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A year in the arts: 25 of the best things we saw and heard in 2019

From “All Is Calm” to “What If”: Of the many arts events we attended in 2019, these rose to the top.

Before looking back at art we loved, a moment to remember artists we lost over the past year. Most recently, the prose poet Louis Jenkins, who died Saturday. A man of rare insight, wry humor, and a deceptively plainspoken way of tackling big subjects, Jenkins gained fame beyond the poetry world for writing a play with Mark Rylance, “Nice Fish,” based on one of his books. We saw him most recently at Plymouth Congregational Church on Oct. 28, his 77th birthday. He read from his latest, “Where Your House Is Now.” Afterward, we shook his hand and shared some memories. He signed two books for us.

Just last week, jazz saxophonist Irv “Mr. Smooth” Williams died. On Thanksgiving morning, Marion McClinton, director, playwright, actor, founding member of Penumbra, and frequent collaborator with August Wilson. A week earlier, blues-soul singer Wee Willie Walker. Arts writer, theater lover, and friend to many John Townsend in October. Blues hero Tony Glover in May. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento in February. Earlier that month, dapper jazz booster, writer, man-about-town and DJ Larry Englund. And on Dec. 31, 2018, the profoundly influential potter Warren MacKenzie. Seismic changes on our arts landscape.

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Of the many arts events we attended in 2019, these rose to the top. They are listed in roughly chronological order, with no ranking implied.

“Star Wars: A New Hope” with Live Orchestra at Orchestra Hall. Sarah Hicks, reigning queen of the film-in-concert genre, led the Minnesota Orchestra in a stellar performance of John Williams’ epic score. Storm troopers hung out in the lobby before the show. Overheard on the way out: “That was cool!”

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Erik Johansson discussing “Drained Memories” in the Osher Gallery at the American Swedish Institute.
“Imagine: Surreal Photography by Erik Johansson” at the American Swedish Institute. In Swedish photographer Johansson’s large-scale digitally manipulated photographs, fish swim through the sky and roads unzip, their edges curling. How does he do it and make each image look real?  The exhibition also included videos showing the artist’s painstaking process.

Miriam Schwartz and Craig Johnson in a scene from the Gremlin Theatre production of "The Father."
Photo by Alyssa Kristine
Miriam Schwartz and Craig Johnson in a scene from the Gremlin Theatre production of "The Father."
Florian Zeller’s “The Father” at the Gremlin Theatre. Craig Johnson gave a wrenching and powerful performance as a man sinking into dementia. As actors replaced each other and furniture disappeared from the set, we felt his confusion and entered his rapidly shrinking world.

Robert Bly’s “Collected Poems” book release at Plymouth Church. Bly wasn’t able to attend (he sent a recording), but a long line of friends and admirers came to read his poems and share stories. They included Bly’s children and grandchildren, friends, poets Freya Manfred and Louis Jenkins (to name just two), Rain Taxi publisher Eric Lorberer, Loft director Britt Udesen, and more who have been touched by Bly’s Colossus-like presence on the literary scene.

Celebrating Henry: A Threadgill Festival at the Walker. The Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz composer performed with his quartet on Saturday night. That was a thrill. So was Friday night’s concert, curated by cellist Michelle Kinney, in which 24 Minnesota musicians played Threadgill pieces from the past 40+ years. A special shout to Milo Fine, who brought the Walker’s Steinway to a point of near combustion.

Claudia Rankine
Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts
Claudia Rankine: “What do white people need from people of color so they feel OK staying in difficult conversations?”
Claudia Rankine at the Walker. In what was billed as a Mack Lecture, Rankine read the preface to her first published play, “The White Card.” Then actors Stephen Yoakam and Joy Dolo read the play’s second act, after which Rankine returned to the podium for a Q&A. Penumbra will present the play in February, with Talvin Wilks as director. This was a great introduction.

