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Alive from Off Center

Various directors

Alive from Off Center took performance into the realm of broadcast TV, featuring groundbreaking work from a new generation of international artists working on the frontiers of comedy, dance, music, performance, and video. Selections of this classic Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA) creative collaboration include shows from the first three seasons. 1984–1987, video, 28 minutes per episode.

Episode Descriptions

101: Short Video Artworks

Short Video Artworks (1985) marked the series premiere of Alive from Off Center. In John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald’s Ear to the Ground, percussionist David Van Thieghem “plays” the city of New York as he uses everyday objects as instruments. Zbigniew Rybczynski’s The Discreet Charm of the Diplomacy depicts a cocktail party at the White House, where animals are also invited. Ringside by Michael Schwartz showcases a dance by Elizabeth Streb, followed by a futuristic music video for Laurie Anderson’s song “Sharkey’s Day.” William Wegman’s Singing Stomach features a man contorting his torso to look like a face alongside another segment of Wegman teaching a dog how to spell. Lastly, At Battersea Power Station features a performance by Sankai Juku.

103: Smothering Dreams

Smothering Dreams features an interview with video artist/sculptor Dan Reeves as well as clips from his video piece of the same title. The work juxtaposes footage from combat against shots of everyday children’s play in order to critique America’s fascination with war and violence. In the interview portion of this 1985 episode, Reeves shares his personal experiences of serving as a US marine in Vietnam during the 1960s. Smothering Dreams is dedicated to the soldiers of 3rd Platoon Company A 1st Amtrac Battalion and the North Vietnamese soldiers who died on January 20, 1969, along the Cua Viet River.

104: Comedy on Video

Artists who poke fun at the medium of television are the focus of this 1985 episode. As noted by host Susan Stamberg, Comedy on Video is highly self-reflexive since these artists not only mock commercial television but also educational television, a subgenre in which Alive from Off Center can be included. Segments include Zbigniew Rybczynski’s The Day Before, William Wegman’s Man Ray - Man Ray, “Joan Logue’s TV Commercials for Artists, and Tom Rubnitz and actress Ann Magnuson’s Made for TV.

105: Tongues

Directed by video artist Shirley Clarke, Tongues (1985) is a collaboration between playwright Sam Shepard and actor Joseph Chaikin. According to Chaikin, Tongues is about “somebody being reborn and reborn again.” In the video, Chaikin performs a monologue that addresses existential concepts such as birth, death, and rebirth in many different voices. At one point, he carries on a dialogue between two people. His performance is punctuated by the sound of percussion instruments and various visual effects. This episode also includes an interview with Clarke about her work and the medium of video by host Susan Stamberg.

201: Animation, Dance and Comedy

Season two of Alive from Off Center begins with engaging segments from 1986 that showcase state-of-the-art video technology, dance, and comedy from the period. John Sanborn and Dean Winkler demonstrate their pyrotechnics in Lumiere. Charles Atlas’s Jump, originally made for French television, is a rhythmic and visually stunning dance cabaret featuring choreography by Phillippe Decouffle with music by the Residents, a San Francisco–based avant-garde art collective. The episode concludes with works that blend performance with social satire: Doug Hall’s These Are the Rules and Teddy Dibble’s The Sound of Defiance.

205: The World of Photography

This 1986 episode marks the premiere of The World of Photography by artists William Wegman and Michael Smith. A wry spoof on instructional shows and self-improvement courses, the video features Wegman teaching Smith about the art form of photography through an uproarious series of adventures. The World of Photography was produced by the CAT Fund in association with KTCA.

206: Video Theater and Dance

Consisting of segments Visual Shuffle, Fractured Variations, and Rude Raid, this 1986 episode explores the limits of video theater and its fusion with dance. Video artists John Sanborn and Mary Perillo collaborate with choreographer Charles Moulton to create Visual Shuffle and Fractured Variations, two high-tech dances that fuse innovation electric technology with athletically charged movement. Originally produced for French television, Rude Raid creates a sophisticated electronic dance theater by placing fantastic medieval warriors in a futuristic fantasy.

207: Three Choreographers

This 1986 program showcases three dance works by American choreographers. Accumulation with Talking Plus Water Motor is a virtuosic dance in which Trisha Brown navigates telling three stories and performing two dances—all at the same time. This segment, directed by Jonathan Demme, is a coproduction between KTCA, KCET, UCLA, and the Trisha Brown Company. The haunting Caught, by the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s David Parsons, was produced for television by Roberto Romano, with music by guitarist and composer Robert Fripp. Charles Moulton’s athletic 9 Person Precision Ball Passing was directed by video artist Skip Blumberg and produced by KTCA.

303: Steps

Exploring the frontier of 1980s state-of-the-art technology, Steps (1987) by award-winning music video director Zbigniew Rybczynski takes off in an unexpected direction from the famous Odessa steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Soviet masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. Using a process he developed to combine found film images with new video, Rybczynski causes all sorts of unexpected things to happen as a group of Americans tourists show up at the Odessa steps just as the Cossacks are about to fire on the striking workers.

304: Metabolism, Geography

Metabolism, Geography, a 1987 collaboration between high-velocity choreographer Molissa Fenley and video artists John Sanborn and Mary Perillo, showcases two dance works. Moving between Arizona’s Painted Desert and an electronically enhanced dance studio, the pieces feature Fenley’s choreographic blend of postmodern, African, and athletic movement set to a dynamic interplay of sound and image.

306: Operation X

Operation X (1987) highlights a comedic collaboration between performance and video artists Mitchell Kriegman and Teddy Dibble. Conceived in the tradition of television pioneer Ernie Kovacs’s humor, Operation X presents a series of short comic vignettes woven together using the unique attributes of the television medium. Relying on conceptual and visual puns, associations, and various sound and image tricks, Kriegman and Dibble create a freshly updated homage to the early innovations of television.

308: Five Dances on Video

Five Dances on Video (1987) showcases modern dance pieces made for television and film that push the physical boundaries of performance. In Air Dance Landings, Elizabeth Streb wears a white leotard and is filmed against a black background as she appears to dance through the air. In New Puritan’s Dance, Michael Clark and others dance to the songs “Ludde Gang” and “Copped It” performed by the British post-punk band the Fall and filmed by filmmaker Charles Atlas. The Daytime Moon, which was produced by Sandy Smolan and Ethan Hoffman for the Minnesota Opera Company, features choreography by Japanese Butoh choreographer Min Tanaka and soundtrack by composer Libby Larsen.

309: Ellis Island

This 1987 episode of Alive from Off Center opens with a prologue by performance artist Laurie Anderson followed by artist-choreographer Meredith Monk’s film about Ellis Island. Set to haunting music and vocals, Ellis Island features present-day color footage of the site combined with black-and-white shots that take viewers into its past, as the experiences of American immigrants are expressed through dance and re-created in a manner that merges imagination with history.

310: Women of the Calabash

This energetic 1987 program features the Women of the Calabash, an all-female percussion and vocal ensemble who perform with calabashes. Reviving traditional African rhythms infused with contemporary Latin American, Caribbean, and African American sounds, the group creates a blend of melodic harmonies to express the beauty of a rich and vital cultural heritage. Skip Blumberg, an early video artist, directed this episode that includes short dance pieces by choreographers whose performances take place in unusual environments: Pooh Kaye and Elizabeth Ross Wingate’s Sticks on the Move and Dee McCandless and Gene Menger’s Aquamirabilis.