Meet the artists, dancers, architects, and comics who stood out and made a difference in 2018.
ALANNA MORRIS-VAN TASSEL
In 2017, Alanna Morris-Van Tassel was wrapping up her last season as a company member of TU Dance. Despite the many accolades she had received, she felt lost. “I didn’t have a professional family outside of TU Dance. My family doesn’t live here, culturally I’m not from here, and it’s such a white place,” she says. “I felt depleted. I didn’t feel that I had a home or knew what home was.”
So she took off for Trinidad, her mother’s birthplace. There, under the mentorship of choreographer Jamie Philbert, Morris-Van Tassel thrived. She developed “Yam, Potatoe an Fish!,” a solo drawn from interviews with her relatives, their migration from the Caribbean to Brooklyn, research into her grandmother’s Yoruba-influenced spiritual Baptist faith, and her own ideas about culture, family, and narrative.
This fall, Morris-Van Tassel premiered an excerpt at Movement Research at Judson Church in New York. She also paired her solo with a piece by Jonathan van Arneman to produce an evening of Caribbean diasporic dance at the Off-Leash Art Box in Minneapolis. A revelation to herself and her parents (who were present), the solo positioned Morris-Van Tassel between the celestial and earthly realms, as faith, family, and cultural history found articulate expression in her bold, beautiful movement vocabulary.
Meanwhile, she was also named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch for 2018. She re-engaged Israeli choreographer Idan Sharabi, who worked with her when she was a 2015 McKnight Dance Fellowship recipient, to create a new work for her. She produced a pre-professional creative-dance program with fellow Juilliard graduate Troy Ogilvie (of ThePlayground NYC). She worked on Ashwini Ramaswamy’s Let the Crows Come (premiering in 2019) in residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. In Morgan Thorson’s Public Love at the Walker Art Center, Morris-Van Tassel imbued the act of folding clothes with the same elegance and intention that underlay her powerhouse dancing.
How does she feel now? “I spent the last year in conversation with community,” she says. “I’m in the second stage of the journey.” In January, she’s performing “Yam, Potatoe an Fish!” during the Offset Dance Festival in New York. “This piece has become a family heirloom. It’s still unfinished. So where can it go?” Her creative voice will lead her there, back to home. —Camille LeFevre
A century is a long time to wait. Dunwoody’s architecture school, the first in Minnesota in 100 years, was created five years ago. Founded by citizen architect John Dwyer, the program isn’t just any architecture school. Its focus is “global practice,” Dwyer explains, “the next evolution of public interest design, which is doing work for underserved communities.”
The idea was sparked when Dwyer, then with Shelter Architecture, traveled to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina with a group of U of M students to help rebuild households. He also established a community design studio in the Lower Ninth Ward. Next, he initiated the Dunwoody program and took those students to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.
Don’t confuse Dwyer with a great white hope swooping in to save the locals. “We don’t go in with any ideas,” he says. “We lead with our ears. We respond to what we hear with whatever resources necessary—damage assessments, data, design, information, supplies—in order to help make communities self-reliant.”
He admits 2018 had a rough start. The Dunwoody program keeps growing up to 40 percent every year. “The school grew so fast that I lost control of it,” he says, “but then I made some changes in the spring and some superb faculty stepped up in administrative roles, so I was able to start managing the growth.”
Thanks to his long-term effective volunteerism as a citizen architect, his desire to raise design’s public profile, and his efforts to make architecture accessible to all, Dwyer was given the 2018 AIA MN Louis Lundgren Award for Service.
These days, he has nine projects underway in Puerto Rico, received the green light from the city of Minneapolis for a low-carbon footprint/multi-family residence on Washington Avenue, and has students working on a community center for Frogtown Farms, a cultural center in Jamaica, and a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon.
“The way I manage all of this is, well, I don’t have any kids,” he says, laughing. “Or you could say I have 120 kids. We have this amazing, crazy practice at Dunwoody.” —Camille LeFevre
“Art is important, but I just want to continue to make things,” says Phil Hansen.
Hansen’s artistic journey began in high school, where a focus in pointillism (art composed entirely of dots) led him to pursue art school with hopes of making it his livelihood. Unfortunately, it caused permanent nerve damage, forcing him to drop out.
“When I was diagnosed with nerve damage, I began to set limitations for myself,” Hansen says. “Limitations can drive creativity.”
When a neurologist encouraged Hansen to “embrace the shake” and explore other forms of art, he did. This year, his creations have included a massive three-dimensional skull chair and a painting of Snoop Dogg made entirely from gin and juice.
