Return to the Garden

Hoop dreams: Sarah East Johnson's daredevil performance team, LAVA
Nancy Brooks Brody

When landscape architect Theodore Wirth decided to plan a lush rose garden near Lake Harriet, he set out to do more than make pretty scenery. Wirth wanted to prove that the finicky rose could flourish in the harsh Minnesota climate. Some thought he was smoking poppies, but nearly a century later, hundreds of roses bloom every year, without fail.

Wirth's tenacity translated into a legacy, the sort of outcome Minneapolis-based choreographer Christopher Watson hopes to accomplish with "Dances at Lake Harriet," premiering this weekend among the roses. Modeled after Doris Ressl's "Dances on the Lakewalk" in Duluth (this year on July 12 and 13), the event will inject live performance into a bucolic setting. "It's satisfying for the artist and the performer because the response is so immediate," says Watson, whose company has often participated in the Duluth event. "You're not separated by the proscenium, so you can see every face, you can hear the kids. Something about being in nature and in the sun makes for a very different experience."

Watson's festival may be novel, but dancing in the garden is not. Rev. Norma Burton, a member of Watson's board and community minister at Linden Hills United Church of Christ, remembers participating in recitals organized through a downtown dance school, Joy Studio, nearly 70 years ago. "Every summer we did our own program," Burton says. "It was like concerts at the bandshell, something that people knew would happen."

Jewel Holmdale, now age 87 (and also my husband's grandmother), recalls dancing
in Flower Festivals. "People sat on blankets and watched us silly little girls dressed up like different kinds of flowers!" she laughs, recounting the children's "playlets" in the garden.

Although there aren't any tots in tights on the program, Watson has assembled a diverse group of dancemakers. LilaAnn Coates and Ressl hail from Duluth, while Renee Moe will travel from Grand Marais. Local artists include Sarah LaRose and Ray Terrill. Composers Dave Hagedorn and Dave Schmalenberger will provide live accompaniment.

"We're in a fallow period of dance in terms of being out where people who don't go to concert dance might encounter it," says Watson, explaining his hopes for an annual tradition. "There are different ways to be visible as an artist in our city." Tiptoeing through the tulips--or roses--is definitely one of them.


Dances at Lake Harriet is part of the GLBT Pride/Twin Cities this weekend, as is Super Dykes: Death-Defying Acts, the latest installation of Walker Art Center's ever-popular Dyke Night. The lineup includes local sheroes HIJACK, Punky Bruiser, and Girl Juice, plus New Yorker Sarah East Johnson and her daredevil performance team, LAVA. Blending circus arts (trapeze, acrobatics, hand balancing) with dance and the occasional wrestling interlude, Johnson is one of the rare artists who has scored both the Bessie and Obie awards in performances that wed spectacle with inspiring human interaction.

"What I'm trying to do is make work that has an immediate entertainment value, so it can grab audiences," Johnson explains from her home in Brooklyn. "But we don't just set up a trick, do a trick, and take a bow....There are other layers to the work."

Johnson's creations, for instance, often reflect her interest in the sciences. "Knowledge and facts are comforting to us as human beings because then we know how things are," Johnson says of her latest show. "It's really attractive to think we can explain everything, but there's a huge fallacy in that. It dupes us into thinking we have more power than we really do."

That recognition aside, Johnson and her company make a brave effort to defy gravity. In the service of this campaign, they travel each year to San Francisco to study new skills with teachers from China, and their training includes a series of rigorous handstand drills (one minute and 15 seconds upside down, anyone?), hoop-diving, and balancing exercises. While Johnson maintains that she never intended to deliberately "create a troupe of really strong women," she recognizes that the existence of her company "would have been extremely radical a generation ago." It still is, to some extent: The women of LAVA simply leap, flip, and fly over any barriers in their way.

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