An All-Weather Scene

December 15, 2011

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 9×22 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.


• 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.


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