An All-Weather Scene

Dance is thriving in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

 

 

While its subzero winters take some getting used to, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul harbor a thriving dance scene ranging from classical ballet to bharata natyam, from flamenco to hip hop. The dance ecology here unites buoyant individualism with an ardent sense of community, echoing the populist streak that runs through Minnesota’s history, from its socialist Scandinavian roots to its current multicultural profile.


Now after years of planning, Minneapolis has gained a flagship theater and a center for dance. The new Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts, including the stunningly renovated 1910 Shubert Theater with a refurbished 500-seat Goodale Theater, opened in September to much fanfare. Two sold-out gala performances showcased local companies as well as guest stars like Savion Glover and Wendy Whelan in the state-of-the-art facility. Named for longtime arts benefactors Sage and John Cowles, the center’s inaugural season is presenting 18 area companies. The theater, a lobby, and a studio that houses a distance-learning program have been integrated with the Hennepin Center for the Arts, a renovated Masonic Temple, with three dance companies currently in residence. The hope is that the Cowles Center will give dance groups increased visibility and production capabilities, and that its downtown location will draw a broader audience for dance.


The fact that Minnesota has never had a major ballet company has led to a profusion of diverse artists with powerful artistic visions. Through their ongoing support for individual artists as well as companies, funders like the Jerome, McKnight and Bush Foundations and the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council have nurtured the spirit of innovation that has characterized dance here for over four decades.


A Little Background
The 1960s saw the rise of two key organizations: the Nancy Hauser Dance Company, rooted  in the Hanya Holm and Louis/Nikolais techniques; and the Minnesota Dance Theatre (MDT), under the direction of Loyce Houlton, whose choreography wedded ballet and Graham techniques. Both companies had influential schools and both still operate under their founders’ daughters, Heidi Jasmin and Lise Houlton.


The independent scene flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, with the establishment of the Minnesota Dance Alliance, a grassroots organization that offered resources and support for choreographers and companies. Nancy Hauser created a center that encouraged the creativity of choreographers like Ralph Lemon and Sara Pearson, who went on to found their own companies.


Other entrepreneurial artists developed new ways to present their work. Myron Johnson founded the still-thriving Ballet of the Dolls, a cheeky mélange of pop culture and classical moves, then created a cabaret setting where audiences could mingle with the glam cast. Already part of a strong local improvisation network, Patrick Scully founded Patrick’s Cabaret, a place for experimental work by sometimes marginalized subcultures, including gay artists, that recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dancer/writer Judith Brin Ingber convinced Walker Art Center, a bastion of modern art and performance, to sponsor local Choreographers’ Evenings, which have been ongoing.
 

And Now...
Today, the Twin Cities’ robust arts scene encompasses dance, theater, visual arts, music, and performance art. Rather than existing in separate silos, artists interact to create lively dialogues between forms and genres. For example kathak-based Katha Dance Theatre performed with the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir at the Cowles Center in November. This collaborative spirit has fostered some fascinating hybrids: dance performances that are also art installations (April Sellers Dance Collective, Emily Johnson/Catalyst); composers who embody music in motion (Mary Ellen Childs’ group CRASH); and dance/theater pieces written and directed by choreographers. The prestigious Guthrie Theater has recently presented works by Joe Chvala and Stuart Pimsler. Pimsler also spearheaded the creation of the annual Sage Awards in 2005 in honor of dancer/philanthropist Sage Cowles, to recognize outstanding achievements in dance.

 
Company Town
The Twin Cities is rife with companies, both on and under the radar. Some have two home seasons per year, touring, and dancers on contract for 30 to 50 weeks. Others are more loosely organized and project-based.


• A strong repertory group under the direction of Linda Z. Andrews, Zenon Dance Company commissions both local and nationally known choreographers ranging from jazz dance to postmodern.


• TU Dance, founded by former Ailey dancers Uri Sands and Toni Pierce-Sands, showcases Sands’ dynamic fusion of West African, modern, and ballet.


• Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement combines intense physicality with sophisticated structuring.


• Shapiro & Smith Dance offers up athletically charged theatricality.


• The James Sewell Ballet features Sewell’s accessible yet innovative work, including improvisation on pointe!


Other Voices
A lively dance counterculture has been buoyed up by organizations like Red Eye, which presents emerging artists and offers structured critical feedback, and the Bryant-Lake Bowl’s 9x22 series, a monthly event where works-in-progress get audience responses. Walker Art Center’s curator of performing arts, Philip Bither, commissions adventurous artists/companies like Ragamala, ARENA Dances with Mathew Janczewski (a 2008 “25 to Watch”), and Morgan Thorson to create new works.


Performance art–oriented artists and groups like Hijack, Mad King Thomas, Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra, Vanessa Voskuil, Laurie Van Wieren, and Judith Howard create richly evocative, surreal landscapes, often in alternative spaces. Meanwhile Penny Freeh, Justin Leaf, Sally Rousse and Nic Lincoln radicalize and deconstruct ballet conventions—sometimes in fishnet tights. New York expats Justin Jones and Chris Yon remix gestural moves and iconic images, and Karen Sherman makes ferocious dances exploring physical and emotional extremes. There is plenty of interdisciplinary dance incorporating film, video, and installations, most notably from the BodyCartography Project and Time Track Productions.


World Dance
World dance proliferates here. Three Indian-based companies—Ragamala Dance, Katha Dance Theatre, and Ananya Dance Theatre—along with Zorongo Flamenco, and Middle Eastern Jawaahir, take traditional forms in contemporary directions. Ethnic Dance Theatre and the Native Pride Dancers stress authenticity in their culturally specific productions, while Kenna Cottman (director of West African–based Voice of Culture Drum and Dance), Roxane Wallace-Patterson, and B-Girl Leah Nelson have made pithy interdisciplinary works exploring cultural identity.


Training
• The Zenon Dance School has the most diverse offerings, including classes in ballet, modern, and jazz, as well as sessions with names like “Belly Dance Flow” and “Health and Wellness.” It also houses a pre-professional performing group and offers scholarships and work-study programs.


• The MDT Dance Institute’s performing arts division provides a rigorous curriculum in classical ballet and contemporary dance.


• The new TU Dance Center in St. Paul offers classes in ballet, modern, and African.


• Ballet teachers like Becky Stanchfield (at Zenon), former ABT soloist Lise Houlton, and former Bolshoi dancer Lirena Branitski (at MDT) mentor the students and professionals who flock to their classes. 


• The University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance turns out versatile dancers who are immediately sucked into companies here, nationally, and internationally. Its excellent faculty includes Toni Pierce-Sands (ballet and Horton technique); department chair Carl Flink, whose dynamic men’s class has attracted many to the program; and Erin Thompson, whose teaching has been influenced by her work in Alexander Technique. The department also brings in Cowles Visiting Artists, who teach and choreograph on the students.


• Macalester College in St. Paul has a diverse dance program under the direction of Becky Heist.


• Arts high schools like the one at the Perpich Center for Arts Education outside Minneapolis and the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists serve as feeder programs for these institutions.


• Suzanne River developed and teaches Global Somatics, a combination of various somatic modalities.


• Jane Shockley draws upon this approach, along with Feldenkrais and her dance training, for classes that get rave reviews from area professionals. She also teaches at nearby Carleton College, whose dance program is headed by another popular teacher, Judith Howard.


• Classes by Rosy Simas, Deborah Thayer, former Trisha Brown dancer Kevin Kortan, and many others draw from Pilates, Gyrotonics, Feldenkrais, yoga, Klein and Alexander Techniques.


Venues
The Twin Cities prides itself on the number and diversity of its dance venues, even before the Cowles Center reared its elegant head. Walker Art Center, Northrop Auditorium, and the Ordway Center present mostly national and international dance, while area artists showcase their work in intimate venues, including the Ritz Theater, Lab Theater, Red Eye, and Byrant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, and larger houses like The O’Shaughnessy and Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. In addition, the annual Minnesota Fringe Festival presented over 18 dance events last August. The recent financial problems of the Southern Theater, which curated programs of local dance for over three decades, have been a blow to the community (it is now operating as a rental house).


