Open windows


I wear many hats as a worker in the arts profession: director, actor, scenic designer, builder, administrator, manager, grant writer, marketer, and more. I’ve been in the arts world for a while now—27 years of continuous work as a professional — beginning with a small town upbringing in Albert Lea, then quitting university in the “big city” (the “Mini-Apple”) to pursue professional mentorship/training overseas (Paris 1981-83), followed by stumbling through a career over the years while amassing myriad life and art experiences (through 2 continents, 5 countries, 13 cities, and 34 apartments/dwellings)—until finally falling off the caboose of life’s train, joyously delirious and roughed up, here in Minneapolis once again (1998).

I’m 49 years old, and while I certainly haven’t seen everything, I’ve seen a lot. I know what I like. I like what I do. And, let’s be frank, I do it, in some part, because I prefer it to other ways of doing things—and that without doubt colors my judgment of artistic work.

So I judge performing arts experiences based on my personal experience, as a person and as an artist—what I’ve lived and what I’ve seen. When I choose to see a show/event/exhibition as an audience member I expect these things:

  1. Effort(to sense the personal desire, passion, need of the artists)
  2. Attention to Detail (whether improvised or planned, I expect HARD work, whether made to look easy, or hard to look at)
  3. Acknowledgement of the Audience (giving, sharing, communicating—I expect an equal or surpassing value for my time and money)
  4. Selflessness (what talent you have is a gift, share it)
  5. Wisdom (know who you are, where you’re at, where you’re going, what you’re giving)
  6. Transcendence (shocking or insulting us is easy, while eliciting an experience that allows us to transcend is much, much more difficult, and way more valuable to all)

Shards of inspiration

I don’t see nearly the work that I’d like because—as many arts professionals will admit—I’m working all the time. The list of artists in this town I haven’t seen—and the list of those who haven’t seen Off-Leash Area—is long. So I often go back to arts events in my past for inspiration, drawing off experiences that have resonated throughout my life, that have fed and continue to feed me. These include:

Retrospectives of Polish fiber sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz’s pods, walls, and mechanics, and American artist Joseph Cornell’s surrealist boxes; watching plaster dust fall upon Peter Brook’s Cherry Orchard at the crumbling Bouffes du Nord; jumping the turnstiles and hiding out in the snooty balcony suites of the Opera de Paris to see Georgio Strehler’s riotous and spirited Piccolo Teatro de Milan (all in the early 1980’s in Paris); the formal brilliance and depth of humanity in the drawing/film animations of William Kentridge; and Marina Abramovic’s naked men/women underneath skeletons and impaled to walls (fabulously provocative images, far stronger than the didactic political/emotional rants more typical of performance art) in this year’s MOMA retrospectives; and others.

Here in the Twin Cities, the one performance in the last twenty years that has continued to inspire me beyond all others is from Emio Greco & PC, an Italian/Belgian choreographer/scenic designer collaboration, whose first performance in Minneapolis, Extra Dry, ripped through the Walker in April 2001. The performance examined how humans are torn between the head and the body. The choreography viscerally explored that tearing, and the dancers were surrounded on three sides by an enormously high gold lamé fabric, mysterious not only for how it held them inside but for what might be behind it, hinted at throughout. The costumes were a kind of cheesecloth, which, with the physical demands of the performances, gradually became transparent when drenched with sweat. The two dancers were, of course, hot.

It was a tour de force of physical endurance, thrillingly detailed choreography, stunningly simple scenic design, driving music, and buckets of sweat—exhausting, sexual, and spiritual. (Their second appearance, Hell, commissioned by the Walker, seemed lazy and weighed down by clever ideas and organizational success.) This first appearance was, in a word, vital. It was as unconditional an example of human desire, effort, accomplishment, and existential joy/abandon as I’ve ever seen on stage.


This year, no less powerful, although quite different in approach and result, was local dancer/choreographer John Munger’s solo performance, Wrath at the latest installment of Renovate, the Ritz Theatre/Ballet of the Dolls version of the Walker's “Choreographers’ Evening."

John is an open window. Or, rather, he has achieved open window-ness.

By that I mean that he’s a mature guy, a mature artist, and what he does comes across with great ease, grace, generosity, faith, and skill. There is an acknowledgement of the audience, attention to detail, and selflessness, certainly. But more: I think John is in his sixties now, a tough age for a dancer, but John brings forth through his physical performances a wisdom and humor that only someone who’s lived for a while (or some young mistake of nature, like Picasso or Baryshnikov) can offer an audience.

John isn’t Picasso, but he is a genuine artist—not just someone with a degree or agenda. He is post-postmodern in that his movement and presence are strangely easy and quotidian, with an air of knowing, yet we can also sense the effort, the passion he has to show us something new through performance. He’s not interested in representing reality or daily life. Why would anyone pay $15, $30, $50 to see someone pretend they don’t have talent or skill, pretend to “not dance” or “not perform”? Most of us do that all day long, day in and day out, all our lives. People go to the arts to have an extra-ordinary experience, a more-than-everyday life experience, transcendence and John gives it to them with grace, a wink, a jab in the ribs, a laugh, and a kind of sorrow. By no means is John ready for the River Styx, but he reminds us it’s there, and that sooner or later we’re going to get our feet wet, too.

Here’s to John and open windows—there are enough closed doors in life.


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Hennepin Avenue Nightmares

See it this week at Phoenix Theatre in Minneapolis. Presented by Ghoulish Delights and Paradox Productions.

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Erin Denman

Erin Denman

Erin Denman performs in Coast of Utopia Staged Reading playing at Phoenix Theater this month.

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