KEEP ON TRUCKIN'
The truck is an Ford F-Series flatbed, 24 feet long and 7 feet wide with a gross weight capacity of some 26,000 pounds. Over 18 days in August and September the five women of the Minneapolis-based Concrete Farm dance collective will perform on the back of this truck in 17 cities across the state. They will also dance under the truck hanging from the axle. They will fit themselves entirely inside the tire rims. They will roll off the bulbous cab and drop blindly, back-first off the side. They will interact with the truck in ways that no preposition can quite describe and they will wound themselves repeatedly in the process.
In Red Lake Falls, under a blinding sun, Susan will kick Arwen in the head. Rehearsing in Ely, Winona's thumb will catch on the edge of the truck and it will turn blue. In Grand Marais, Morgan will drop Arwen on her back. In Duluth, Susan will bang her left knee on the flatbed's metal rail, and wince with each step for hours afterward (though the next day she'll dance again, swearing by the restorative powers of simple ice). And Kristin--well, after an intensive sauna session, Kristin will scrape her knees bloody skinny dipping in Lake Vermillion. Along Minnesota's rural highways, these women will gain an expert medical knowledge of the nuances of the following words: scrape, skin, cut, bruise, abrasion, contusion. Climbing on and off the truck, they will hurt their pubic bones in ways that they did not know they could hurt their pubic bones.
The audiences will come to Stockyard Days in New Brighton, to the first day of elementary school in Dawson, to a community for the developmentally disabled in Sauk Center, and to the Divine Providence rest home in Sleepy Eye. They will respond in manners ranging from infatuation to indifference while offering many theories to explain Concrete Farm's curious presence. Some are convinced the dancers are high school students touring from Europe. That two of the women are in fact boys. That they are all Russian, or African. Chambers of commerce will treat them to lavish dinners. Churlish teens with nothing better to do will jeer. Some will embrace them over post-show lemonade. Others will leave mid-performance. In Duluth, audiences will barely show up at all.
Susan Scalf, Winona Sorensen, Morgan Thorson, Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder have danced together under the name Concrete Farm since 1994; they arrived at the high-concept idea of the Flatbed tour while watching a Bjork video during a summer residency in St. Cloud. With backgrounds ranging from intensive ballet training to cheerleading, diving, and competitive figure skating, the dancers' current work reflects a common interest in contact improvisation and that great, messy genre known as modern dance.
After the ground thaws in April, condos shoot up around here like weeds. We pass clusters of them on the short ride from 35W to the covered concrete pavilion that serves as the locus for Stockyard Days. On the fairgrounds are antique cars, kiddie rides and American Legion near-beer. Surly carnies man the usual games of chance, their grim faces reflected in funhouse distortions by imitation Zippos and Led Zeppelin mirrors. Stuffed animals hang above fake rifles like prize polyester pelts, six-to-a-string. A man with two young daughters in tow wears a shirt featuring the Playboy bunny logo and the word "Zeitgeist." Everywhere smells like minidonuts.
Concrete Farm is not the only one here with a transportational gimmick. An eco-friendly juggler performs in front of the bicycle he rides from show to show--2,000 miles logged this year. On a hill below the pavilion, a military helicopter whirs its rotors while the grass around it undulates like an overgrown crew cut in a stiff wind. Teenage boys watch with their families: Summer is over and high school is history and college didn't happen this year--enlisting with the helicopter pilots may not be the worst option, drab Mickey Mouse earmuffs aside. The crowd waves as the chopper flies away.
Concrete Farm performs behind an orange mesh fence. American flags flap overhead. Soundman Karl, who has signed on for the Farm's entire tour, wears a blood red Che Guevara t-shirt. The musical score--which includes Victor Borge, Herb Alpert, and Louis Prima--echoes through the gazebo, along with the louder sounds of children wailing and parents demanding immediate compliance. Most of the crowd watches without watching.
"I thought they were modern dancers," an older woman tells me after the show. Her husband said gymnastics, but he was wrong and she was right. "We did modern dance in high school--I won't tell you how many years ago--but we were never that limber. I should start that again and lose some weight."
The Concrete Farmers have gathered under the shade of the truck to eat peanut butter sandwiches made with bartered bread. Everything about the tour is low budget: The sub-wreck rental car, the free use of the truck for rehearsals, the program design, and the videographer, Heidi, who will shoot eight shows at bargain rates and offer her parent's summer spread for a weekend stay. The dancers segue effortlessly from commiseration--what went wrong--into a group pep talk for the next show. Meanwhile, the Twin Town Twirlers (a.k.a. Triple-T) have replaced them on the other side of the picnic tables: Women with rhinestone name-tags and fancy Grand Ole Opry outfits and men with beards but no moustaches. The square dance caller intones his c&w rap over looping 45s:
Everybody do a clover-leaf, swing through
Make an ocean wave
Centers pass through, make a right hand star
Now ladies promenade
There's a new moon, over my shoulder
And an old love, still in my heart.
