Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Buckets and Tap Shoes

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Please come tonight for our...show. We have worked very hard to make this the tightest and most entertaining "Buckets and Tap Shoes" performance EVER! –Facebook post by Rick Ausland, Mar. 29, 2009, for the last of 5 performances at the Music Box Theatre, Minneapolis.

In the year 2039, what passes for that era's version of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" might well feature the Ausland brothers, Rick and Andy, in the latest of their recurring appearances on the program. As always, their presence would include an energetic and accomplished funky tap dance segment that brings the studio audience to its feet while clapping and cheering to the rhythm.

The duo's conversation with Leno's successor might include reminiscences about their early steps toward stardom during the first, recession-wracked decade of the century when they tapped-out their reputation one gig at a time: Dover, Charleston, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Rapid City, New York, Madison, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., Denver, Kansas City, Hawaii, Austria, Finland, Russia, Ecuador. To name just a very few.


Mention might be made of their beginnings, applying drum sticks to five-gallon paint buckets and tap dancing on the streets of Minneapolis outside the Metrodome and various nightclubs in the Warehouse District – improvised outings that garnered much applause and occasional abuse.

Some members of that futuristic Leno audience might recall their own presence on the electric evening of November 29, 2003, when Rick, Andy, and their accomplices exploded through the back doors of the Walker Art Center's old auditorium to thump and bump their way to the stage and into recorded history, while the audience for a Choreographer's Evening went totally nuts for the first time in years.

While the Ausland's memories of the blood, sweat, and tears of the early years probably will have dimmed by 2039, they may retain a deep reservoir of satisfaction and gratitude for the meaningful experiences they shared with countless people around the globe. One hopes so. We knew these guys were good long before someone writing in the New York Times said they were "utterly brilliant."

Rick and Andy have tap danced since they were kids. In 1997, they formed Ten Foot Five Productions with three friends as a vehicle for a dance competition (10 feet/5 guys). Known more popularly as Buckets and Tap Shoes, their company of musicians, percussionists, and hoofers presented a major series of five concert performances at The Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis, Mar. 26-29, 2009.

The well-paced program included elements of funk, jazz, classical, hip-hop, blues, and rock in two dozen segments. The proceedings opened with a parade by five performers entering from the back of the house, pounding on a variety of drums as they danced their way to the stage to the accompaniment of rhythmic clapping by the audience. Attired neck-to-ankle in navy blue industrial coveralls, the five lined-up across the stage for an extended section of original, percussive music, switching positions with each other repeatedly without missing a beat.

Costumes changed frequently throughout the show and reflected multiple, individual combinations of blue jeans, slacks, t-shirts, button-down shirts – with and without ties, occasional sport coats, and vests.

Episodes of call-and-response kept audience members participating and engaged – not that they required assistance in that regard. Boundaries between program segments were sometimes marked by moments of abrupt, motionless silence with each performer bathed in a straight-down square of light.

A tap dance in three parts ended the 40-minute first half. On a blacked-out stage, Andy tapped a virtuosic solo while shining a flashlight at his feet. This was followed by Rick's solo-with-flashlight, executed from the center of the orchestra audience while navigating stairs in the dark. A duet by both ensued onstage, accompanied by atmospheric smoke. The section worked well, but one wished for a brighter illumination, aimed more directly on the dancers's feet, rather than in front of, in order to highlight the complex footwork.

Rick and Andy returned precisely 15 minutes later to accompany a recording of Mozart's Turkish Rondo, hoofing in perfect sync with the music and each other. This morphed into a charming and jazzy, downstage interlude by bassist Dan Ristrom and trumpeter Aaron Wiener which, in turn, morphed into a set with the up-ended paint buckets, complete with juggled drumsticks and empty Culligan water bottles. More morphing followed as Ristrom and Wiener provided a funky interlude leading to a Funkeapolis tap dance that sequed into a Funkeapolis tune sung by all five, including drummer Chris Vanderpoll.

At that point, I stopped taking notes because the pace accelerated while the performers danced solo and as a group, vocalized, and stirred a cauldron of audience frenzy that bubbled over to a wild, standing ovation, an encore, and a second ovation. Six minutes before 10pm, everyone in the audience was energized and everyone on stage was exhausted. All were joyous.

