Twin cities arts buzz: Meet the creatives and their productions


Somewhere north of three million people live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state arts board says that two thirds of them have attended an arts event in the last year. With that many people, it's a safe bet that whatever your artistic passion, however esoteric your creative interests, you can find at least a few kindred souls to support you.

This year's Fall Arts Preview is a testament to the incredible diversity of Twin Cities arts. Do you have a thing for Japanese anime and manga (like the illustration on our cover)? Mark you calendar for the weekend of September 25. Are you a devotee of the classic South Indian dance form Bharatanatyam? You'll find an auditorium full of like-minded fans at the Walker on October 1. Do you love classic films? There's a new "microcinema" in town just to serve that niche.

On the following pages, we profile four people who are distinguishing themselves in the Twin Cities arts community, and we offer scores of events guaranteed to warm your soul as the weather gets cold—whatever your artistic cravings may be.

The Law and the Jungle

By Quinton Skinner

Alayne Hopkins and Sam Bardwell in Mary's Wedding, photo by Nick Vlcek

THE JUNGLE THEATER'S preposterously aged, ramshackle, wheezing jumbo van has earned itself an in-house nickname probably best not repeated here. But suffice it to say that when Joel Sass and I, two men in our forties dressed in dark clothing and carrying a sinister cargo of two shovels, hit the road recently, we could have been mistaken for a couple of guys who were bound to end up in a TruTV documentary on perversity and mayhem.

But we're not so bad, really. Actually, not at all. Sass had just finished showing me his backyard garden, and we were headed off to a weird patch of terrain behind the Acme Company on Hiawatha on a mission to dig up various weeds and sod that would become part of the set of Mary's Wedding, one of the final shows of the Jungle's 2009 season.

Innocent enough, one would suppose. Until the police showed up.

The next day Sass and I were happily disentangled from the grasp of law enforcement, and we had a chance to chat about the course the Jungle will be taking through the end of 2009. All this year, the theater's founder, Bain Boehlke, with whom Sass shares artistic director chores, has been on a one-year sabbatical. Sass says Boehlke's decision to take a year off "was not last-minute," but admits that Mary's Wedding was chosen for production in a brief gap between Boehlke's temporary abdication and the pressing need to come up with a season brochure.

"I went back to my stack of fun things, and this was quite near the top," Sass says of Stephen Massicote's script. "It strikes a really substantial emotional chord because of its sweetness, its optimism despite the fact that there's a war at the heart of the show. It's old-fashioned in the best sense, not being antique but harkening back to these extremely romantic, generously heartfelt romances of an earlier time."

Sass had shown me a shoebox-size model of his design for the show, then ushered me to the set in a middle stage of its creation. Mary's Wedding concerns a young woman on the night before her nuptials, dreaming dreams of a young man she met in her recent past who is now entrenched (pun intended) in combat in World War I. Sass's elegant set combines the feel of a rural barn with a bedroom, the suggestion of a battlefield, and a contained chamber upstage in which the unconscious will presumably hold sway.

"It's almost Thornton Wilder-esque, in locale and the charm and innocence of the characters," Sass adds. "Despite the fact that there's a sorrow at the heart of the show—here's a young woman dreaming the night before she's going to be married, and not about the boy waiting at the altar the next day—the writer guides Mary toward a place where her future is one of light and happiness, rather than being shattered by an old sorrow. That's a beautiful theater experience for me."

While Sass was toiling for many years in the local theater scene as a designer and director, Boehlke was resolutely building the Jungle brand. When Sass was brought on board a couple years ago, it seemed like a natural fit: Both men, despite being a generation apart, are theater lifers, both vividly visual in their approach, and both dedicated to what Sass calls "tapping into the reservoir of the ineffable."

Both guys also share a knack for talking in complete paragraphs, elaborately punctuated, and each has his own brand of impish humor. When Boehlke comes up in conversation, Sass summons up a dead-on impersonation of his artistic partner's sonorous, droll, stoner Zen-master cadence. And he readily admits that, when taking on Mary's Wedding, he had to ask himself, "It's a dream play. What the fuck does that mean?"

