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Something extraordinary happened in a Minnesota quarry last night

Audience members take their seats moments before the performance.
MinnPost photo by Jeff Severns Guntzel
Audience members take their seats moments before the performance.

In Waite Park, Minn. — a quarry town on the outskirts of St. Cloud with a population just shy of 7,000 — something extraordinary is happening this week. More than 3,000 people have tickets for that sold-out something. One million dollars has been spent to make it happen. Its architect is Merce Cunningham, the 89-year-old man — wheelchair-bound and with a wild nest of white hair — who sat yesterday at dusk at the bottom of a Waite Park granite quarry, 150 feet below the Earth’s surface, watching and waiting.

Cunningham is one of the world’s oldest choreographers and perhaps its greatest. The extraordinary and improbable event? An in-the-round staging of a piece called “Ocean” featuring Cunningham’s company of 14 dancers and 150 classically trained musicians.

The exceedingly ambitious project is the product of a collaboration between the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the Walker Art Center, the College of St. Benedict and Northrop Dance at the University of Minnesota.

Improbability was its star
At a final dress rehearsal last night, in advance of a three-night run, the improbability of the event was its star. Here was an internationally celebrated modern-dance company staging perhaps the most ambitious performance of its 45-year history in a small, working-class town that most Minnesotans — much less the wide world of Cunningham’s admirers — couldn’t find on a map.

It strikes you before you even get to the quarry. At a nearby intersection there are two billboards: one, a radio-station ad showing two women in thong underwear and a man’s butt crack (“The morning show that cracks you up!”) stares across traffic at another: “Choose life!”

You enter the quarry on a road built specifically for the performance by Martin Marietta Materials, the company that owns the quarry and nearly 300 like it across the United States. The eyes and smiling mouth painted on the bright yellow Waite Park water tower is visible in the distance as you descend below the Earth’s surface and into the Rainbow Quarry.

Rainbow Quarry from above
Photo courtesy of Martin Marietta Materials
The Rainbow Quarry from above.

Wednesday night, hours before the performance, I hitched a slow ride down a crunchy gravel road with two Walker volunteers to watch stagehands, dancers, musicians and a film crew prepare for the dry run of the event dubbed “Merce on the rocks.”

Musicians from St. Cloud Symphony and St. Benedict
The circle of a stage is surrounded by bleacher seats, which are themselves encircled by a platform for the orchestra (the musicians are on loan from the St. Cloud Symphony Orchestra and the nearby College of St. Benedict). When I walk up to the stage, a stagehand is holding a push broom.

His foreman mocks him: “You don’t deserve to sweep this stage.”

“Oh c’mon, I’ve done it before.”

“Just kidding. But use the big broom.”

On the orchestra platform, a young percussionist in a Mask of Zorro T-shirt adjusts his cymbals. An oboist sits bolt straight in her chair brushing her teeth. A bass-violinist warms up by plucking the opening notes of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” Another musician slumps into a bleacher seat and cracks his biology textbook to Chapter Five.

Musicians prepare for the final-dress-rehearsal performance.
MinnPost photo by Jeff Severns Guntzel
Musicians prepare for the final-dress-rehearsal performance.

Composer Andrew Culver, responsible for the performance’s orchestral score, addresses the assembling musicians from the stage. He wants them to be louder than they have been. “Try to throw your instrument to the back of Carnegie Hall,” he says, then deadpans: “which is quite a far way away.”

An unbroken line of rented buses rumbles down the winding path to the quarry floor and spits out the invited audience one bewildered load at a time. The audience this night is composed of quarry staff and their families. And they are friends or relatives of the musicians.

An unlikely audience
This is a most unlikely audience for this most modern dancing. They clutch blankets to guard against the quarry cold and they wear sweatshirts and denim jackets with the Harley Davidson logo, embroidered flowers and horses outlined in rhinestone studs. Some men wear hunting caps and others wear flat-tops.

