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The Great Northern’s Kate Nordstrum: ‘We never thought of calling it off’

The winter festival will start Thursday with a full and diverse 10-day schedule of activities, performances and events indoors and out, virtual and live.

Kate Nordstrum has been executive and artistic director of the Great Northern since December 2019.
Kate Nordstrum has been executive and artistic director of the Great Northern since December 2019.
Photo by Eliesa Johnson

COVID-19 canceled the State Fair, Rock the Garden, the Basilica Block Party, the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, the Uptown Art Fair, ad infinitum. But the Great Northern? The winter festival? In Minnesota? That will start tomorrow (Thursday, Jan. 28) with a full and diverse 10-day schedule of activities, performances and events indoors and out, virtual and live.

Kate Nordstrum wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nordstrum has been executive and artistic director of the Great Northern since December 2019. Prior to that, she was director of special projects for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, where she curated and ran the acclaimed Liquid Music series.

She had a reputation as a visionary arts programmer when Eric Dayton approached her about growing the Great Northern, the festival he founded in 2017 with the St. Paul Winter Carnival, the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships and the City of Lakes Loppet Ski Festival. Nordstrum was full of ideas, she knew people and she got things done.

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She spent 2020’s Great Northern observing and learning in her down duffel coat. She started planning 2021. It would bring people together all over the cities. And then (insert ominous music here) came COVID.

We spoke with Nordstrum a few days before the Great Northern’s opening. As always, this conversation has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: How are you?

Kate Nordstrum: Good! I’m pretty grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to focus on producing work this year. Even though it’s been such a challenging year, I have a mission to get new work out the door still and figure out how to do it. I’m grateful not to be waiting until COVID is over to release new projects into the world.

MP: The Great Northern 2021 is about to begin. Are you ready?

KN: I think so! Some of our projects that would have been live events had to be repackaged into podcasts or written work, so we’re sharing that content in different ways. In a normal year, where performances and things are happening and people are gathering for 10 straight days, I would be running around like crazy.

MP: Looking back, what was 2020 like for you?

KN: It was difficult. It took time to find my voice with this new position. I needed to be patient with myself as I found my way in and started to imagine what I could bring to the festival, and from my perspective, what was needed. The first few months were getting the lay of the land and meeting people.

I wasn’t long into the new job when the pandemic struck. I’m a very social person, inspired by ideas that come from sitting with others, talking to others in person and kind of riffing. Working from home, I felt very cut off.

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MP: You went from creating experimental music events to planning a winter festival. Talk about that.

KN: I am no longer at a classical music organization. I am focused on building a platform that explores and celebrates a time of year. What does that mean? It’s made me open up to a greater variety of creative practices and people in this community and beyond. I’m talking to more people than I’ve ever talked to before, in different industries, and finding connections between them.

Before, I didn’t have a sense of our culinary scene and the creative work that’s being done here. I’m talking to people in the climate movement and learning about the work being done there. I will continue programming music, and I’m excited to do more and better there. But I’m also excited about new relationships that are being formed and new people I’m meeting. This festival is a broadening for me of programmatic possibilities.

Marlena Myles’ “Innerworld Prism” film, projected on the Highlight Tower in northeast Minneapolis, will run on a six-minute loop during the Great Northern.
Screen shot
Marlena Myles’ “Innerworld Prism” film, projected on the Highlight Tower in northeast Minneapolis, will run on a six-minute loop during the Great Northern.
I don’t consider myself a hard-core winter outdoorsman. I wanted to more broadly explore winter culture in Minneapolis and St. Paul through this festival. There are so many perspectives on that. So that has been really interesting.

For me, working in and around restrictions has been a recurring theme. With a winter festival in Minnesota, maybe a first line of thought is like, “Oh, gosh, I’m restricted in X, Y and Z ways.” But you need to flip that and think about what you have and press against the perceived restrictions. That kind of mindset is important in winter, for those who struggle with it. Being able to flip the mind to what the season gives us.

COVID is like that. You first think, “What has been taken away?” and you next have to think, “What can I still do?”

MP: How would you describe the Great Northern?

KN: The festival is meant to be an exploration of time, place, what the season does to us, what it gives, how we get through it, how we find warmth with one another through programming that invigorates mind and body. I pulled those words into the mission statement, about building inner vigor, and how important it is for us to invigorate at this time of year intentionally. And kind of build a fire from within.

