Walker’s Performing Arts program
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A performer wearing a short white wig stands flexing their muscles triumphantly on a red, foggy backlit stage. They hold a tall stick with a colonial wig on the top. Several skulls are on the ground.
Ligia Lewis, A Plot / A Scandal. Photo: Moritz Freudenberg.

With one of the most active and influential contemporary performing arts programs in the United States, the Walker is known internationally for presenting boundary-breaking work that showcases global, national, and Minnesota-based performing artists.

In addition to curating a robust program of some of the most forward-thinking dance, theater, music, and hybrid performance of our time, the Walker’s Performing Arts program nurtures artistic creation by commissioning and actively developing new work. The Walker regularly provides other vital types of support for performing and interdisciplinary artists, such as artistic guidance, production and developmental residencies in our state-of-the-art McGuire Theater, national tour advocacy, and a wide range of technical and curatorial assistance.

Originally a visual art museum, the Walker became a multidisciplinary art center in the 1940s and has actively supported contemporary performance since the 1960s. In 1970, the Walker was one of the first art centers in the world to fully establish a separate curatorial department (and production staff) dedicated to contemporary performing arts and helped establish now-common national practices, such as commissioning work from leading artists and providing in-depth artistic and developmental residencies. In addition to the international artists it serves, the Walker has long played a critical role in supporting the Twin Cites’ robust contemporary performing art ecosystem.

In recent years, the Performing Arts program has been particularly committed to 1) the increasingly blurred lines between artistic disciplines, including contemporary dance, experimental theater, performance art, new music-theater, avant-jazz, contemporary classical, and alternative rock and pop; 2) the expanding global nature of its programming, in recognition of the innovations taking place outside of North America and Europe; 3) developing innovative audience engagement strategies that have been influential nationally; and 4) extensive collaborations with community partners, which help to engage thousands of residents living in the Twin Cities’ diverse neighborhoods in the creation and performance of new work.

Since the 1960s, the Walker has supported the creation of new performance work by providing artists with financial support and often other resources such as space, time, and technical or curatorial expertise. By commissioning performance work, the Walker is able to play an active role in encouraging performing artists to expand their practice, forge new types of collaborations, and/or realize works at a scale or complexity that would not otherwise be possible. To date, the Walker has commissioned more than 260 new works by some of the most influential performing artists of our time, including:

  • Alwin Nikolais, Vaudeville of the Elements (1965)
  • Trisha Brown Dance Company, Glacial Decoy (1979)
  • Robert Wilson/David Byrne, The Knee Plays (1984)
  • Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Fabrications (1987)
  • Lee Breuer/Bob Telson, The Gospel at Colonus (1987)
  • Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Still/Here (1994)
  • Meredith Monk, The Politics of Quiet (1998)
  • Ralph Lemon, How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere? (2004)
  • Sarah Michelson, Daylight (for Minneapolis) (2005)
  • Cynthia Hopkins, Must Don’t Whip ’Em (2007)
  • Eiko & Koma, Naked (2008)
  • Young Jean Lee, Untitled Feminist Show (2012)
  • Ragamala Dance/Rudresh Mahanthappa, Song of the Jasmine (2014)
  • Maria Hassabi, STAGING (2017)

Throughout its history, the Walker has championed artists (Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Wooster Group, Ralph Lemon, and Sarah Michelson, among many others) who have been involved in the purposeful blurring of distinctions between artistic disciplines. As one of five collaborative programming areas within the Walker (along with visual art, moving image, design, and education), the Performing Arts department at the Walker is uniquely situated to offer unparalleled opportunities for the support and presentation of interdisciplinary work.

To this end, the Walker has mounted numerous dance-related exhibitions, including Art Performs Life: Merce Cunnigham, Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones (1998); Trisha Brown: So that the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing (2008); Eiko & Koma’s Naked (2010); and Merce Cunningham: Common Time (2017), each of which had in-depth catalogues published by the Walker. In recent years, the Walker has acquired for the collections key works created by performing artists, including pieces by Meredith Monk, Ralph Lemon, Trisha Brown, and Cynthia Hopkins, and in 2012 the Walker acquired the comprehensive collection—more than 4,000 distinct work—of sets, props, and costumes from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

From its earliest days, the Walker encouraged the creation of site-specific productions by performing artists, including works by Grand Union, Trisha Brown, Ann Carlson, Reza Abdoh, Joanna Haigood, Rimini Protokoll, and Bill T. Jones. In 2008, the Walker produced Merce Cunningham’s monumental Ocean in the bottom of a giant granite quarry outside of St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The Performing Arts department also works closely with artists to place performance in the Walker’s galleries, public spaces, and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in order to further encourage conversation between art forms. Recent examples include works by Maria Hassabi, Faustin Linyekula, David Zambrano, Eiko & Koma, BodyCartography Project, and Alessandro Sciarroni.

The Walker has hosted hundreds of artist residencies throughout the course of its history. Since 2005, the William and Nadine McGuire Theater has served as the home of performing arts at the Walker; featuring a stage size and technological capacity normally found in venues twice as big, the McGuire provides a vital research and development space for new works, expanding the Walker’s ability to commission and support the development of innovative performances, and foster new collaborative relationships among moving image, new media, visual, and performing artists. In addition, the Walker Performing Arts department hosts community-based residencies that include workshops, discussions, receptions, site visits, and other opportunities for artists to connect with local audiences.