Conor McPherson's The Seafarer will fill the Jungle stage in November and December. Sass calls it "funny and a little scary, a good anti-holiday show." The Jungle staged McPherson's dark, chilling Shining City two seasons ago.

"We had such a great working experience with Shining City," Sass adds. "It was artistically satisfying and really a big box-office success. That was a good play. This one is even better."

McPherson trades in harrowing psychological drama paired with scattershot, fragmentary dialogue that disarms audiences with a unique style of hyperrealism. Sass declares this play "a new breakthrough" for the playwright, likening it to the work of an "Irish Tennessee Williams."

"It's a riff on the Faust tale, set in Ireland," Sass explains. "Very much a comedy, which you wouldn't expect from a Faust story. It's about a guy, newly sober, in a house full of inveterate drinkers. They're playing cards on Christmas Eve when someone brings home a stranger. It turns out he's the Devil, come to play cards for the soul of the main character."

So much for eggnog and a carol around the family piano. Sass enthuses about his Y-chromosome-laden cast, which includes local heavy hitters such as Stephen Yoakam, Patrick Bailey, and Alan Hamilton.

"So much of the behavior and circumstances of these characters is sort of appalling," Sass says (of the upcoming show, not the actors themselves). "But there's also this definite spirit of fraternal love there, despite their being very unkind to one another."

Sass's enthusiasm is little short of contagious, and his year at the Jungle helm seems to have been invigorating (although he admits the experience has taught him the maniacal, all-consuming nature of trying to fill Boehlke's shoes). Of putting on yet another show, he says the process "becomes more familiar but doesn't really get easier. But there's an energy and spirit inside these plays, and the trick is to activate their magnetism until they levitate, on their own, under their own power."

Back behind Hiawatha, Sass and I had been blissfully digging away, recounting Midwestern childhoods and marveling at what can grow in gravel, as we amassed a stockpile of tall, variegated weeds and blocks of sturdy sod to load into the van. Then a Minneapolis police car with a couple of uniformed officers pulled up slowly. Sass and I stopped what we were doing and leaned on our shovels.

"What are you guys doing?" asked the officer behind the wheel.

"Weeding," Sass replied.

The policeman took a moment to calibrate just how much of a smartass Sass was being, a silence which the Jungle director wisely filled with a more prosaic explanation of our behavior.

"Cool," the cop said with an indulgent smile. "We just thought maybe you guys were harvesting a marijuana crop or something back here."

Two thoughts came to mind: that harvesting a pot crop in the middle of the city might not be the most unfortunate thing to be doing; and, more to the point, not harvesting marijuana in the presence of two MPD officers was an advantageous place to be.

The policemen gave us a friendly and courteous farewell, somewhat tickled by our folly, a sentiment I shared. Shoveling out unwanted weeds to help tell a story about existence and beauty, all things being equal, wasn't such an unrewarding way to spend a late-summer morning. Nor was staying out of jail.

Thinking Big by Thinking Small

By Matthew Smith

Barry Kryshka, photo by Nick Vlcek

THE TWIN CITIES' NEWEST film house probably isn't most people's idea of a movie theater. For one thing, the Trylon is usually open only a couple of days a week. And you won't find the usual gaudy marquee out front—you can easily walk right past the entrance without knowing the theater is there. It doesn't have a spacious lobby—in fact, it has no real lobby at all. Moviegoers enter through a storefront art gallery into a cramped hallway, where they shuffle past a tiny glass case with a few candy bars and a popcorn machine, and take a sharp right through a small door into a disconcertingly tiny, black-curtained theater. With barely more than 50 seats in the place, and a roughly 20-foot diagonal screen, the Trylon feels more like a private screening room than a movie theater.

