Sunday, September 27, 2009

Review: Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre at the Ritz

Minneapolis, Minnesota

As a way of life, flamenco chafes at the inimical strictures of the concert stage. That its art is known at all within the United States owes much to its expression by a handful of American Spanish dance ensembles, the Twin Cities-based Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre among them. Since its founding by Susana di Palma in 1982, Zorongo has presented traditional flamenco programs as well as its original and signature theater flamenco works that explore contemporary themes and issues.

Although traditionally associated with Spanish Gypsies, flamenco evolved from the mash-up of Muslim, Jewish, Indo-Pakistani, and Byzantine cultures in the Andalusian provinces of southern Spain: Almeria, Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, Huelva, Joen, Molega, and Sevilla. The form is distinguished by its four elements of singing (cante), dancing (baile), guitar playing (toque), and rhythm (jaleo). In adapting flamenco to the theater, its practitioners seek to maintain the passionate soul of flamenco that may be found in the night-long juergas of the Spanish countryside.

Following an engagement at North Dakota State University, di Palma brought her troupe's Retratos – portraits – program to a weekend of performances at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, Sept. 18-20. The program featured a range of traditional and thematic flamenco, delivered with a satisfying cohesion and strong, technical consistency.

Two opening segments nicely introduced the personalities and performance quirks of four accomplished dancers. A trio of Deborah Elias Morse, Sachiko Nishiuchi, and Laura Horn danced to recorded cante by Carmen Linares. Attired in contemporary garb, the women rushed about the stage as though in a downtown street scene, cell phones pressed to their ears, before preparing to throw off the frenzy and fashion of modern times for the traditional, floor-length gowns of traditional bailaoras. As they departed, Julia Altenbach arrived to deliver a commanding alegrias.

For many years, di Palma has drawn on the lives and art of women for inspiration in creating her theatrical works. A solo for herself to the recorded voice of El Pele, singing "Alfonina y El Mar" by Felix Luna, drew from the final poem by Alfonsina Storni, a 20th century feminist and suffragette. Beset by breast cancer and a broken love affair, Storni, a Latin American writer, penned the poem in 1938, the night before her suicide by walking into the sea. A videographic seascape created by di Palma provided a panoramic backdrop for the dance and song.

Pedro Cortés, Jr., who represents the third generation in a family of Spanish Gypsy guitarists, has served as Zorongo's music director since 1993. A panoramic sound journey across his strings in the program's third section earned him a rousing audience ovation.

Then, depending on one's perspective, Cortés and singer Felix de Lola either accompanied – or were accompanied by – Altenbach, Morse, Nishiuchi, and Horn in "Maja" (Solea por Buleria), a fast-paced closer for the first act.

In "Memorial for Neda," di Palma and company, joined by dancer Andrea Plevan, paid tribute to a student, Neda Agha Soltan, 22, who was shot and killed on June 20, 2009, while attending a protest in Tehran against the fraudulent Iranian election results that defeated the reformist candidates for president. Neda's murder made her an instant martyr and symbol of the Iranian people's longing for freedom. In poetry, music, and dance, backed by a video collage of Iranian protests, the company maintained a focus on the experiences of Neda the individual and those of the individuals around her, while depicting what became a singular event for a global mass audience.

A fiery, traditional flamenco finale ended the show with solo dance turns for Morse and Nishiuchi, followed by an exquisite display of solo cante by de Lola, who would have been welcome to sing all night. A bubbling, Bulerias free-for-all brought the proceedings to a satisfying conclusion.

A notable, if more subtle, success for the Zorongo program may be found in the performing presence of five, solid flamenco dancers in addition to di Palma. In the best of times, even in Spain, "flamenco's greatest deficiency is the shortage of good dancers" (Pohren, 1984, p. 59).

From her earliest days dancing solo in Twin Cities night clubs, di Palma found herself bedeviled by the shortage of flamenco artists in Minnesota. The expensive conundrum of hiring performers from Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico, and Spain for short-run productions limited creation time, stressed rehearsals, and restricted touring opportunities. The current company represents the fulfillment of a long-held dream, and results from the founding of Zorongo Flamenco's school more than a decade ago.