He also received international praise for his project When I Was 7 , a collection of more than 600 stories from people recalling their most vivid memories from that age. He took each of these tales and wrote them out, forming a portrait of the person who inspired the project: a young girl who live tweeted her war experience from Aleppo.
And then, he destroyed it.
Hansen has turned destruction into an art form; his Goodbye Art series documents the breakdown of all of his creations.
“Experiences are short-lived, but the memories last,” he explains of the process.
Hansen is focused on creating new works in 2019. As for what those works will be, he has only one goal.
“I want to make things because I want to,” he says. “If I’m motivated and inspired and enjoy it, I’m going to create it, no matter what anyone else thinks.” —Patrick Strait
When Ali Sultan began doing comedy, his biggest challenge was finding his own authentic voice.
“Authenticity takes a lot of time in standup comedy,” he explains. “Even now it’s an endless effort to maintain and express who you are. But I think I’m a lot more authentic than when I started, because I base my jokes in truth.”
That commitment has paid off, as Sultan has seen himself grow both professionally and artistically in 2018. Aside from being a regular fixture at Acme Comedy Co. and House of Comedy, Sultan was able to build on his already big 2017, which included his TV debut as part of Kevin Hart’s Hart of the City, for an even bigger 2018. This year he made an appearance on Wanda Sykes’ new show, Unprotected Sets, hosted a successful podcast alongside his mother, and introduced a comedy showcase, People of Comedy, focused on highlighting comedians of all backgrounds.
“I’m very hopeful about our comedy scene,” he explains. “One thing that I had a problem with in comedy in general is the fact that it’s very segregated. You have your black rooms and the main rooms, so I created [People of Comedy] so we can all become one scene.”
While he has been building his own reputation locally, the most incredible accomplishment for Sultan this year was an invitation to film a half-hour special for Comedy Central in Dubai. That experience not only shaped his comedy, but his outlook on the future.
“I realized that this is all I want to do, and the clarity I got from being away made me realize that time is important,” he says. “I was also inspired to write jokes in Arabic. I did my half-hour in English, but Arabic is so rich and there are so many topics I can explore.”
While his career prospects for 2019 are promising, the most important piece of the New Year for Sultan will be to continue exploring his constantly evolving sets.
“I share a lot of personal stories, and within those stories you get my perspective of the world. That perspective comes from living in Yemen, Ethiopia, and America, and managing to be an outsider in all of those places. I am expressing my individuality but I am not denying those cultural elements that shape me. It’s very tricky to do, but I think I do a decent job at it.” —Patrick Strait
When carpenter Molly Diers began typing a Facebook update on January 16, her intention was just to let her friends know what was going on in her life, not to create a viral post that would draw widespread attention to what she called “an intolerable environment” in the Guthrie Theater’s scene shop.
“A friend was like, ‘This is upsetting. Can you change the privacy settings? I want to share it.’” Looking back now, Diers remembers that “it just snowballed, so that was shocking to me. I’m not sad that happened, because I’m glad that the public cared.”
The post contained the news that Diers was resigning from the Guthrie to escape what she called the “sexist culture” of the scene shop. A male colleague, Nate Saul, also resigned; both Diers and Saul had applied for a supervisory position that was filled by a candidate they did not believe would improve the shop culture.
Diers filed complaints via her union and via the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and the Guthrie subsequently conducted an internal investigation. The city found in the Guthrie’s favor, and an arbitrator found that though Diers and Saul were qualified for the supervisor position, hiring the outside candidate was not retaliatory or discriminatory. A National Labor Relations Board charge is still pending.
“The Guthrie has consistently denied claims of gender discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment, and we’re gratified that the findings from the city of Minneapolis and the arbitration found no merit to those claims and issued rulings in favor of the Guthrie,” says artistic director Joseph Haj. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion is a Guthrie core value, and like artistic excellence, it is something we must continually strive toward.”
“Hopefully it opened their eyes,” Diers says about the internal investigation. She says she’s open to returning, but though the Guthrie has said she’s welcome to apply to future job postings, she doesn’t expect she’ll be hired back. She’s currently working for a company called KidZibits, building museum exhibits.
Diers’ story has focused local and national attention not just on the particulars of the Guthrie’s backstage culture, but on the importance of elevating women’s voices in the theater spaces that audience members don’t see. Diers says that before she quit, she began speaking up internally because, in the unusual position of being a female full-time scene shop worker, she felt it was her responsibility.