The barebones cinema has a distinctly homemade feel, but for all of that, it is one of the most intriguing new arts ventures in the metro—and even in the nation. It is one of just a handful of "microcinemas" in the country, small art-house venues dedicated to showing niche movies not likely to draw a mass audience—independent films, foreign films, documentaries, or, in the case of the Trylon, classic movies.

The Trylon screened its first films in July, a three-weekend tribute to silent comedy star Buster Keaton, which drew sold-out audiences to its Friday and Saturday shows. After taking August off for a few finishing touches, the Trylon is back this month with a "crime spree" series (including the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Dog Day Afternoon, and Spike Lee's Inside Man.)

The new theater space was created virtually from scratch by Take-Up Productions, a volunteer organization that for the last three years has shown a single-minded dedication to keeping classic films alive in Twin Cities theaters. The mini cinema was the idea of Barry Kryshka, a 38-year-old veteran of the local repertory film scene and the driving force behind Take-Up.

"I don't think I'm the first one to think of it," he says, but a dedicated microcinema that doesn't piggyback on another space is a rare venture. Kryshka organized the construction of the Trylon, puts together the film programming, and manages Take-Up's finances, in and around his day job selling video production equipment.

Kryshka and many of his Take-Up brethren are cast-off volunteers from Oak Street Cinema, departing when the theater cut back its programming to concentrate on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. They regrouped and began running film series in collaboration with many of the big independent local movie houses—the Parkway, Riverview, and Heights theaters. Kryshka says opening Take-Up's own modest cinema seemed like the logical next step, especially when he moved his business offices to Minneapolis's Longfellow neighborhood and discovered a prime unused office space next door.

The raw space, tucked into an out-of-the-way, mixed-use neighborhood on Minnehaha Avenue just south of Lake Street, was built with a legion of volunteers, a couple of paid contractors, and about $25,000. The crew put in the screen and projection room, built the floor risers, installed used theater seats, and wired the place up using money from the nest egg Take-Up had built in three years of running repertory film series around town.

A core of 20 to 25 volunteers helps run the place, with three people working every show night to man the projector and sell tickets and concessions. The theater's tiny size and ad hoc operations mean it doesn't need to lure many warm bodies to meet its nut. With four shows a weekend, "We need to fill about 25 seats per show," Kryshka says, to break even. Monthly expenses are relatively minimal: $1,000 for rent, another $1,000 for film rights, and about $500 to ship the movies.

Just as important, the Trylon's modest needs and ambitions mean that it can take the leap to more adventurous film programs. At other venues like the Parkway, "there wasn't a lot of room to take chances," Kryshka says. Though the Keaton series was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, Kryshka relishes the chance to screen films like the upcoming series from the thinking man's horror-meister, David Cronenberg (Scanners, The Fly, Crash)—films that even Kryshka hasn't seen. The series, he jokes, "is mostly for me, but other people can come too." If fact, that is one of the abiding satisfactions of owning your own movie house. The programs, he says, are "25 percent what I want to see, 75 percent what other people want to see."

Still, Kryshka understands the realities of running even a small, boutique film house. "He's very pragmatic and realistic about doing all of this," says Tom Letness, owner of the Heights Theatre, who has collaborated with Take-Up on a number of repertory projects, including a film noir series last February and an Audrey Hepburn festival beginning this month. "It's great to do, but you have to make money, or at least break even."

Letness believes a specialized cinema like Trylon can be genuinely important to local film life. "There are certain shows where you're not going to have 300 people at them," he says. "Barry is able to do a lot of things that are a little more limited, a little more niche, but still feed a need. I give him a lot of credit, because it is not easy."

In an age of Netflix and on-demand cable, repertory film can be a dicey proposition, but Kryshka remains optimistic. "It's also what they said about VHS and what they said about television," he reminds. "The analogy I use is that you can buy liquor at a store and drink it at home, but bars seem to be doing well." A social context, he says, is still important for people who love movies.

