It's Wednesday morning in the Como Park Elementary School gym. Signs proclaiming, "I will do my best!" and the "Bone of the Week" (the tibia) hang along the blue and green striped walls under the basketball hoops, pegboards, and those ubiquitous climbing ropes that likely play some depraved role in the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. The students, all of whom are deaf or hard of hearing, stand in a circle waiting to play the "Name Game" with the nine Zenon Dance Company members scattered among them. The assignment, explains Zenon founder and artistic director Linda Andrews through an interpreter, is to make up a simple movement and then say one's name with sign language. The children, dressed in their FUBU, Gap, Old Navy, and sports-team T-shirts, are tentative at first, hopping slightly or doing a quick hip shake. Then one busts a break-dance move and everyone winds up on the floor, giggling, trying to imitate his feat (or rather, feet).
Soon the kids are making physical sculptures, scrambling onto each other's backs and hanging upside down in the arms of their Zenon teachers. Next they learn a hip-hop dance and then head into different corners of the room to fashion their own movement studies for a showing on Friday. The themes (selected by the children) are underwater life and the Civil War. The 52-year-old Andrews snaps photographs of their efforts. She's dressed in sweats, and her Birkenstock sandals reveal bright-pink painted toenails. When she smiles, she flashes a set of braces not unlike those of some of the students.
"They are visual like us," she says. "They are adept at picking up things with their eyes. It means so much to the kids to communicate this way. Modern dance is a creative art form. You don't have to stand in a certain position. There is no wrong."
While modern dancers are busy expressing themselves, however, the companies they perform with come and go, done in by lack of funds, clashing egos, ambiguous artistic philosophies, or all of the above. As in the business world, prolonged success takes a certain tenacious personality, not to mention the type of survival techniques that would make Richard Hatch envious. "So many times I thought, 'There's no way we can go on financially; everything's against us,'" says Christine Maginnis, who, along with Denise Armstead, has been in Zenon since its inception. But, she adds, Andrews is "the most driven and persistent woman" she knows. She stays focused on keeping the company together."
Andrews is hardly your average cheerleader for what might tritely be called the transformative power of dance. She admits to a hot temper and she's relentlessly direct. Andrews has maintained from the beginning that she is on a mission to raise the level of excellence in Minnesota's arts--even if it means shirking polite convention and the pressures of provincialism to do so. As a result Zenon is nearing its 20th anniversary as one of only a few repertory troupes in the country specializing in modern and jazz choreography by local, national, and international dancemakers. The versatile company members, performing this weekend at the Illusion Theater, are equally adept at interpreting Cathy Young's pure jazz, Doug Varone's soaring postmodernism, Ranee Ramaswamy's bharatanatyam, Susana Tambutti's moody dance theater, and Joe Chvala's quirky percussive pyrotechnics. Such flexibility in expression is rare in a dance world that tends to self-segregate by style. At the same time Andrews, who began her career as a performer and teacher, also emphasizes arts education. She runs a dance school and organizes the company in residencies for all grade levels, and for the stray Rotary Club, nursing home, or even university hockey team. (She's also a mother to two daughters, neither of whom, she says with some relief, have expressed any interest in a dance career.)
Seated in an Uptown coffee shop a few hours after completing the Como Park residency, the blond-haired, youthful Andrews shakes her head in wonder as she considers the sacrifices, schemes, and skills it has taken to bring Zenon into its third decade. Andrews, who grew up traveling from state to state with her family (her father worked for the National Forest Service), eventually landed in Georgia before attending Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, during the 1970s. After graduation she stayed on to teach and pay back her student loans while working for AT&T.
"I was the first woman in the marketing department in Roanoke," she recalls. "I got a lot of marketing training but also a lot of harassment. I was paid less, the guys hid my shoes. I hated it in corporate America, but it gave me a business acumen."
Andrews eventually followed her husband to St. Paul, and after their divorce she immersed herself in the spandex unitards and glitter balls of the disco nightlife. She decided to match her marketing experience with her creative talents and opened up a school called the Downtown Dance Center with a disco-dancing partner. Andrews eventually took over the competing Ozone School and enrollment soared, thanks largely to the people's need to boogie. "We had so many men in class," laughs Andrews, acknowledging the absence of the Y chromosome in her classes today. "This was before health clubs really took off. They had seen John Travolta and wanted to dance like Saturday Night Fever."
