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20 Years of Out There

By Matt Peiken

January can be to the performing arts as the midnight hours are to television—repositories for the weird, the risky, and ultimately, test patterns. In that vein, nobody knew what to expect in 1989, when the Walker Art Center and Southern Theater defrosted their January calendars by clustering a program of new, experimental, and under-the radar work.

Today, the Out There series is an annual bedrock of the Walker’s performing arts season—four weekends of artists who fuse theater, movement, music, and multimedia and, in the process, broaden and redefine the meaning of performance while encouraging audiences to see beyond potentially audience-repelling tags such as “abstract” and “inaccessible.” Out There has become a trusted, respected channel for both artists and audiences to some of the world’s most cutting-edge work, and the series has catapulted a number of artists from obscurity to international demand.

The 20th Out There features four artists new to the series and bows to its roots of faith in the unknown. New York choreographer Miguel Gutierrez and his ensemble, the Powerful People, open the festival January 9 through 12. Following weekends introduce New Yorkers the TEAM, performance/visual artist Claude Wampler, and the upstart choreographer David Neumann.

“This series has tried to track the most interesting discoveries we can make in contemporary performance,” says Philip Bither, the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts. “Unless there are American institutions willing to take chances on these artists, we really risk losing this great creative part of our culture.”

Cynthia Hopkins, a New York-based artist who creates hybrids of theater and music, embodies the impact this series makes with artists and audiences. After bringing Accidental Nostalgia to Out There in 2005, the Walker commissioned a sequel from Hopkins, who premiered Must Don’t Whip ‘Um at the 2007 Out There. She is working with Walker curators to complete and stage her trilogy in the McGuire Theater.

“Without the support of institutions like the Walker, I couldn’t make the work that I make,” Hopkins says, mentioning both funding and the physical and technical requirements the institution fulfills in order for her to create work. In turn, she says, appearing through Out There has brought her critical attention and invitations from other performing arts centers throughout the country.

“More important than that is the moral support—it’s psychologically uplifting,” she says. “Part of the benefit of an institution like the Walker that’s very well established is it has an audience that’s been built up and trusts the choices Philip makes. His support, in a way, is an endorsement.”

Out There premiered as a collaboration between the Walker and the Southern Theater, with avant-garde performance artists Rachel Rosenthal and David Cale highlighting a two-weekend festival that closed with cabaret-style evenings featuring a carousel of Twin Cities performers. Two years later, the program expanded to four weekends and became a beacon for some of America’s most intriguing emerging artists.

“I realized there wasn’t much programming in January, and I thought that’s probably when people most need to go out,” recalls John Killacky, Bither’s predecessor at the Walker, who is now with the San Francisco Foundation. “Jeff [Bartlett, the Southern’s founding director] said, ‘Why don’t we do something really out there?’ I thought, ‘Hmm … out there.’ “

Composer Mary Ellen Childs had only recently formed her first percussion ensemble when she took part with other local artists in the first Out There. Even then, she recalls, artists shared the sense of taking part in something special. Childs and her ensemble, Crash, produced a larger piece for the 1999 Out There, and she recently produced a 20-year retrospective at the Southern Theater.

“I loved to be seen as ‘out there,’ because that’s one of the things I love to toy with, whatever the edges are for me,” she says. “I present my work in a lot of different places, but I love being able to claim I was presented at the Walker. For audiences, it’s definitely a stamp of approval—it heightens your artistic credibility and integrity.”

Minneapolis theater artist Michael Sommers remembers a charged atmosphere in the early years of the series. He emceed and performed in the opening festival (the Minneapolis Star-Tribune called him “a performance art festival unto himself”), took the stage the following year with the experimental performance trio Bad Jazz, and again in the 1993 Out There in a production from Ballet of the Dolls. Sommers, now the artistic director of Open Eye Figure Theater, and other local artists watch Out There perhaps more closely than any other series produced through the Walker. He points to the workshops and encourages these opportunities for interaction between visiting and local artists and the community.

“Twenty years ago, we were so young, and we thought everything we did was great, but things have changed and even our notion of what is new has changed,” Sommers says. “What’s great about Philip is he’s bringing in things you wouldn’t normally see, things that really are on the edge, and I think the artistic community is really grateful for that.”

Today, Bither says, Out There is “a survey of the most interesting work we can find,” wherever it resides. Under his direction, the series has trained its lens on New York and Europe, fostering artistic development, continued relationships, and new work from Hopkins, Richard Maxwell, and Big Dance Theater, among other vanguard luminaries. Some Out There artists have been invited back for residencies to develop new work or premiere Walker commissions.

Out There has cultivated an audience open to the unpredictable and undefinable, Bither says, and success isn’t measured at the box office or in the next day’s newspaper. Many artists invited into this series “are working ahead of their time,” and it may take years for their influence to show up in the arts at large.

“We take great care to provide an informed, supportive audience, and many Out There shows sell out. But audience response and even most critical response is not the primary indication, to me, of artistic value,” Bither says. “We believe that certain ideas and innovations in art need to be supported, and this series allows us to introduce an artist to an audience and also to us, as curators. I hope Out There always continues to be a place where we can take these chances.”

  • Matt Peiken, Walker managing editor

Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People, Everyone

Photo: Alex Escalante