Parting the Waters

Mathew Janczewski leads his troupe to fertile new ground

Ms. Lou Fancher, the dance community's Queen of Clean, stands in the doorway of Studio 5B in the Hennepin Center for the Arts watching Mathew Janczewski, Gabriel Holloway, and Jeffrey Peterson rehearse a demanding trio. Choreographer Janczewski has asked Fancher, herself a dancemaker and much-sought-after rehearsal director, to tidy up the rough edges of his ARENA Dances troupe so that he can be certain all are performing with the same intention. The process of dissecting movement and putting it back together again can be as arduous and idiosyncratic as scanning a Shakespearean sonnet translated into Hungarian--with a lot more audible grunting. For Janczewski, who is premiering his new work waterBRIDGE at the Southern Theater this weekend, hiring Fancher is important because he can't always see what his dancers are doing while he is performing.

"It's entirely different movement than I've ever done before," says Holloway, a moment after lost footing sends him tumbling to the floor.

Isn't it time you learned to fly on your own? Mathew Janczewski's 'waterBRIDGE'
ARENA Dances
Isn't it time you learned to fly on your own? Mathew Janczewski's 'waterBRIDGE'

"This is like ballet. The slightest little thing can make it look different," Fancher patiently explains. She defers to Janczewski for explanations of his movement choices. He responds with subtle direction: "My head is looser" or "I'm throwing my hip." Returning to her seat by the CD player, Fancher offers Holloway reassurance: "Don't worry. The hardest thing you can learn is how to replicate movement from someone else's body. Just keep doing that section like daily vitamins. Every night before the show."

Janczewski, at age 32, is an artist at a significant crossroads, and his work with Fancher demonstrates a personal acknowledgment that he is shifting from follower to leader in the dance community. Strict attention to detail is as important as getting the work onto the stage. If a choreographer's message is muddied by sloppy coordination, all of the conceptual effort made prior to a performance is lost.

As two other waterBRIDGE dancers, Susie Bracken and Kayleen Langner make their way out of the studio, Janczewski seats himself in a loose ball beneath the ballet barre. "My movement is so physical," he says. "I don't know why I end up making it so hard. I guess it's my nervous twitch. I like the struggle." By making a commitment to sharpening his choreography, Janczewski is also increasing his ability to communicate. The breathtaking lifts, acrobatic tosses, and quicksilver turns have crystallized into dance that matters rather than dance that simply exists.

Janczewski was first attracted to dance at age five, while watching Gene Kelly. Bouncing sessions on the living-room sofa became a 16-year-old's Fosse-inspired production numbers in the garage. Janczewski took up his art in earnest while attending the University of Minnesota. After graduation he danced with Danny Buraczeski's JAZZDANCE (which he has since rejoined), Shapiro & Smith, and other companies. At the same time, he pursued his own vision, eventually founding ARENA in the late 1990s. "Whenever I was in someone else's rehearsal, I would always really focus on the choreographer and what [he or she was] doing. Then I would be off in the corner doing my own movement."

In waterBRIDGE Janczewski has given himself a number of challenges. His vision of a dreamlike world inspired by Gustav Klimt's paintings of water sprites meets his love of Pina Bausch-style dance theater. The original score by Scott Killian propels Janczewski's restless movement through a set marked by a 20-foot-long pool filled with three inches of water and nine birch trees suspended from the Southern's alcove. "It's a fluid environment" Janczewski explains. "There's also a community of people who don't know one another, which sets up the struggles of the piece.

"I could have taken this to the Survivor aspect but I wanted something more surreal, more like the people are being dropped into someplace like Being John Malkovich," Janczewski concludes. As this maturing choreographer seems to be discovering, being the puppetmaster behind such an operation is a weird trip all its own.

 
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