Grant allows more flexibility with dance performances for U alumna, choreographer

by V. Paul

Seven dancers run in place, spanning the stage. Each dancer suddenly drops into a pose, legs bent at the knees, body leaning forward, arms held tightly against the sides.
Then, just as quickly, they’re up and running again, their feet rising a foot off the floor, toes pointing straight down as their calf muscles flex.
For University alumna Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner the athletic precision of the seven dancers means seven paychecks and seven sets of costumes. It means space rental for rehearsal and performance. It means money desperately needed to keep those dancers running in place in a piece she is choreographing for next week.
Enter the McKnight Foundation, which, through the Minnesota Dance Alliance, awarded Gutierrez-Garner on Wednesday a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Choreographers. She was one of seven local dance artists, two of whom are from the University, funded to create Minnesota dance performances. She received $7,500.
“Getting this grant is great because it ensures stability in this beginning time for me,” Gutierrez-Garner said. “It ensures that I can research without worrying about money. It’s partly financial, but it’s also a boost of encouragement from the dance community.”
Gutierrez-Garner won the award with two earlier pieces: “So Tight,” a jazz solo she presented at a dance festival in 1998 in Massachusetts; and “Urges,” a trio set to Sergei Rachmaninov’s pulsing and rumbling Concerto No. 3 that was performed that same year at the American College Dance Festival in Washington.
Moving forward with her choreography, which she said combines modern and jazz dance styles, can now take a more personal path for her with this grant.
The inspiration for much of her work comes from her grandmother, she said, who had lived much of her life working in a laundry mat or cleaning houses. She did what she needed to get by and did not have the luxury to think of what she wanted to do with her life, Gutierrez-Garner said.
“I am really lucky to be able to pursue (dance),” she said. “Even with all the problems of funding and all the problems of audience support, it is still better than what (my grandmother) had to go through.”
During her freshman year at the University, Gutierrez-Garner choreographed a short piece about her grandmother, spending much of her time on her knees, performing stylized motions of doing laundry by hand.
With the McKnight fellowship, Gutierrez-Garner is thinking about choreographing an evening’s worth of new pieces in the next year, exploring her Mexican-American culture, she said. She wants to pattern the dances after her grandmother and have music commissioned by another Mexican-American musician.
“It’s really perfect to just go full circle, now that I’ve got my first major grant,” Gutierrez-Garner said.
From the music she sets her dances to, Gutierrez-Garner finds the beginnings of her creative processes rather than creating a piece first and finding suitable accompaniment.
“Her sense of musicality is just wonderful,” said Matt Jenson, a local choreographer with the University dance program. “The way she relates movement to music is so interesting and clear. It’s not just mimicking the music.”
During her college years, Gutierrez-Garner used to think dance was just about pure movement with no real intended story line or feelings, she said. She now tries to evoke in an abstract way an emotional and physical response from the initial reactions she has to the music.
“This work is emotional even though there’s no narrative,” Gutierrez-Garner said. “There is no right or wrong answer. It’s just about where I’m at.”
Knowing where she is at and being able to clearly articulate that to others was one of the hurdles Gutierrez-Garner needed to jump to earn the fellowship. For most grants, the process involves two steps: the paperwork and the dances.
Grant makers require artists to explain on paper why they should be funded, and at times even ask the artists to explain how the funds will be used. Dancers then perform a sampling of their pieces, either live or on video tape, to be judged by a panel.
“There’s a lot of time involved in (grant writing),” Gutierrez-Garner said. “It’s so crucial that you represent yourself on paper.”
The McKnight applicants were judged by four local dance artists and one national artist. Out of 42 applicants, seven choreographers, including University dance professor Joan Anne Smith, received fellowships ranging from $25,000 over two years to $7,500.