John Munger talks about 'Renovate' and grassroots dance

This weekend the Ritz Theater presents its fourth annual choreography showcase, Renovate. Curated by Lisa Conlin with guest advisory by John Munger and Cathy Wind, the event features the work of established and emerging local artists. John Munger, one of the panelists for Renovate who has also participated in the showcase in previous years, took a moment to chat with City Pages. He's a choreographer, dancer, dance teacher, dance writer, and has worked as the director of research for the national organization Dance USA. 

How is Renovate different from the Choreographers' Evening at the Walker?


There are a number of differences that are pretty logistical. In terms of the philosophy and potential content, I would be somebody that would make a case that they are closely analogous to each other. The need for this kind of showcase has expanded beyond what one venue on one occasion can offer. Therefore, despite logistical and methodological differences they are drawing from the same general pool of artists for the same reasons.  

What are those reasons?

One of them is to showcase the grassroots of the Twin Cities dance community as distinct from the tips of the pyramids.  

What do you mean by that?

There are a great many people who do not have serious institutions behind them that are making work. They need a visible, respectable, and serious place in which some of that work can be seen. As of December 31, the last time of testing the numbers, there are 15 dance companies with budgets between $100,000 per year and upward. Those would be--let me rattle off some names--James Sewell, Ragamala, Minnesota Dance Theatre, Stuart Pimsler, Arena, TU dances, and so forth. You've heard all these names. Guess how many other companies or pickup groups that are serious exist under $100,000 a year? About 195. That's what I mean when I say there is a need for the grassroots to have visibility. 

One thing that Walker's Choreographers' Evening and Renovate have in common is that they provide a gateway for the tremendous wealth of smaller, less visible, less institutionalized, less capitalized artists--of which we have a profusion in the Twin Cities.

The other thing they have in common is it's a chance for introductions and experimentations. These are places where if you want to start climbing the ladder of credibility, if you can get on one of these two, you can develop a cache. They are places where new people can present themselves, existing people can have a chance, and well-established people can do something they might not risk on a more expensive ticket at a more focused event. A good example of this is at the last Choreographers' Evening at the Walker, where James Sewell did a draft version of a solo. Last weekend he actually showed the finished version at the Southern Theater.

What can people expect at this weekend's Renovate?

This show is going to have relatively little dance that is culturally specific, it's mostly going to be jazz and modern. That isn't because we chose it that way; that's because that's who showed up for the most part. There are some pretty emotional elements going on, with a fair number of pieces that are more passionate than intellectual. We didn't plan on that, but that's the way it came out. 

Anything experimental?

There are two pieces that drift over into the realm of dance-theater. Both are done by people who know their theater and know their dance. One uses text and the other doesn't, but has extended program notes.  

Carrie Lande addresses the mid-19th century custom in pioneering America of having a family member who died be dressed, propped up in a chair, and then photographed. She presents a  a situation where a mother is mourning the death of an infant who is in her lap. In the mother's imagination the infant grows into an adolescent--they're both dead--but the mother wishes she had grown. It is gut wrenching.  

The other dance-theater piece is a work-in-progress, kind of like the James Sewell solo I mentioned. It's by Off Leash Area. They are doing a piece about a visual artist who finds he is losing his sight. There's text, there's modern dance, and there's tap dance, including one of the three or four key tap dancers in the current generation in the Twin Cities. It's funny in a dark sort of way and it's scary.  

Anything else you'd like to add?

These showcases are a sign of the times for two reasons. First, very few small choreographers can afford the time and money to put together a full evening show. The second reason is that audiences have changed: they're younger. They're accustomed to seeing flicker-fast advertisements; they are accustomed to seeing movement, text, and props with video in background; and audience participation, all at once. That works in a showcase setting where audiences can come and see eight or nine different things rather than digging into one artist for a whole night. There's an appetite for a smorgasbord.  

Renovate runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m at the Ritz Theater (345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis). Tickets available by calling 612.436.1129 or visiting and cost $18 for adults; $15 for students, seniors, and neighbors; and $12 for children 12 and under.

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