The concentration of so much multi-faceted talent in these five individuals makes their enterprise shine like a jewel, one that should be treasured more widely and deeply than it is. Each has clearly devoted the requisite 10,000 hours of training to become a master of his profession, and each is well on the way to acquiring 10,000 hours of experience on stage. As it can for many artists, the heart aches in its witness of their commitment and earnest desire to succeed.

Theirs are generous souls, devoting a page of the printed program to recognize and thank more than 75 individuals and organizations that have lent them assistance. They also are shy fellows, omitting any information about themselves, their backgrounds, and their experiences. In this particular they err; new people, like the women seated behind me, want to know more, while those who are more familiar need help remembering the details from one encounter to the next. Nonetheless, they have become savvy about promoting their performances, and arranged demonstration appearances on the Fox, ABC, and NBC television stations in the Twin Cities.

They are true pros. However, they are in need of a stronger infrastructure that can calm the frenzy and lift the load of their offstage activities. For the long term, they should examine whether a non-profit or for-profit business model can more efficiently serve, sustain, and advance their interests. In either case, the infusion of a modest but significant amount of capital would propel them to the heights that rightfully should be theirs. Someone(s) needs to take on their cause.

• • •

The Music Box Theatre, located near downtown Minneapolis and the city's convention center, is an architectural gem – from an audience perspective – built as a vaudeville house in 1920. Currently operating on a for-profit basis, the theater is a 440-seat house, renting for a modest base charge of $3,500 a week. While its stage is not suitable for most concert dance, its raked seating offers good sightlines to audiences.

It needs improvement in at least one area. For the Saturday evening performance by Buckets and Tap Shoes, advertised to begin at 8pm, only one ticket seller occupied the box office. At 8pm, 43 people still stood in line to purchase tickets or pick up will call orders. Two individuals, who clearly worked for the theater, stood by watching the line's slow progression, while occasionally helping a third employee at the concessions counter. This is a low level of service that, tempered by degree, is as outrageous as the poor performance of many of our wizards of Wall Street finance.

The customer always comes first. It does not matter whether one's job description includes the selling of tickets; employees with pride in their work ethic will add value to their skill sets by taking the initiative to pitch in, to learn, and to help out. When 43 people are waiting to give you $20 each – plus sales tax plus service charge – you need to make it easy for them to do it, even if it comes at the expense of missing out on a sale for a $2 cookie or cup of java. In at least this instance, the Music Box personnel needed to embody a fraction of the can-do spirit that animates some of their renters.

To balance and round out the observation: What was one to make of the customers who were still entering the lobby to join the ticket line at 8:06pm? Did they not know the start time? Did they not leave home in sufficient time to locate a new venue? Did they assume that no one else would be waiting to make a last-minute purchase? Did they think it would be acceptable to take their seats after the performance started? Did they think at all? Hopefully, they thought to tell their friends to turn out for the next performance.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Seasonal affect disorder

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Throughout March, the Minnesota Playlist site has featured reports and commentaries about how, and how well, Twin Cities theaters go about the business of assembling a season of plays. The site's editor, Alan Berks, has just posted No one asked me but... in which he tries to evoke and provoke. Example:

Don't do plays to 'raise awareness' or 'inform' or 'put a human face on a problem.' ... Why is theater the only business on the planet that expects to get a new audience with the same product? ... They know what your theater does – it's not a marketing problem – they don't want to see it.

Worth a read.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minnesota may not need a second United States senator when we already have a self-described "foreign correspondent behind enemy lines" in Washington to keep us informed and to look after our interests. Her name is Michele Bachmann, and she represents the people of our state's sixth congressional district, having been elected to her second term last November. This past weekend she used the airwaves of WWTC 1280 AM to make one of her periodic reports to us on a number of issues. About the administration's cap-and-trade proposal to reduce carbon emissions, she had this to say:

I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us ‘having a revolution every now and then is a good thing,’ and the people – we the people – are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States.

Some of the folks reading this will find these and others of Bachmann's comments perfectly lucid and reasonable, while some will think she is totally nuts.

A similar divergence of perspective has been occurring lately at the University of Minnesota's dance program where an anonymous protest has attacked "institutional racism and white privilege." The protest was chronicled in a posting on the tcdailyplanet website, which includes links to a blog started by the anonymous protesters and a Facebook page set up by some not-anonymous students.

