Dancing in the Dark
Is Morgan Thorson the best choreographer you’ve never heard of?
THREE DANCERS SHUFFLE FROM the back of the stage to the front, their arms stretched before them, their palms turned up toward the heavens in supplication. Two other dancers spin from left to right, weaving between them. In the corners of the stage, more dancers wave their arms loosely, twisting their torsos as though they are having a walking seizure. ¶ They are rehearsing Heaven, the latest full-length piece from Minneapolis choreographer Morgan Thorson, which will be performed at the Walker Art Center this month. When they take a break, it’s as if they have returned to earth, chatting and checking their cell phones as they wander the halls of the Barbara Barker Center for Dance at the University of Minnesota. Thorson then takes to the stage alone, spinning, stopping, starting again, adding or subtracting gestures even though the piece already premiered months ago to rave reviews.
Thorson’s perfectionism helped inspire Heaven. “Part of the [artistic] process is to always be approaching perfection, if never attaining it,” she says. “I was curious about the notion of paradise as a manifestation of something perfect.”
Her obsession is also starting to pay off. In 2008, Thorson was named the Twin Cities’ best choreographer by City Pages, and last fall began a yearlong McKnight Choreographer Fellowship. She draws commissions from top arts institutions around the country. Philip Bither, the performing-arts curator at the Walker Art Center, calls Thorson “a great example of someone who has developed locally and become nationally recognized.”
In fact, Thorson is just the latest of several contemporary-dance choreographers in the Twin Cities, such as Justin Jones and Chris Yon, who have captured the national spotlight. “Minnesota is seen as a place that’s producing very creative work right now,” says Bither. Yet because of the peculiar dynamics of the contemporary-dance scene, in which New York remains the center of gravity, Thorson and her colleagues are relatively unknown in their home state.
AS A CHILD IN CONNECTICUT, Thorson decided early on that she would become a ballerina, a natural outlet for her extraordinary energy. “I loved ballet, sports, just moving my body,” she recalls. She attended Barnard College in New York at the height of the performance-art movement of the early 1980s and began stretching her dance horizons beyond ballet. She immersed herself in the city’s fast-living avant-garde—perhaps too deeply—and by 1991 decided to come to Minnesota for drug treatment.
In Minnesota, freed from New York’s claustrophobic arts scene, Thorson found both the literal and figurative room to breathe. “I really like the landscape here, the space,” she says. She also found a growing number of other contemporary choreographers, and she began collaborating on such projects as the Concrete Farm Dance Collective, which, in 1996, memorably performed in small towns around the state on the back of a flatbed truck.
Many of Thorson’s collaborators were fellow refugees from the New York scene. Minnesota’s relatively low cost of living and generous foundation support for the arts has drawn such established experimental choreographers as Stuart Pimsler in 2000 and Karen Sherman in 2004. Like Thorson, they are as interested in breaking dance conventions as mastering them, giving rise to the Twin Cities’ adventurous dance scene.
“Minneapolis dance-makers are more open-minded,” says Sherman. “In New York, you can go see work within this [contemporary dance] aesthetic every night of the year. Minneapolis isn’t like that, and because there’s less going on, you might go see work that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to like.” As a result, the boundaries that often separate types of dance—ballet from contemporary, for example—are relatively fluid in the Twin Cities. The James Sewell Ballet recently commissioned works from both Thorson and Sherman. Zenon Dance, best known for its jazz-dance and modern-dance repertory, will present a new contemporary composition by Thorson in April.
To find substantial funding and audiences, however, Thorson and other contemporary-dance choreographers from the Twin Cities are generally compelled to live a kind of double life, frequently returning to New York for performances and networking. Heaven, for example, was co-commissioned by PS 122, the avant-garde arts center in New York. It was staged there and in Houston, and by the time it is performed in Minneapolis it will seem almost like a traveling show and Thorson like a visiting artist.
THORSON, SO FLUID ON STAGE, can appear tightly wound in person. A close listener, she has a tendency to lean forward, her long brown hair framing her face, as though she’s prepared to pounce on any concept that may draw her in. “She’s very intense,” says Alan Sparhawk of the Duluth-based band Low and the composer for Heaven. “She’s a strong horse in full gallop, and it’s exciting to try to hang on.”
Indeed, very little of Thorson’s childhood energy seems to have dissipated. By 2000, she was focusing more on her own choreography than collaborations. “I was ready to be in charge,” she says. Since then, both her confidence and notoriety have steadily increased. In 2005, she premiered Faker, a wildly entertaining dance-theater work about Elvis’s feelings of celebrity entrapment toward the end of his life. It featured Elvis impersonators and dancers singing the saccharine ballad “Up Where We Belong,” and it drew the attention of arts funders across the country.
When the commission for Heaven came together in 2007, the project was little more than an idea in Thorson’s head. Her own relationship with religion had left her with more questions than answers. As a child, she attended church with her family every Sunday, but she doesn’t remember her parents ever explaining religious meaning to her. “I just thought it was boring,” she says.
She conducted months of research before settling on choreography. She visited religious services around Minnesota and even attended the home church in Houston of Joel Osteen, one of the world’s most influential evangelical preachers. She scoured first-hand accounts of transcendent religious experiences and studied church architecture, which she used to help model her choreography. “[Thorson] uses dance as an art form to explore the contemporary times that we live in,” says Bither of the Walker performance. “Almost like a scientist or a journalist.”
Thorson, having discovered a number of parallels between the religious impulse and her own compulsion to dance, likens her obsession to the single-mindedness of monks. “Instead of worshipping God,” she says, “I’m worshipping dance.”
Alan Berks is a freelance writer and playwright. His new play, Music Lovers, will be performed March 12 to 28 at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.
Heaven, by Morgan Thorson with live music by Low, is staged March 4 to 6 at the Walker Art Center. walkerart.org
A guide to the Twin Cities contemporary-dance scene
» Carl FlinkThe former soccer star’s company, Black Label Movement, is noted for its aggressive physicality and earthy subject matter (sailors trapped underwater, distressed farmers, etc.).
» Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder
As HIJACK, the duo has expanded the scene’s audience since in the 1990s with aerobic spectacles performed in street festivals and art galleries.
» Stuart PimslerThe godfather of the scene, Pimsler formed his own company in 1978 and recently founded the Sage Awards celebrating local dance.
» Chris Yon
The latest to arrive from New York, in 2008, Yon is known for his regular-guy demeanor, sci-fi content, and talented partner/dancer/muse Taryn Griggs.
» Karen ShermanA dancer in Heaven and other Thorson works, Sherman was a Bush Foundation fellow, a McKnight fellow, and City Pages’ Choreographer of the Year—all in 2009.
|» Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater |
|» Southern Theater |
|» Patrick’s Cabaret |
|» Walker Art Center |