The first performance of this year’s Out There series comes to Walker Art Center this week, after the shows in the festival were postponed from earlier this year. The delayed performances were just another of many setbacks throughout the pandemic for many performing arts venues, the Walker among them. But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough improvise, and the Walker has managed to find moments of nimbleness throughout the pandemic.
“It’s been interesting and challenging for pretty much everybody involved in the performing arts worlds,” says performing arts curator Philip Bither.
Making the situation particularly challenging for the Walker was the number of international artists in its lineup. “We took some steps to not abandon our commitment to global exchange and international presentation, and being aware and connected around the world as best we could,” Bither says.
That aspect of the Walker’s programming already has come back to in-person, when Moroccan-born, Brussels-based choreographer Radouan Mriziga presented “Akal” at the McGuire Theater last week.
Normally, the Out There series takes place in January, when the bustle of holiday shows in December has passed and the dark cold of deep winter offers a window to engage in experimental art and performance. In 2022, the Walker planned for an abbreviated festival of three shows, spread out over two months, but each of the three engagements had to be postponed. “It all got reassembled,” Bither says. “It’s sort of less of a festival. Now it’s kind of standalone events, but we are thrilled we were able to reschedule everything.”
This week, the reconstituted Out There sees the return of Kaneza Schaal. Minneapolis audiences saw her perform with Elevator Repair Service a decade ago. “I started seeing her own work and thought it was brilliant,” Bither says. “It’s such an interesting mix of formal experimental theatrical approaches because she did work with the Wooster Group and all these other people, but she also comes from a very Black aesthetic and also a very community oriented approach.”
Back in 2019, the Walker presented “JACK &” by Schaal, in collaboration with Cornell Alston and Christopher Myers. This week it’s “KLII,” which is based in part on a fictional monologue by Mark Twain that he wrote after visiting the Belgian Congo as a journalist during Leopold II’s brutal reign. Schaal also draws on a speech by independence leader Patrice Lumumba in 1960. In the piece, Schaal plays King Leopold and then also interweaves personal stories around colonialism and racism in our society.
Bither saw the work in New York while it was being developed, for an audience of only 80 to 100 seats. “It’s a very intimate experience,” he says.
The next Out There event will be Annie Dorsen’s “Yesterday Tomorrow,” taking place in July. As for Big Dance Theater, originally scheduled for March, Bither says he is still looking for a place for the group to perform next season.
Besides the rescheduling, the pandemic has offered some learning experiences. “We have been taking some time to reflect on what COVID means to us and to the artists we support,” Bither says.
For one thing, the pandemic highlighted a value the Walker already had identified. “The centricity of artists and their needs and creative processes became even more urgent,” Bither says. “How we don’t abandon artists at a time when institutions were certainly going to survive, but it was a question whether artists could continue to make work and be supported in their processes, even though so much couldn’t happen.”
The Walker also found they had to throw out certain orthodoxies. “It was new levels of flexibility,” Bither says. “We had to figure out ways that we can support and find creative work despite all of the limitations.”
As an example, Faye Driscoll’s first museum exhibition had just opened at the Walker in 2020 when the museum was forced to close its doors due to the pandemic. Eventually, the museum’s digital and design team came up with an online version of the exhibit. “We were able to allow people to get online at home during Covid and have something of an experience that mirrored the installation,” Bither says.
“We’re just trying to dream up how we promote around the innovation and experimentation of what the artists are doing on stage or with our own practice as presenters, and commissioners,” Bither says.
The process was stressful, but also liberating. “It was sort of like, OK, we can’t agonize over this,” Bither says. “Let’s just try this and see what happens.”
There was an upside as well, as time tables were completely thrown off. Bither heard from many artists that it was the first time they hadn’t been on the road constantly. Even for himself, the time allowed Bither to think about his own curating in a deeper way, “and not this wheel running around, trying to get the next work up,” he says.
But not for the pandemic, the Walker might never have done shows like the 600 Highwayman piece, done in two parts — first over the phone for audiences at home, and then for audiences of two at a time on the McGuire stage. In addition, they explored online performances such as the one presented by Josh Fox, originally scheduled for Out There in 2021, as a new film. They also partnered with Northrop in a presentation of Kinetic Light, a group dedicated to accessibility, in November 2020.
“They lost everything else on their entire tour for like a year and a half, but the Walker and Northrop stuck with this idea of paying them still, and shifting into a digital realm,” Bither says. “That helped them finish the edit of a film that we were then able to have a debut screening online followed by a live artist talk.”
Through it all, Bither has seen ways that artists found a way to continue. “It was very inspiring to see that just because so many of the core elements that allow performing artists to collaborate and create together not being able to happen— that it didn’t mean that creativity stopped,” Bither says. “Artists are always going to be creating.”
Out There 2022: Kaneza Schaal, KLII runs April 14-16 at the Walker Art Center ($28.50). More information here.