Though repertory film in the Twin Cities has had "a few dark years," he says, "I think it's coming back strong. Two years ago, no one was going anywhere near it. I think the success we've had is encouraging more people to go into it."

He understands, though, that success is relative. "This has no intention of returning a profit," Kryshka says. And if the Trylon does make money, "we'll find a way to spend it."

The Tech Artist

By Rod Smith

Hello World! photo by Sarah Sampedro

NOBODY LOVES contemporary networked life more than Christopher Baker. "I would absolutely love it if the internet could be truly 'free,'" the Minneapolis-based new-media artist emails from Hungary. "Free of censorship, free of bandwidth restrictions, free of cost, accessible to all, environmentally free, free of the political influence and the weight of capitalism. At the same time, I think it's extremely important the people realize that it isn't."

Baker isn't just talking out of his beret. This year alone, his web-intensive installations and public works have appeared everywhere from the Weisman to art-tech crucible Kitchen Budapest, where the artist finishes a yearlong residency next month—leaving him just enough time to prepare for the November 20 opening of his first Franklin Art Works solo exhibition. With eight shows in locales ranging from Barnsley, U.K., to Fargo, North Dakota, scheduled for the next six months, the poor devil might perish of exhaustion if not for automation.

Unlike artists such as Damien Hirst and Lawrence Weiner—and most of the other old-to-middle-school conceptualists he'll be sharing space with from November to January at Barnsley's renowned Civic building—Baker does all his own grunt work. Plus, his stuff makes even Hirst's ethically questionable spectacles (think: dissected shark) seem quaint and self-serving. Not only does he eschew traditional tools in lieu of openFrameworks, C, C++, Max/MSP, Java, Processing, and a host of other computer languages and programs, his work has nearly nothing to do with Christopher Baker's ego and everything to do with exploring the myriad ways we communicate.

Exhibit A: Hello World! or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise, the one piece he's already slotted for the Franklin Art Works show. Projections of online video diaries—thousands, from all over the planet—completely cover a long white wall. From a distance, aesthetic muscle favors the ever-changing mosaic of faces and the gentle cacophany of 5,000-plus voices digitally wrangled into harmoniousness. But approach more closely and you can't help but start seeing individuals—individuals expressing pretty much every conceivable emotion, from anguish to joy. Some lay their souls downright bare. Some favor closeups so tight you can see the curve of their contact lenses. Others, often angry, keep the camera at finger-pointing distance. Linger with the installation for a little while and it's impossible not to find common ground with somebody in it.

Baker specializes in combining high-tech inventiveness with aesthetic appeal. In his piece Murmur Study, shown at the Weisman Museum last month, he lined up on a wall 30 thermal printers that each spewed a narrow stream of paper, on which were printed Twitter updates from around the world. The installation created a paper waterfall that cascaded onto the floor—a reminder of the reams of personal and often emotional data that is all publicly available. In another work, Radio Sub Rosa, Baker endowed a sweet little teddy-bear plush toy with text-to-speech software, so that whenever the bear's tummy was pushed, it spoke words snatched from romance chat-room conversations culled from the internet.

Much of the artist's prowess at turning code into catharsis comes from his previous day gig. Growing up in St. Louis, Baker adroitly juggled his mutual loves—art, music, and science—until well into high school, when he got what, at the time, he considered a wake-up call.

"After comparing my inadequate pencil rendering skills to a 'kid' in my art class (I swear he was actually in his mid-20s, and that always pissed me off, because I felt like he was cheating) who could create the most amazing M.C. Escher-esque drawings, I concluded that I would never be able to succeed as a professional artist," he writes.

Senior year saw Baker's temporary fate sealed when he copped his school's "most outstanding physics student of the year" trophy. "This indicated clearly (in my mind)," he writes, "that I was well-equipped for inescapable success in the field of research science (whatever that was)." After earning a B.S. in biomedical engineering from St. Louis University, he came to the U of M and received his master's in 2004. Not long after he started working on his Ph.D. (also at the U), Baker started feeling cracks in his career plan.