As a leading national force since its founding, the Walker Art Center’s Performing Arts department has been built successfully on a foundation laid by five visionary directors and a level of institutional commitment to live performing arts rare for a contemporary arts center.

The Walker began presenting local dance, poetry, and chamber music concerts in 1940. In 1953, the volunteer-staffed Center Arts Council (CAC) was formed to organize a wider range of performances and film screenings. Out of CAC grew the Center Opera Company in 1963 (later the Minnesota Opera Company), led by John Ludwig and dedicated primarily to contemporary American opera and unique collaborations between opera and visual artists. By the time it disbanded in 1970, the CAC had already presented Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1963) and established Walker Art Center’s first performing arts commissions with Dominick Argento’s Masque of Angels (1964) and Alwin Nikolais’s Vaudeville of the Elements (1965). Performing Arts was officially designated as a department in 1970, with Suzanne Weil serving as coordinator until 1976.

Throughout the 1970s, the department sponsored events in a range of venues around the Twin Cities, increasing the visibility of contemporary dance, new music, jazz, and experimental theater and hosting an array of pop, rock, and folk concerts. Weil increased annual presentations from fewer than 100 in the mid-1960s to more than 200 annual presentations by the early 1970s. She launched significant program initiatives and established key relationships with a range of artists now considered masters—Merce Cunningham, Mabou Mines, Philip Glass, Twyla Tharp, Meredith Monk, and others—many that continue today. Weil also designed elaborate residencies and laid the foundation for what would become an active commissioning program, both of which served as national models for the field.

Nigel Redden assumed the directorship in 1976 and further solidified the Walker’s growing national reputation by producing major festivals such as the M-80: No Wave/New Wave rock festival (1979), New Music America (1980), and New Dance USA (1981). He helped establish the Twin Cities as a vital center for noncommercial composed, experimental, and avant-garde music through his collaboration with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which cosponsored the long-running Perspectives Series. His major commissions for Trisha Brown (Glacial Decoy, 1979) and Richard Foreman (City Archives, 1977) were early indicators of directions the program would take in the disciplines of dance and theater.

Commissioning activity and support of artist residencies grew during Robert Stearns’s six-year tenure, which began in 1982. He launched a number of large-scale, nationally significant theatrical projects, including David Byrne/Robert Wilson’s The Knee Plays (1984) and Lee Breuer/Robert Telson’s epic The Gospel at Colonus (1983). He also began two long-standing collaborative series—Discover: New Directions in Performance (with Northrop Auditorium) and Out There (with the Southern Theater) in 1989—and, with former Walker film curator Melinda Ward, helped develop the national public television program Alive from Off Center (1985–1997).

John Killacky assumed leadership of the department in 1988, and the following year his position was retitled curator of Performing Arts. Despite declines in national funding that began to negatively impact all arts organizations in the mid-1990s, Killacky’s years marked a time of greater engagement with the local artistic community (Imp Ork, Patrick Scully, Shawn McConneloug), more international programming, and continued support for major artists of the Walker’s history. A commitment to provocative, identity-based performance work, which was central to the times, included memorable (and controversial) evenings with Ron Athey, Diamanda Galás, Karen Finley, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco.

In 1997, Philip Bither became curator and focused departmental energies toward a renewed interest in contemporary music (jazz, avant-rock, and new music), experimental puppetry, and community-based artist residencies (Bill T. Jones, Liz Lerman, Joanna Haigood, and others). The department’s global programming and the commissioning of large-scale theater and dance projects were further emphasized, including Builders Association/motiroti’s Alladeen (2003), Improbable Theatre’s The Hanging Man (2004), and Ralph Lemon’s complete Geography trilogy, which concluded with Come home Charley Patton (2005). In 1999, the Walker was awarded a $1.5 million program endowment grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, dramatically increasing its ability to make long-range commitments and fund the early development of new works. In 2004, William and Nadine McGuire contributed $10 million in support of commissioning performing arts projects and for construction of a state-of-the-art theater designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which bears their name, ensuring a permanent home for contemporary performing artists at the Walker.

Key artists who Bither has commissioned at the Walker have included Bang on a Can All Stars, Lee Breuer/Mabou Mines, Ornette Coleman, Eiko & Koma, Elevator Repair Service, Tim Etchells/Forced Entertainment, Dan Graham, Maria Hassabi, Cynthia Hopkins, Bill T. Jones, Young Jean Lee, Ralph Lemon, Robert Lepage, Richard Maxwell, Sarah Michelson, Meredith Monk, Jason Moran, Shirin Neshat, Sufjan Stevens, and more than 100 others.

Bither has also been committed to the development of the Twin Cities–based dance and performance communities through the expansion of Choreographers’ Evening, the launching and continued development of the Momentum Dance Festival with partner organizations in the community, and a wide range of full evening commissions and national advocacy for such artists as Joe Chvala, HIJACK, Emily Johnson, Chris Larson, Ragamala Dance, Chris Schlichting, Karen Sherman, Michael Sommers, Morgan Thorson, and dozens of others.

Additionally, Bither has helped pave the way for the performing arts-related exhibitions Art Performs Life (1998), Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing (2008), Naked by Eiko & Koma (2010); Scaffold Room by Ralph Lemon (2014), three major commissions with Sarah Michelson, and multiple performance acquisitions, including the expansive Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection of sets, props, costumes, and ephemera. This acquisition led to his co-curation of the Walker-wide exhibition Merce Cunningham: Common Time (2017) and its associated dance commissions, residencies, concerts, and related performances.