Danse Macabre

After 22 Years of Supporting Artists, the Minnesota Dance Alliance Marches Into the Grave

Along with this movement to collaborate, MICA strove to energize the individual artist. In the spirit of the co-op movement, MICA combined individual preferences and initiatives with a broader supportive framework. This added up to a form of patronage for independent choreographers. As a result, younger choreographers could experiment outside the hierarchical company structures where the personality of the artistic director tended to overshadow any individual endeavors.

In 1986 MICA became the Minnesota Dance Alliance (MDA) and its mission expanded beyond the Twin Cities to embrace all aspects of dance in the state. The organization moved into the Hennepin Center for the Arts. Says Munger, "There was a dance boom in the United States from 1974 through 1990, and service organizations like MDA served that boom well. MICA and MDA were among the earliest of these organizations, the ones that others in the country modeled themselves after. It made the Twin Cities into one of the half-dozen places outside of New York worth taking seriously."

Diane Waller, an interdisciplinary artist who moved from California to Minneapolis during the mid-1980s, recalls that period as MDA's "most vibrant, a responsive, magical era open to all possibilities." Performance series like "Studio X" and large-scale festivals like "11x20" and "SummerDance" led to the creation of Studio 6A in the Hennepin Center for the Arts, a theater created especially for concert series presented by MDA (including "Short Order" and "Extended Play") as well as artist-produced efforts that generated rental income. Despite low audience attendance at times, all this activity, observes Munger, allowed "Minnesota [to become] an Eden in the sometimes rosy perceptions of dance artists across the nation."

When legwarmers were the rage: A performance photo from 1985 featuring MICA founding member Mary Easter (center) and John Munger (left)
Phil Prowse
When legwarmers were the rage: A performance photo from 1985 featuring MICA founding member Mary Easter (center) and John Munger (left)

The budget continued to swell toward half a million dollars, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the McKnight, Jerome, and Dayton Hudson Foundations. At least 300 members paid annual dues to receive MDA services, including support in funding, technical matters, communications, fiscal management, and resources. Soon no one, inside or outside of the state, could talk about dance in Minnesota without mentioning MDA.


Munger says there was no "bright line" marking when things began to change for the Alliance. It was an intangible shift influenced by a convergence of events, and it became apparent to dancers at different junctures. Stephens reports having broken with the organization over an aesthetic controversy. An artist who not only works with physical movement but also "choreographs text," Stephens objected to the selection process the MDA employed as the administrator of the McKnight independent-choreographer fellowships. Artists using text in their work were told that panelists would only evaluate movement, a directive that Stephens found limiting and ultimately ostracizing. "I stopped paying attention to MDA at that point, and decided to float on my own," she says. "I wanted to do what I considered authentic stuff, on my own terms."

Stephens's experience as a movement-based artist who seemed to defy conventional dance categories represents just one of the many ways the dance community was evolving aesthetically--and how MDA didn't always stay ahead of the trends. MDA, says Munger, had to adjust philosophically and financially to this and other significant changes. For instance, choreographers such as Paula Mann, Robin Stiehm, Cassandra Shore, and Ranee Ramaswamy, all of whom once worked solo or with pick-up groups of dancers, began to form companies. Young choreographers such as the members of HIJACK and Concrete Farm came together to form their own troupes, creating their own support systems. According to Munger, the number of companies in Minnesota grew from 14 in 1989 to 40 a decade later. As a result the different needs of troupes and individual artists began to divide the attention of MDA staff.

At the same time, a number of companies and artists from New York and elsewhere, drawn to the healthy funding community and livable environment in Minnesota, expanded the local dance population. These dance migrants included Chris Aiken, Cathy Young, Danny Buraczeski, Margolis Brown, Shapiro & Smith, James Sewell Ballet, and Corning Dances and Company. While the pool of talent widened, funders shifted priorities and programs, sometimes dissolving altogether, as when Dayton Hudson Foundation shifted away from arts grants and came under Target Corporation's control. Such developments compromised the Dance Alliance's traditional role as a supporter of individual artists.

Finally, MDA suffered from the perception that it was an organization for white women doing modern dance in a locale where Asian, African, and African-American influences--among others--were on the rise. Some companies and artists of note included CAAM Chinese Dance Theater, Djola Branner, Nimely Napla, Morris Johnson's Dancers and Drummers of Langa, and Baraka de Soleil's D Underbelly. According to Patrick Scully, these perceptions of the MDA were not inaccurate--though he believes the group made a game attempt to address the concern. "You have to ask yourself who's not at the table and why," he says. "How can we reconfigure the table? It's tricky, especially when you're operating out of a position of privilege. People come to the table with different dishes, different place settings. Also there are challenges that occur when there are not enough resources. People have fearful reactions instead of imagining the possibilities."

MDA tried to keep pace with all of these changes but soon discovered it could not be all things to all people. In the mid-Nineties, MDA's staff had blossomed to more than five full-time employees, and its programs ranged from membership services to production and presentation. It partnered with other presenter and service organizations like the National Performance Network and Walker Art Center. More national and international artists were invited to lead residencies and perform in town. Anticipated grants didn't always come through and yet the organization continued to overextend itself.

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