That, alone, is a singular achievement of no small consequence.

Pohren, D. E. (1984). The art of flamenco. Dorset, England: Musical New Services Limited.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Twin Cities: Take the St. Croix Valley arts survey

Minneapolis, Minnesota

At first blush, artists and audiences in the Twin Cities might overlook or dismiss an  online survey about space needs of artists of all disciplines in the St. Croix River Valley along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. While talk is cheap and so are surveys, the results of both do get used to determine how and where communities invest their infrastructure dollars. Thus, metro residents should take a few minutes to complete the survey by Oct. 1.

The valley communities of Stillwater and Lake Elmo, Minnesota, and Hudson, Wisconsin, are at the center of a growing population and an increasingly vigorous, sub-regional arts scene. As artistic activity has increased, so too has interest in the physical amenities in which artists and audiences gather to experience, work, and perform.

Nine organizations in the area have joined together to sponsor the online survey that is being circulated by These organizations include the Art Reach Alliance, Lake Elmo Regional Art Center, The Phipps Center for the Arts, Stillwater Area Public Schools Community Education, Trinity Lutheran Church, Theatre Associates of Stillwater, Performing Arts Study Committee, Valley Chamber Chorale, and St. Croix Valley Community Foundation. Survey results will be shared early in 2010. [Disclosure: I attended one meeting of this group last year on behalf of the organization conducting the survey.]

During the current economic recession, individuals and organizations should be using their time to position and prepare for the recovery and their futures. Twin Cities artists and audiences who perceive that they have an interest in the East Metro's cultural life should take the survey to help shape that area's potential impact on their lives and careers.

The passage last November of the Legacy Amendment guarantees that Minnesota's statewide public investment in arts and culture will increase significantly for 25 years. The impact of those funds will be leveraged when they meet the aspirations and plans of communities throughout the state, like those in the St. Croix Valley.

Aspirations and plans are everywhere.

Early this year, the new Burnsville Performing Arts Center opened for business just south of the Minnesota River from Minneapolis and Bloomington. If it finds its programming voice in the next two years, the Burnsville PAC will have a significant impact on community and professional music, theater, and dance. The Center has the potential to become a regional powerhouse in a manner akin to that of the four halls of the Carlsen Center on the campus of the Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

The Burnsville experience may hold interest and influence for the folks in Rochester, Minnesota, the state's third largest city, who have been trying to thread the needle for a new performance hall for years. The embryonic emergence of a University of Minnesota campus in Rochester has added fuel to their hopes and thinking.

The St. Croix Valley may or may not build new performance facilities that anchor the East Metro, but – like communities elsewhere – its cultural leaders are determined that the area will serve artists and audiences in ways better than it does now.

Help them to make that happen and take the survey.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Embrace adversity to develop character and leadership

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Crisis takes many forms," said Bill George, "and crisis is the real test and making of a leader."

Authentic leadership has been a cause of George's life since stepping down as chair and CEO of Minnesota-based Medtronic. The current professor of management practice at Harvard Business School has authored three best-selling books, including his most recent, "7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis." He serves currently as a director of Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs, and served formerly on the boards of Novartis and Target Corporation.

George convened and moderated a "Summit on Leading in Crisis: Personal stories from the trenches," Sept. 17, at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis. The four panel members included John Donahoe, chair and CEO, eBay; David Gergen, CNN commentator and Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School; Anne Mulcahy, chair and former CEO, Xerox; and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chair and former CEO, Carlson Companies.

In opening remarks, George said that leaders need a willingness to show vulnerability and weakness, and the ability to face reality, particularly in times of crisis. He observed that "the Chinese character for crisis has two parts, representing danger and opportunity."

Mulcahy learned about all of that when she became CEO of Xerox in 2001, a time when the company was billions of dollars in debt, embroiled in an SEC scandal, and faced Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "It was important," she said, "that I understood how serious the problems were and that I let people know it." When she told investors on a conference call that Xerox's business model was "unsustainable" the stock price dropped 45% overnight. "It was the truth and the right thing to say," Mulcahy said, "but it was painful."