After reading the manifestos, comments, and meeting minutes, it is clear that the protesters have cut the ground from beneath their efforts by insisting on anonymity and failing to cite specifics to which anyone can respond coherently. (Feel free to dispute this conclusion in the comment section below.)
Everyone, including students, who seeks desired or justified change can benefit from learning certain basics about effective dialogue and strategy. Hopefully, for students, that learning can occur while attending a major university.

The protesters – and all of us – might take a cue from Jay Smooth and his upbeat, three-minute video of advice about "How To Tell People They Sound Racist." His pointers might even be applicable to some of our political and public policy dialogue.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: "Renovate" choreographer's evening, Ritz Theater

Minneapolis, Minnesota

A showcase for 40 dance artists – choreographers and dancers – provided a welcome complement to the first weekend of spring-like weather in the Twin Cities, Mar. 13-15. Styled as "Renovate: Enhancing the Edifice of Twin Cities Dance," the three performances represented a second year of choreographer's evenings presented by Ballet of the Dolls and The Ritz Theater in Minneapolis.

As she did last year, Lisa Conlin, a member of the Dolls, curated the lineup of 11 dance works with advisory assistance this year from Uri Sands, artistic director of TU Dance, and Penelope Freeh, artistic associate of James Sewell Ballet. The major aim of Renovate is to introduce and highlight new talents by giving them a stage, publicity, and an audience. With one exception, all of the choreographers were new to me, as were most of the dancers.

Hip-hop and breakdance veterans Lisa Berman and Carlos Garcia opened the program with "Breakin' Through Cancer," using a music mix including Everyday People, Everday Struggle, Underdog, HAIR, Do Your Thing, and Age of Aquarius. The two choreographers were joined in a variety of solo, group, all guys, and all gals configurations by Amy Sackett, Nicki Cullinan, Madeline Howie, Aneka McMullen, Joe Tran, Tybierius Nguyen, and Mikhail Sakhvadze. The ensemble moved with a nice cohesion and energy. As breaking evolves, however, its movers with staying power for the concert stage will be those who can differentiate themselves from their peers and colleagues. A sharper attack and finer synchronization would be welcome seasonings for this group's nascent virtuosity.

Megan Parlanti performed very fluidly in Stephen Schroeder's "Trial By Grace," created for her senior concert at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her costume, a tunic and skirt in contrasting shades of darker blue, was striking and well-suited to the flavor of the dance. Schroeder's background as a modern dancer with Zenon Dance Company and Arena Dances is reflected here in the soloist's athletic use of space and, in the third section, time spent on the floor becoming acquainted with the floor. The abrupt editing shifts between musical selections – from Kate Havneik, Univers Zero, Jerry Rau, and Edit: sdeezers – injected a dissonance that served no apparent purpose.

Remember the color of Dreamsicles, those orange-white ice cream treats on a stick? That was the flavorful color of the costumes worn by Estevan Esparza and Pam Plagge in "Lucumi," the duet of Cuban dance they created for themselves to music by Pancho Quinto and Grupo Danzon. They performed nicely together, with Plagge displaying an articulated spine and body not matched by Esparza. Their choreography has a decent base on which to add more complexity and depth in future endeavors.

Although probably not intended or controlled by Esparza and Plagge, the abrupt departure of their many fans – seated near the stage – at the conclusion of "Lucumi" on Sunday was a rude disruption for the audience and the next performers in the first half of the program. The insult was exacerbated as the fans broke into conversation while exiting the theater and one of their number noisily dropped a beverage bottle into the trash.

While the printed playbill for the evening included a number of brief and helpful program notes, the absence of any information about the featured choreographers was notable. For sure, large photos and small-print bios were posted in the theater lobby. The omission was striking on a number of counts. Artists at every stage of development desire to be taken seriously. When the audience does not know who these artists are, and from what background and influences spring their creative impulses, it is near impossible to develop an investment in their work. This was true with Esparza and Plagge; I found nothing of use about him on the internet, while for her I searched enough to learn that she has studied somewhat in Havana and been presented in a choreographer's evening at the Walker Art Center. One should not have to look for basic information. A purpose of showcasing newer artists is to remove them from the insider's game and bring them forward for increased scrutiny and visibility.