In front of the county fairgrounds and adjacent to the Mora municipal swimming pool is an orange stallion nearly 20 feet tall: half Trojan horse, half pinata. Paul Larsen, who will host the dancers at his house that night in an elaborate finished basement, explains its origin: "I don't know what you know about Mora. We have a sister city, Mora, Sweden. Sometime in the 15th or 16th century, when times were hard and emotionally difficult, they started building these colorful little horses. They're called Dala horses. Well, we built one here, but being that we're American we made it much bigger. We don't have lots of classical dance here--is that what you'd call it? But we have a lot of town pride."
About 60 people turn out to watch the performance, not including a wedding party gathering in an aluminum pre-fab structure next to the 4-H building. A couple pulls in from the Dairy Queen driving his & hers '66 Dodge Chargers. Also among the crowd is a man named Jerry carrying a book titled Feel The Fear But Do It Anyway, and a chubby pre-teen who announces that a nearby arcade will be offering free potato chips and soda after the performance, "while supplies last." Fifteen minutes into the show she has seen enough ("This is totally gay") and leaves to accept her own offer.
"You'd have to be insane to date a dancer. They're obsessed with themselves. And their bodies." So explains Arwen, the only unhitched Concrete Farmer. While laying out their bedding on the floor of a palatial artist's suite (the tenants acquired it by impersonating decoy carvers), the troops take turns on the phone with their intriguingly-named absent halves: Tiger, Casper, Savage. On top of the hushed midnight phone marathons, these dancer-dates must endure the peculiarities of the trade. Chronic poverty. Rootlessness. Narcissism. Exhaustion. Inscrutable giggling fits. Appetites at once voracious and finicky. Morgan and Winona steer clear of dairy; calorie currency comes in pounds of trail mix and unpalatable power bars, vegan carrot cake, soy. Arwen, a vegetarian now, has previously gone vegan. She's flirted with macrobiotics, and asserts that even trace ingestion of chocolate makes her mean. Really mean. The group backs her up on this.
Which is not to mention the coffee addiction--coffee as religion. For this two-and-a-half week trip the company has packed 4 pounds, but forgot the Melita. If conditions become dire enough these women might snort powdered coffee grounds, or rub the raw beans on their gums.
Dating a dancer also means sharing her with the rest of the company. Concrete Farm is like a family, except that families don't touch this much. Concrete Farm hugs and kisses and snuggles, 24-7. Their idea of personal space is that there is none. And then there's the stretching, which never stops. Dancers press their palms against the floor the way that other people crack their knuckles. "We're always searching for the stretch with magical effects," Arwen says. They have elastic where tendons should be.
Even among the community of dancers with all their constitutional quirks, Concrete Farm is an exceptional organization. These women, as individuals and artists, radiate generosity and idealism and all the other things so many of us have given up for dead. The choreography of the Flatbed piece, though originally composed in individual sections, has had as many hands in it as the vegan carrot cake. The tour's administration has been scrupulously divided and sub-divided and attached to rotating task wheels and calendars. Sometimes this is open communication and democracy taken to the level of passive-aggression. One afternoon the collective sits down to plan what to do with a two hour break. By the time the discussion is finished, a little over an hour remains.
The largest group at the Duluth performance is a family of another kind--a dozen women from a halfway house on their weekly compulsory outing. "I think it was about societal conformity," one of them snickers at the end of the performance. "I guess we're supposed to go talk to them now."
The Ely Public Library is a 1936 WPA art deco building with massive banks of glass-brick windows, many of them cracked. Toothless men play cards in the back room. The post-office is another WPA project, with loggers, guides and furriers carved in relief on the outside; inside, a mural by one Elsa Jemnes depicts muscular miners in a Soviet style. The nearby American Legion has closed down; a piece of paper on its door announces that the Class of '71 reunion has been relocated. Here at the gateway to the Boundary Waters, tourism is king; sport utility vehicles with attached canoes circle the Speedwash laundromat all day long.
Like Elsa Jemnes, Concrete Farm has been financed by philanthropy; the mission of the Flatbed tour seems compatible with the spirit of the WPA. Which is to say that Concrete Farm's dance looks like work. Their costumes, by audience consensus, resemble bellhop uniforms crossed with scarecrow-wear; the color schemes are union blue and confederate gray. Throughout the piece, the dancers pick each other up and haul each other across the truck. Their bodies become chairs, stepping stools, ladders, levers, hoists. Even in its most whimsical, slapstick sections, this choreography is earthbound stuff. It has weight in a literal sense. It belongs on a truck.
