Momentum, and an update about the Southern

Chris Yon

Chris Yon

Momentum, the innovative dance series that has been co-presented by the Southern Theater and the Walker Art Center for 10 years, returns to the Southern's stage this weekend, despite upheaval at the theater due to financial difficulties. Choreographers Chris Yon and Kaleena Miller present work this week, with Kenna Sarge and Mad King Thomas presenting next weekend. 


Chris Yon's piece, "Echo Park Dream Ballet Essay: Les Sylphides without Margo Fonteyn v. The Pips without Gladys Knight," features dancers Maggie Bergeron, Angharad Davies, Taryn Griggs, Justin Jones, and Megan Mayer. Mayer, who also performs the second week of Momentum with Mad King Thomas, says that the ensemble for Yon's piece has been working since January, and that it's one of the most technically demanding and trickiest pieces she's learned. "His work is intricately complex and clever; no movement is random or unintentional, which is one of the things I love about it." She's particularly excited that for the piece she gets to live out her Motown backup dancer fantasy. 

Also to be performed this weekend is Kaleena Miller's "Fleet," inspired by her father's Alzheimer's disease. Miller, who comes from a tap and percussive dance background, is working in a contemporary mode, according to Walker curator Philip Bither. Rather than personal storytelling, the piece recreates a sense of having Alzheimers through a use of repetition and shaping of choreographic material. "It's incredibly heartfelt and moving without being sappy," he says. "There's an interesting sonic and visual palate -- both from the footwork and the soundscape." 
Next week Kenna Cottman, who Bither calls a "catalytic force in the dance community," will present "Shared Language." The daughter of a photographer father and storyteller/textile artist mother, Cottman pulls elements of modern, postmodern, hip-hop, and traditional African dance to create something new. In the piece, she plays with a cabaret feeling, creating an informality around the way the audience watches.  

Also next week, Mad King Thomas presents "All sparkles, No heart" featuring a chorus of 14 women and men. "They're investigating a spectacle, among other things," Mayer says. "They're finding that edge of social commentary versus exploitation, and delving into that uncomfortable place. The chorus cast is a great mix of folks, ages, and politics, and they are a lively bunch."

For the majority of years that Momentum has taken place, former Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett and Walker Curator Philip Bither have acted as curators for the series. In the last two years, Bither has been unable to curate the festival due to his traveling schedule, so Michèle Steinwald, also from the Walker, has taken the lead. Laurie Van Wieren, who was hired after Bartlett was fired, was the Southern's dance curator until she was laid off this spring. Bither says that Van Wieren has been involved as much as she can in the development of Momentum since her departure. 

The Southern, Bither says, has taken a step back from their proactive programming role in the series since their re-organization. "The Southern's relationship with the Momentum series has changed a bit. It's a little complicated."

What does the future hold? "The Walker institutionally is fully committed to hold Momentum," says Bither. "That won't be changed by the circumstances at the Southern. We're determined to find the right configuration for the series. In some ways -- now more than ever -- there's such flux in the community around institutions that having a bold platform for the next generation is really an important thing."
However, there was no question whether the current Momentum pieces would be performed at the Southern, as they were devised specifically to occur within its uniqe architecture. "We weren't interested in moving it this year certainly," he says. In the next few weeks it will be decided where Momentum will live and how it will thrive in the future. The next request for proposals will occur in the spring of 2012. By August of 2012, decisions will be made about which artists have been chosen for the Momentum series, in whatever form it takes. 

"It feels a bit thrown together," says Mayer, who performed in Momentum in 2009, "which makes sense, since everyone's just trying to figure it out since all the drama went down." The plus side, she says, is that the artists have been able to rehearse in the space quite a bit as all of the other shows have been canceled. "We've been able to 'space' pieces which will save us time during a stressful tech week."

Mayer says that the most glaring deficit has been the lack of a dance curator at the theater. "Laurie Van Wieren is such a great supporter in that role and her presence is sorely missed. It's been unclear what roles will be filled since all the Southern staff has been fired. I feel the artists have been left in the dark a bit."

Mayer describes the situation as "melancholy," knowing this could be the last time she performs at the theater. "Despite everything, it is still such a thrill to be in that space and imagine the lights coming on and the audience in their seats. I just love that feeling and the energy that comes with that," she says. "I've been fortunate to have my last 2 shows produced here. Now that it's on a rental-only basis unless I strike it rich I won't be able to afford it. So, I feel very lucky to get to perform in both the first and last pieces of this year's Momentum series."

Damon Runnals, the sole remaining staff member at the Southern, says he's acting as the technical director and production manager for the show. He has also cultivated the production staff, including lighting designer Beck Jensen and sound designer/mixer Philip O'Toole, in addition to board ops and electricians that had been previously employed by the theater. 

Runnals seems optimistic about the Southern's future, noting that Ananya is contracted to perform in September, and Link Vastok will be bringing Julian Hamilton in November. In the spring, the Moving Company has booked six weeks, and in the early summer Jon Ferguson, who had planned to perform The King is Dead this summer, will be performing. Triple Espresso will be onstage during next holiday season. The price for renting the space is $2,700 per week. 

Momentum: New Dance Works 2011 runs this weekend and next at the Southern Theater (1420 Washington Ave. S.) Performances are at 7:30 on Thursday and 8 on Friday and Saturday. See the Walker's website for details.