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Black Label Movement’s Carl Flink: ‘How do we imagine what we make now, in a world like this?’

Much of the diversity, equity and inclusion work other arts organizations have vowed to do in the wake of George Floyd’s death has been part of Black Label Movement from the start.

Black Label Movement and Sod House Theater’s “Swede Hollow Ghost Sonata” (2019)
Black Label Movement and Sod House Theater’s “Swede Hollow Ghost Sonata” (2019)
Photo by Bill Cameron

Carl Flink likes to say, “I’ve never had anyone accuse me of being a dance artist.” Broad-shouldered, muscular and sturdy, he looks like a jock. Growing up in Minnesota, he played soccer. He didn’t take his first dance class until he was almost 20 and a student at the U of M, double-majoring in political science and women’s studies.

After graduating, he spent six years with the José Limón Dance Company in New York City. He earned a law degree from Stanford, then worked as a social justice attorney with the Farmers Legal Action Group in St. Paul. Meanwhile, he taught dance classes at the U.

Law or dance? Which would it be? In 2005, Flink founded his own dance company, Black Label Movement. Today it’s one of the most-awarded companies in the Twin Cities, famous for its fierce athleticism, explosive performances and socially critical bent. Flink is a full professor and director of the dance program at the University of Minnesota.

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In 2009, he began collaborating with biomedical engineer David Odde at the U’s Institute for Advanced Study on ways to use dance to model scientific theories. Black Label Movement developed a system called Bodystorming, the subject of three TED talks (so far). U of M President Joan Gabel has called it “applied genius.”

The members of Black Label Movement – “movers,” not “dancers” – represent several body types, gender identities, and racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. “For me,” Flink says, “it was about finding people who were hungry to move, and if they were hungry to move, we could figure out how they could fit into this community.” Much of the diversity, equity and inclusion work other arts organizations have vowed to do in the wake of George Floyd’s death has been part of Black Label Movement from the start.

We spoke with Flink by phone on Monday afternoon. (Everyone wants a break from Zoom.) This conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: What did 2020 look like for Black Label Movement before COVID arrived?

Carl Flink: We had literally done our big season, an 18-month trajectory that included “Swede Hollow” in St. Paul, some touring, and a lot of active work with Bodystorming. I had planned to take some solo artist time to focus in on “Twelfth Night.” [Note: Flink was movement director for the Guthrie’s production, one of several he has worked on. The show was cut short by COVID.]

Carl Flink
Carl Flink
We planned to start focusing on our new work, tentatively titled “Battleground,” in late March and early April. It’s a new evening-length work focused on a large-group examination of the impact work we’ve done in “Hit” [2011].

We had to postpone those initial rehearsal periods. We were able to pay 50 percent of the lost wages for our company members in April and May. Right now, we’re not losing work because we didn’t have anything scheduled.

We were lucky. We lost fairly substantial activities around Bodystorming. But everything was more about, “We’ll just need to go quiet for a while. It will still be there.” Not like the Limón company, which lost an entire season.

MP: Do you feel Black Label Movement is in any danger?

CF: I feel absolutely confident that we are in a position to come out active and even more active in the future. That is a testimony to our managing director, Crystal Edwards. She’s a wizard of accounting and financial management. We’ve been able to weather the storm.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like “Oh, COVID is nothing” – but we had an infrastructure in place to absorb the hits and not feel we’re at risk.

MP: What was the last dance-related thing you did before the lockdown?

CF: There’s a beautiful dance company in St. Louis named MADCO. I was doing a commission for them on the concept of resilience. I made a piece called “Riding the Maelstrom” with them last August that was supposed to premiere the last weekend of March. I wondered – should I go? It still felt murky enough.

On March 10, as the curtains were being drawn for COVID, I went down there. I drove, I didn’t fly. We had the most dynamic and exhilarating two days of rehearsal I’ve ever had. On our last day, their board chair and one of the board members came in and shared that they had to postpone the season. I rushed to drive back and got a speeding ticket.

