Walker Art Center

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Rapid Expansion
Three insiders explain why dance is thriving in the Twin Cities

How to celebrate the Twin Cities’ burgeoning dance scene? The Walker, with its nearly 40 years of support of local dance, is just one point within a sizable community, but it has played an essential, sometimes catalytic role. It is more than Momentum, the always-popular summer showcase for new voices copresented with the Southern Theater. The Walker also commissions new works from select local choreographers, providing residencies and funding. Currently, Morgan Thorson, a rising star on the national scene, is collaborating with Duluth rock band Low on a piece that will tour nationally after its spring premiere here. While the venerable Choreographers’ Evening is an annual highlight of the fall season, the Walker will also host the relatively new SAGE Dance Awards for the second time on September 23. These programs are all part of the institution’s efforts to foster a thriving community. Currently, more than 200 dance companies call Minnesota home (compared to 48 in 1989). In the Twin Cities alone, an average of nearly a dozen performances unfold on stages every weekend.

But these numbers—surprising to many—are only a surface indication of the Twin Cities’ status as “one of the key dance communities in the country,” according to John Munger, who has a unique inside/outside view as a local dancer for more than 30 years and as director of research for DanceUSA, a Washington, D.C.–based service organization. He believes that the area’s diversity of dance, combined with its relatively compact population, makes it unique among other top dance cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, and greater Washington, D.C. He notes the numerous “highly visible” twenty to fifty-something choreographers, plus a few in their sixties—and a similar age range for dance companies. “We have major mid-level and small upstart organizations working in all forms of dance—representing more than 50 nationalities and cultures.” And given the manageable size of the cities, he notes that “if you know where everybody is, you can go see any of them.”

“You can attend shows all year long, but there’s not so much of one genre that that’s all you see,” says choreographer Karen Sherman, who was featured at Momentum in 2006 and has performed at other Walker dance events since relocating to Minnesota in 2004. “I almost never see anything but contemporary dance in New York, so it’s been nice to branch out here.” But it’s not just quantity; Sherman has found that “dance artists here are truly pushing themselves. There is a desire to find one’s own voice but also to transcend it, or at least to use that voice to say something unexpected in each new project.”

While Sherman says dancers here “are aware of what is going on nationally in a way that I don’t see in other cities,” the attention goes both ways. As the director of the dance and theater departments at the University of Minnesota, Carl Flink has presented local companies for national festival audiences: “People who don’t live here keep telling me how they can’t believe the range of work we have, combined with the quality.” For Flink, who also heads Black Label Movement, the vitality of the local scene goes beyond choreographers and performers: living in a culture that values experimentation and exploration in all of its permutations has also been critical to the “explosion” of dance. Now he sees the local scene pushing outward, as Twin Cities choreographers are increasingly taking their work beyond Minnesota. “All that activity over the past three decades or so has primed the pump; the community itself has attracted enough interesting voices so that it’s all momentum now.”

Philip Bither, the Walker’s McGuire Senior Curator for the Performing Arts, agrees. “These increasing numbers of national tours by Minnesota dance-makers and their companies—especially when overall touring is in significant decline, given the financial difficulties for the arts—is a testament to the quality, tenacity, and strength of dance here. Given our long-standing commitment to this art form, it is rewarding to witness what clearly is one of the most exciting times in the history of dance in Minnesota. It is no wonder that our community now regularly attracts dancers from New York and other parts of the country.”