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Whither the Northrop Dance Season?

Ben Johnson, new director of concerts and lectures at the U.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
Ben Johnson, new director of concerts and lectures at the U.

Here’s the first question off just about anyone’s lips when introduced to the new director of concerts and lectures for the University of Minnesota: What’s going to happen to the Northrop Dance Season?

Meet Ben Johnson, the energetic and affable fellow now responsible for curating the dance season, the future of which has been on the minds of dance devotees.

“I can 100 percent convey to you that [the next season] will be the most fantastic dance season in years,” says Johnson, who has been on the job for all of two weeks. (Read more about his background here.)

After the April 2009 performances of the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, the Northrop auditorium will close until fall 2011 for renovation. But Johnson says the Northrop Dance Season will continue with performances throughout the U’s campus (Ted Mann Concert Hall and Rarig Center are possibilities), and with presenting partners in the Twin Cities (like the Walker Art Center).

The next question: What about when the “new” Northrop opens in 2011?

“All options are open” for the launch season, he says. “I just want [the dance series] to be fresh, new and exciting every year. I’m trying to use my connections to make strategic alliances to other major presenters nationally and internationally to bring the most interesting work to [Northrop].”

Aiming for the ‘best world-class art’
As for the future of Northrop, will it become more of a broad-based cultural institution as opposed to having serious dance and jazz seasons? “I don’t want [Northrop] to be that,” Johnson said. “Our direction will be, ‘What is the best world-class art that we can put forward?’ “

“You might see a new framework for presenting dance. Instead of a collection of five or six events, you’ll see really interesting things happening around ballet, international and contemporary dance, emerging artists from Europe. I love how European festivals think about dance programming, with a thesis and through line.”

Right now, he has a few questions for himself: “How are we adding to the form? What am I seeing out there that’s exciting? What’s great dance that can inform not just the dance community, but also the entire arts community? There’s so much that’s not being seen in the Twin Cities that I want to see happen.”

In addition, he’s thinking about, “What is the role of a major university research facility in this city? What kind of art should be presented? What’s not being offered by the other major presenters in the community? We should be about ideas, research, world-class performing arts. How do we put the arts first?”

Johnson plans on collaborating closely with diverse departments and arts organizations at the U, as well as with dance-presenting partners locally. “The university is so excited to be asked to be thinking creatively about how what we’re presenting will be more in line with the curriculums, and we’re pushing them to think in new ways around what we’re doing,” Johnson said.

He also hopes to reinvigorate what he sees as a “stagnant” scene in the Twin Cities. “I’m a native Minnesotan. I understand the culture, but I spent the last 15 years somewhere else and traveled internationally to festivals. I feel it’s been kind of stagnant [here] over the last 10 years. But people still remember the excitement of when we used to be vibrant. I just hope we’re part of a solution or answer to the question of where did all that go and why?  And what can we make happen here that’s far more exciting?”

Eclectic tastes
Johnson’s tastes are quite eclectic, ranging from “contemporary work out of Japan” to “the great, old American companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.” He’s a fan of Shen Wei Dance Arts (which Northrop has presented with the Walker), the British dance-theater troupe DV8, and “grand old traditional folkloric dance.”

“Some of the most exciting contemporary work is coming out of North Africa,” he said, “and I would love to figure out how to have Balanchine’s work seen every year.” He’s also “having conversations about how to put together a really interesting ballet series that serves the diehards, but also includes exciting contemporary ballet. We’re looking at our modern, and the most interesting debuts that might happen as part of the first season we’re curating off-site.” 

Johnson acknowledges that he’s “living in a creative space right now where I’m not just thinking about the bottom line, but are we making the best creative decisions possible, are we making the most exciting work happen here,” he said. “From what I’ve seen in the world, and what I know about the Twin Cities, I want to make more great stuff happen here.”

This weekend’s pick
For some fantastic, high-spirited tap this weekend, don’t miss “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” from Rhythmic Circus with the irrepressible Nick Bowman and Ricci Milan, tempered by the swift, fleet feet of Kaleena Miller. 

Where: Ritz Theater, 345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
When: 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday (Aug. 21-23), 7 p.m. Sunday (Aug. 24)
: $20

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