“When I continued to speak up and nothing was getting better, I just decided I couldn’t be there any more. It was really frustrating and sad, but leaving also gave me the opportunity to be more vocal. I think that’s been a good thing.” She says, “It’s important to listen to women. It’s not just about me.” —Jay Gabler
Joy Dolo is no stranger to local stages, with an acting career that stretches back to her arrival in the Twin Cities in 2009. This year, though, has been something special… perhaps a breakthrough? “I do feel like I have broken something,” she laughs.
In one recent role after another, Dolo has wowed. Last year she took a part originally written for a 45-year-old white man in the Jungle Theater’s Fly By Night, and all but stole the show with her engaging performance. This year, she became the gripping center of the Moving Company’s The 4 Seasons. Without even getting out of an onstage bed, she delivered a devastating performance as a wronged mother who’s ready for revenge in Mixed Blood Theatre’s Is God Is.
“To have so many powerful, unapologetic, creative, black women in one room creating together was incredible,” she says about the process of working on the latter show with director Nataki Garrett. “I learned a lot about myself and how I see myself as a woman in this environment.”
Oh, and Dolo is hilarious. As an improv performer, she’s helped the Theater of Public Policy become a wildly entertaining intersection of goofy improv and substantive discussion. That’s also true of Blackout Improv. Co-founder Dolo has seen the all-black improv group become a top local draw and attract international attention.
“We wanted to create a place where black people could feel joy,” she says. “Unabashedly. A place where we could talk about how we really feel about topics, good or bad, and to show that we are three-dimensional human beings.”
One of Dolo’s latest ventures is a podcast from American Public Media’s Brains On. (Disclosure: I work at the Current, a service of the same parent company.) Forever Ago is a history show for kids and adults, with Dolo helping to explain everything from skateboards to sandwiches. “I have a kid co-host in every episode, and it’s my job to get them to chat,” she says, “which is intimidating! I think it’s important that the kids see an adult that is allowing space for silliness so they have permission to be silly as well.”
On deck for this spring: a new spin on Gandalf in the Children’s Theatre Company’s The Hobbit. “I’m going to play Gandalf as Oprah, so get ready,” she says. “You get an adventure, and you get an adventure, and…!” —Jay Gabler
Practically perfect in every way? That’s just part of the job description when you’re playing Mary Poppins. As with her other memorable performances this year, Becca Hart drew on her background in physical theater to play the ultimate nanny for Artistry’s production of the Disney musical.
“It really makes me start from the character at a place of entire-body immersion,” she says. “How does this person stand? How does this person feel in their own body?”
Before this year, regular theatergoers likely recognized Hart’s face—she’d made a series of winning turns in shows like the Jungle’s Miss Bennet—but in 2018, she became an essential rising star. In addition to Poppins, Hart ran away with Shoot the Glass Theater’s Into the Woods in the role of Cinderella; and starred as the stormy #7 in the Jungle’s wildly acclaimed production of The Wolves.
She’ll return to that role when the show is remounted later this winter at the Southern Theater. “We’ve all been getting together and running lines for the past couple months, and it’s kind of crazy how even more in sync the whole cast is,” Hart says.
Hart grew up in Oklahoma, but her parents were both from St. Paul. “We would come up every summer and every winter,” she remembers. “When I was looking at colleges, I really wanted to come up here, not knowing it had one of the top three theater scenes in the entire country.”
As if her busy acting schedule wasn’t enough, Hart is also the area’s only cartoon-format theater critic. Her exuberant pieces for Minnesota Playlist capture the visual spirit of productions in a way that conventional reviews can’t.
“People remember it,” she says, and she’s discovered that actors love to see themselves represented in cartoon form. “That’s something kind of special: to see yourself represented in that way; to see that you had that much of an impact on someone in the audience.”
Fairy-tale princesses, troubled teens, poised musical leads: Hart can do it all, and she says she’s happy not to be pigeonholed. “Sometimes I’ll be called in to audition for the ingenue, and then they don’t cast me as the ingenue, but I get to play the villain. It’s really fun to see all those shades of humanity.” —Jay Gabler
How does an artist stay away from politics when their very existence has been politicized by outside forces? The answer is they don’t. At least, that’s the case for Essma Imady, whose work bravely tackles sociopolitical contexts with complexity and beauty.
“Our choice is a culmination of our upbringing and circumstance,” she says. “These are topics in my life circumstance, and the way I think about things has led me.”
Often, she chooses particularly tricky themes for her pieces because art is a good method of investigation. Last spring, Imady put together an incredible solo show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Called “Thicker Than Water,” the exhibition dealt with the refugee experience from the perspectives of parents and children. Imady employed interviews she had conducted with young Syrian refugees, as well as objects related to children such as stuffed animals and plush blankets. Her works were unsettling in their intimacy, and the juxtaposition of violence and family life held a powerful weight.
