The People's Choice

In the summer of 1996, when the women of Concrete Farm Dance Collective rented a flatbed trailer and took their particular brand of modern dance to such small cities as Red Lake Falls and Grand Marais, outstate onlookers had a particularly difficult time identifying the women's origins. Dressed in a patchwork of loose-fitting garb, the dancers were often mistaken for European exchange students. The word "collective" in the troupe's title seemed to indicate Russian influence, or perhaps it was the aching violin strains of a Slavic folk tune to which the group gracefully maneuvered. Equally confusing to some spectators was the lack of boys in this band: The holds, lifts, and caresses were executed tenderly yet firmly by a muscled, taut, all-female crew.

This quartet of queer women, Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder, Susan Scalf, and Morgan Thorson, bravely took their stuff to the people of Minnesota--and found astonishing success. In many small towns, people flocked to their performances, chatting with the dancers after the show and thanking them for coming to town. Many locals opened their homes to the dancers, offering food and drink. In some burghs, Concrete Farm members taught women the simplest dance and stretching movements. The participants were charmed and exhilarated--struck, says Scalf, by the "radical notion that doing things for yourself that feel good is OK."

Still flush with the success of the flatbed tour and propelled by the belief that anyone can enjoy modern dance, Concrete Farm delves into a new series of performances this fall called Open Day, a set of improvisational works that includes audience participation in informal, urban settings. The collective's lineup kicks off Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 7:30 p.m. with a community forum featuring New York choreographer Jennifer Monson and other dancers discussing use of dance as a tool for social and political change. Monson and Concrete Farm will perform dances from their Open Day repertoire on Sunday Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. (Both events are free and will be held at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis.)

This amalgam of twenty- and thirtysomethings banded together in 1994 as a group of dancers with a shared "alternative bent" in their ideas about modern dance. Their performances have a lyrical beauty and tenderness, yet also incorporate elements that could be considered somewhat utilitarian or "everyday"--simple hand gestures, walking, falling, carrying, lifting. There's a certain cabaret-esque feel to the performances; they are cerebral and witty. Perhaps more important, however, the performances are infused with a passion that often moves the viewer emotionally.

The collective structure evolved as the dancers desire for equal artistic and administrative voices grew, say Scalf and Van Loon. While other troupes often center on one charismatic individual, Concrete Farm is wholly the sum of its parts: Every member has a say in tasks ranging from choreography to scheduling to marketing. "Consensus is most effective," Wilder says, "and most idealistic."

But there's also an element of pragmatism to the dancers' collective approach. Funding in the arts world is tight, and the four performers realized that raising money together was more likely to result in their long-term survival than placing responsibility in the hands of one individual. Combining their talents, time, and energy, they managed to land some substantive grants.

The dancers didn't choose the collective format just for financial reasons, however. In a collective, they say, members bring various ideas to the table, and the entire group has to reach consensus before any change is implemented. The women agree that they function very well in an organization where change "takes longer in the short run, but keeps everyone from feeling disenfranchised," Wilder says. Maureen Koelsch, a performer familiar with the group, says the group has a fluidity about it that makes the structure work: "Concrete Farm is the best thing you want in a lover," Koelsch explains. "They are committed...and they have incredible passion for the work. They stay in the relationship."

Concrete Farm has gone to great lengths to preserve this particular relationship between collective action and modern dance. In 1995, with a Minnesota Dance Alliance/Jerome Foundation "Dancer Pool" grant and a Jerome fellowship, they began searching for a farm, hoping to get away from the city and live and work. Instead, they found a house in St. Cloud in which to live, compose, dance, and just be together. That summer afforded them the chance to develop closer personal relationships, making their professional work even stronger.

Taking the time to figure out where you're going is great, but it's nothing without talent. Linda Shapiro, a choreographer, freelance writer, and sometimes mentor to the dancers, says she is "in awe" of the group. "They have all of the traditional values that I need to see from good choreography. They are intelligent and have a look of spontaneity about them," Shapiro says. "They're also very subversive; there's a guerrilla element to their performances. If the dance community were a gang of safe crackers, they'd carry the nitroglycerin. They are in your face."

Steve Rosenberg, a 57-year-old computer software teacher from St. Paul, is an avid audience member at most Concrete Farm functions. "I like their physicality and accessibility," he explains. "They use everyday movements, and they get the audience involved."

Emma Ramstad, an 18-year-old urbanite, recalls watching a flatbed performance at the Minneapolis Farmers Market with a handful of friends: "We started dancing and jumping around," Ramstad says. "They [the collective] made it seem like so much fun."

Audience participation, both during and after the performances, has been part of the modus operandi for the collective since the days of the flatbed tour. At some performances, audiences are given crayons and paper to record their thoughts during the performance. Afterward, over snacks, the audience members are asked to participate in a question-and-answer session and share their impressions of the piece. Such interaction allows the dancers to "demystify the work," according to Van Loon. "The theater can be an elitist place," she says. "It's a secluded black box space. We want to show that what we do is no different than what any other person does every day."

John Killacky, former curator for performing arts at Walker Art Center, and current executive director at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, says that he is particularly impressed with Concrete Farm's efforts to recast the traditional relationship between artist and audience. He admires the group's success "in reframing the context [of the work] and the way it's shown to audiences."

The group's most recent work, Open Day, with its components of improvisation and audience participation, was set in motion last spring after the collective picked up grants from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, the Jerome Foundation, and Forecast Public Artworks. With this funding, they were able to take almost two years in which to "work as a group without the pressure to make a finished piece," says Wilder. Because most funding institutions require performers to produce work at a relatively rapid pace, it is rare that performers have the luxury to rethink their work on their own terms. Currently, the collective has a residency at the Center for Performing Arts in south Minneapolis, rehearsing 15 hours a week.

With sufficient funding, a battery of upcoming performances, and an enthusiastic following, Concrete Farm would seem to have a bright future. But this collective isn't necessarily concerned with making the five-year plan. "We have been lucky," says Wilder. "Concrete Farm seems perfectly right for right now."

Still, it's not just luck that has contributed to the group's success, says Shapiro, it's their willingness to draw others into the dance. "They are inventing their own system on their own terms," Shapiro says. "They've done work all over the place. They get people involved who wouldn't normally watch dance. They don't sit around waiting for an audience to find them."

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