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Zenon at 25: dancing the decades away

Zenon Dance Company
Photo by Jeffrey Austin
Choreographer Wayne Fricke’s “Blessing of the Earth” will be one of the pieces performed this weekend at Zenon’s program at the Guthrie.

 

As a fledgling dance writer, I cut my teeth on Zenon Dance Company. The metaphor is apt because for 25 years, the jazz- and modern-dance repertory troupe—under the laser-beam direction of Linda Z. Andrews—has been whetting and sharpening the local appetite for concert dance, chiefly in two ways.

One: By maintaining rigorous standards for performance. While each dancer has a singular personality as a performer, all set a gold standard for technical virtuosity and artistic integrity.

Two: Andrews has made it her mission to build a diverse repertory by commissioning (to date) more than 50 choreographers to create new work for Zenon. With annual support from the Jerome Foundation, she has been able to hire many “emerging” choreographers. Early in their careers, such now-famous choreographers as Bill T. Jones, Bebe Miller, David Dorfman and Doug Varone made work for Zenon.

More recently, Andrews has commissioned New York rising stars Tere O’Connor, Keely Garfield, Bill Young, Colleen Thomas and Sean Curran to create dances for her troupe. And she has given work to local choreographers from Ranee Ramaswamy (Ragamala Music and Dance Theater) to Myron Johnson (Ballet of the Dolls).

Then and now
Some 20 years ago, I was taking dance classes on an upper floor of the Wyman Building in downtown Minneapolis, where Andrews was teaching and shaping her two new companies: Rezone Dancers (modern dance) and Just Jazz Dancers, the precursors to Zenon. Andrews still runs her school, which offers classes for professionals and enthusiasts alike (from ballet and modern dance to hip-hop and Afro-modern). The school brings in up to half of Zenon’s $500,000 annual revenue; the McKnight Foundation is another source of annual operating support.

So in the last couple of months, Andrews and I have chatted several times about those days, and these days, as the company prepares to open its 25th season with a repertory concert this weekend at the Guthrie Theater. On the heels of that concert is a new holiday show choreographed by Curran, “The Nutcracker According to Mother Goose.”

How on earth did she select dances for the Guthrie concert? “Over the years the repertory has become so rich and vibrant that I have too many wonderful pieces to choose from,” Andrews says. “So I’m really revisiting my roots.” Miller’s “Sanctuary” is on the program, a timeless portrait of support danced by the company’s five women. Audible breaths and vocalizations mingle with fast heavy movements and moments of rest in the work, which Andrews calls “spiritual and well-crafted.” Miller was in town recently and reportedly updated the work.

Back from last spring’s program is Thomas’ starkly robust “Catching Her Tears.” Full of tossed bodies, floor rolls, angular intersections, twisty moves and almost tender touches that drive the action in new directions, the work manifests an almost sinister intrigue. In contrast, audience favorite “Blessing of the Earth,” by Minneapolis choreographer Wynn Fricke, is a ferociously primal trio in which Christine Maginnis (an original company member), Greg Waletski (who joined in 1991) and relative newcomer Tamara Ober move through rigorous shapes, contractions, body balances and compressed poses.

“Coda,” choreographed by Sean Curran. Video courtesy
of Zenon Dance Company.

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Two premieres

The lineup includes the premiere of a new jazz piece titled “Elegant Echoes” by Danny Buraczeski, who merged his New York company, Jazzdance, with Zenon for three years in the early 1990s. Set to music by Jelly Roll Morton, the work features the lithe and lovely Mary Ann Bradley (a mainstay of Buraczeski’s company until he moved to Texas several years ago). The lean, easy work (viewed during a rehearsal) is full of smooth, silky moves like swooping arcs, big open turns and jazzy attitude.

Opening the show is the Midwest premiere of Varone’s “Of the Earth Far Below.” Set to the driving, hypnotic musical structures of Steve Reich, the choreography juxtaposes slicing arms and geometric groupings with soft curves, precious balances and tender holdings. Andrews says that each of her dancers, all of whom perform in this full-company work, “initially attracted me because of something about their dancing.”

Linda Z. Andrews
Photo by Jeffrey Austin
Zenon founding artistic director, Linda Z. Andrews.

About veterans Maginnis and Waletski, Andrews says, “They’ve had amazing careers with Zenon and bring their life experience to the work. But they still retain a sense of wonder about dance and movement, they’re extremely creative, and the newer dancers watch them and take them in.”

She means younger dancers like Bryan Godbout (once an apprentice, now a company member since 2006) and Leslie O’Neill (a current apprentice, who’ll become a company member when Maginnis leaves after Zenon’s July show at Dance Theater Workshop in New York). ” Bryan and Leslie are very open to being mentored,” Andrews says. “They have tremendous energy and willingness, and learn so much about being a professional from the other dancers.”

“The spirit of Zenon continues on in this wonderful balance of experienced dancers that stabilize and mentor the newer dancers, and the element of youth that brings its own energy to the company. All my dancers, in addition to their natural talent as artists, constantly remind the audience of why they’re in dance — through the joy and exuberance they infuse into every performance.”

Upcoming performances
What
: Zenon Dance Company, 25th Anniversary Fall Program
When: 7:30 p.m., Friday; 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday; 7 p.m., Sunday
Where: McGuire Proscenium Stage, Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
Cost: $22-$34
More info: 612-377-2224 or Guthrie Theater

What: “The Nutcracker According to Mother Goose”
When: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 15, Dec. 22
Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
Cost: $10-$15
More info: 612-340-1725 or Southern Theater.
Additional performances:
When: 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec.18
Where: Eden Prairie High School, 7185 Valley View Road, Eden Prairie
Cost: $6-$8
Info: 952-975-8008

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