VocalEssence WITNESS program has new urgency; two Cunningham dances at Northrop

Photo by Bruce Silcox
VocalEssence’s WITNESS concert

WITNESS is VocalEssence’s annual concert highlighting the contributions African-Americans make to the arts. Like all major events, it is planned far in advance. The original idea for this year’s program, “WITNESS: Underground Railroad,” was to call attention to St. Paul’s role as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and draw a connection between then and now: between the people who arrived seeking refuge from slavery, and the many thousands of refugees living in Minnesota today.

Recent events including the travel ban and public protests have made WITNESS even more urgent and necessary. The focus has sharpened to spotlighting Minnesota’s historic role as a sanctuary for the oppressed. Conductor G. Phillip Shoultz III said in a statement, “In light of the current political context, we see our program as an opportunity to use music as the vehicle to bring the community together to see the hidden faces of this issue. We hope to encourage everyone to find a voice to fight the inequitable practices and policies that are weakening the fabric of our society.”

The impassioned and galvanizing vocal activist Melanie DeMore will return as guest artist with songs of liberation and freedom. Choruses from Franklin Middle School, North High School, Parkway Montessori and Community Middle School, and Johnson Senior High School will join with the VocalEssence Chorus to stomp, clap and sing. Here’s a video clip from the sold-out 2014 show.

WITNESS programs are always emotionally powerful experiences. This one, at this moment in our history, will likely pack a gigantic punch. 4 p.m. Sunday at Orchestra Hall. FMI and tickets ($10-40). Come early for a concert conversation with DeMore at 3 p.m. in the lobby.

Pillsbury House Theatre announces 2017 season

A small, important community-centered theater in Minnesota’s most diverse neighborhood, Pillsbury House has announced its 2017 mainstage season: three timely, pointed productions it would be a shame to miss.

April 19-30: “The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation.” Pillsbury House has commissioned five short plays, just ten minutes each, by five local writers responding to the deeply, bitterly partisan fissure dividing America. What direction should we go in? Is this the New Normal? Is “whitelash” real or more fake news? Ellen Fenster directs new work by Benjamin Benne, Alan Berks, Christina Ham, Katie Ka Vang and James A. Williams, with music by DJ Chamun.

May 31-June 18: “Pike St.” Written and performed by Nilaja Sun, whose one-woman, Obie-winning “No Child” was seen at Pillsbury House in 2010, “Pike St.” brings to life a community of colorful characters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as they come together to prepare for a hurricane. Ron Russell directs.

Sept. 15-Oct. 22: “ ≈ [Almost Equal To].” Noël Raymond directs Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s politically subversive comedy about money in modern life. Khemiri is considered Sweden’s foremost contemporary playwright.

Season passes (which also get you into the Late Night and Naked Stages performances) are available now. The regular price is $100; the online price as of this writing is $80. Call 612-825-0459 for pick-your-own pricing (minimum advance purchase $65 per pass). 

Temporary hold on arts grants is lifted

In mid-January, we shared the news that a small projected deficit in Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (Legacy fund, for short) had led to some arts grants being delayed. “That fund cannot overspend,” Minnesota State Arts Board Executive Director Sue Gens wrote on Facebook, “so Minnesota Management and Budget is working with agencies to develop a plan to resolve the deficit. … [For] the moment, we can’t issue new grant contracts in our Artist Initiative and Partners in Arts Participation grant programs.”

On Tuesday, Gens returned to Facebook with this update:

The Arts Board is very pleased to announce that a solution has been found to resolve a potential deficit in the arts cultural heritage fund (ACHF) for this year, and the temporary hold on ACHF expenditures has been lifted.

At its January 2017 meeting, the Arts Board provisionally approved 104 Artist Initiative media arts, photography, and two- & three-dimensional visual arts grants (totaling $1,009,636), and 33 Partners in Arts Participation grants (totaling $677,964). We are now able to move forward and process grant contracts for those applicants that were recommended and approved to receive a grant.

The picks

Tonight (Thursday, Feb. 16) at Northrop: CCN-Ballet de Lorraine. The Walker’s giant “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” exhibition will be here through July 30, but this event – an acclaimed French dance company steeped in Cunningham, performing two of his signature works in their entirety – is here tonight, gone tomorrow. On the program: “Fabrications,” “Sounddance” and “Devoted.” Co-commissioned by the Walker and premiered 30 years ago (almost to the day) at Northrop, “Fabrications” will be danced to the original electronic score performed live on stage by Brazilian composer Emanuel Dimas de Melo Pimenta, against the original backdrop created by Dove Bradshaw. “Sounddance” features an electronic score by David Tudor. The New York Times’ Alastair MaCaulay saw “Sounddance” at the Joyce Theater in New York and proclaimed it “ardent, violent, thrilling.” The third work, “Devoted,” is a new contemporary ballet with a score by Philip Glass. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets (adults $42-62; $30 under 30).

Photo by Laurent Philippe
Ballet de Lorraine performing Sounddance

Tonight at Mia: Reading: Black Futures. Explore Afrofuturism with authors, poets and playwrights Erin Sharkey, Dua Saleh, Senah Sampong, Fayise Abrahim and Lisa Marie Brimmer. Afrofuturism reimagines alternative histories unbound by trauma, insisting on intersectionality and self-definition in our present, and envisioning possible futures for people of African descent. Doors at 6 p.m., program at 6:30. Free, first-come, first-served. Stay after for Mia’s Third Thursday party, which this month happens to be a local music sampler.

Photo by Joan Marcus
Euan Morton as Hedwig in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”

Tonight through Saturday at the Ordway: “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The revival of the wickedly funny and heartbreaking rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask won four 2014 Tonys and played to sold-out crowds on Broadway. The first U.S. national tour touches down at the Ordway through Sunday, with Broadway and West End veteran Euan Morton as genderqueer East German rock star Hedwig and Hannah Corneau as Yitzhak. All of the band members originated their roles on Broadway. There are two shows on Saturday, and you can either stay after the first or arrive early before the second for a free party with a live DJ, special guests and dancing. Tonight and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 9:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($37-114.50).

Now in the Marsden/Gustafson Gallery at IFP Minnesota: “DreamMakers: Portraits by Ann Marsden for the Ann Bancroft Foundation 1997-2010.” In 1997, the Ann Bancroft Foundation launched the DreamMaker Awards to acknowledge individuals and organizations that champion women’s and girls’ causes. The much-loved photographer Ann Marsden, who died in 2012, created portraits of the 50 women who received the awards from 1997-2010, including Amy Klobuchar, Winona LaDuke, Dr. Verna Price, Dorothea Burns, Mee Moua, Alison Smith, Rosalie Wahl and Nina Rothchild. The photographs are on display in Vandalia Tower (550 Vandalia St., St. Paul), and you can walk in and see them for free during gallery hours (M-F, 10:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.). Through April 28.

Friday at Orchestra Hall: Jazz in the Target Atrium: “Money Jungle (Revisited).” In 1962, Duke Ellington made an album with bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach called “Money Jungle.” A commentary on the tension between art and commerce, and a window into the negotiations that playing jazz requires, it’s now considered a landmark recording of the jazz-rich 1960s. In this concert curated by Jeremy Walker, pianist Bryan Nichols, bassist Jeff Bailey and drummer JT Bates will take on a masterpiece and bring it forward. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30/$12 students and children 6-17).

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