Voyaging Into the Secret Universe of Enterprising Backstage Artists

 The stage is dark. The lights come up slowly, revealing a huge metal platform, with a trampoline stretched taut in the middle. Figures swathed in black fabric writhe on the floor beneath the platform, creating a vision of Dante's demons in hell. Others emerge above, wandering through a postapocalyptic environment crossed with platforms and rope bridges. The lights are shadowy, sinister, but retain a hint of coppery shine, suggesting the presence of some hidden optimism. The atmosphere is tense. And then the dancers begin to move. We are no longer in the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, but someplace else altogether.

That scene came from choreographer Robin Stiehm's City. Starting with the inspiration of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, set designer Joseph Stanley, lighting designer Jeff Bartlett, and costume designer Lisa Powers built an environment that was not just a backdrop for the dancers, but a world all its own.

When it comes to dance and performance, the name at the top of the bill always belongs to the choreographer whose vision is played out onstage. It is this person who gets the credit for the realization of the piece, and whose work is analyzed by critics. But what defines the performance experience for the audience is often something intangible. It's the relationship between the performer and people you never see, but whose presence colors everything that happens onstage.

On pins and needles: Mary Hansmeyer readies costumes for the upcoming dance season
Diana Watters
On pins and needles: Mary Hansmeyer readies costumes for the upcoming dance season

This article focuses on three people who shrug off the limitations of the cash-poor dance world to make any production look big-budget: Diane Waller, a multidisciplinary artist who uses her own sleight-of-eye talents to enhance the works of others; Kris Broderson, a lighting designer and stage manager who takes the show on the road; and Mary Hansmeyer, a costume designer who lives at her sewing machine during the busy dance season. They are fiercely talented, loyal to the artists they work with, and discreet as limo drivers when it comes to their secrets.

The choice to have a career behind the scenes in dance is one made out of passion for the process rather than the promise of a fat check. "It's about surrounding yourself with people you enjoy," says Hansmeyer. What happens onstage, after that, is gravy.



Diane Waller has a boxful of barbecue-grill tops in her downtown Minneapolis apartment. "They could make a great spider web sometime, all tied together," she observes. "But nobody has needed one yet." Waller will be ready, however, should the opportunity reveal itself. "You have to collect smartly," says the multidisciplinary artist, who also creates sets, films, animation, and graphic design for her colleagues. "But I have more than I need. I've been in the same space for 17 years. If I moved, I could have a great garage sale."  

A life spent among found treasures, bolts of fabric, and "five big windows that just walked in here the other day" is one the Stanford-educated Waller has cultivated carefully. She's got a talent for revealing the creative possibilities in the most unlikely objects. "It's a scavenger hunt when you're on a low budget," she says, noting the cost limitations most choreographers face when mounting a production. "But your responsibility is to make things look good. You're constantly looking in reuse places, secondhand stores. You look for things that fulfill your function, not the function of the object. There's a lot of stuff out there that needs another use. But ultimately you want the thing to look like it was exactly made for that production, or at least you found a clever use for it. Interesting does not have to be expensive."

Waller, who is in her late 40s, is creating the design and projections for a revival of Zorongo Flamenco's 1987 Picasso-inspired work, Gernika, which opens March 14 at the Southern Theater. (See next week's City Pages for more on that show.) Her eye for detail is enhanced by her own experience in visual arts, film, and dance. Waller understands what performing artists require in order to communicate effectively from the stage because she shares their unspoken language. "I had always toyed with animation, and dance taught me more about animation," she explains. "I am interested in how you work with film images and dance, two kinetic forms that have infused my own work. And then other people started responding to what I was doing for them."

Graphic design has helped Waller pay the rent throughout her career, but it is also another way she shapes the image of the dance community. She is responsible for designing many of the postcards and flyers publicizing local dance seasons. "I look at promotion as the gateway to a performance," Waller explains. "It's how people get interested in what you do. The elements of the design are there to say what the piece is about. And they add a little bit of drama."



Dance productions can be complicated endeavors, but taking the show on the road requires the sort of preplanning and multitasking abilities Sir Ernest Shackleton might have admired. According to lighting designer and stage manager Kris Broderson, who has been touring with Danny Buraczeski's JAZZDANCE since 1996, there's "always a challenge to re-create as well--or in some situations even better"--what you've done at home. Easy enough, one might say, until you start adding in all the variables presented by a new venue: unknown conditions, outdated equipment, and extended time away from home. Plus, since money is always tight, one person usually must perform the job of many.

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