I Went To A Contemporary Dance Festival With My Cool Mom, This Is What Happened @ Vital Matters

Photo credit: Sean Smuda

Vital Matters Dance Festival
The Southern Theater, Minneapolis, MN
October 20, 2016
HIJACK, Anna Marie Shogren, Otto Ramstad, //CATHEDRAL\\

I go to shows mostly for two reasons, and I bet they are the same reasons as most of you:

  1. For entertainment and fun. For contemplation, inspiration, and joy. I love a surprise, a novel combination of old and new images, movements, motifs, light, music, design. I go to see all the parts come together and form a different world. Like our own, but a mirror. And sometimes it reflects some insight back to me.
  2. To see my friends dance because I care about them, and I love dance; it isn’t important to me if their dance is good or bad, original or derivative, cerebral, somatic, or traditional.

I came to Vital Matters Dance Festival with my Mom. I was expecting the dances to be experimental – a genre that has been a hard sell as a fun “parent-child” activity in the past. It was a surprise to even be seeing her out this late on a school night.

We sat together, and with every piece I was also imagining her experience. How might I feel at this show, without all my embodied knowledge from years of dance class? Would I be able to have a meaningful connection with the performance? I didn’t have to imagine for long. In-between each piece, Mom would offer a one sentence commentary.

“I like HIJACK, right?” She said at one point. I think so, Mom.

HIJACK’s More Fast Talkin’ mixes jankiness with elegance. The combination is clearest in the costume design: red unitards and white crop tops with the tags still on. The choreography is rigorous and specific, with notes of Cunningham. Tightly controlled moves unspool in quick succession. Arwen Wilder moves quickly into and out of the floor before balancing and stirring an imaginary bowl on her hip, then leaning back. Kristin Van Loon hits her back attitudes and jumps with fastidious precision.

I can tell there are systems at play, but I can’t put my finger on their exact logic. Balanced repetition and turn-taking create a sense of order, and even poetic formalism. The whole piece has the feeling of a quiet reverie. Mom and son both agreed – the night was off to a good start.

Anna Marie Shogren’s minimal trio Human Anatomy was relentless. Three women danced to exhaustion – moving swiftly together and apart, into and out of the floor. The composition was more of an abstract field than an ordered sequence. Discretely onstage, the drummers looping rhythms distorted my sense of time and minutes seemed to grow longer. The un-variation of the music and movement challenged my attention.

“If I have to watch another one like that I’m out of here.”

I think the unrelenting drumming wore on her nerves. What I interpreted as a comment on temporality was just annoying to her.

In the next piece Lineage, Otto Ramstad delivered a monologue describing a dance, interwoven with autobiographical details and thoughts on his recent trip to Norway. This piece touched on themes of learning to dance, work and migration, family, the experience of landscape, and the role of art in culture. The piece caught my interest with video projections of the sublime Norwegian landscape and Otto’s soothing speaking voice.

Another title for this dance could have been titled My Summer Vacation. While Otto did allude to bigger themes, it was difficult to care too much about his genealogical tourism. It’s like when someone tells you what they dreamt last night: some find it riveting, but most of us just listen politely. I would rather go to Norway.

Mom’s response? “Bye, talk you later – I love you.” And with that she discreetly left the theater.

My friend Maggie was sitting next us. She added her two-cents. “Good thing she left, //CATHEDRAL\\ is next.”

There is about a 18% chance Mom would’ve praised //CATHEDRAL\\’s creation Medium. She definitely would have been skeptical of the deadpan occultist overtones. I don’t think it’s a stretch to that //CATHEDRAL\\’s superstitious sense of humor is outside mainstream sensibilities.

Medium gave me some real laughs, and provided a refreshing, unfortunately temporary, antidote to the current mania of election-induced social media panic. Sometimes it is the role of art to stand up to the status quo with dada-religious ceremonies. Complete with cascading red velvet capes and some spooky vocal effects, //CATHEDRAL\\ fills this niche.

Surprise guest Bob Eisen stole the whole show with his spastic full-bodied performance – pitching his weight to and fro, twisting and tossing his legs and arms in a green and velvety tangle. So much velvet. It was easy to imagine the altars and candles. And when Marilyn Manson’s The Dope Show came on, I was transported into a reverie of high school angst and ambitions. It put a smile on my face to think Brian Warner’s once controversial band still has resonance today.

I consider my Mom to be the voice of the benevolent mainstream. For the past 16 years, she has gone to seen all kinds of dance around the Twin Cities. When she encounters something outside her comfort zone, she is generally open minded and patient. It raised a red flag that she felt she would rather leave than watch one more 15-minute dance. I called her on the phone Sunday morning to debrief. We both agreed that we weren’t looking for flaws, and that all the work had merit.

“The dances were dances for dancers”–too esoteric for her. She said, “Usually, I can be patient and find something to take away. But after the third piece, I didn’t want to take a risk on the next one.”

I think I understand. There were dances without dancing, dances without narratives, dances with mysterious logic. She knows that art can be personal, abstract, and at times difficult to even attempt to read, but in the end Mom felt like should couldn’t “get it.” While she was up for a challenge to the status quo – she also wanted someone to throw her a bone. Just one crowd pleaser. We’ve all been to that show.

Is it an artist’s prerogative to follow their impulses selfishly, wherever they may lead? Certainly yes, but also no. I used to unequivocally believe that an artist’s singular vision took supreme precedence in the creative process. Maybe I’ve been on the receiving end of one too many “critical response” feedback sessions, but now I’m not so sure of artists’ un-impeachibility. For better or for worse, when dance and choreography are framed by a theater space, the audience gives a performance life, a reason for being. What are we obligated to give to them?

A good time? A good value? A positive experience? There must be dozens of industry white papers about cultivating the “optimum” audience experience through a relevant mix of challenging and entertaining content with the right amenities. I’ll add my opinion to the mix. In their practice, artists should be free to research and present whatever they like, no matter how dancerly or esoteric. How else will the form grow and reinvent itself for the contemporary moment? However, artists should also take care to consider the systems they are embedded within, and audiences’ expectations that may present a block. Systems and expectations aren’t good or bad; they are. It is up to artist develop whatever tactics are appropriate for their work to preempt disengagement. I can imagine textual or choreographic interventions, decoder rings and training wheels for the uninitiated to see deeper.

Not every artist wants the same audience. But when anyone can buy a ticket to your show, I believe it is imperative to consider how even the mainstream will approach the work. The choice to make it easy or hard for newcomers to find a way belongs to individual artists.

One of the most impressive parts of Vital Matters was the sincere and robust effort to serve novices, amateurs, and professionals alike by offering classes, conversations with the artists, nightly performances, dance parties, a writing workshop, even drink tickets and tote bags. For those with the time and initiative there were avenues to learn more and go deeper. Maybe attending an intergenerational dance class, or a session of Body-Mind Centering would have given my Mom a different perspective on the dances she saw.

I’m looking forward to the next iteration of Vital Matters. I will definitely carve away more time in my schedule for a movement workshop or two. Maybe the mix of pieces will be a little more populist. Maybe not.

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