Winds of History

Off-Leash Area company reflects on lives lost to violence through dance-theater performance

stepping out, things to do, dance, off leash area
Off-Leash Area Dancers. Photo by Scott Pakudaitis.

Fifteen years ago, performing artist and designer Paul Herwig was at what he now calls a “sweet artist’s day job” when airliners struck the Twin Towers and the course of American history was changed in a sick instant. Stunned with his coworkers, staring at screens replaying the tragic events over and over, he noticed one of his colleagues standing apart. 

“This fellow was from a country that had already experienced a lot of violence,” Herwig says. “And he was looking at the group of us, clearly not participating in our national grief. I thought about that for a really long time.”

Herwig went on creating shows with his partner and co-director, performer-choreographer Jennifer Ilse, under the banner of their Off-Leash Area company, but the idea stuck in his head. In the decade-plus since, like many of us, his consciousness became more opened up to the effects of terrorism, both philosophically and emotionally.

The result is AfterWind, a show that carries on the Off-Leash tradition of movement-heavy performance, psychedelic design, and dark storytelling, yet feels different this time out. It’s an immersive performance featuring four dancers and one actor that is tinged with melancholy, with a death-like personification interacting with the audience as characters look back on their lives in a moment of panic and violence.

It’s the first of what Herwig tags a new Off-Leash “main stage show” in five years, during which the company has remounted productions at the Cowles Center for Dance, and mounted its “garage tour” of local homes. A doggedly original company with a DIY aesthetic, Off-Leash’s main consistent elements have been Ilse’s often-airborne choreography, Herwig’s eye-popping set design, and an uncompromising artistic vision encompassing madness, absurdity, and unfiltered expression.

stepping out, things to do, dance, off leash area
2014 Revival of Maggie’s Brain. PHoto Courtesy of Off-Leash Area.

They’ve been doing shows for years in their own three-car garage in South Minneapolis (often complete with a bonfire afterward), but recently have been looking for a permanent artistic home. It hasn’t been easy. They’ve seen Nimbus Theater lose its space in Northeast amid rising rent, and funding fall through for a site-specific epic in the North Loop centered around the Lab Theater.

It’s worth making a pilgrimage to the place Off Leash has landed—it’s a space in St. Paul rented out by the performance company Savage Umbrella, and part of a renewal of a Vandalia Street multi-story building that has seen the likes of the Independent Filmmakers’ Project and Lake Monster Brewing join up in what feels like a moment of synergy.

Herwig takes pains to note that the focus of AfterWind isn’t intended to be its violent, confrontational, or disturbing aspects. He instead emphasizes a meditation on our mortality and how privileged we’ve been historically not to have to confront it every day.

“I never thought I was smart enough to talk about political stuff in a show,” Herwig says. “There are people who do that better than me. But I started thinking about people losing their lives around the world, sometimes with no one there to witness those final moments. I just kept thinking about honoring those moments, and made a 75-minute denouement of sorts.”

at Savage Umbrella’s SPACE
July 21-31

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