Choreographers' Evening: A Walker Thanksgiving tradition

From "Yaw" by Megan Mayer
From "Yaw" by Megan Mayer
Photo by Cameron Wittig, courtesy Walker Art Center

Everybody has his or her Thanksgiving traditions. Whether it's gathering with family, stuffing your face with turkey and mashed potatoes, going on a Black Friday shopping spree, or watching football, it's a holiday that lends itself to family and indulgence. For the Twin Cities dance community, the Walker Art Center has become the post-Thanksgiving gathering place thanks to Choreographers' Evening (CE), the museum's big shebang of new work featuring local indy dance artists. 

Megan Mayer, one of the choreographers this year, has been participating in CE since 1987, back when it took place four times a year. "I like the range and brevity of pieces," she says. "If you find a piece miserable, it's over soon. If you're engaged by a piece, it leaves you wanting more." Mayer likes the variety of the event, and the energy that goes along with it. That excitement isn't just onstage and in the audience, but backstage as well, with a "hodgepodge of voices, costumes, fighting for the mirror, and warm-up space all mixed together," she says. Even the Walker tech and production staff and curatorial crew are a part of the community event. 
From "Yaw" by Megan Mayer
From "Yaw" by Megan Mayer
Photo by Kevin Obsatz

At best CE is "the great equalizer," Mayer says, while at worst it's marketed as a "sampler platter" meant for the lowest common demoninator. "Love it or loathe it, it's a lively tradition," she says. "The fact that it's always on Thanksgiving weekend brings all these family dynamics and feeding-your-face associations." 

For her piece this year, Mayer will be presenting "Yaw," featuring performers Charles Campbell, Angharad Davies, and Elliott Durko Lynch. It's a piece about orbit, space travel, displacement, and obsolete equipment. "Yaw" is one of the building blocks for "Soft Fences," which she plans to develop during a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) in Tallahassee, Florida this coming February with performers Greg Waletski and Kevin Obsatz.
Chris Schlichting
Chris Schlichting
Photo courtesy The Walker Art Center

The dance duo HIJACK (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder) are also in the development phase of a longer work, and CE is just one of the performance contexts they are using for that process. Last winter, they performed another short piece within the same body of work at Form + Content's Wee Cabaret, and they are looking to continue exploring it as part of three-year process. The piece they are presenting on Saturday is called "Topics in Post-Colonial Collaboration: Visa/Mastercard...CORRECTION: Topics in Post-Colonial Collaboration: Sculptor/Drama." Loon says part of their process has been partially "duking out independent interests." For Van Loon, she's interested in the death of the print newspaper, whereas Wilder is interested in the novel as a model for the long form. "We are trying to make a full-evening piece, very slowly," she says. "We do little things for different contexts. We're not quite sure how these pieces fit into the puzzle." 

CE was HIJACK's first gig in Minneapolis, Van Loon says. That was back in 1993. "It has a huge place in our hearts," she says. "Our family's just know we're not getting back to Chicago. If we're not in the show, we certainly want to see it." HIJACK co-curated CE in the '90s as well, and Van Loon co-curated it for its 30th anniversary with Judith Brin Ingber, who started the series in 1971. 

"I feel so connected to the series," Van Loon says. Just recently, she was at a training with Steve Paxton, with numerous dance artists not from the United States, and the word is that Minneapolis is still known as a hub for dance. When asked what it is about Minneapolis that makes it so special, Van Loon usually ends up describing CE as a huge part of the history that has made this an indy town. 

Curating this year's show is Chris Schlichting, who says he didn't have an agenda when he walked into the auditions. "As I watched, there were a number of pieces that sparked some new curiosity or opened up an interesting dialogues about choreography and making a dance," he says. In the end, he used his guiding principals, and "selected pieces that had a really clear pathway and approached the making of the work in an adventurous way," he says. 
from "Picnic" by Jaime Carrera
from "Picnic" by Jaime Carrera
Photo by Jaime Carrera
Independent choreographer Jaime Carrera is another one of the choreographers that Schlichting selected. Carrera likes CE because it offers an opportunity for someone like himself (a self-taught artist) to perform at the Walker Art Center, which had been a dream of his since he moved to Minnesota 13 years ago. "Given the right kind of curator who isn't concerned with filling a stylistic or ethnic quota, it can supply the opportunity to furnish a truly eclectic night of performance," Carrera says. 

Carrera's piece this year is called "Picnic," and is performed by himself and Kimberly Lesik. After focusing a lot recently on themes of queerness, gender, and sexuality, Carrera wanted to create a work that broke away from those topics. "I've been referring to 'Picnic' as my tiny heteronormative dance piece with vulgar gestures," he says. He couldn't help but add a touch of subversiveness to it, and that's where the vulgarity comes into play. 

"I started building the movement by considering how certain vulgar gestures, when combined, could actually look like modern dance," he says. "For example, there's faux double jacking, faux analingus, faux cunnilingus, faux fisting, etc. It's all combined with other pedestrian movement to compose the dance."

Like much of the duets he's created, the piece is meant to be perceived as a relationship, one where "communication has become stale and drastic measures have been taken," he says. Like most of his work, it will have a sense of humor. 
From "The One Obstruction" by Samantha Johns and George McConnell
From "The One Obstruction" by Samantha Johns and George McConnell
Photo by George McConnell

Another pair of artists featured in this year's CE are Samantha Johns and George McConnell, who auditioned because McConnell sent Johns a link to the audition notice as a joke. At the time, they were choreographing a piece for Billy Mullaney (of 1419 fame), who orchestrated an evening of dances choreographed by 30 different people for him to perform. "We are not really 'choreographers,' but we were making this dance for Billy at the time, and I did not understand this was a joke," explains Johns. "In the end, the audition wasn't a joke, and we got very excited to audition. So we did. We are happy we did."

The piece, called "The One Obstruction," started by Johns and McConnell asking Mullaney to email them a list of 20 secrets. "We made a pre-dance dance based off of Billy's secrets," says Johns. 

"I had wanted to do something with plastic," Johns says about the process, "and George had this idea about using a light-bulb harness, and well... we put these things together, and worked with Billy, and ta-da, a dance is born."

When asked if what they have made is dance, Johns says she's not sure what dance is. "It looks like movement, movements from and on a human body," she says. "I call it a dance, we call it a dance. It feels more like a 'Billy movement' than it does dance, but I don't know what that means. Does it matter? I think so, but I'm not sure why."

McConnell, though, says it is a dance. "It is a body moving in space and time and there are even really intentionally 'dancey' parts. It is set to music. I don't think anyone would argue that it is not dance. I don't know if it matters."

Whether or not it's dance may be beside the point. In any case, McConnell and Johns are excited to be sharing the stage with so many excellent performers. And for McConnell, he especially likes CE because "it is a performance event at the Walker that really showcases local performance. It is exciting to be performing on this nationally and internationally recognized stage," he says. 

Choreographers' Evening takes place on Saturday, November 26 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. It often sells out, so advanced tickets are advised. 

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