Ozone, located in the Wyman Building, was also a center for experimentation with its wildly popular studio performances. "We would bring everyone to the Warehouse District," says Andrews. "We were one of the first [arts] organizations to develop down there. The performances would be standing-room-only. Things fell off the ceiling onto the audience but nobody cared. They just wanted to see what was going on. We even performed in the windows of the building so people would see us as they walked up. There was very little air in there!"
Wil Swanson, who began his career with Andrews and later performed with New Dance Ensemble before joining New York's Trisha Brown Company, laughs heartily over the telephone from Jersey City, New Jersey, as he recalls the scene. A duet set to punk rock earned him and his partner Francine Zerfas a trip to Dance Fever in Los Angeles. "I remember banging my body around," says Swanson. "It was really fun--considered but not cerebral."
The influx of cash from classes and shows provided an opportunity for Andrews to start two companies: Rezone (modern dance) and Just Jazz. She started going to New York to see whom she could attract to work with her dancers. "There were very few good choreographers in Minnesota at the time," explains Andrews. "I went outside to pull the level up." When the Walker Art Center brought Bill T. Jones to town in 1982, Andrews asked him to create a work. He readily agreed. A former drummer for the band Weather Report who had become a prison guard at Stillwater created an original score. Rehearsals were trippy, driven by rhythms enhanced with a little weed, not to mention Jones's developing stardom. One day, when Jones was in St. Cloud and forgot his rehearsal time with the troupe, Andrews piled everybody into cars and drove up to find him. She did. He rehearsed.
Such chutzpah explains Zenon's staying power. That, and some gambling. Andrews used to run a pull-tab operation at the Little Wagon bar in downtown Minneapolis. "It was a real clash of cultures," she smiles. "The patrons wanted to support the VFW but my husband held the lease and made them choose us. Those were the days when the squirrels would run across the floor of our studio on Fifth Avenue. I remember Cindy Gehrig from the Jerome Foundation saying, 'Linda, you can't do that!' and I said, 'Then give me some money!'" She did. Jerome is now a steady Zenon funder.
In the spring of 1983 Andrews merged her two companies to create Zenon. "People said we couldn't combine jazz and modern," she says. "But we got a standing ovation at our first concert." To create work for the dancers, she enlisted such New York choreographers as Bebe Miller, Mark Dendy, Victoria Marks, and Stephanie Skura, as well as Joe Goode from San Francisco and Llory Wilson from Seattle. Danny Buraczeski of JAZZDANCE acted as artistic co-director and resident jazz choreographer when he merged his company with Zenon from 1989 to 1992. Today local collaborators include Myron Johnson, Robin Stiehm, and Wynn Fricke. Ever mindful of Zenon's standards, when Andrews contracts with artists, she retains the right to refuse to show the piece if the collaboration doesn't mesh. More often than not, the work is performed. (Andrews continues to receive several résumés a week from choreographers interested in working with Zenon; her wish list includes Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, and William Forsythe.)
In the years since Zenon's founding, Andrews has attracted high-quality dancers to her roster and has retained many, largely because the company's repertory format guarantees that no one style predominates. According to Greg Waletski, an 11-year veteran, "If you're not into what's going on at the moment, there's always something new around the corner."
Adds Maginnis, "Even if you don't click with someone every once in a while, you just say, 'It's my job,' take the stage, and sell it."
"My job is to get dancers out of their comfort zones," Andrews says. "As a result, we've learned a lot of wonderful partnering and have become known for it. Our women are strong; they can lift the men."
Stirring to go, Andrews checks to make sure she has left behind enough flyers to attract potential audience members from among the coffee-house patrons. "The reason we're so successful is that our vision is clear, and it's stayed pretty much the same throughout the years," she says. There's no flavor of the month. We have what we need to sustain us."
Linda Andrews will continue to see to that.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.