making my work relevant to the public that I am addressing.” One can laud his awareness and commitment while considering the degree of his success in meeting that challenge as he developed a signature movement style.

Janczewski always has used the big, broad and dramatic gesture to convey a range of abstract narratives and evoke honest, heart-on his-sleeve emotions. For example, if you are not seeing dancers move with contained torsos in bold, full-throated and circular patterns with high energy in the air and on the floor, with a straight leg extended every 10 seconds, and vertical leaps – often of trios that pop-stop for milliseconds at the top – every 30 seconds, you might question whether you are viewing ARENA Dances.

In a welcome evolution in recent years, he has added texture to his vocabulary and phrasing with smaller, more layered and nuanced movements. This evolution was evident in the program presented at the Cowles Center for Dance in Minneapolis this past weekend, where Saturday’s performance began five minutes late, following a three minute delay and two minutes of announcements.

For all five dances, Pearl Rea designed lighting and Sonya Berlovitz designed costumes.

Susie Bracken • “Les Petites Choses”

“Huddle,” a 17-minute dance that received its premiere in 2009, opens upon four men, Gabriel Anderson, John Beasant III, Jacob Melczer, and Timmy Wagner, distributed across the stage, barefoot and otherwise attired in variations of business office drag. Three of them occupy their individual real estate, four feet square, outlined by 2″x4″ lengths of lumber. In short order, they add their lumber to an edifice of 2″x4″s, stacked 11 high up-stage-right, that becomes their island fort, tree house, man cave, and the locus of their bonding.

The dance, accompanied by music of Radiohead and 65daysof static, follows these men-children as they sort out who is part of the group, and on what terms, at any given moment. Melczer and Wagner, both  second season members of ARENA, carried most of the duet work.

The late-arriving couple that was seated at the right side of the orchestra a few minutes into the work would not have caused a distracting commotion had they been held outside for 15 additional minutes.

“Judged House,” first presented in 1995 and danced with music by the British composer Michael Nyman, begins with dancers down on the floor, and they stay or return there for much of the 11-minute piece. One imagines that their movements while on the floor, if viewed from above, would look like they were dancing upright and on their feet. Whether standing or not, Renee Starr and Sarah Steichen, both in their third season with ARENA, repeatedly pushed against each other in a rivalry that, to my eye, never resolved who wins.

There is a segment of total silence during “Judged House” when the music stops. A possibly very important man – whether lost audience member or clueless theater employee – chose that moment to noisily enter the house through a door not normally used by the public on the left side of the orchestra. After looking around, he exited at the back with accompanying noise. So far as one knows, he was not an armed and psychotic graduate student.

Audience members who spoke French, seated somewhere in front of me, chuckled as the curtain rose on “Les Petites Choses,” the new, centerpiece work of the evening. As something of a protagonist, Susie Bracken, dancing with ARENA again after eight years in Los Angeles, cut a captivating figure in lime green bra, green tights, green heeled shoes, formal blue gloves, and canary yellow plastic bags. Music by Clint Mansell, Fridge, and (primarily) Katerine provided a club sensibility for a nicely detailed romp by Melczer, Starr, Steichen, and Wagner, replete with vacuous facial expressions.

Mathew Janczewski • ARENA Dances

More than most of Janczewski’s dancers over the years, Bracken infuses her own personality fully into his choreography. In this, she has competition from Wagner who also finds the fusion; as the man in front of me said, “He looks good in this work.” The last segment of “Les Petites Choses,” dominated by Bracken in turquoise skirt and short red jersey, ends on a soft high, reflecting the liquid, languid air of an adagio, danced to cello and violin.

Quelle petite pierre précieuse!

As one result of Janczewski’s diligence over the years, the National Dance Project, managed by the New England Foundation for the Arts, has awarded ARENA Dances a production grant worth thousands of dollars to create “The Main Street Project,” a major dance that will premiere in the fall of 2014. For this concert, Janczewski presented a very brief teaser to whet the audience’s appetite. Wagner performed solo next to a pile of crumpled paper while our attention was drawn to three students who voiced statements to the camera in a video produced by Cully Gallagher.

For the program closer, “These Yellow Sands,” set to music again by Nyman, Janczewski re-worked a 2001 commission from the Walker Art Center’s Momentum Dance Works series. The dancers, Anderson, Beasant, Melczer, Starr, Steichen, and Wagner, acquitted themselves admirably in what was largely a pure movement work.

The same cannot be said for the Cowles Center’s production crew. About 60 seconds into “Yellow Sands,” a large square projection of solid blue color with the words “Power Off” flashed on the back curtain above the dancers. This technical glitch from the preceding video was inexcusable. It marred the final work and wrecked one’s impression of the entire evening.

One might ignore it as an isolated mess-up. However, not six months ago, the retrospective video that was part of the 25th anniversary performances of Shapiro and Smith Dance did not play on cue on opening night. Artistic Director Joanie Smith had to exit the stage to sort out with the crew what presumably had been covered in the dress rehearsal. Another isolated mess-up? Possibly.

The Cowles Center, continuing its opening shakedown cruise into a second season, was intended to avoid these kinds of junior high school AV club screw-ups. What is concerning is that these incidents may reflect a culture of indifference on the part of the theater’s production personnel.

According to a contemporaneous account by a dancer, just before five members of the Zenon Dance Company took the stage on their opening night last spring, a member of the technical crew bluntly told them he did not like dance in general. “You watch it for a minute,” he reportedly said, “and you kind of ‘get it,’ and then it’s just boring. So you can move like that. So what?”

How inspiring and supportive. Clearly, the dude is making what he will of the dance work that he sees and that pays his bills. But.

Our town is small. People talk. If we are to believe just a portion of what we hear, then that comment and the attitude behind it has been voiced on several unguarded occasions by Cowles production personnel. Before a reputation for technical indifference and mediocrity becomes cemented at this new venue, such comments and attitudes need to be kicked in the backside.

Most performers and outside technical people who must rely on the goodwill of these inside folks are reluctant to speak up. Here then, for them, is a message to the Cowles Center production staff:

You are compensated more per hour and per annum than most of the performers on your stage. They are the reason for your employment. Their work is more than just a job; it is their calling and their cause, and it must be yours also. This community did not spend 12 years and $50 million building this facility so that your cavalier attitudes and negligent behaviors could drag down an art form that is raising itself up.

If you cannot get behind that program with enthusiasm, and initiate your learning about what you don’t know, then get the hell out of Dodge. Otherwise, the folks at the Ritz, Southern, Red Eye, and O’Shaughnessy venues will happily take those boring, bothersome dance artists off your hands, and the ticket buyers and donors that come with them.