Thursday, May 31, 2012

May ran out

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Thursday. Lake Calhoun. 64º and mostly sunny. Slightest breeze to ripple water in all directions and keep 16 sailboats circling at lake center. Weed cutter anchored offshore of northwest corner. Water level healthy. West side roses in fierce bloom. Foot/bike traffic light-to-mod for late afternoon. Like our neighbors, all the little kids with no dog see Maggie, want to touch her and take her home. Most of the ducks live on north shore, east of beach and canoe racks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The 1% will spend $1 billion to finish the wrecking job

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Politico is out with a story today that says GOP super PACs and their fellow travelers plan to spend $1 billion between now and November in order to buy control of the House, the Senate, and the White House. The total includes $300 million by groups related to Karl Rove and nearly $400 million of spending by a network bankrolled directly and indirectly by the Koch brothers.

These forces are not content with the national embarrassment and gridlock occasioned by their thuggish tactics of obfuscation and obstruction in the last three and-a-half years. They are beyond embarrassment, and gridlock has merely served their own special and selfish interests at the expense of the country. 

Their aim is not a balanced democracy that serves our people. They will say that they seek to preserve American values and freedom. In reality, they seek to subvert and destroy. They seek for themselves total and amoral power and control over all checks and balances of the government, the economy, the culture, and religion.

UPDATE: Thursday, May 31, 2012: Politico is out with a story this morning that reports some of the GOP's mega-donors are upset that their names have become part of the public dialogue, and that some people have ascribed nefarious motives to their attempts to accomplish the equivalent of anonymous, political hit jobs in the dark of night. Sorry, but bullying of any kind is not an acceptable American value. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Minnesota dance family reunion and legacy

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Someday, scholars pursuing graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota will write the definitive histories of Minnesota's and the Twin Cities' performing arts scenes. Significant portions of their research will draw heavily upon records generated over the past 50 years by members of a remarkable family of artists.

Many of the artistic heirs of that family's influence reunited in Minneapolis' Lowry Hill neighborhood, May 5, for an evening of mellow memories and music. Approximately 100 grandparents, parents, and toddlers gathered in the soon-to-be-former family home of the Nancy Hauser Dance Company and School, overlooking the intersection of Franklin and Hennepin avenues from the upper floors at 1940 Hennepin.

For Minnesotans who came of age in the 1960s and 70s, the Hauser company and school occupied one of the central artistic positions in the zeitgeist that produced housing coops, anti-Vietnam war protests, and the worker-owned coop movement. In those days, we knew that ballet was something that came from Communist Russia when Ed Sullivan featured it on his Sunday night variety show on CBS television. What little we knew of modern dance emanated from the doings of Hauser and her colleagues at the Guild of Performing Arts, a music and dance school with a small theater and art gallery centered in the bohemian enclave of Minneapolis' West Bank. The area was known for a time as the Haight-Ashbury of the Midwest.

While Hauser's work flowed from the Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm traditions of modern dance, the remarkable story of her company is that of its service as the crucible from which the elements of contemporary dance in Minnesota exploded and continue to differentiate themselves, 51 years after its founding in 1961.

As fashions and generations changed, it was perhaps inevitable that present-day dance afficionados have little or no knowledge and appreciation of the statewide, domestic, and international touring the company accomplished, nor of the far-reaching contributions made by its students, performers, and choreographers.

A small list of Hauser alums includes the choreographer Ralph Lemon; Lisa Naugle, the chair of dance at the University of California-Irvine; the choreographer and artistic director Gary Lund, whose work has been presented throughout Europe and at New York's Joyce Theater and Dance Theater Workshop; Sara Pearson, a professor at the University of Maryland; Stephen Koester, a professor at the University of Utah; and Nancy Evans Doede, director of the Nancy Evans Dance Theatre in Los Angeles. Artists from the milieu who remain active in the Twin Cities include Gerry Girouard, Derek Phillips, Pam Gleason, Susana di Palma, Laurie Van Wieren, and Jane Peck, among many others.

The artistic talents and interests of the Hauser family exceed the dance pursuits of Nancy and her daughter, Heidi Hauser Jasmin. They include the sculpture and visual art of Alonzo Hauser, who founded the Art Department at Macalester College in 1945, and the classical and flamenco guitar virtuosity of sons Tony and Michael.

My first close crossing of paths with the Hauser company and family occurred in 1986. To help establish a new purpose for itself following the opening of the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in January that year, The O'Shaughnessy, a 1,700 seat auditorium on the campus of St. Catherine University in St. Paul, created the O'Shaughnessy Dance Series, featuring six or eight Twin Cities dance companies during the spring months. I attended rehearsals and performances of those companies, including Hauser, and wrote reviews for my radio program on KFAI. Pam Gleason, who organized last week's reunion, was a performer in my review.

