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The Great Northern reveals Kate Nordstrum’s original programming; Tane Danger to direct Westminster Town Hall Forum

If you thought COVID would put a stop to the Great Northern, the Twin Cities’ winter celebration, think again.

Marlena Myles will create a large-scale digital artwork to be projected during the festival.
Marlena Myles will create a large-scale digital artwork to be projected during the festival.
Courtesy of the artist

Just short of a year ago, Kate Nordstrum was named executive and artistic director of the Great Northern. Co-founded by Eric Dayton with the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and the City of Lakes Loppet, the Great Northern celebrates winter in the cities with original programming and a focus on climate change.

Kate Nordstrum
Photo by Cameron Wittig
Kate Nordstrum
Nordstrum knows original programming. It’s what she did for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra when she ran Liquid Music, a series she invented and brought to national prominence. It’s what she did before then at the Southern Theater and her own Kate Nordstrum Projects, and afterward with her curatorial collective Infinite Palette and in partnership with arts and culture organizations across the U.S., from the Kennedy Center to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

So we thought, if anyone can make winter in Minnesota more interesting, especially for those of us who need a little prodding to layer up and get out there, Kate can.

Then COVID came and stayed and stayed, and we wondered – will the Great Northern even happen this year?

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Oh, it will happen. And it may change people’s minds about what a winter festival can encompass and be.

The 2021 Great Northern will take place over 10 days, Jan. 28-Feb. 7. Because of COVID, “all events have been designed in full compliance with safety guides put forward by the Minnesota Department of Health and are subject to change.” Some will be virtual or digital. Some will be podcasts. Some will be timed, others on-demand. Some are ticketed; most are free.

Photographer Alec Soth will present a world premiere event with drummer Dave King.
Courtesy of Alec Soth
Photographer Alec Soth will present a world premiere event with drummer Dave King.
Two legacy Winter Carnival events we would stroll through in a non-pandemic year will be combined into a drive-through experience at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. The U.S. Pond Hockey Championships have been cancelled and will return in 2022. The Loppet will take place outdoors as usual, in and around Theodore Wirth Park.

More than 40 events are listed on the website, which went live on Tuesday. Following are several that caught our eye.

Krista Tippett
Photo by Chris Daniels
Krista Tippett
A world premiere storytelling, photo sharing, and semi-improvised new music event by photographer Alec Soth and drummer Dave King. An “On Being” broadcast in which Krista Tippett will interview Drew Lanham, author of “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature” (Milkweed Editions). A new Outpost show from Sam Bergman and Carrie Henneman Shaw. The Ice and Snow Sculpture Park drive-through at the Fairgrounds. An online performance by the Meta Simulacrum Vol. 1, a supergroup including William Brittelle, Channy Leaneagh and members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. A record release live from the First Avenue stage. A conversation on climate science, policy and justice with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, co-creator of the “How to Save a Planet” podcast.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Photo by Marcus Branch
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Winter stories presented by Mizna. A Live Fire Grilling takeout with chef Yia Vang (Union Hmong Kitchen, Vina). “Innerworld Prism,” a projected digital artwork by Marlena Myles that will be introduced at the Highlight Tower in NE Minneapolis and pop up at surprise sites over the course of the festival. A series of experimental winter walks designed by Dream the Combine. Virtual screenings of four climate action films. The Great Northern Blog, with commissioned writing debuts including an interview with composer John Luther Adams by the SPCO’s artistic director, Kyu-Young Kim.

As part of the festival, in collaboration with the American Craft Council, you can even order a wool throw designed by Dyani White Hawk and made at the Faribault Woolen Mill.

This winter will be a good one not to be a snowbird. FMI.

Westminster Town Hall Forum names new director

Tane Danger, co-founder and host of the Theater of Public Policy, the civics-inspired comedy improv show that brings people together around big ideas, has been named the new director of the Westminster Town Hall Forum.

