Kenna-Camara Cottman Takes Reins at Choreographers' Evening

The annual Choreographers' Evening at the Walker Art Center is back once again for a post-Thanksgiving celebration of local dancers and makers. This year features a lineup of artists chosen by local choreographer Kenna-Camara Cottman. Cottman, who has performed in Choreographers' Evening in the past and was presented by the Walker and the Southern Theater in Momentum in 2011, has chosen a diverse collection of artists, and is especially showcasing artists of color in the Twin Cities. 

This isn't the first time Cottman has tried her hand at curating dance. She has also worked on Black Choreographers' Evening, an independent showcase of black artists, from 2003 to 2005. Cottman says she approached curating this year's Choreographers' Evening by first picking pieces of art that matched her aesthetic.

"I like abstract and really physical things," she says. "Things that are clearly dance, but I'm also into weird stuff that has talking or text or different elements." 

Once she picked out the works she was most drawn to from the people who auditioned, Cottman realized she had about three evenings' worth of material. Part of what limits the number of artists that the event can present has to do with the level of professionalism that goes into mounting each piece.

"You have to limit the amount of art you can give proper space to," she says. So part of the process is not about how many people can you throw onstage, but about allowing each of those voices to be shown clearly with full production support. 

She sifted through the applicants again, noticing that she had chosen a significant number of artists of color. Usually Choreographers' Evening, like many arts events in the Twin Cities, aren't specifically geared toward communities of color. But with her lineup, over half of the artists were people of color.

"I'm a black artist," she says. "That's my aesthetic. I could have done two shows with all artists of color." Cottman attributes the high number in part because artists of color may have been more encouraged to audition having a black curator making decisions this year. In the end, the show reflects "a preponderance of blackness," she says, though the show includes artists of different backgrounds as well as collaborations with artists of color and white artists. 

One of the collaborative groups presented in the show is longtime dance partners Blake Nellis and Taja Will, whose work is heavily based on contact improvisation. What was attractive about their work for Cottman is the "parallel to to a jazz aesthetic in terms of improvisation," she says. "Jazz is an American voice, but also a black voice." 

Another collaborative group is In New Company (INC), who engage in different aspects of hip hop, including breaking, old school, and various offshoots. INC originally auditioned with a piece they had done at the Mall of America, but had said they would create a new piece for the show.

Another artist Cottman is excited about is Deja Stowers, a young emerging choreographer/activist/artist who is doing a solo piece exploring body identity. Stowers is a "full-figured black woman who doesn't have what the white, Western world considers an 'ideal body,'" Cottman says. Cottman calls Stowers "an amazing mover," whose piece draws from ballet, modern, and West African dance to explore loving her own body. 

Jenauda Petrus, another artist included in the show, has training in circus and aerial arts. She just got back from a Jerome study grant exploring West African and diasporic forms. 

Then there's Deneane Richburg, a figure skater who often sets dances on ice. Her piece "Quiet As a Cat" is set to Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit." "I'm getting shivers just thinking about it," Cottman says. 

Through collaboration Ashley Yergens, a queer-identified choreographer, has a piece that explores ideas and parallels between race and sexuality.

Cottman says she personally feels called to engage with large institutions, even when there's not an open invitation. "I don't think artists of color need to wait to be invited," she says.


Choreographers' Evening

Walker Art Center

7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, November 29