Artists of the Year

His collection, Revenants (Coffee House Press) appeared to total local critical neglect at the end of 2000. Too bad: These are startling and beautiful word-works that treat Nowak's Polish ethnic background in ways far removed from the overfamiliar self-exploratory modes of "identity" writing.

Polishness, for Nowak, becomes a mythic Slavic landscape in which cyclic time rolls on and enigmatic ritual occasions are enacted. He drops gnarled, euphonious Polish words into his poems, and although they're often abstractions, they give his lines a beautiful tincture of intimacy, as if he were whispering to a grandmother. His words are the energetic traces of rites and experiences never quite made explicit. We're expected to bring our own memories to lines like these:

Northern fields, a half-
dozen pears, one yellow jacket
caught between
the storm window and the storm.

The sunlight is over
and over again.

Nowak filters his encounters with Buffalo, New York, his home town, through a complicated, ironic set of ethnographic lenses, collaging bits of overheard talk, memory snippets, and anthropological theory into testaments to home. His voices are rooted in real places, and his rootedness is fearlessly exploratory. He's just the guy to help Minnesotan--and American--poetry find its feet in the 21st Century.

Jon Spayde is a Minneapolis writer and an editor of the book Visionaries (New Society Publishers).

 

Ananya Chatterjea
By Caroline Palmer

 

It was just four days after the terrorist attacks of September 11 and I had plans to see Ananya Chatterjea's Women in Motion perform at the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance. I took my time getting to the matinee, assuming that few people would be in the mood for a show, let alone one about domestic violence. When I entered the lobby, however, I found that not only was the performance sold out, but that 50 people were on the waiting list. Clearly we all needed to be there for one reason or another.

Chatterjea, an artist and educator trained in traditional Indian dance forms such as odissi and bharatanatyam--as well as contemporary dance, street theater, martial arts, and yoga--is adept at breaking down boundaries in order to make a lasting impression. She combines a detailed sense of artistry with an equally fervent sense of justice. In A Wife's Letter she animated the piercing statements within a battered woman's suicide note using dance, text, music, and song. It was a stunning 90 minutes of performance, certainly poignant at any time, but particularly significant in the aftermath of a stunning display of hatred on a global scale.

Political theater is a tricky business: The intention may be good, but often the presentation is naive. Not so with Chatterjea. A Wife's Letter followed an arc leading from literal events to abstract presentations of how society's blindness toward abuse creates generations of restless ghosts and children doomed to repeat the cycle. Her work challenged us with its sudden disruptions and inappropriate outbursts. It explored all sides of the issue, simultaneously condemning and forgiving. Relevant works of art seek out the complexities of human nature and refuse to settle for easy answers. Chatterjea proved that she is an artist who works such terrain without fear. And sometimes we need someone like her to be brave for us.

Caroline Palmer is a lawyer for the Minnesota AIDS Project and is the dance critic for City Pages.

 

Michelle Hensley
By Max Sparber

 

If Ten Thousand Things were simply a theater company that toured prisons and homeless shelters, there would be no story--such well-meaning acts of liberal fussbudgetry are as common as e-mail petitions, and considerably less interesting. Every year there are hundreds of exsanguine productions of stagecraft presented to the disadvantaged in the dubious belief that a few snippets of iambic pentameter will vastly enrich their lives.

Ten Thousand Things director Michelle Hensley, by comparison, regularly offers something far more adventurous--good theater--without frills and without condescension, which is why she has caught the attention of theatergoers outside the world of the disempowered, and why she is the subject of our current attention. She mounts her plays with necessary homeliness, as her budgets are low and her sets must be simple and easily portable. But Hensley has followed a longstanding artistic tradition of turning a limitation into an aesthetic: Her productions are marked by uncluttered, elegant staging and simple, evocative gestures. In June's The Most Happy Fella, for example, she represented an entire vineyard with just a few posts of wood hung with artificial flowers and vines. As time passed in the musical, performers would raise the wooden posts and spread out the ersatz flora. Voilà: the bloom of spring!

Hensley also has a knack for casting. Years from now, if somebody wishes to compile a list of the Twin Cities' finest actors, they'll need do no more than take a look at Hensley's programs of the past few years. Consider the recent production of The Furies: This is a play that is nothing more than a niggling work of Greek rhetoric, in which minuscule issues of morality are debated by the Gods. But with Luvurne Seifert and Jennifer Blagen as foppish gods and Greta Oglesby as the wailing, vindictive ghost of Clytemnestra, this hoary Greek work proved to have life in it yet. Such theater is worth celebrating, no matter who's sitting in the audience.

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