In addition to a bountiful, pot-luck spread of food, a quintet, the Aurora Club Jazz Jam Live, provided music – kicking off with "Days of Wine and Roses" – while those touched forever by Hauser Dance took to the dance floor with each other or themselves to recall where they learned to love dance, some recreating favored roles from days past.

Jasmin announced that, since she stopped teaching last October, she and her husband, Paul Jasmin, have been organizing and archiving the company's 51 years of history, disposing of props and costumes, and preparing to end the 501(c)(3) status at the end of August. The archival documents will be turned over to the Performing Arts Archives at the University of Minnesota.

Updated: 10/19/2012 - 11:30pm CDT

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Zenon Dance Company stands tall with brilliant program for its 29th spring season

Minneapolis, Minnesota

A poster hangs in a stairwell of my house for the first performances by the Zenon Dance Company, presented in a studio setting at the Hennepin Center for the Arts, April 6-8, 1983. Preview performances were held a week earlier, March 30-31, at the Edina Community Center. 

Leslie O'Neill & Scott Mettille, rock stars in Zenon's shining galaxy
The occasion represented a leap of faith for the dancers and their artistic director, Linda Andrews, as they assumed the trappings of a professional ensemble, replacing their previous status as advanced students with the pre-professional Rezone [modern] and Just Jazz companies fielded by the Ozone Dance School.

The new, professional Zenon was viewed by many as an impertinent upstart, and its debut program offered what most observers at the time, and for some years afterward, considered to be an improbable and unworkable mix of modern and jazz dance choreography. The opening bill featured works by Hannah Kahn, Charlie Vernon, Lewis Whitlock, Linda Shapiro, Wil Swanson, Lynn Simonson, and Anne Gunderson.

The notion that dancers could cross-train to perform many styles of modern dance, as well as jazz dance, was considered to be something of a joke by many local and national gatekeepers who served on the staffs and granting panels of service organizations, foundations, government agencies, and the media. It took many performance seasons and grant-making rounds to convince them to open their minds, trust their eyes, and lend their support.

After 29 years, many of those original pooh-bahs consider Zenon to be Minnesota's artistic leader in dance and a competent competitor as a national innovator. 

After 29 years, the Hennepin Center for the Arts is known as the "education wing" of The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, and is connected to the new, 500-seat Goodale Theater, the first venue in Minnesota built specifically to serve the presentation needs of concert dance.

After 29 years, Zenon's program lineup remains an eclectic mix of the modern, the jazz, the cerebral, the entertaining, the dynamic, the bizarre, and the right-on. It is one of three companies (the James Sewell Ballet and Ballet of the Dolls are the others) that can draw an audience of respectable size for two weekends of performances twice a year.

Also after 29 years, Twin Cities dance artists retain a pathological need to label, rate, and categorize each other, their work, and venues. In that, they could save themselves much drama and misspent energy. As observed by the dance writer Lightsey Dharst, many modern dance companies in the Twin Cities "share dancers, and all rely to some extent on those dancers to generate movement, which means that you get to see the same great moves in concert after concert." 

Zenon's commissions of work from a variety of choreographers – many from afar and who are not one of us – mitigate the effects of this dynamic. This is particularly true of the standing tall program presented for the company's 29th spring season that opened May 4 at the Cowles Center, and runs through May 13. The program shines with a brilliance that should not be missed.

The world premiere of "Wine Dark Sea," reflecting on the connection of humans to ocean and choreographed in a modern dance style by Minnesota's Wynn Fricke, featured a symbiotic, original composition and performance by the percussionist Peter O'Gorman. The composer's participation represented one of the first projects underwritten by the Live Music for Dance Minnesota program of the American Composers Forum.

At rise, eight dancers in close proximity faced the audience from upstage center, heads uplifted, elbows crooked above their faces, and legs moving to lateral tendu in costumes crafted by Annie Cady. For an instant, one perceived thrilling aspects of Alvin Ailey's "Revelations," presented in Minneapolis earlier in the week by the Northrop Dance Series.

Two major movements featured two, well-crafted quartets. That for the men, Tristan Koepke, Scott Mettille, Stephen Schroeder, and Gregory Waletski, resembled voguing at times, and that for the women, Mary Ann Bradley, Tamara Ober, Leslie O'Neill, and Laura Selle Virtucio, worked on and into the floor. During the latter, the men crouched across and behind an upstage scrim, unfolding vertically while each struck, in turn, a single toned triangle in sync with O'Gorman's larger theme.

Although an audience member was overheard at intermission to say that most dances, everywhere, could stand to be cut by five minutes, the primal and solid "Wine Dark Sea" ended with an abruptness that called out for one more movement to lend a sense of completeness.

I retain my earlier assessment that "Booba" (Hebrew for "doll") from 2008, represents "an odd set of excerpts" from a full-evening work by Andrea Miller, a graduate of The Juilliard School. Set to music by Balkan Beat Box, the work engages with a series of personality-expressing divertissements, opening with a stage-right-to-left shimmy led by Schroeder, followed by O'Neill, Mettille, Ober, Koepke, and Bradley. Miller's choreography resembles a cross between disco and breaking, and Schroeder and O'Neill shine in a duet that could reflect characters from The Big Bang Theory.