Bryan Gerber
is a modern dancer with a background in ballet, jazz, and yoga whose heroes include the modern dance pioneers Martha Graham and Ted Shawn. He accompanied the opening of his solo, "Finding Balance," with humming and other vocalizations that gave way to a recording of Rachmaninov's Vocalise, Op. 34/14. Attired in bare torso and shin-length black skirt, Gerber's well-structured movements, largely within a central pool of light, had the look and feel of a captive bird exploring its boundaries.

"Sisterlove," Lisa Conlin's lovely trio for herself and Dolls colleagues Heather Cadigan and Stephanie Fellner, opened with the three women seated, facing upstage, and backed by a meditative segment of Mike Hallenbeck's sound mix. The mix drew from Tim Story, Assumpta Est Maria in Coelum, Ray Lynch, and Minoru Miki. As the abstract narrative unfolded, the dancers interacted with large and small pieces of translucent white and black fabrics.

The last time I saw Jim Lieberthal's work several years ago, he had choreographed a dance for people in wheelchairs. The curiosity of his artistic voice leads him on some worthwhile journeys. He was joined here in performance by Brian Evans, a member of the Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater, and Debra McGee, a member of Arena Dances. I liked the overall crafting of "The Bottom Fell Out...and then." The dancers came across as three independent, interdependent creatures or machines, moving in an angular and staccato – pizzicato? – response to the m
etallic vibes, clanks, and hammering of music by Ben Siems.

Jaime Carrera
is a visual and performance artist who hails from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by way of Kansas and Chicago. "Frontera," his Renovate offering, is part of a trilogy about Mexican immigrants. In this conceptual solo work, set to music by Cuatro Milpas and El Llorar, Carrera moves with idiosyncratic movement phrases. In an interview with 3MinuteEgg about "Tableaux," his recent production at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, Carrera remarked that he has "done a lot of stuff." It would be interesting to see him attempt fewer things and pull from within more of the complexity and nuance that clearly motivates his expression.

The choreography, vocals, text, and costumes composed by Cathy Wright resulted in the most cohesive work on the program. "Wombman," set to music by Matthew S. Smith, featured performers Nina Ebbighausen, Kristen Ostebee, Christine Maginnis, Sharon Picasso, and Jennifer Mack. The particular combination of costumes and music suggested a mating of Weimar-era decadence with "A Clockwork Orange." In a cast of strong performers, Maginnis shows she still has it going on after a career spanning parts of three decades. Wright's work has been presented by dance companies in Utah, where she earned a BFA degree in modern dance from the University of Utah, and by the Momentum Series of the Walker Art Center and Southern Theater.

Marciano Silva dos Santos
, a native of Brazil, provided some of the evening's most complex and interesting movement in "3'0'1," a work for three men and two women, with music by Moana Maru. A solo by dos Santos, a member of both TU Dance and Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater, opened the piece, followed by a quartet of Brian Evans, Cade Holmseth, and Kari Mosel – of the Pimsler company – and Jenny Pennaz. The quartet started from positions on the floor with organic and cliched movement, and progressed to a satisfying finish.

The "most complete" performer on the Ritz stage was Christian Adeti, a native of Accra, Ghana. As a drum and dance instructor and performer, Adeti serves as artistic director of the Titambe West African Dance Ensemble of Minnesota, and has taught at Carleton College in Minnesota, North High School in Minneapolis, and Zenon Dance School. "Ganbolt Dance" drew its inspiration from the mining communities of South Africa where "the men sing and play as they look for gold." Adeti's body served literally as his instrument for drumming, vocalization, and percussion. He was accompanied by performers Autumn Compton and Whitney McClusky.

Julie Warder provided "Jammin," the last-but-not-least program closer. Again, it would have been nice to know something more about this artist than just her name. Working with music by Christian McBride, Warder led her dancers through an abstract drama with the right touch of athletic precision: neither too much nor too little. The performers included Brian Evans, Debra McGee, Cade Holmseth, Kency Roberson, and Aneka McMullen.

Housekeeping details: Throughout the evening, the lighting design did not distract, but would have benefited from a brighter illumination of the performers. The house manager needed to start the show at the advertised 7pm, rather than at 7:10pm. Those quibbles aside, the folks at Ballet of the Dolls and the Ritz Theater should be encouraged to renew Renovate for a third year in 2010.

Italicized text revised/extended 3/19/09, 5:34 AM.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Outrageous and unbelievable!