Performance is one of the great gifts, being able to share your work, but the immediacy and urgency of those two days of rehearsal! It felt like I was flying down a tunnel, trying to get through the door right before it closed.

MP: What is your life like now?

CF: Every day, I go through the hurdles that COVID and the George Floyd murder require me to deal with in my various capacities. It’s a daily process of staying connected in a centered way.

I come to the challenges and opportunities around COVID, and the momentum and movements stemming from George Floyd’s murder, from three different places: as a parent, as the director of a large dance program and as the founder and leader of a professional dance company. Each has different needs and a different kind of touching.

I have three daughters, a 17-year-old who just graduated from high school and 12-year-old twins. With them, it’s an immense amount of conversation, a lot of processing, and a lot of helping them understand incidences of violence and what they mean, and how they’re reflective of centuries-long entrenched inequities in our societies.

My 17-year-old is deeply committed to social justice and potential careers in that space. After the death of George Floyd, we took to biking the city a lot, going to protest sites and protests, bearing witness to the destruction, the graffiti, and the amazing messages.

Carl Flink and Emily Plauché Flink, “Duet for ‘Wreck’” (2012)
Photo by Bill Cameron
Carl Flink and Emily Plauché Flink, “Duet for ‘Wreck’” (2012)
We were going everywhere we could while also trying to remain cognizant of the COVID precautions. Both of us would talk. That deepened our relationship, our empathy and compassion. We moved past a newsreel awareness, an intellectual awareness, into this very direct hands-on experience.

COVID has brought me to the idea of “How do we touch when we can’t touch anymore?” Given the violence of what George Floyd and too many bodies of color experience in our country, historically and now, is a piece like “Battleground” even the thing to be contemplating? Or should I be diving more into a piece of healing and gentleness? How do we imagine what we make now, in a world like this? I’m really wrestling. I can see our next season being a huge, dramatic shift from where I thought it was going.

The dance program is embedded in the heart of a mainline U.S. institution, with all of its systemic difficulties. How do we address  significant problems we have been identifying for years that we have been knocking our heads against the wall on? How do we say that we can’t let that wall stop us anymore?

You can think you’re somewhere, but a moment like this gives you the opportunity to reflect and question your own assumptions about whether you’re as far as you think you should be. If we don’t take hold of the energy of this moment now and allow it to propel us, when are we going to?

MP: What is your main concern?

CF: There are so many tiers to that. … My main concern is how do we effectively teach incoming and current dance students at the U of M in a way that gives value to the precious tuition dollars they’re spending? How do we do that while recognizing in very real ways the consequences of the energy released by George Floyd’s death?

With Black Label Movement, we can’t just start over and say, “Here we go!” Our work has to be threaded with the issues that are facing us in terms of equity and institutional change.

As a parent, how do I help my children understand the depth, importance and urgency of this [time] while also getting them to have forward motion in their lives? They’re at the beginning. They want to dream and vision. Real change might be possible. They have the opportunity to be part of that.

Black Label Movement in "Morituri te Salutante (Those About to Die Salute You)” (2019)
Photo by Bill Cameron
Black Label Movement in "Morituri te Salutante (Those About to Die Salute You)” (2019)
MP: Is there a silver lining to any of this for you?

CF: There’s the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. It’s sometimes translated as “beautiful ugly.” Out of this turmoil, there is a chance for rebuilding and reconstruction in a way that hasn’t existed for decades, if not longer.

While I am constantly reminding myself of the horrors caused by both COVID and George Floyd’s death, I do see that if we stay focused and committed, there’s a chance for actual substantive change. That leaves me with a sense of optimism.

MP: What will you do first when you can do whatever you want?

CF: Oh my gosh! I know exactly what I’ll do. I’ll call a contact improvisation jam session with my company. We’ll get together and just be together in a physical way that allows us to dance and move together.

***

Here’s a look at Black Label Movement’s 2018-20 seasons.