Photo by Dan Norman
Dean Holt as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit.”
“The Hobbit” at the Children’s Theatre Company. This was brilliant. Playwright Greg Banks (who also directed) told J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel with a cast of five (five!) playing everyone: Bilbo, Smaug, Gandalf, Gollum, dwarves, trolls, elves, eagles, goblins, men, birds, spiders. The occasional verbal cue (like Joy Dolo’s “Hi! I’m the Elven Queen, as if you couldn’t tell”) was all we needed to keep it straight.

Unnamed solo exhibition by Eric Rieger, aka HOTTEA, at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory. Revealing a different side of the artist known for his yarn-graffiti fences and colorful yarn installations, this gallery-filling show was personal and generous, exploring losses Rieger had experienced and giving space to others’ expressions of grief. And nothing was for sale.

Photo by Dan Norman
From "Metamorphoses," Ceyx (Alex Moggridge) tells Alcyone (Louise Lamson) that he will return from his sea voyage. He won’t.
“Metamorphoses” at the Guthrie. Based on classical myths by Ovid, set mostly in a large reflecting pool, Mary Zimmerman’s Tony-winning play brought the stories of King Midas, Narcissus, Baucis and Philemon, Orpheus and Eurydice to vibrant, immediate life. Zimmerman was here to direct the Guthrie’s shimmering and beautiful production.

Cosmo Sun Connection: Celebrating the Life and Musical Legacy of Sun Ra at the Cedar. Five ensembles of local, national, and international improvisers marked the 105th anniversary of Sun Ra’s arrival on Planet Earth. Queen Drea conjured up Black Girl Magic during the band changes.

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“Museum of the Moon” at the Bell Museum. Created by British installation artist Luke Jerram, a giant, glowing moon balloon nearly 23 feet in diameter hung in the Bell’s lobby for for almost three weeks. Covered with high-resolution NASA imagery, lit from within, it was magical, especially at night. You could see it from all sides, even the dark side.

Kurt Kwan, Sherwin Resurreccion, Regina Marie Williams, and James Craven in "The Brothers Paranormal."
Photo by Allen Weeks
Kurt Kwan, Sherwin Resurreccion, Regina Marie Williams, and James Craven in "The Brothers Paranormal."
“The Brothers Paranormal” at the Penumbra. Jumping out of your skin at the Twin Cities Horror Festival is one thing. But you don’t expect to do that at the Penumbra. This co-production with Theater Mu was genuinely scary. Also touching, illuminating, funny, sad and sweet. The tale of an African-American couple haunted by an angry Asian ghost also touched on the immigrant experience and mental illness.

Mixed Blood Theatre’s “Autonomy” at Saint Paul RiverCentre. Set in 70,000 square feet with a cast of 20 actors, a supporting cast of 40 classic cars, and three scenes running simultaneously, with the audience shuttled from scene to scene in golf carts, this was a wild ride with a solid story. The sheer chutzpah of this production made it a must for our year-end list.

“Hearts of Our People” at Mia. Groundbreaking, game-changing, respectful and powerful, this exhibition made history and raised the bar. The 115+ works spanned 1,000 years of art by Native women artists. Whenever possible, the artist was named, and the label was translated into her Native language. No more “anonymous.” The importance of that is staggering.

“La Pasión según San Marcos” at Orchestra Hall. The Minnesota Orchestra wrapped a Latin American-flavored Sommerfest with fire and passion. Its first-ever performances of Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov’s masterpiece overflowed with percussion, dancing, choirs, vocalists (including Grammy winner Luciana Souza) and several music styles. When Venezuelan singers couldn’t get visas in time, St. Paul’s Border CrosSing came to the rescue.

The Great Black Music Ensemble
Photo by Michael Jackson
The music of the Great Black Music Ensemble is filled with improvisation and invention, but it also draws from other black music traditions: funk, reggae, swing, African and Caribbean styles.
The Great Black Music Ensemble at the Cedar. In the first-ever collaboration among the American Composers Forum, the Schubert Club and the Cedar, 16 improvisers from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) delivered a joyous night of creative music led by Ernest Dawkins, a Jackson Pollock of directing.

