The stage is dark. The lights come up slowly, revealing a huge metal platform, with a trampoline stretched taut in the middle. Figures swathed in black fabric writhe on the floor beneath the platform, creating a vision of Dante's demons in hell. Others emerge above, wandering through a postapocalyptic environment crossed with platforms and rope bridges. The lights are shadowy, sinister, but retain a hint of coppery shine, suggesting the presence of some hidden optimism. The atmosphere is tense. And then the dancers begin to move. We are no longer in the Southern Theater in Minneapolis, but someplace else altogether.
That scene came from choreographer Robin Stiehm's City. Starting with the inspiration of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, set designer Joseph Stanley, lighting designer Jeff Bartlett, and costume designer Lisa Powers built an environment that was not just a backdrop for the dancers, but a world all its own.
When it comes to dance and performance, the name at the top of the bill always belongs to the choreographer whose vision is played out onstage. It is this person who gets the credit for the realization of the piece, and whose work is analyzed by critics. But what defines the performance experience for the audience is often something intangible. It's the relationship between the performer and people you never see, but whose presence colors everything that happens onstage.
This article focuses on three people who shrug off the limitations of the cash-poor dance world to make any production look big-budget: Diane Waller, a multidisciplinary artist who uses her own sleight-of-eye talents to enhance the works of others; Kris Broderson, a lighting designer and stage manager who takes the show on the road; and Mary Hansmeyer, a costume designer who lives at her sewing machine during the busy dance season. They are fiercely talented, loyal to the artists they work with, and discreet as limo drivers when it comes to their secrets.
The choice to have a career behind the scenes in dance is one made out of passion for the process rather than the promise of a fat check. "It's about surrounding yourself with people you enjoy," says Hansmeyer. What happens onstage, after that, is gravy.
Diane Waller has a boxful of barbecue-grill tops in her downtown Minneapolis apartment. "They could make a great spider web sometime, all tied together," she observes. "But nobody has needed one yet." Waller will be ready, however, should the opportunity reveal itself. "You have to collect smartly," says the multidisciplinary artist, who also creates sets, films, animation, and graphic design for her colleagues. "But I have more than I need. I've been in the same space for 17 years. If I moved, I could have a great garage sale."
A life spent among found treasures, bolts of fabric, and "five big windows that just walked in here the other day" is one the Stanford-educated Waller has cultivated carefully. She's got a talent for revealing the creative possibilities in the most unlikely objects. "It's a scavenger hunt when you're on a low budget," she says, noting the cost limitations most choreographers face when mounting a production. "But your responsibility is to make things look good. You're constantly looking in reuse places, secondhand stores. You look for things that fulfill your function, not the function of the object. There's a lot of stuff out there that needs another use. But ultimately you want the thing to look like it was exactly made for that production, or at least you found a clever use for it. Interesting does not have to be expensive."
Waller, who is in her late 40s, is creating the design and projections for a revival of Zorongo Flamenco's 1987 Picasso-inspired work, Gernika, which opens March 14 at the Southern Theater. (See next week's City Pages for more on that show.) Her eye for detail is enhanced by her own experience in visual arts, film, and dance. Waller understands what performing artists require in order to communicate effectively from the stage because she shares their unspoken language. "I had always toyed with animation, and dance taught me more about animation," she explains. "I am interested in how you work with film images and dance, two kinetic forms that have infused my own work. And then other people started responding to what I was doing for them."
Graphic design has helped Waller pay the rent throughout her career, but it is also another way she shapes the image of the dance community. She is responsible for designing many of the postcards and flyers publicizing local dance seasons. "I look at promotion as the gateway to a performance," Waller explains. "It's how people get interested in what you do. The elements of the design are there to say what the piece is about. And they add a little bit of drama."
Dance productions can be complicated endeavors, but taking the show on the road requires the sort of preplanning and multitasking abilities Sir Ernest Shackleton might have admired. According to lighting designer and stage manager Kris Broderson, who has been touring with Danny Buraczeski's JAZZDANCE since 1996, there's "always a challenge to re-create as well--or in some situations even better"--what you've done at home. Easy enough, one might say, until you start adding in all the variables presented by a new venue: unknown conditions, outdated equipment, and extended time away from home. Plus, since money is always tight, one person usually must perform the job of many.