She spent her first three months as CEO traveling the globe, listening to Xerox employees and customers and spreading optimism. "The organization doesn't move if people don't believe," she said. "The way to get results is by engaging our customers and our people, and we had to devise a set of actions that people could understand and believe in."

Gergen has served in the administrations of four U. S. presidents during his career (Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton), and observed that the public sector deals well with crisis because people come together, particularly when there is preparation. New York City and its mayor, Rudy Giuliani, were ready to handle the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Gergen said, because they had studied and prepared after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and because Giuliani had read about how Winston Churchill rallied Britain's people during World War II.

Similarly, Gergen said, the handling of the 2008 financial meltdown by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson worked as well as it did because both men were students of the Great Depression. "Intellectual preparation has a lot of value," he said.

The hardest crisis for government, according to Gergen, is the one that lives over the horizon. "It is easy to pander to popular taste, and hard to have courage to summon the will to deal now with looming crises. Great societies and great leaders figure out how to deal with big questions."

A test for Nelson began on the morning of 9/11 when she arrived at the headquarters of Carlson Companies whose 180,000 employees engage globally in the travel and hospitality industry. "It was difficult but easy," she said. "It was a command and control moment. All that had gone before made us successful. We had hired to value and had taught our credo. We simply had to give our people the power to lead within the context of our values when we could not communicate with them." The company's people even took care of its competitors' customers.

Donahoe readily admitted that "I make a lot of mistakes." The past 18 months have been a time of crisis for the 25 million people who sell on eBay, and for the 1.3 million who make their living through the company. However, crisis presented his company with the opportunity to make changes in its business model and become more customer driven. "Still," he said, "when I announced the changes and said it would take three years for them to be effective, our stock price dropped by half."

Nelson observed that many business models may have to change, and voiced concern that "we will have a chronic job crisis over time. A lot of businesses are doing triage. It is not a romantic time."

The question of how to get people back to work will be, according to Donahoe, a test of what America is all about. "In the last 15 years, 70% of all job creation happened in small business. Large businesses are not going to create new jobs in large numbers."

Nelson agreed, but said small businesses need large businesses for distribution. She also noted that small businesses need banks and venture capitalists to make loans to get them to the next level. "We need to get financing moving," she said.

Mulcahy argued for more long term investment, particularly in research and development. "Leadership is needed to drive it."

A question from George asking how each had survived and maintained their personal resilience during crisis was met by a long silence, broken by Mulcahy. "Your people inspire you in ugly times," she said. "Crisis makes you step up to the plate and accept accountability to not let them down. Every night, I asked myself the question, 'Did you do everything you could today?'"

All four panel members believe in the value of crisis and adversity in building character and leadership. "A sense of entitlement doesn't cut it," said Donahoe. "Adversity builds character."

Gergen, who worked in the White House during the Watergate scandal of the Nixon administration, said it is important for young people to get into the arena and be tested early. "That was a long ordeal. We were told one reality within the White House, and another was coming to us from investigations and newspaper reporting. It is very important to have an ongoing set of bonding. You find out who your friends are – and aren't. After many Republican friends stopped calling, it was my Democratic friends who called to check-in. You become acutely aware of the anchors in your life. If you have mountain top experiences, it is important to have been in the valleys in order to appreciate the mountain top. After the valleys, you are ready to take anything on. Fear is gone."

Nelson believes in the anchors of faith and family. Living through the crucible of losing a child in an auto accident provided perspective. She learned that "as long as you have breath there is opportunity to recover. Adversity gives young people the sense that they will survive."

Donahoe concurred. "Once you have been in a valley," he said, "you know you can survive everything – and know that there are other valleys coming."

Mulcahy responded to a question from the audience asking what kind of leadership would change the country's discourse. "One person cannot do it alone," she said. "All the branches of government are responsible for bringing the country together and demonstrating better leadership to the American people."

Nelson added that "We become afraid with a scarcity mentality. We can ask leaders to lead, but we have to engage with them and not just shout at them out of anger."

Gergen worries about violence and governability, citing a deteriorating situation. "When every issue turns bitter and divisive, it becomes very hard to remain a great country. Will the U.S. still be at the world table 20 years from now?"