That means different things to different people. For some, it can be a combination of fresh air and good words and music that inspires, or doing a sport. We need to find those fires, and we need to keep coming together, and the intention needs to be stronger. Because life in winter is a little harder.

MP: Most festivals were canceled or postponed after COVID came. Did you and Eric Dayton ever think, “Maybe we’ll just skip this year?”

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KN: No, we never did. We had funding for the 2021 festival, and this is a year when our arts scene is hurting, and our culinary scene, and I just felt – well, we have money to make something happen right now, and we should apply it. We’re a nonprofit, we’re part of this creative community, and we should be contributing. This seems like an important year to deliver some content that inspires, and some prompts to get moving and stir the imagination. So we never thought of calling it off.

MP: There’s a lot going on at the Great Northern this year, in spite of the pandemic. Can you point to a few events?

KN: I highly recommend Dream the Combine’s “Tracking.” You’ll sign up to receive text messages that will come to you with winter walking prompts over the course of the festival. You can do these walks anywhere. Just get someone else’s nudge to get out the door, breathe fresh air, do something creative and see your world differently. And you can contribute, if you want, to a piece of art Dream the Combine will deliver on the vernal equinox [March 20].

Alec Soth and Dave King rehearsing for “The Palms.”
Courtesy of the artists
Alec Soth and Dave King rehearsing for “The Palms.”
If people just want reflective words, our blog will have different pieces every day through the festival. We launched the blog a couple weeks ago, and it’s a really important part of the Great Northern in my mind. It sets the tone for the festival, and what is coming even beyond this year. It offers a lot of different perspectives on winter that I find very inspiring. [For example, see SPCO Artistic Director Kyu-Young Kim’s interview with composer John Luther Adams.]

Marlena Myles’ “Innerworld Prism” film, projected on the Highlight Tower in northeast Minneapolis, is gorgeous. It’s a six-minute loop. Yia Vang [of Union Hmong Kitchen] has put together a special take-out menu. Giving love to our restaurant workers right now is important. [Note: These events take place tonight, Thursday, Jan. 27, on festival eve. After tonight, “Innerworld Prism” will move around to different locations. Follow it on Instagram.]

All of the performances are going to be awesome. For instance, the Alec Soth and Dave King project. I am excited to present that virtually to our audience. And the Outpost event with Sam Bergman, with spoken word, artists from the Minnesota Orchestra and three world premieres.

There’s a winter walking meditation at Wood Lake Nature Center.  That will be lovely. A Climate Solutions series that kicks off with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. The following week, we go into a series of Climate Solutions lunchtime panels. People can tune in over their lunch hour.

With the Minneapolis St. Paul Film Society, we’re doing a mini-film festival of climate action films. One will include a live conversation with Winona LaDuke. The desire is to have a film festival be part of the Great Northern every year.

The “UNWEAVING” site-specific outdoor sculpture installation [by Tia Keobounpheng] is gorgeous and reflective. It’s at the trailhead at Theodore Wirth Park. You can catch the ski races, if you want, and stop by.

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There are things to buy, too. Like the Faribault Woolen Mill blanket by Dyani White Hawk, a piece of art. [Note: The blanket is a splurge, but it’s spectacular.]

I’m not prioritizing one thing over another. I don’t have projects you have to see and projects that are just OK. They’re all their own things.

Composer Daijana Wallace’s duet for soprano and viola will have its world premiere at “Outpost.”
Photo by Julian Kincaid
Composer Daijana Wallace’s duet for soprano and viola will have its world premiere at “Outpost.”
MP: We’ve been asking people this question since last spring, so we’ll ask you, too: What’s the first thing you’ll do when you can do whatever you want?

KN: Do you mean post-COVID? I’m dreaming of it. I really miss traveling. I miss being around a table with people. I want to share food and wine and laugh and not worry about proximity, and get inspired by other people’s ideas that are generated on the spot. I can’t wait to be with other people again. I want to be in performance spaces again and feel music in my body.

I want a life where anything can happen. Chance encounters are so important. Right now, you know what your day is going to look like. You’re holed up in your house, mainly. I look forward to wondering how a day might unfold and who you might bump into.