More than the Beat: Choreographers' Evening 2014
Skip to main content
Fourth Wall

More than the Beat: Choreographers' Evening 2014


Top photo, left to right: Wealthy Phonseya (INC), Travis Johnson (INC), Blake Nellis, Deneane Richburg, Lisa Berman (INC), Madeline Howie (INC), Taja Will, and Darrius Strong (STRONGmovement). Bottom photo, left to right: Arturo Miles (INC), Renée Copeland (INC), Joseph Tran (INC), Tonya Williams, Cheng Xiong (INC), Deja Stowers, Junauda Petrus, and Canaan Mattson. Not pictured: Kendra Dennard, Aneka McMullen (INC), and Ashley R.T. Yergens. Photo: Gene Pittman

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, dance artist Rae Charles shares her perspective on Choreographers’ Evening 2014. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

When I heard that beloved artist, educator, and community advocate Kenna-Camara Cottman would be curating this year’s Choreographers’ Evening at the Walker, I knew she had a daunting task ahead of her. For an artist of color to be asked to present their personal aesthetic in such a privileged space, the honor was not without immense responsibility and heavy baggage. I’m sure the curatorial process is never a cakewalk, but for Kenna, this journey had to come with the deep reckoning that any “minority” (POC, differently-abled, Trans, queer, female, etc.) artist has confronted at one time or another: How do I represent myself? How and with whom do I identify?

These questions of representation are in fact universal, but diverse artists will tell you that we pay a special tax. There is the burden of gatekeeping, of tokenism—being that one privileged voice asked to speak for all of your kind. Decision-making becomes bogged down when one honestly faces that they may be the example, the experiment. Will there be another black curator? Will diverse artists have another chance like this to be presented and aesthetically valued?

Let me put this another way:

As a young child growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I was not only the sole black student, but often the only black girl in most of my classrooms and activities. I hated February and any discussion of U.S. history for without fail, the buck would be passed to me. What did I think about slavery? Was my grandmother in the Civil Rights movement? Do all black people laugh like that? What is up with black women and your hair?! And on and on. All heads would spin, eyes stare, and ears open as their inquiry suffocated me in its spotlight. Alternately innocent or offensive, always ignorant, these types of questions haunted me through my college years. The responsibility to be the one voice communicating the diversity of my entire race in white spaces was paralyzing.

You can imagine my relief when I saw that this was not so for Kenna and the artists she chose to present at this year’s Choreographers’ Evening. At the 9:30 pm Choreographer’s Evening performance on November 29, I witnessed 10 choreographers and countless supporting artists refusing to be frozen. Unlike most Choreographers’ Evenings, this year’s evening rode an arc of cohesion as it revealed themes of triumph and defiance. Gone was the disjointed variety show featuring the curator’s “Top 10,” instead was a unified vision making a bold and relevant statement—a feat I attribute to Cottman’s curatorial prowess.

The evening was as timely as it was clear in its statement, forcing the audience to acknowledge the zeitgeist seizing hold of our nation this past week. The grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for his shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown has ignited fervent rage and protesting beyond the city limits of Ferguson, Missouri. A new generation has awoken and arisen all over this country. We are no longer blinded by the promises of a  “post-racial society” or content with what our fore-parents accomplished. There is still work to be done, and we are determined to wail, and shout, and stand until it is finished. A clear takeaway from Saturday’s performance is the importance of artists’ role in this work and their willingness to do it.

Artists are often first responders, the canary in the mines, each singing their own song of alarm. The night’s shining star was a work by Darrius Strong of (Strong Movement) entitled Piece by Piece. Alongside four other dancers, including the powerful and captivating Ashley Akpaka, Strong charges through space summoning a collective spirit as he shows a community in breakdown. Religiously implicit motifs suggests a ceremony of induction as the group shifts between altruistic care for its members and almost cannibalistic violence upon itself, showcasing the best and worst of what happens when we all come together.

Less literal but equally relevant was Significant Nothings, choreographed and performed by Canaan Mattson. Mattson is an entrancing, gooey, and technical mover—able to organically shift through disciplines and seamlessly juggle maintaining the intimacy of his work while still inviting us in to witness the magnificent beauty of a young black man. For the work’s second section, Mattson forgoes recorded music and is joined by vocalist Eric Nordstrom onstage. Nordstrom happens to white, and as he steps on stage in his all black suit the contrast between himself and young Mattson donned in all white, is stark. The visual arithmetic is unavoidable if not intentional and for a moment, my breath caught as I watched these two young men share space and produce creativity rather than destroy life. To behold a young black man, as not dangerous, but beaming in his prime is a lesson our nation needs to learn.

TU Dance’s Kendra Dennard also hits literal high notes in her solo work Dancing With God. While the program notes aptly describe the work as an exploration of the fine line between love and hate, brilliance and calamity, it also resonated with my own experience of the Brown tragedy as young black woman. Brown’s and the countless other shootings in recent years are maddening and heart wrenching, not because I see myself in these men, but because I see my brother, my father, my partner, and I fear for my future sons. There is a loneliness in black women’s sorrow. We are secluded to ourselves but oh so affected. As we lose ourselves to grief, as we isolate ourselves for strength, the threads of ourselves start to fray. This is my own reading of Dennard’s work as she croons and morphs the melodies of Billie Holiday on a stage lit like a cell by a single overhead light. Dennard is beautiful yet tortured as she dances for composure, for relief, for hope—she dances for God to hear us.

From Ashley R.T. Yergens’ sassy Is this more ladylike? to Deneane Richburg’s Quiet As It’s Kept, all of the evening’s artists seemed to share a similar rebellious vision. Shucking cultural expectations, flipping the gaze, and honoring the artist’s civic duty to demand that culture face itself in the mirrors we hold up, this year’s choreographers delivered. An abundance of marginalized artists were given the opportunity to express themselves as so much more than our expectations. With metaphorical megaphones in hand, they spoke up and spoke out—not as tokens or tropes, but as authentic rich, lush, and complex individuals who truly see the world and demand to be seen. For that I say, Bravo! And thank you.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.