Aby Wolf, K'naan, and P.O.S. top Artists of the Year '09

Paying homage to those who speak the language of creativity

Rod Smith is a Minneapolis-based writer, educator, composer, and DJ.

Greta Oglesby

By Marianne Combs

I first saw Greta Oglesby perform several years ago in King Lear with Ten Thousand Things. She was Kent, a nobleman loyal to Lear, who spoke his mind freely and bluntly. Even though I saw this play in a men's prison, with the lights up full, Oglesby had me convinced of the solidity and strength of her character throughout. I've been a fan of her work ever since, and have enjoyed seeing the breadth of her talent onstage in such productions as Crowns (at the Guthrie) and The Piano Lesson (with Penumbra Theater). But it wasn't until this year that I saw her perform a role that put to use all of her abilities—dramatic, comedic, and musical—in one powerful package.

In Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, Oglesby gave what Kushner himself said was the definitive performance of his character. Caroline is a woman weighed down by her worldly burdens while trying desperately to stay true to her values. Oglesby's portrayal took audiences on a roller coaster of emotions, from the heights of her indignity down to the most nuanced notes of her tenderness. Never before in my years of theatergoing have I been part of such a unanimous standing ovation, as more than a thousand people rose to their feet in what felt like a single motion. Greta Oglesby is an artist of the year not because she suddenly became more than she already was, but because she finally got the part that allowed us all to see just what she's capable of.

Marianne Combs reports on the arts for Minnesota Public Radio. She also writes "State of the Arts," MPR's blog exploring everything from theater and dance to fashion and architecture.

Tamara Ober

By Caroline Palmer

Tamara Ober is full of surprises. As a member of Zenon Dance Company, the radiant Sage Award-winning performer has proven many times her ability to interpret works from a variety of choreographic perspectives, but this year she fully revealed her own with the solo performance Pipa, a Fringe Festival favorite (not to mention a first runner-up for best English-language production at the Montreal Fringe).

Ober wrote the text, composed the music, and danced in this original work about a young girl's fantastical journey through fear and wonderment, with only hand-drawn maps from her mother to guide the way. This was tricky subject matter—Pipa could have ended up as an overly precious reflection on growing up, but Ober's subtle portrayal of the tension between brightly colored childhood daydream and darker adult reality was altogether believable for its balanced blend of optimism and disillusionment.

Although she spoke in Pipa, Ober's body really told the story. She is a robust and muscular dancer with a keen sense of her relationship to the ground, but in this work she imbued her movement with the antsy awkwardness of a pre-tween, tormented by curiosity and impatient to consume as much information about the world as possible. As Ober's character tried to tame her restlessness (while learning the hard way how others might take advantage of it), we saw an artist who can effortlessly transform a spare stage into a fascinating, if sometimes perilous, wonderland, as seen only through her wide-open mind's eye.

Caroline Palmer is a Minneapolis attorney, dance critic, and frequent contributor to City Pages.

Raye Birk

By Peter Rothstein

Raye Birk is an extraordinary actor with an open heart, a brilliant mind, and a gift for nuanced, transformational performances. The past season he gave us one phenomenal performance after another, beginning with his transcendent portrayal of an old Viennese voice teacher who survived Nazi Germany in Old Wicked Songs at Theater Latte Da, followed by his fourth year as Scrooge in the Guthrie's A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is an incredibly demanding role, which Birk tackled with zeal for hundreds of performances. He closed A Christmas Carol and immediately stepped into Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, where he was brought in as an emergency replacement and was in front of another Guthrie audience after only four days of rehearsal.

It was a remarkable achievement. Even without a rehearsal process, Raye brought to his role the extraordinary level of detail and the emotional honesty he is known for. He went on to the Guthrie's When We Are Married as part of a powerhouse ensemble and closed a triumphant year there with Faith Healer, demonstrating the tremendous range and charisma of this Twin Cities treasure.

Peter Rothstein is a Twin Cities stage director and the founding artistic director of Theater Latté Da. His upcoming projects include Violet for Theater Latté Da and M. Butterfly for the Guthrie.

Mary Karr

By Michelle Orange

Both credited with and blamed for triggering the confessional memoir avalanche that buried the last decade in all sorts of "it happened to me" human muck, Mary Karr returned to the fold this year with Lit. Her 1996 debut, The Liar's Club, has not had a true equal since its publication, and her 2000 follow-up, Cherry, solidified Karr as not only a singular raconteur but a masterful stylist. As the form became more and more tarnished by shoddy workmanship, exploitative fare, and then flat-out scandals, new memoirs were being greeted with something just short of derision: Oh, really? Another? When it was announced that Mary Karr would be coming out with her third memoir, this one chronicling her descent into—yes—alcoholism and subsequent redemption through poetry and prayer, even I, one of her biggest fans, was given pause.

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