At this show, a gang of teenagers at the back of crowd deride the performance--"Man, look! They're having a massive orgy!"--and then parody the piece in the bed of their own Ford pick-up. Meanwhile, toddlers are congregating beside the truck stage, imitating the choreography with reckless enthusiasm. First they ring around the rosey. Next they all fall down. At show's end, the audience surrounds the dancers with good will. The park is beginning to look like a Saturn commercial. A girl approaches Winona with "a strange question." Upon learning that Winona is indeed female, the young interlocutor shrugs her shoulders: "Oh, okay, you're just the kind of girl I've never seen before. The kind with bell-bottoms."
One of the things about performing for free is that civic-minded locals feel inspired to provide handsome accommodations. In Grand Marais, Concrete Farm stays in a remote and architecturally eclectic house owned by children's author and illustrator Betsy Bowen. The author, who has lived in Grand Marais for some 30 years, details the history of the local Artist's Colony. Founded by an MCAD professor in 1949, the colony once interacted more freely with the other year-round locals. Today, the groups mostly stick to their own communities; they drink in separate bars.
The audience here is dance-savvy and the post-show discussion largely follows the same model as those in the Twin Cities: The women ingratiate themselves to the performers; the men speak to hear their own voices. But they are excited and supportive and the dancers beam even after the temperature plummets some 20 degrees in a few hours. "It was like a happening," one man says. "It was revolutionary!"
The comment pleases Concrete Farm a great deal.
Red Lake Falls
"This has got to be the single most sexually repressed town I've ever seen," soundman Karl says. "I've got a really bad feeling about this." In Red Lake Falls, Concrete Farm is scheduled to perform at a community picnic dinner preceding the Lafayette High School Eagles' opening night football game. Estimated attendance: 500. During rehearsal that afternoon, passersby gawk. Drivers's heads owl-rotate in triple-takes. I start imagining teens and their testosterone, 12-packs of Ice beer, truck-stop methamphetamine. There is the remote but not entirely negligible possibility that a riot might break out at this dance performance.
The rival Red Lake County Central Mustangs have declined an invitation to appear at the dinner; crops are coming in this week and they can't spare the time. Late at night industrial-scale ag equipment will rumble through the fields of grain under mega-watt bulbs. But for now the sun is scorching. Outside of town there are tall sunflowers and herds of Herefords. The cricket population approaches plague proportions. The Great Plains start here.
Coach L.E. Drechsel, gray, shambling and paternal, introduces his boys in front of the flatbed. They are all "good lookin' kids," even the sophomores whose names he can't exactly recall this very moment. They mug in mirror shades, jerseys tucked neatly into jeans per coach's instructions. School starts Wednesday.
A high school teacher steps to the microphone to introduce the "global studies" students: Five kids from Ecuador, Hong Kong and Japan. "Usually takes me a month to learn how to pronounce the names," he says. The new students nod sheepishly. Their t-shirts say Levi and Nike but their faces say, Am I really going to be here for an entire year?
The Red Lake Falls Chamber of Commerce are thanked again and again, and then, finally, it's show time. On tape, Victor Borge starts finessing the ivory, and Concrete Farm mounts the truck. A woman spitting watermelon seeds announces, Looks we're going to miss Wheel of Fortune. The Sheriff is here. The deputy is here. Shirley runs out of sloppy joes and dashes to the store for some ham; she places the crowd at around 600. A pudgy boy at the back of the picnic tables shows his injured thumbnail to a group of admirers ("First it was blue, then it was black, then it was purple. Now it's blue again"). The deputy's wife says that her niece is in Up With People.
Forty-five minutes later the whole town has relocated to the football field on the plateau of the river valley. All the good-looking kids are girded in the Eagles purple-and-gold, counting out calisthenics in martial cadence. They shout things like "1 and 0!" and "It's time to crack some heads, boys!" Their vital statistics are called over the p.a. system--name, height, weight, position--and then they sprint toward midfield as if everything depended on the speed of their arrival, here and now.
Concrete Farm watches from the bleachers. Winona feels uncomfortably at home here; she was a high school line dancer and cheerleader in small-town North Dakota. Susan retreats to the truck in the suddenly empty state bank parking lot. Tomorrow the truck will pull into Aiken. Saturday, McGregor's Wild Rice Days Parade. Sunday, New York Mills. Other towns they have never seen before and may never see again.
The moon rises on the horizon, pink and rotund. Coach Drechsel's team is storming up and down the field cracking heads. With 1:10 left in the first quarter the lights switch on, bathing the field in a soft white glow.
"Look at this!" Morgan says. "We should have danced down here. Next summer we should do a stadium tour!"
At the half the Eagles lead the Mustangs 22-0. CP
Concrete Farm performs, with truck, on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Peavey Plaza, 11th & Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis; and on Sunday at 10 a.m. at the Farmer's Market in Lowertown St. Paul.
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