It's Wednesday morning in the Como Park Elementary School gym. Signs proclaiming, "I will do my best!" and the "Bone of the Week" (the tibia) hang along the blue and green striped walls under the basketball hoops, pegboards, and those ubiquitous climbing ropes that likely play some depraved role in the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. The students, all of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, stand in a circle waiting to play the "Name Game" with the nine Zenon Dance Company members scattered among them. The assignment, explains Zenon founder and artistic director Linda Andrews through an interpreter, is to make up a simple movement and then say one's name with sign language. The children, dressed in their FUBU, Gap, Old Navy, and sports-team T-shirts, are tentative at first, hopping slightly or doing a quick hip shake. Then one busts a break-dance move and everyone winds up on the floor, giggling, trying to imitate his feat (or rather, feet).
Soon the kids are making physical sculptures, scrambling onto each other's backs and hanging upside down in the arms of their Zenon teachers. Next they learn a hip-hop dance and then head into different corners of the room to fashion their own movement studies for a showing on Friday. The themes (selected by the children) are underwater life and the Civil War. The 52-year-old Andrews snaps photographs of their efforts. She's dressed in sweats, and her Birkenstock sandals reveal bright-pink painted toenails. When she smiles, she flashes a set of braces not unlike those of some of the students.
"They are visual like us," she says. "They are adept at picking up things with their eyes. It means so much to the kids to communicate this way. Modern dance is a creative art form. You don't have to stand in a certain position. There is no wrong."
While modern dancers are busy expressing themselves, however, the companies they perform with come and go, done in by lack of funds, clashing egos, ambiguous artistic philosophies, or all of the above. As in the business world, prolonged success takes a certain tenacious personality, not to mention the type of survival techniques that would make Richard Hatch envious. "So many times I thought, 'There's no way we can go on financially; everything's against us,'" says Christine Maginnis, who, along with Denise Armstead, has been in Zenon since its inception. But, she adds, Andrews is "the most driven and persistent woman" she knows. She stays focused on keeping the company together."
Andrews is hardly your average cheerleader for what might tritely be called the transformative power of dance. She admits to a hot temper and she's relentlessly direct. Andrews has maintained from the beginning that she is on a mission to raise the level of excellence in Minnesota's arts--even if it means shirking polite convention and the pressures of provincialism to do so. As a result Zenon is nearing its 20th anniversary as one of only a few repertory troupes in the country specializing in modern and jazz choreography by local, national, and international dancemakers. The versatile company members, performing this weekend at the Illusion Theater, are equally adept at interpreting Cathy Young's pure jazz, Doug Varone's soaring postmodernism, Ranee Ramaswamy's bharatanatyam, Susana Tambutti's moody dance theater, and Joe Chvala's quirky percussive pyrotechnics. Such flexibility in expression is rare in a dance world that tends to self-segregate by style. At the same time Andrews, who began her career as a performer and teacher, also emphasizes arts education. She runs a dance school and organizes the company in residencies for all grade levels, and for the stray Rotary Club, nursing home, or even university hockey team. (She's also a mother to two daughters, neither of whom, she says with some relief, have expressed any interest in a dance career.)
Seated in an Uptown coffee shop a few hours after completing the Como Park residency, the blond-haired, youthful Andrews shakes her head in wonder as she considers the sacrifices, schemes, and skills it has taken to bring Zenon into its third decade. Andrews, who grew up traveling from state to state with her family (her father worked for the National Forest Service), eventually landed in Georgia before attending Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, during the 1970s. After graduation she stayed on to teach and pay back her student loans while working for AT&T.
"I was the first woman in the marketing department in Roanoke," she recalls. "I got a lot of marketing training but also a lot of harassment. I was paid less, the guys hid my shoes. I hated it in corporate America, but it gave me a business acumen."
Andrews eventually followed her husband to St. Paul, and after their divorce she immersed herself in the spandex unitards and glitter balls of the disco nightlife. She decided to match her marketing experience with her creative talents and opened up a school called the Downtown Dance Center with a disco-dancing partner. Andrews eventually took over the competing Ozone School and enrollment soared, thanks largely to the people's need to boogie. "We had so many men in class," laughs Andrews, acknowledging the absence of the Y chromosome in her classes today. "This was before health clubs really took off. They had seen John Travolta and wanted to dance like Saturday Night Fever."