Mathew Janczewski's Arena Dances turns 20: 'My whole thing was to return back and take that risk again'


ARENA Dan Norman Photography

Tonight, Arena Dances presents the grand finale of their 20th anniversary year at the Fitzgerald Theater with a new work, Anthem. The piece is a duet danced by artistic director Mathew Janczewski and former company member Amy Behm Thomson. The evening will also include two older pieces that illustrate Janczewski's sensuous and emotionally gripping movement.

ARENA Dances: Anthem

Fitzgerald Theater

Janczewski feels that the show is a culmination of everything he's built up in the two decades of Arena Dances. "It truly is a returning to my heart and soul; of beautiful movement with music," he says.

Janczewski began creating work at 16 in high school musicals. In college, he was already dancing professionally. After graduating, he started up his company. At that time, he had been diagnosed with HIV, which he thought was a life sentence. "I thought, 'If I'm going to die, what can I do?'" he says.

Janczewski chose to do a one-night-only performance at the Fitzgerald in part as a way to harken back to Arena Dances' original performance 20 years ago at the McKnight Theater in downtown St. Paul. The Fitzgerald has an even bigger auditorium, so Janczewski has been pushing himself to get the word out on social media about the show.

"My whole thing was to return back and take that risk again," he says.

Tonight's show also marks the reunion of Janczewski with his longtime collaborator Amy Behm-Thomson, who moved to Virginia four and a half years ago.

Behm Thomson and Janczewski both studied dance at the University of Minnesota. Janczewski graduated right before Behm Thomson started, but when he saw her in a school production, he asked her to step in for an injured Arena performer.

"I was so excited to do it because I had seen his work and I was drawn to his movement," Behm Thomson says.

They then continued to work together, performing a number of duets over the years. Behm Thomson would also help Janczewski as he created works for the larger ensemble. "He and I would go into the studio to generate material before he would work with the full company," she says. "A lot of the material that we derived came from his body, from my body, from me watching his body move, and then I would echo his movement."

When Behm Thomson's husband got a job at the College of William and Mary, their family moved to Virginia. "We were ready for a shift," she says. "I don't know if I was necessarily ready for that big of a shift, but I also had two children who were very young, and I'd been struggling with finding my place within the dance community."

Moving provided her with an opportunity of stepping away things for a while.

Though it's been over four years since Behm Thomson has danced professionally, getting back into it for the new duet with Janczewski hasn't been a shock to her body. She's been teaching and practicing yoga. "I think within my yoga practice it's an every day thing for me, and I just found this new source of strength," she says. "I feel very rooted and grounded. And part of that for me is about letting go. And with that letting go I feel like I've grown immensely."

The new work, "Duet at Home‚" was mostly rehearsed in Virginia, and is about their friendship. "It's a beautiful piece," Behm Thomson says. "I guess part of it is this journey that Mathew and I have had together for so many years, and that our friendship always moved far beyond the studio."

Coming back into the studio with him has been better than ever. "He has such an incredible vocabulary of movement that we just took phrases and played with them and broke them up. We're both older. We have this history within our bodies and the duet represents that. Our past, our present, and perhaps our future."

For Janczewski, Behm Thomson has always been a rock, and a kind of cheerleader. "She sends me watercolors randomly in the mail" he says. "Her belief in me is so strong. It's so encouraging."

Arena Dances
7:30 p.m. Friday
Fitzgerald Theater
10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul
$20; 800-514-3849