"Almost immediately I knew something about the whole scene wasn't right for me," he writes.

"The intense, nuanced focus required to carry out scientific research was nothing like I expected. It left very little room for questioning the foundations of science itself (science requires a huge amount of faith in the validity of previous research and in many cases, assumptions), let alone questioning the glorified social construction surrounding science and medicine. While working with human subjects (a term that continues to irk me a bit) at UCLA, I really began to question things like the strange power dynamic between patients and doctors and between scientists and 'laypeople.' The fact that I could, as a green researcher, don a white lab coat, walk into an ailing patient's room, hook them up to some of our machines, and have their full respect and trust, left me very uncomfortable." Rather than condemn himself to a potentially untenable vocation, Baker switched disciplines.

In the year-plus since he got his master of fine arts in experimental and media arts from the U, Baker's career has blown up in ways no scientist under 40 could ever hope for (not counting chemical or nuclear mishaps). To wit: He might be the first artist with less than two post-school years under his belt to have work shown alongside Hirst's. His m.o. is already changing, as he moves from projection-intensive installations toward a more physical approach first broached this summer with the Cronenberg-esque cell-phone installation Human Phantom Vibration Syndrome. The piece, which plays on the recently discovered affliction in which people claim to feel their cell phones vibrating even when they're not, hooked together scores of vibrating cell phones in a kinetic sculpture that electronically melded their vibrating sounds into an otherwordly hum. But his newer work still carries the focus and rigor of his old discipline, and his emphasis on clarity and mutual understanding—especially whenever the info superhighway enters the picture.

And while Baker supports network neutrality—keeping the internet as free as possible from telecom and cable-companies' influence and restrictions—he justifiably insists that we take responsibility along with all the apparently free stuff.

"People need to stop thinking of the internet as a magical ether that creeps freely into their homes from their neighbor's wi-fi," he writes, "and start realizing that the internet—even with all of its wondrous magical potential—requires huge amounts of infrastructure, energy, and labor to keep everyone connected. We rarely see images of the massive data centers full of computers, cords, air-conditioning units, etc. Every Google search has a cost."

Dancing Across the Screen

By Caroline Palmer

Mifa Ko in Solo: 1x2, photo by V. Paul Virtucio

THE ACT OF MAKING dance, particularly solo work, is intense and intimate. Long hours of rehearsal are filled with experimentation, trial and error, perhaps conflict. There are always artistic, as well as personal, high and lows. We rarely see this give-and-take shared by choreographer and dancer, except when a filmmaker is invited behind the scenes. For two years, local director Bob Hammel tracked six recipients of the McKnight Fellowship in Dance as they worked with six choreographers to develop specially commissioned solo pieces. Their experiences shape Hammel's first feature film, SOLO: 1 X 2, created with his family—writer Michele Blanchard and editor Caitlin Hammel of Perimeter Productions. The Southern Theater will host a pre-release screening later this month.

Hammel first encountered dance by reading the influential Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt's columns during the 1970s. He became a regular audience member, served on the Southern's board, and partnered on dance-related video projects. When Mary Ellen Childs, the McKnight fellowship administrator at the Southern, heard that Hammel was looking for a new endeavor, she suggested he focus on the artists paired up in the McKnight program. The idea became a film that closely examines the individual and shared creative process. Now Childs is executive producer and composer, and Jowitt, as well as other dance-world notables such as Douglas Dunn, have lent their insights on camera.

"Mary Ellen set up a meeting with the dancers and eventually everybody came on board, although some were more reluctant than others," recalls Hammel. "We just started filming and following their lives as they went along." Working with twelve artists in three states and two countries was difficult, but writing and editing has proven even trickier because there are so many stories to unpack and interweave. "It became my job to figure out a structure," Blanchard says. "We have to keep track of all these people." The filmmakers identified an overall theme about risk-taking, but it means something different for each dancer as they explore new artistic territory. They also confront common daily challenges like long rehearsals, teaching classes, dealing with injuries, and struggling to find time for personal relationships. Hammel filmed everyone at work and home to show their multifaceted lives.