"This rancid environment is not good," Gergen continued. "What is said in churches, synagogues, city government, and the press is important. We are 'allowing' manufactured controversies. As the president said on 60 Minutes last week, we have to find ways to make civility interesting."

To a question about executive compensation, Nelson answered that corporate boards need to engage the issue. She said she worries about legislating and regulating but recognizes that there are unsustainable compensation models. "People need to be compensated if they add sustainable value."

Mulcahy added that boards are stepping up, and need to focus on performance metrics that are aligned with long term good.

A 13-year-old boy from Eagan, Minnesota, asked what lessons the panel had learned from their biggest crisis when they were his age.

Nelson replied, "Take yourself seriously as an actor. Whether you are 12 or 75, you can make change happen."

Mulcahy said, "Build followership. Leadership has to be earned and not taken for granted."

Gergen advised, "Don't give up if she turns you down for the third time."

Donahoe learned that one must embrace adversity. "It builds character. In it are the gems of life that make leaders."

Approximately 700 people attended "Leading in Crisis." Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television recorded the conversation for future broadcast. Sponsors of the event included Target, Fredrikson & Byron, P. A., George Family Foundation, and Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Meet Karen Wilson Thissen

Minneapolis, Minnesota

It's not every day that one of my friends is in a YouTube video! I have known Karen Wilson Thissen for several years through our work in Minnesota's arts world.


Monday, September 14, 2009

The president's Minneapolis rally for health care reform

Minneapolis, Minnesota

The president spoke at Target Center in Minneapolis, Sept. 12, to rally support for health care reform.

The robust debate about health care reform touches everything throughout the land: the definition of freedom vs. coercion, capitalism vs. socialism, nice vs. not-nice, and anything else we don't much cotton to. All of it possibly is an excuse to acknowledge how little we really like each other – and we aren't going to pretend otherwise anymore – regardless of what we might say in church.

We pride ourselves on being Americans who can do anything. Yet, we lag every other major democracy and capitalist society in dealing with health care.

I have run three small businesses and helped manage others. None of us can afford to kill health care reform and do nothing. Nor can we afford to let the free market solve our health care challenges.

The time to act is now.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blogging about the National Civic Summit

Minneapolis, Minnesota

After attending the National Civic Summit in Minneapolis, July 16-17, I intended to organize the two days of presentations and conversations and blog about them in report and commentary form. Since then, I have put off the reporting because of its volume. Over time, I will incorporate commentary into other writing.

The reporting aspect, however, has been solved through technology: videos were made of the presentations and have become available online. I commend all of them to anyone for whom sleep does not come easily at night, or who find themselves at loose ends over a holiday weekend. Two presentations, in particular, are worth a look.

Nate Garvis opened the summit with remarks about "Uncivil Discourse." Garvis is Vice President of Government Affairs & Senior Public Affairs Officer at Target. He was introduced by Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League. His remarks extend for 35 minutes and are followed by Q&A.

Outtakes from his talk: Referring to the "merchants of venom," Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh, Garvis said "We have become the media. Our representatives reflect what we are as we self identify into philosophical ghettos. ... No one does good business in a bad neighborhood. Bad communities become good communities on purpose. ... Dogma is a tool we use to stop learning. ... We can't afford more government. ... We need people who aren't interested in being successful, but in adding value. ... The game has changed. It's not about control, it's about influence."

Later in the summit, Garvis introduced Aneesh Chopra who spoke on "The Innovation Imperative: Delivering on the Promise of Open Government." Chopra is U.S. Chief Technology Officer & Associate Director for Technology, White House Office of Science & Technology Policy. His remarks extend just over 50 minutes, including questions.

– 30 –

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

National Civic Summit: Remarks by Aneesh Chopra

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"The Innovation Imperative: Delivering on the Promise of Open Government"

Remarks by Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Chief Technology Officer & Associate Director for Technology, White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.

Delivered at the National Civic Summit, Hilton Hotel, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 17, 2009.

Aneesh Chopra "The Innovation Imperative" at the National Civic Summit from National Tweetup on Vimeo.

[Remarks: 50:28, begin at 02:00]