The Walker’s provocative performing arts: taking chances and yanking chains

Photo by Ralph Lemon
Ralph Lemon's "Scaffold Room," which merges performance, visual art, music and text, launches the Walker's 2014-15 Performing Arts season.

One of our favorite things about spring, right up there with bluebells and daffodils, is the Walker’s announcement of its new performing arts season. Year after year, we see that once again, we’re in for it: months of thrilling, challenging, enlightening, provocative, puzzling, transforming, sometimes infuriating events. This year – the Walker Art Center’s 75th anniversary – the more than two dozen programs include five world premieres, multiple commissions, residencies, and co-presentations with the Cedar, the SPCO’s Liquid Music series, Northrop and the Soap Factory. Performers will come from as far away as Africa and Japan and as near as our own backyard.

As in the past, the 2014-15 season is defined by curator Philip Bither’s willingness to go out on a limb. An evening of music, video, digital sounds and performances rooted in quantum theory? Why not? How about a night of traditional Middle Eastern shaabi and dabke music, sung in Arabic and Kurdish, supercharged by synthesizers and trance rhythms? Or a play in which “Dante’s Inferno” meets “Paradise Lost”? An action-opera based on the last days of Edgar Allan Poe? A Sacred Steel version of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme?” Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood” as a New Orleans-style opera-exhibition? Bring it on. Isn’t art also about taking chances and yanking chains?

What always grabs us first is the music, in which we are never disappointed. (Hurray for last year’s Yo La Tango, Erik Friedlander, Brad Mehldau Celebration and Burnt Sugar, to name a few.) This year brings, among others, Chilean hip-hop heroine Ana Tijoux (Oct. 4), Dawn of Midi and Nils Frahm (Nov. 15), the Campbell Brothers performing John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (Feb. 26, 2015), the legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette’s “Made in Chicago,” with Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams and Henry Threadgill (free jazz giants from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; March 12), The National’s Bryce Dessner (April 3-4), “Border Music” with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and jazzer/power-rocker Marc Ribot (April 18), and the return of Walker favorite Jason Moran with Robert Glasper, two young lion jazz pianists (May 2). Browse the whole season here. Mark your calendars for Sept. 11, when Bither will preview the season at a free event in the Walker’s McGuire Theater.

The Walker also announced its Summer Music & Movies series, which takes place all four Mondays in August at Loring Park and Walker’s Open Field. This year’s theme, “Playing with Time,” is an homage to the Walker’s exhibition “Christian Marclay: The Clock,” a 24-hour montage on the passage of time as portrayed in films, which opens June 14. Aug. 4: music by The Cloak Ox, followed by “High Noon.” Aug. 11: music by ZuluZuluu and the film “D.O.A.” Aug. 18: The Handsome Family and “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Aug. 25: Marclay’s “Graffiti Composition” and “Screen Play” with music by Laurent Estoppey, Ikue Mori and Anthony Coleman, introduced by Marclay.

Photo United Artists Corp/Photofest ©United Artists Corp
Rudolph Maté’s “D.O.A.,” part of the Walker’s Summer Music & Movies series.

After ending its 2013-14 season with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) and a full house, Friends of the Hennepin County Library has unveiled the 2014-15 season of Pen Pals, the longest-running literary series in the Twin Cities (this will be year 18). October 2: the preternaturally prolific Joyce Carol Oates in conversation with literary critic Michael Dirda. One night only. October 23 and 24: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. March 12 and 13, 2015: Richard Blanco, the fifth inaugural poet of the United States. April 16 and 17: Jodi Picoult, the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels. May 7 and 8: Chip Kidd, a graphic designer and associate art director at Knopf whose iconic creations include the T-Rex image for the cover of “Jurassic Park.” Subscriptions are on sale now. Individual tickets go on sale August 11.

For its seventh annual Summer Festival, Skylark Opera will present “From Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill,” directed by Frank Theatre’s Wendy Knox (who most recently directed the acclaimed production of “The Threepenny Opera” at the Southern) and Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide,” directed by Bob Neu. “From Berlin to Broadway” stars Christina Baldwin, Dieter Bierbrauer, Vicki Fingalson and Bradley Greenwald. “Candide” features Peter Middlecamp, Gary Briggle, Kathleen Humphrey, Jennifer Maren, Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Andrew Wannigmann. The two run in repertory June 13-22 at the E.M. Pearson Theater at Concordia University in St. Paul. FMI and tickets ($15-$45).

The Jon Hassler Library at Central Lakes College in Brainerd has been designated a National Literary Landmark and will be dedicated this Friday, May 16, at 3 p.m. A reception in the library will follow the dedication ceremony. Born in Minneapolis in 1933, a life-long resident of Minnesota, Hassler taught English and humanities at the college (then known as Brainerd Community College) from 1968-1980; he wrote and published his first novel, “Staggerford,” during that time. Today the Hassler Library houses all of his published works, along with several unpublished works and artifacts. Hassler also taught at three Minnesota high schools, at Bemidji State University and at St. John’s University in Collegeville, where he served as Writer in Residence. He died in 2008 at the age of 74.