In the last week: I visited with an agent of a for-profit enterprise that just laid off more than five dozen people and is evaluating whether to renew its sponsoring relationship with one of our major sports facilities. I spoke with an arts community leader who is concerned about losing the community's production infrastructure that provides employment to thousands of on-stage and off-stage people. I took coffee with a writer who is trying to piece together rent and grocery money in a fragmenting publishing milieu. I caught up with a publicist who is working seven days a week to fill 75% of available seats in an ongoing business that requires more than that to break even. On Friday, I dropped in on six organizations to cheer their morale as they deal with budgetary turmoil.

Yesterday: The American International Group (aka A.I.G., the insurance giant termed "too big to fail") announced that it is awarding $165 million in performance-related bonuses for 2008 to some of its employees. This is after the collective we, the citizens of the United States (not all of us are taxpayers) bailed out this firm with infusions of public cash, borrowed from China, to the tune of $170 billion. In a letter to A.I.G.'s chairman, the secretary of the treasury, Timothy Geithner, urged that the bonuses be scrapped.

Today: Larry Summers, chair of the White House National Economic Council, said he is outraged by the news, but because of contracts that pre-date the public bailout there is nothing that can be done to stop the bonuses (although, apparently, effective curbs are in process of implementation going forward). Further, the chairman of A.I.G. says that subjecting the compensation policies of his organization to the dictates of the government (aka the public – you and me – the owners – the people who have guaranteed that they still have jobs) will risk a talent drain to the competition.

Wall Street is separated from Main Street not just by a yawning gap. Wall Street is its own surreal, parallel universe.

Note to Summers and others who say "No we can't" stop these bonuses: You owe your own jobs to our belief and desire that "Yes we can!"

We don't care how you do it. Shut down this outrage!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A good start

Minneapolis, Minnesota

With half of Minnesotans on suicide watch owing to the duration and intensity of winter, and with half poised to slit their wrists if the Coleman/Franken recount does not end during recorded history, sunshine coupled with sustained high temperatures cannot arrive too soon.

Even if this morning began with windchills of –15º to –20º, today's deep and piercing sunshine is a good start, a welcome uptick from yesterday's gray overhang and dump of slop. Once we emerge from tonight's thermometer low of –6º, we will have a shot at remaining above freezing during coming days.

There even are glimmers of hope on the recount front. Assuming that the final witnesses can make it to St. Paul from our blizzard-strewn counties to the west, Team Franken might rest its case this afternoon – two or three weeks ahead of predictions. After Team Coleman's rebuttal and any Franken re-rebuttal, plus closing arguments by both sides, Coleman's legal challenge to the State Canvassing Board's final report could go to the special panel of three, state court judges next week.

After that? Stay tuned. While Franken told some Democratic senators yesterday that he saw light at the end of the recount tunnel, Coleman's campaign manager asserted to some reporters that it really was the light of an oncoming train.

For drama queens and others of every stripe, we have enjoyed or endured (take your pick) months of civic distemper on every topic. From those on the left – complaining about the left-right-and-center – to those on the right – carrying on about the right-left-and-center – it seems none of us are happy about anything.

(Notwithstanding a new Gallup poll that says Minnesotans rank themselves fifth highest for health and happiness.)

Well. At least someone is trying to cope.

The front page of this morning's Star Tribune newspaper featured an interesting juxtaposition. At the top center, the president was quoted as saying "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens." The adjacent story reported about a substitute teacher in St. Paul who was sent home from school yesterday after blowing a 0.18% on a Breathalyzer test.

Probably not the kind of education, or coping, the prez had in mind.

Coping is a state of mind that requires a positive outlook. For example, anyone who still qualifies to pay capital gains taxes in any amount can be added to the endangered species list. (I know that hurts and isn't funny.) Further, at least for now, it appears that close to 90% of the country is still employed at least part-time. (Also not funny).

Our entertainment industries stand ready to help. The owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves basketball team has taken to the airwaves to pitch season tickets for five bucks a game – with the
promise that anyone laid off during 2009 will receive a refund.

Only medical tests, however, can remove the darkest cloud on the horizon. Joe Mauer, our hometown star catcher for the Minnesota Twins, had kidney surgery in December. Joe has been able to catch, throw, and swing a bat in spring training, but he still cannot run without back pain and has yet to play a pre-season game. This is not good as we await results of today's magnetic resonance arthrogram in Fort Myers.

Joe's good health would help get the baseball season off to a good start. Could the rest of the world be far behind?