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Bold or not, memories linger from summer stagings

While I attended few live performances this summer, a handful of scenes and impressions, bold or not, linger against a competitive backdrop of urban parks, lakes, Orchestra Hall construction, and a hapless baseball team.

There may be merit to Bryan Bevell’s contention that Twin Cities theater lacks boldness. The critics Graydon Royce and Rohan Preston probably make valid points that the Minnesota Fringe Festival needs shaking up. Whatever. While I attended few live performances this summer, a handful of scenes and impressions, bold or not, linger against a competitive backdrop of urban parks, lakes, Orchestra Hall construction, and a hapless baseball team.

Devin Carey and Denise Armstead in
Courtesy Burnsville PAC
Devin Carey and Denise Armstead in
“The Three Bonnies”

The proscenium stage of the Burnsville Performing Arts Center hosted “The Three Bonnies” in a one-night stand, June 8. The work fulfilled a six-year labor of love conceived and choreographed by Denise Armstead and performed in seven movements by her company, DAdance. The ensemble included Devin Carey, Gerry Girouard, Cade Holmseth, Sharon Picasso, Kelly Radermacher, and Armstead. Infused with music of Bonnie Raitt, the Dirty Three, and a sound design by Brian McDonald, the “Bonnies” examined the dynamics and intricacies of human relationships through the lenses of people’s relationships with horses and those of horses with each other. Armstead knows horses from her work at Shadow Creek Farms in Forest Lake, Minnesota. 

Beautiful horses and their equally lovely handlers featured prominently in a massive film projection that filled the height and width of the proscenium. While many Minnesota choreographers have employed visual media in their productions, few, if any, have so successfully integrated themes, narrative, and movement into a series of vignettes alternating among film, live movement, and both together. Armstead appears to have taken the time and spent the money needed to get the film’s production values right. So successful were the projections, however, that they often overpowered and drowned out the imagery and choreography of the dancers performing downstage. In pre-performance remarks, Armstead dedicated the evening to the late film producer Robert Hammel whose collaboration had been instrumental to the project, an intellectual and poetic effort throughout.

One of the most achingly beautiful moments of the summer occurred inside the Southern Theater, June 17. Time suspended during Noah Bremer’s halting, haunting rendition of Jack Lawrence’s tune, “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” accompanied by Crane Adams on ukelele. The moment happened in “Basic North: A performance in three directions,” produced by Live Action Set and presented over two weeks. The work simultaneously featured three, interwoven and abstract narratives, each with its own director.

The holistic production roster included directors Dario Tangelson, Emily King and Ryan Underbakke, and Bremer; performers Adams, Bremer, Joanna Harmon, Skyler Nowinski, Tyler Olsen, and Katelyn Skelley; collaborators Anna Reichert, Megan Odell, and Eva Mohn; stage manager Ben Gansky; technical director Lindsay Woolward; lighting designer William Harmon; costume designer Mandi Johnson; and production assistant Anna Hickey.

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A free, work-in-progress presentation in the James Sewell Ballet Tek Box, June 29, was remarkable both for the amount of full nudity of the six cast members over an hour’s time – very un-Minnesotan – and for how unremarkable was its overall effect. In general, we could use more of the matter-of-fact attitude expressed by Ben Johnson in his welcoming remarks: “If you’re going to be offended, please leave now.” The performance of “Bon Appétit! (Hedonism part 2),” represented the culmination of a three-week residency by the Paris-based choreographer Johan Amselem, the first McKnight International Fellow selected by Northrop Concerts and Lectures as part of its dance fellowship program.   

Amselem worked with dancers Rachel Freeburg, Erika Hansen, Melanie Verna, Ryan Dean, Dustin Haug, and Zachary Teska; video artist Kevin Obsatz; DJ Shannon Blowtorch; and dramaturgs Morgan Thorson and Karen Sherman.

From Northrop’s website: “His work is sharp and full of joy, rituals, flesh, and spirituality, along with emotions, pleasure, and greed.”

From Amselem’s program note, addressed to the performers as much as the audience: “We’re still going on exploring the dark side of pleasure. It will be particularly about the pleasure to consume and be consumed. I think of the piece like a recipe that principal ingredients will be your wonderful bodies. As I was thinking on a twisted pleasure that nobody should understand, I came to cannibalism. So we’ll work on generating into the audience the desire to eat you. Kevin will increase the hunger with the video. It will also be about promiscuity, bodies against bodies, desire and fear, excesses-we’ll be on a burning dance floor stove. And for that I count on Shannon’s powerful music and personality live on stage.”

“Bon Appetit!” was all of that, but could have benefited from judicious editing and a more cohesive and compelling dramatic arc.

A fascinating, cheek by jowl performance has been occurring at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts since the opening of its current exhibition, “Rembrandt in America,” June 24. The exhibit is the largest selection of paintings by the 17th century Dutch master and his students ever assembled in the United States. To meet audience demand, the hours have been extended for the balance of the run, ending Sept. 16.

The exhibit aside, it is worth the admission to witness the audience’s rapt attention as its members move through the galleries. It occurred to me that if the Rembrandt exhibit was your average dance concert, there would be no headset narration, no live docents, nor placards on gallery walls. Most dance creators seem to want their work to speak for itself without context, explanation, or interpretation. Given such an approach, they must believe there are worthwhile upsides in their smaller, less diverse, more select audiences.

This post was written by Gary Peterson and originally published on Minnesota Mist. Follow Gary on Twitter: @garypeterson

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