The Knight Foundation reports receiving 866 applications for this year’s Knight Arts Challenge St. Paul. They were expecting 700, so this was a big showing. What’s next? No later than July 14, everyone who applied will receive an email either inviting them to submit a full proposal or informing them of Knight’s decision to decline the application. The winners will be announced in September 2014. This was the first year of a three-year, $4.5-million commitment Knight announced in January. So if you never got around to applying this year, there’s always 2015 and 2016. And if you don’t make the first cut this year, you can reapply next year.

Did you take part in “One Day in the Twin Cities,” the metro-wide, open-to-anyone documentary filming event on April 26? If you did, don’t forget to upload your footage. Meanwhile, here’s a first look at what people saw and heard and caught on their video cameras and smartphones. It made us fall in love with the cities all over again.

Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson returns to the Dakota next week, and if you want to see her, don’t wait until the last minute for tickets. Unless you’re Prince, who showed up last time she was here and commandeered the mezzanine. Wilson is a riveting performer who’ll wrap you around her baby finger, whether she’s singing a jazz standard, the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” or “O Sole Mio.” Monday-Tuesday, May 19-20. Sets at 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($40-$50).

Comedian, author and TV star Bill Cosby will perform two solo comedy shows at Orchestra Hall on Saturday, May 31. Tickets are on sale now ($35-$98) for the 2 p.m. matinee and the 8 p.m. evening show. This will be Cosby’s first time at Orchestra Hall in five years. The Minnesota Orchestra does not perform on this program. 

Our picks for the week

Tonight at the Dakota: Jane Monheit. Blessed with a sultry stage presence, great hair and fabulous pipes, Monheit came in second in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition at age 20 and was immediately proclaimed the next great jazz singer. That’s a heavy burden, and her progress since then has been a bit spotty; we have never loved any of her albums all the way through, and some of her live performances have been underwhelming. At 36, after 16 years in the business, she has found her way to the music of Judy Garland. Her latest program, “Hello Bluebird: Celebrating the Jazz of Judy Garland,” has been winning raves. And she still has the presence, the hair and the pipes. Sets at 7 and 9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($40-$35).

Wednesday at the U’s Boynton Health Service: PAWS. Interacting with animals is good for you. Petting a dog, even a chicken can positively affect blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels in humans. Stop by the weekly PAWS (Pet Away Worry & Stress) session at the U and see for yourself. Trained volunteers from the University’s Animal-Assisted Interactions (AAI) program will be on hand, along with their furry, fuzzy and feathered companions. Woodstock the Therapy Chicken is a frequent guest; you can follow him on Twitter (@TherapyChicken). 3-5 p.m. in the Roen Room (1st floor, room W120). Free and open to the public. Also next Wednesday, May 21.

Wednesday at Common Good Books: Rep. Keith Ellison discusses his book “My Country, ’Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, My Future.” The first Muslim elected to Congress, Minnesota’s Ellison writes about himself and his dreams, his conversion to Islam, and why his private beliefs play no part in his politics. 7 p.m., free.

Photo by John Whiting
Ragamala’s Aparna and Ashwini Ramaswamy dance during a rehearsal as Rudresh Mahanthappa plays in the background.

Thursday-Sunday at the Walker: Ragamala Dance and Rudresh Mahanthappa: “Song of the Jasmine.” A collaboration sparked in 2007, when Ragamala’s Aparna Ramaswamy saw jazz artist Rudresh Mahanthappa perform at the Walker, this program treats classical Indian dance and modern jazz as equals. We were allowed to watch it evolve, starting at an early rehearsal in December, and it’s one of the most exciting things we’ve ever seen. Here’s a preview in the Star Tribune. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. FMI and tickets ($20-$30). P.S. Both Mahanthappa and Ragamala’s Ranee Ramaswamy are Doris Duke Performing Artist Award winners.

Thursday-Saturday at Open Eye Figure Theatre: Four Humors Theater presents “Star City: A Russian Space Farce.” We saw Four Humors make merry with “Lolita” at last year’s Fringe. Later that year, they plunged us into darkness and scared us silly at the Southern with “The Murderer Did It!” And now they’re satirizing the Russian space program. Is there nothing this company holds sacred? The play is getting great reviews and ends May 17, so it’s time to light that rocket. FMI and tickets ($14-$15).

Starts Friday at the Fairgrounds: Art on a Line. Described as the Midwest’s single largest art event, this annual show, now in its 12th year, gets lost in the media frenzy of Art-A-Whirl (which we’ll talk about on Friday, never fear). Since it opens at 10 a.m. Friday, we’re telling you about it today in case you want to get there early. More than 90 artists working in acrylics and watercolors will bring more than 4,500 works to the Fine Arts Building at the State Fairgrounds, many already framed and all available for sale. All through the three-day event, you can watch demonstrations of water-based media techniques including acrylic, gesso, gouache, collage and traditional watercolor. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

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