If anything will instill in me an appreciation for postmodern dance that moves beyond grudging, it will be the dances of the choreographer Morgan Thorson, whose work has been recognized and supported by nearly every major funding entity in the field. She accepts, on an elemental level, that dance should include at least a minimal amount of intelligent movement that also does not require an advanced degree to follow and understand. 

In her new, second creation for Zenon, "All Parts ˆAre Welcome," she crafts a mesmerizing world that seeks to "stare down our worst conflicted feelings about life." Thorson immerses herself holistically in the details of her creations, holding credit here for costuming in addition to choreography, and sharing billing for lighting design with Mike Grogan. 

She has described "All Parts ˆAre Welcome" as bringing "everything that makes us human into the choreographic process by way of observation, same sex attraction, flipping, dominance, rejection, a desire for intimacy, lies, compartmentalizing, obedience, manipulation, wanting to be seen, arrogance, love" and more.

Some of her parts struck me as weird, but very pleasingly so. From the opening moment when Selle Virtucio burst through the curtains upstage center, we took a journey both light and dark with music created by Chris Schlichting and occasional vocalizations by the dancers. On first viewing, the ending appeared to fritter away weakly in contrast to the intentional composition that preceded it, almost as though Thorson lost her nerve or her interest, and walked away.

In the dance's latter minutes, Thorson has the leggings, the curtains that mask the sidelights and offstage walls, rise into the fly-loft, seemingly because they can. The time-worn gimmick adds nothing here and, frankly, her work has outgrown it.

With no sets or gimmicks, a wearied and troubled world needs the moments of joyful and spectacular uplift delivered by "Pink Martini," the evening's closer.

Since its debut last fall, "Pink Martini," has served a heart-melting grin from beginning to end, and as the capstone work of Zenon's sterling, 2011-12 season. It represents a level of sleek and chic choreographic and performance sophistication that the town needs in its collective dance repertoire. With some smoothing of sound transitions between musical segments, one hopes it might become a signature work for a company that has never known one. 

For audiences present at the work's creation, however, any future cast will be hard-pressed to match the accomplished appeal of the present ensemble of eight, collectively the strongest and best of Zenon's 29 years. The choreographer, Marius Olszewski, created it for them and they own it totally. 

Crafted as a series of ballroom dance vignettes using cha-cha and mambo styles set to music of Rosemary Clooney and Perez Prado and His Orchestra, "Pink Martini" offers the dancers star turns that exude confidence, drip with sex appeal, and glow with glamour. 

The opening solo by Mettille, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota's Dance Program, set the exciting tone and standard for all that followed. When joined by O'Neill for an ensuing duet, their combined effort was electric. The pairing of these natives of Minnesota (him) and of Wisconsin (her) created a charisma that elevated them to rock stars in the company's shining galaxy.

Additional pairings – of Waletski and Bradley, Selle Virtucio and Schroeder, Ober and Koepke, O'Neill and Schroeder, Mettille and Waletski, and Bradley and the guys, along with quartets for the men and for the women – combined to evoke a huge "Yes!" and ovation from their audience.

Over time, dancers and dance companies, like athletes and sports teams, experience seasons of triumph and loss. For one who discovered the idea of Zenon before its debut performances in 1983, the company has danced through periods difficult to watch. Not so in recent years. The triumph of the present season holds cause for much celebration and higher aspiration for the times to come.

For tickets to Zenon Dance Company at The Cowles Center, call 612.206.3600. 

What a wearied, troubled world needs: Zenon Dance Company in Marius Olszewski's  "Pink Martini"

Gary Peterson served as managing director of Zenon Dance Company from 1986 to 1991. • Photos by Steve Niedorf.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Memo re: Minnesota's 2011-12 legislative session

Minneapolis, Minnesota

We Minnesotans have always been passive aggressive with each other. Beginning with statehood, we had two state constitutions because both parties at the time refused to sign on with each other. No surprise now if it feels like every bill passed by a legislature controlled by one party is vetoed by a governor from the other. My optimist angel says the legislature should carry on until next week's mandated deadline; my pragmatist angel says "shut the session down tomorrow." Present circumstances are better than intra-state civil war with real bullets – but my head screams "make them stop!"

Kurt Zellers, the GOP speaker of the state house, is a particularly interesting study of ineffectiveness. Regardless of his position on any issue, he seems not to understand that when accepting a leadership position, his "positions" are no longer all about him – he needs to anticipate, get out in front, try to work with all constituents; in essence, he needs to lead and take whatever salvos come his way. He had some effect as a low-profile back-bencher but, unfortunately, he is miscast as a legislative leader.