“Jimmy & Lorraine: A Musing” at Pillsbury House Theatre. Playwright Talvin Wilks used James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry’s own words to tell the story of their friendship, their struggles and their times. Part play, part history lesson, his “musing” is exquisitely crafted, lyrical and affecting. Jon-Michael Reese was Baldwin, Vinecia Coleman was Hansberry, and Sasha Andreev was everyone else – five characters, each one distinct.

Black Grace
Courtesy of the artist
Black Grace is New Zealand’s leading contemporary dance company.
Black Grace at Northrop. An evening of fierce, fast and exhilarating movement and storytelling by New Zealand’s leading contemporary dance company, whose dancers have Samoan, Maori, Tongan and New Zealander roots. The performance preview with founding artistic director and choreographer Neil Ieremia was enlightening and invaluable.

Ashwini Ramaswamy’s “Let the Crows Come” at the Lab Theater. A fascinating evening of transfer and transformation, and a celebration of dual identities. Ramaswamy’s opening Bharatanatyam solo was interpreted in turn by contemporary dancers Alanna Morris-Van Tassel and Berit Ahlgren. Meanwhile, the music passed from a Carnatic trio to experimental cellist Brent Arnold and DJ Jace Clayton.

Stephen Epp, Mo Perry and Stephanie Bertumen
Photo by Paula Keller
Steven Epp, Mo Perry and Stephanie Bertumen in "The Winter’s Tale."
Ten Thousand Things’ “A Winter’s Tale” at North Garden Theater. Under new Artistic Director Marcela Lorca, Shakespeare returned to TTT, a theater famous for making Shakespeare accessible to everyone. Taking on a notoriously tricky play, Lorca drew great performances from a cast that included Steven Epp, Shá Cage and James Craven.

The Danish String Quartet at the American Swedish Institute. The Schubert Club’s featured ensemble for 2019-20, the award-winning DSQ played a program of Scandinavian folk tunes from their recent album “Last Leaf.” Their virtuosity, warmth, emotional expressiveness and lush, sensuous harmonies were teasers for the Beethoven Quartets series they’ll perform here in May.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” at Orchestra Hall. A gorgeous program, a gigantic chorus (actually three choruses: two from South Africa and the Minnesota Chorale) and superb soloists (including glorious South African soprano Goitsemang Lehobye) came together under Osmo Vänskä’s baton for one of the best concerts we heard all year. The stage was extended to hold all the singers and musicians.

“All Is Calm” at the Ritz. Theater Latté Da brought last year’s award-winning off-Broadway production home for several holiday performances and three days of filming. Next year around this time, Peter Rothstein’s tremendously moving show – the true story of a World War I Christmas truce in the trenches – will be broadcast nationally on PBS so everyone can appreciate this masterpiece of music-theater.

What If
Courtesy of The Moving Company
Nathan Keepers and Sarah Agnew in “What If.”
The Moving Company’s “What If” at the Lab. We saw this devised work so recently we’re still humming. It’s not easy, it’s not festive, and it has nothing to do with the holidays. In the first part, Steven Epp plays three characters: a Syrian refugee in Paris, an 11-year-old American girl on a floating rooftop, and a murmuration of starlings in the sky. In the second part, Nathan Keepers and Sarah Agnew are buffoons both divine and profane. Closes Dec. 29.

The Bad Plus at the Dakota. We haven’t seen this year’s show yet. But it always comes too late in the year to make a year-end list, so it never gets mentioned. That’s just not fair. We’ve seen TBP every year for 20 years, and there are reasons we keep going back: great players, creative music, fun times. Even with a major personnel change – on Jan. 2018, pianist Orrin Evans took over from Ethan Iverson – it’s still the trio we know and love. Dec. 25-28.