Last August, Imady stepped into the role of curator, pairing artists affected by the travel ban with local creatives. Presented by MNArtists at the Walker Art Center, the resulting collaborations boasted a number of inspired pieces. A gorgeous dance installation by Palestinian American Leila Awadallah, who is based in the Twin Cities, and Asma Ghanem, a Syrian sound artist and photographer based in Paris, was particularly special. In that work, visitors listened to Ghanem’s sound creations through earphones while watching Awadallah’s haunting movements outside through the Walker’s windows.
Whether she’s creating art or curating, Imady says collaboration is deeply important to her. “Art is a beautiful way to ask others for help in thinking about things and exploring topics,” Imady says. She sees collaboration as extending even to the audience that engages with the work. “You present your half of the story,” Imady says. “It’s never complete until they experience the work. That is as important as making the work itself.”
Besides her two shows at Mia and the Walker, Imady also received an Arti(sts) on the Verge fellowship through Northern Lights, which will come to fruition next year. Meanwhile, she’s hard at work on a graphic novel. —Sheila Regan
La Doña, a Latino fusion microbrewery, music venue, gallery, and food truck stop, burst onto the scene this fall to much fanfare. And at least some of their success must be attributed to Luis Fitch, co-founder and creative director of the crosscultural design agency Uno Branding.
By designing striking Dia de los Muertos-inspired imagery that’s slick, bright, and a little bit subversive, Fitch has helped create through branding a place that makes you feel that you’re part of something special.
For Fitch, the distinctions between fine art and commercial work aren’t particularly meaningful. As an entrepreneur, he brings his creativity and vision to commercial projects, but he’s also well versed in the worlds of public art, galleries, and museums.
“I used to be criticized by my fine arts friends for making money,” he says. “But that’s exactly what I want: I want to make money.”
Growing up in Tijuana, Fitch didn’t have many opportunities to study fine art in high school. But by the time he had made his way to an art program in California, he already had a strong background in design, and it has grounded his work throughout his schooling and career.
“Nowadays I’m really interested in the intersection of creativity between gallery art, urban art, museum work, and commercial work,” Fitch says. “I’m most interested in creating things that can go in different channels.”
In addition to commercial projects through Uno—which boasts clients including the Minnesota Lottery, nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and international corporations—Fitch also shows his work in traditional arts spaces like the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Gamut Gallery in downtown Minneapolis, and at art pop-ups around town. —Sheila Regan
In the Minnesota Opera’s standout production of Thaïs last spring, Minnesota native Kelly Kaduce sang the title role of an Egyptian courtesan whose overwhelming charisma holds a city captive and threatens to break the faith of the Cenobite monk sent to reform her.
When we spoke to her earlier this year, she got tangled up in modesty trying to describe why she was cast as an audacious character who is un-Midwestern in just about every sense of the word.
“I will not tell you that I’m beautiful, but, from a distance,” she said, leaning hard on the emphasis, “I can be made up to be quite beautiful. If you can find someone who has a decent figure from a distance, that’s the kind of person you want to cast for a character known for their beauty and sexuality.”
Regionally mandated humility aside, Kaduce is perfect for the challenging role, as the Minnesota Opera’s 2017/18 season closer proved. It’s not just that her powerful vocal range allows her to hit the opera’s notoriously difficult high-G note. The character of Thaïs requires serious acting chops. For the story to work, the audience must find it plausible that Thaïs conveys such gravity that all are helpless in her orbit.
Such was the case in this May’s lavish production of composer Jules Massenet’s oft-overlooked classic. Even the gorgeous final act, when Thaïs is humbled and repentant, paled a little compared to the thrill of seeing the character—and Kaduce—at the height of her powers in the earlier arias.
The locally grown soprano has received national acclaim, but some of her most notable work has come from the stage at St. Paul’s Ordway Theater. That includes her performance in the Minnesota Opera’s 2016 world-premiere adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, where she originated the role of Wendy Torrance.
“I love doing new works,” Kaduce says. “With a world premiere, not only are you tasked with learning a new role, but you often also must learn a new style if you are working with a new composer…. With reinterpreting a role, you have more to work with up front with regards to how the piece has been performed. That’s a different element to think about that new opera doesn’t have.”
Originating a role or putting her own spin on a classic—either way, it’s a joy to listen to Kaduce sing whatever she pleases. —Bryan Miller