They circle the stage as the Cunningham dancers appear one at a time in warm-up clothes. The stage is the only place for them to stretch and ready themselves for the performance, which is still one hour away.

A male dancer saunters on stage and ties a giraffe print scarf around his waist. Another shows up wearing noise-canceling headphones and sits on the stage to massage his feet. Soon the entire company of dancers is there doing what dancers do: bending themselves silently into impossible shapes. On a normal day there would be nothing but heavy machinery in the pit: a front end loader with a 12-yard bucket and the in-and-out traffic of 75 ton hauling trucks.

The audience looks on, some in wonder and some suppressing giggles. It’s the improbability again.

There are perhaps no eyes wider than Mitch Fiedler’s. He gestures in a circle at the quarry walls. “I bet I loaded 99 percent of the blasts in this hole,” he says. “I’ve been blasting here for 15 years.”

Loaded quarry’s first blast
Fiedler loaded the very first blast — about 300 pounds of explosive ammonia nitrate pellets mixed with diesel fuel and loaded into a hole just a few inches wide. Today they load 60-foot holes with 30,000 pounds of the pellets and insert an electric charge.

He’s blasted quarries nearby, too. There was Camel quarry and then Dead Man’s Quarry — where they found the bodies of the Ryker girls in the early ’70s. Their disappearance and murder is part of quarry lore today.

Asked whether he and his quarry colleagues were excited to see the performance, he responded with well-calibrated Minnesota reserve: “We’ll see. You know.”

Philip Bither, the Walker’s chief performing-arts curator, is nothing like reserved. He’s ecstatic.

“This is a personal dream come true. I never imagined we’d be able to pull this off in the Midwest.” It’s not difficult to understand why. Upcoming Merce Cunningham Dance Company performances are scheduled in places like London, France, and New York. Waite Park is an anomaly.

‘We don’t do dance’
But Cunningham does humble well. He first contacted the Walker in the very early 1960s. He was traveling the country in a bus with American composer John Cage, Cunningham’s chief collaborator and romantic partner until his death in 1992. In a letter to the Walker, he asked if maybe the two could pass through and perform. “We don’t do dance,” came the response.

That changed quickly. Cunningham has collaborated with the Walker on 17 occasions since that rebuke. “We’ve retained a firm commitment,” says Bither, “because Cunningham is constantly challenging himself.”

Lisa Boudreau and Marcie Munnerlyn
Photo by Tony Dougherty
Dancers: Lisa Boudreau and Marcie Munnerlyn

Challenging indeed. Watching his company of master dancers bend, slide, step and bounce through Ocean’s 90 minutes you can’t help but wonder how a man of Cunningham’s age and immobility can continue to produce such entrancing and complex dance. He creates his pieces using computer software, but that doesn’t make his job seem any easier. If anything, it’s just another layer of the mystery of dance to the nondancer.

Working in the round
Under strict orders not to review the dress rehearsal (I’ll be attending a public performance Saturday), I’ll give you Cunningham’s words. “It’s amazing to be working in the round,” he says. “It brings up Einstein’s work about curving space — we tend to think flat. I told the dancers: ‘You have to put yourself on a merry-go-round that keeps turning all the time.’ Difficult, but fascinating.”

Of the performance I’ll say only this: Dance transfixed and reigned in the quarry last night until it didn’t. When each performance is done, says Bither, “we still need to get 1,200 people safely out!”

And when the small army of staff and volunteers have removed the infrastructure of this production from the quarry floor next week, says Fiedler, he’ll be back to blasting — this particular hole will be blasted to the quarry’s property line. “When we’re all done,” he says, “maybe in 85 years, this thing will fill up with the water we’re constantly pumping out and it’ll be a lake with very expensive lakefront property.”

Locals will likely still speak of the tragedy of the Ryker girls. But they’ll speak also of a dance that happened at the bottom of that lake. Improbable, they’ll say. Or something like it.

Jeff Severns Guntzel writes about the arts and other topics for MinnPost.

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