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For someone with Danger’s experience, interests and passions, the position seems like a perfect fit. “The contemplative, reflective, ethically driven space that the Forum has created over 40 years is wildly valuable and necessary,” he said in conversation Monday afternoon. “I am really excited to be part of that.

“It’s sort of like, if you see a billing somewhere that says ‘Hamilton’ is having auditions, you say, ‘Well, I should at least throw my hat in the ring and see what happens.’ ” Tuesday was his first day.

The Westminster Town Hall Forum is the largest and arguably most prestigious speaker series in the upper Midwest. To date, it has featured more than 250 speakers including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Marian Wright Edelman, David McCullough, Gwen Ifill and Salman Rushdie.

In non-pandemic times, the (mostly) noon-hour talks bring 1,200 people to the Westminster Presbyterian Church sanctuary in downtown Minneapolis, a block off Nicollet Mall. More listen to the live MPR broadcasts. Many visit the website later, where every talk since the first (by Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox) is archived for listening and, starting in 2006, viewing.

Tane Danger
Tane Danger
The Forum’s mission is “to engage the public in reflection and dialogue on the key issues of our day from an ethical perspective.” Danger is especially stoked by the “ethical perspective” part.

“The focus on ethics invites conversations that don’t happen necessarily anywhere else,” he said. “We don’t have those kinds of conversations in a ton of places. My hope is that, especially right now, when we are very divided, there will be people who value and appreciate this unique opportunity to bring people together with words and thoughts and ideas.”

Originally from Florida, Danger came to Minnesota to attend Gustavus Adolphus College. It was there he met Brandon Boat, with whom he formed the Theater of Public Policy in 2011. Known as T2P2 for short, the theater specializes in “using comedy to reframe hard thinky stuff.” They invite specialists on wonky topics like housing, zoning, sewers, birds, traffic, state and local politics, apple breeding and more (almost anything is fair game), interview them intelligently and perform comedy sketches based on the interviews.

The shows are funny, informative, and never mean. They have also been a terrific way for Danger to learn a lot about Minnesota. He has most often been the interviewer, and he has had to prepare. He feels attached to the state and to Minneapolis, where he lives. In 2014, he won a Bush Foundation fellowship that helped him earn a masters degree in public policy from the Humphrey School.

“Another piece I’m really excited about is how place-based the Forum is,” Danger said. “Assuming we are able to get back to doing things in the second half of 2021, I’m eager about the idea of Nicollet Mall, Minnesota’s Main Street, being a welcome space for speakers all over the country and potentially all over the world to come to this very special, important to me place and get to speak on something that is important to them. I’m hopeful we can be part of making stuff that is exciting and interesting for people downtown that gets them wanting to come there.”

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Looking ahead, Danger says he’s “keen to ask the community more and more what they want out of this program. I have ideas about that. But I really believe that the strength and future of this is in growing out as opposed to growing up or down. So I’m very eager to start connecting with people who are already passionate about this thing. And people who might be interested if we bring the kinds of speakers and voices they want to hear.

“My final interview for this position came a day or two after Joe Biden had given his first speech as the President Elect. He has asked us to give each other a chance, to listen to each other and engage with each other as citizens. To have the opportunity to help curate a space where we can do that is humbling and very exciting. It gives me a lot of purpose and joy to think about that.”

At Westminster, Danger will also direct the new Town Talks series, a happy hour program with local speakers aimed at a younger and more diverse audience. Launched at the end of 2018, it was still getting started when COVID hit. Danger already has some preliminary ideas for that, which include getting more voices involved.

And yes, the Theater of Public Policy will keep going. “One thing that has always been a goal of mine is for T2P2 to be bigger than me and Brandon. I think we made a lot of strides this year, partially by necessity, because we had to adapt and change and do a lot of things differently. Other members of our cast and crew stepped up and took leadership in different things. It’ll be a new chapter and a new era for that organization, and that’s exciting and interesting to me.”