While the film portrays the sacrifice of time and body, it spotlights the passion for artistic growth that keeps the dancers' souls engaged. Colette Illarde, for example, traveled to Madrid to work with flamenco choreographer Manuel Reyes Maya, and caused a small commotion at his school when the local film crew arrived. "Now everyone knows there's a dance scene in Minneapolis, that there is flamenco somewhere other than Spain," she says enthusiastically. Illarde also wants the film to show "not only am I serious about my dance but I'm also serious about the other things that I do. I hope that they appreciate all the hard work that it takes to make a name in flamenco. There's a lot that has to go in there to make it true, and I try to follow that path."

Tamara Nadel worked with mentors Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy from Ragamala Dance to learn more about the expressive aspect of Bharatanatyam dance. "It's the deepest, most intricate work that we do," she explains, but she did not have an opportunity to perform it before receiving the fellowship. The film, she continues, allows others to learn more about Bharatanatyam. "The most important thing for me is to give people an idea of what we do. I [found] myself talking a lot about depth, emotional content, rhythmic intricacy, everything that goes into the form that most people don't know."

Like Nadel, Laura Selle Virtucio appreciated the opportunity to speak up despite the sometimes "unnerving" experience of having a camera present during her rehearsals with New York-based choreographer Colleen Thomas. Hammel "helped me find words for what I do," says Virtucio. "I don't feel like I'm a very verbal person, so to talk about my process, and my life, and how that was relating to the piece I was making—it brought up new information for me." So too for Karla Grotting, who traveled to New York City to work with Max Pollak, creator of Rumba Tap. "Bob asked questions that informed the process and made me think about things in a new way. He laughed so easily it helped to put everything into perspective." The film contrasts Grotting's efforts to master Pollak's innovative choreography with her life as a soccer mom. At one point she's seen dropping into a deep plié while playing catch with her son. "Very few people in my community have seen what I do," she observes. "But my dance community, they know exactly what my life is like."

The filmmaking process wasn't without its hazards for Hammel and the artists. Abdo Sayegh traveled to Montreal to work with Gioconda Barbuto. She was a lead dancer with Minnesota Dance Theatre, where Sayegh is artistic associate, during the 1970s, and the two met recently when she returned to set a work. "I like Bob. We all adore Bob. But there were times when I would say, 'Bob, get out of the way,'" Sayegh explains. "It was an especially intense process, especially at the end. He was dancing with us in the studio. He would put the camera in my face and I would just run over him." Sometimes technology must yield to creative momentum.

Sayegh enjoyed a particularly deep connection with Barbuto—she interviewed him for several hours, drew out childhood stories, and wrote lists of words to inspire gestures. "She never felt intrusive. She felt like a friend you can tell anything to," says Sayegh, adding that the process confirmed for him that dancing requires a deep emotional commitment. "It takes courage to be onstage doing something without words, just using your body as a communication tool. I think the purpose of dance is irrelevant if people are unmoved by it." He hopes that in the film people will see "humanity, humbleness, and real people working hard."

Mifa Ko came to a similar realization as Sayegh. Based in Fort Lauderdale, Ko worked with Jerry Opdenaker at the now-defunct Ballet Florida to create a classical ballet solo from Swan Lake. The film "made me think more about why I'm doing this piece, why I pursued it for so many years," she explains. "I want people to understand why I spend so many hours, have so many pains in my body, all the energy and time and effort expended—it's just because you want to create something beautiful. It may be kind of a selfish approach, but behind that there's the reason I want to be true to myself. It's how I want to live, and if that shows through I will be happy."

And so will the filmmakers behind Solo: 1 X 2

SOLO: 1 X 2 screens on FRIDAY AND SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25 AND 26, at 8 p.m. at the SOUTHERN THEATER; 612.340.1725,