Broderson, like most of her colleagues who tour with dance companies, juggles at least three or four responsibilities every time she hits the road. She's the first one in the theater, and the last one out. Broderson, who earned her master's in lighting design from the University of Iowa, has been working in tech for ten years. When Broderson receives news that JAZZDANCE is going on tour, she contacts the venues and does advance work on lighting design, sound, and crew specifications. Once on site, she ensures the lights are rigged and focused correctly, and then calls light cues from backstage during the performance. "I make sure the space is set up appropriately for dancers," she says--a broad assignment that includes evaluating the dimensions of the stage, the type and quality of flooring, rehearsal room availability, dressing rooms, and the intangibles that can transform a fun night on the road into performance hell.
When challenges present themselves, Broderson taps into her own creativity and natural instincts to respond. While touring in Russia with Robin Stiehm's Dancing People Company, for example, she encountered an old manual lighting board, a far cry from the computers found in most modern theaters. Her colleague didn't speak English, but they each learned how to say the few words necessary to cue and run a show. On another occasion, during a stateside tour with Buraczeski, Broderson recalls, her radio-controlled headset went out, forcing her to make a mad sprint from backstage to the lighting booth in order to keep the cues coming.
Like many people on the technical side of dance, Broderson has an unflappable demeanor that complements her chosen career: Theater folk do not like surprises, so they plan for every contingency. When the inevitable shocker occurs--Broderson mentions a patron who died of cardiac arrest before the curtain of a JAZZDANCE performance in Ohio--they adapt. In that case, "it made for a hard show and an unresponsive audience," she says, with a technician's characteristic sense of understatement.
Mary Hansmeyer spent eight years in retail, working at stores like Ragstock and Casual Corner, throwing clothing selections over dressing-room doors and soothing customers' anxieties. When she returned to school at the University of Minnesota to concentrate on jazz vocals, she found a work-study job as a stitcher, which soon evolved into a theater degree and a love of costume design. Now Hansmeyer, at age 42, is one of the most sought-after costumers around town, with a client list that includes Zenon Dance Company, James Sewell Ballet, Shapiro & Smith, Robin Stiehm's Dancing People Company, Mathew Janczewski's Arena Dances, Ranee Ramaswamy's Ragamala Dance Theatre, and Danny Buraczeski's JAZZDANCE.
Hansmeyer's experience working the retail beat has served her well in her costuming career. "The main thing is that dance costumes throughout history have been motivated by fashion," she explains. One could also say the attention to detail cultivated in couture houses is shared by successful costume designers. Shape and line are critical. "When costumes are ill-fitting, you can't watch the dance," she says. "It totally takes away from the energy."
Hansmeyer laughs easily as she recalls some early career disasters, including her third collaboration with Buraczeski in 1993. "During dress rehearsal, the dancers couldn't raise their arms up very high, because the cap sleeves were cutting into their biceps. So I had to go shopping for a bunch of white tops. Then I dry-cleaned the black pants and they shrunk. I had to press the shit out of them. And the colors bled!" Buraczeski forgave the costume calamity and the two have worked together ever since. Nonetheless, such on-the-job disasters have left Hansmeyer extra cautious; she now puts her creations through rigorous trials in the laundry room. "I'm a huge safety queen," she says. "I wash everything twice in hot water then dry it on high to test for shrinkage."
Hansmeyer works closely with choreographers to find the right design. She observes the first weeks of rehearsal and is able to determine whether to use pants or dress styles, and what type of color, texture, and silhouette to employ. She then goes to the Minneapolis Public Library to draw inspiration from television and film. Next, she rifles through the fabric stock in the studio she keeps on the upper level of her duplex. Hansmeyer, who used to draw many of her designs, now finds that working one-on-one with the fabric and the artist is more effective. "Dance is a very visceral thing. Nine times out of ten a basic sketch doesn't register with choreographers. They need to see the real thing floating in front of their faces, to see the way the fabric clings to the thigh, the way it moves when an arm comes up," says Hansmeyer. "You put the fabric on their arm so they can feel its weight. That's very important."
Overall, Hansmeyer believes a simple approach is always best. "I don't want to take anything away from the dance," she explains. "I don't want to superimpose something else on the dance for my own gratification. I make sure the dancers are really comfortable inside my costumes." To that end Hansmeyer listens to dancer preferences, and she tailors costumes to suit individual ideas about body image. "If you put something on someone that they can't get past, it affects their performance," she observes.
While Hansmeyer helps determine how dozens of performers look in front of sizable crowds, she chuckles at the fact that she doesn't make her own clothes. In fact, it has taken her five years now to complete a coat for herself. "I'm a collaborator with the choreographer, I'm not an independent artist doing art clothing or wearable art where I can satisfy my own desires," she concludes. "I have to really listen. Sometimes I don't agree, but my name still goes on it."
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