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.
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