"It starts with the dancers," says Mary Ellen Childs, program director for the McKnight Artist Fellowships at Northrop. While other programs around the country aim at nurturing choreographers, the SOLO program works with a different formula. "The dancers are in the driver's seat. They decide who they want to work with. That's unusual."
SOLO performances began in 2004 as a way to showcase the McKnight Dance Fellows from 2002 and 2003. The fellowship program for dancers and choreographers had moved from the Minnesota Dance Alliance to the Southern Theater. That year Childs sat down with Neil Cuthbert, who was heading the arts program at McKnight, and the Southern Theater's artistic director at the time, Jeff Bartlett, to talk about how the fellowship program could go above and beyond simply writing the artists a check.
The program allows dancers to try working with a choreographer with whom they've always wanted to collaborate. For example, Stephen Shroeder chose to work with James Morrow. The two are old friends, but had never collaborated on a major project. Meanwhile, Gregory Waletski chose Karen Sherman because he admires her work as a dancer and choreographer. He trusted whatever she might come up with. "They created something that was a surprise to both of them," Childs says.
For Ashwini Ramaswamy, instead of choosing a choreographer that she hadn't worked with before, she picked Alarmél Valli, the master Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer with whom Ramaswamy has been studying with since 2011.
"I was looking to deepen my experience with my dance form," she says. As someone who has been dancing the Southern Indian style her whole life, she has decided to get more serious with her studies in recent years. Her mother and sister, the two artistic directors of Ragamala, have been studying with Valli for many years. So when she was awarded the McKnight fellowship, she asked Valli to be her choreographer.
"I knew it was going to be difficult," Ramaswamy says. Before beginning her training, she had only learned from her mom and sister. Studying with Valli has been a whole new experience, and working with her as a choreographer is even more demanding. "She has a signature way of putting a piece together musically, and as a dancer that is very challenging," she says.
When Ramaswamy first started working with Valli on the project, she went from simply learning the movements and rhythms to understanding how to embody the piece. "This experience has taught me to dance from the inside out instead of from the outside in," she says.
Instead of choosing a traditional choreographer, Tamara Ober picked D.J. Mendel, a theater and film director. She was inspired by watching the work of theater maker Cynthia Walker, who performed a show last year at the Walker Art Center that Mendel directed.
"I looked him up, and ended up watching all of his films," she says. "He has an incredible sense of time, space, and energy. It felt like a dance to me; I could feel my body and emotional self moving with the film."
When she got the McKnight, she contacted Mendel and explained how his work with Hopkins had inspired her, and asked whether he'd be interested in making a dance piece.
While Mendel had danced in a few works here and there, and had directed dance works, he had never choreographed anything. "I just thought it would give him a unique challenge and me a unique challenge," she says. When they began working, they didn't have normal rules or expectations. "We didn't have a language we shared," she says. "So there was a process of figuring out how to communicate." That process ended up being what the work is about, taking on what it means to come together and develop a language and "let the magic take over," Ober says.
8 p.m. Saturday, October 4; 5 p.m. Sunday, October 5
Carlson Family Stage at Northrop Auditorium