Influx of Artists
The climate of mutual respect created here by partnerships between artists, educators, funders, and presenters has made this area a destination for both young dancers and established professionals. Over the past couple of decades, the Twin Cities has seen an influx of artists from across the country and around the world who have chosen to migrate to a fertile crescent where their careers, their lives, and their families can thrive. It has welcomed them with open arms—and with a massive skyway system designed to keep them warm and dry. Of course, keeping yourself in layers helps too.

 


Linda Shapiro was co-founder of New Dance Ensemble and director of the New Dance Laboratory, which were both active in the Twin Cities in the 1980s. She now writes about dance and the performing arts.

 

From top: Photo of Vanessa Voskuil, independent choreographer, by John Koch, Courtesy Voskuil; Photo of Stuart Pimsler by V. Paul Virtucio, Courtesy Stuart Pimsler; Photo of James Sewell Ballet by Erik Saulitis, Courtesy JSB; Photo of ARENA Dances by Erik Saulitis, Courtesy Arena; Photo of Ragalama by Ed Bock, Courtesy Ragamala; Photo of Zenon by Steve Niedorf, Courtesy Zenon; Photo of Cowles Center courtesy Cowles Center. Below: Photo of Rhythmic Circus by Cory Jones, Courtesy Rhythmic Circus.

 

 

Percussive, Hip Hop, Ballroom, & All That Jazz
Even before it opened, the Cowles Center gained its cred as a community hub by sponsoring three Groundbreaker Battles in adjoining parking lots, highlighting the Twin Cities’ thriving hip hop and breaking scene. Crews have included J-Sun and the Battlecats, Dancin’ Dave, D-Skreet, Ill Chemistry, and Looney Tunes.


Jazz dance has been a staple here since Zoe Sealy founded the Minnesota Jazz Dance Company in the 1970s, and Danny Buraczeski relocated his JAZZDANCE troupe from NYC in the 1980s. Currently Eclectic Edge Ensemble keeps the flame alive. Rhythmically Speaking, an online newsletter and blog by Erinn Liebhard and Heather P. Westerlund, seeks to revitalize jazz and rhythm-based dance forms in the Twin Cities area, while the Beyond Ballroom Dance Company explores the creative possibilities of ballroom dance outside of the competition arena.


Percussive dance took off in the 1990s with Joe Chvala’s Flying Foot Forum, a mix of folklore, camp theater, and hard-core tapping. Buckets and Tap Shoes mixes tap, hip hop, bucket drumming, and broad physical theater. And Rhythmic Circus has made provocative tap explorations of subjects like Alzheimer’s disease.

Outreach & Exchanges
Several area groups and individuals get Twin Cities’ work out there and into the community. Since the 1990s, Link Vostok has sponsored annual exchanges between Minnesota and Russian dance artists. Minnesota is also part of the SCUBA Touring Network, a four-way partnership with venues in Seattle, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. In addition there are several informal artist-driven touring networks.


Since 1985, Marylee Hardenbergh has been creating large-scale, site-specific works here and around the world, including a multi-site piece along the Mississippi River and Dance for Peace in Bosnia to mark the end of the war.


Area artists have worked with medical professionals and caregivers (Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater), hearing-impaired children (Zenon), and at-risk youth (J-Sun, Kenna Cottman). Kairos Dance Theatre is an intergenerational group that works with older adults and their families and caregivers. 

Web Resources
Most companies and artists have websites, but here are a few primary sources of information and commentary.


 www.mnartists.org is an online database on artists and organizations as well as news and features about the local arts scene.


 www.dancemn.org gives access to a weekly dance newsletter and various blogs.


 Twin Cities newspapers, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and City Pages, post reviews, blogs, and calendars on their websites. —L. S.

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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