Half location and half collaboration, the West Bank Arts Quarter’s ‘Art Crawl’ puts art on the map


by Jenna Ross
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A buzzword has nestled into the construction and culture of the West Bank.

Professors can’t manage two sentences without it. Grant money attaches itself to it. Art students threaten to throw up if they hear it one more time: collaboration.

In practice rooms and performance halls, people are talking about and producing interdisciplinary art. Music majors meet with painters and compose collages. Dancers design music with their motions and nifty computer gadgets.

Of course, it’s not new. Art forms have mixed and mingled for centuries.

But the West Bank Arts Quarter focuses on these interactions in its fine arts family: the School of Music, the department of theatre arts and dance, and the department of art.

This weekend, the family wants the University community – especially those tough-to-get East Bank students – to experience it.

They’re holding the first West Bank Arts Quarter Crawl.

They’re bringing together a theater production, an art exhibit, a dance. They want students to move amid their 10 acres and five buildings. They’re showing off.

“It’s an unprecedented amount of synergy,” said Michal Kobialka, chair of the department of theatre arts and dance.

But much has led up to this moment. Long before it had a name, much less all its buildings, The West Bank Arts Quarter was an idea.

In summer 1999, College of Liberal Art’s Dean Steven Rosenstone and others brainstormed about an arts quarter – a district? a neighborhood? – and how that “grand vision” could be completed.

The physical completion came in 2003, with The Regis Center for Art, which houses visual arts. But the three department heads have been awarding grants for collaborative programming for five years now.

And then there are the conferences (“Art as Knowing”), the programs (“Spark Festival”) and the student group (Arts Quarter Collective).

In each, the West Bank Arts Quarter pushes boundaries against one another. And sometimes, programs feel their boundaries are being bruised.

But strain is part of the process, Kobialka said.

“That tension is creative,” he said. “Those dissonances, those conflicts coming together – that’s a dynamic process. That’s a process we’re working toward.”

Students perform choreographer Merce Cunningham’s ‘Inlets2’ as part of the Arts Crawl
by Katrina Wilber
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Their bodies are paintbrushes and their stage the easel. Music, or lack thereof, serves as a catalyst for emotion and expression.

Dancers combine athleticism and grace, musical and theatrical elements to produce art that has evolved through the centuries into a vast array of forms and techniques.

Sometimes, these forms and techniques integrate other art forms. Sometimes, the stage truly meets the easel.

University dance students present two performances of Merce Cunningham’s “Inlets 2” as part of the first annual West Bank Arts Crawl.

University students have performed Cunningham’s choreography before. But this time their performance also coincides with Cunningham receiving an honorary degree from the University.

Cunningham’s “Inlets 2” premiered in France in 1983 with music by John Cage. Most choreographers work with a composer throughout the creative process, but Cunningham and Cage revolutionized the fields of dance and music; with risks.

“Cunningham would make a movement structure, while Cage would make an independent soundscape,” said University art professor Tom Rose. “They used the element of chance, since the timing would often change and there was always the chance that the performance would fail.”

The innovations of choreographer and composer opened the field of dance to countless opportunities to explore. They dared to defy rules and constraints.

And those opportunities now belong to the dance department.

Through the department of theatre arts and dance, students pursue a dance Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts with courses including technique and composition – the creative processes involved in the formation of choreography – to dance history and pedagogy. A student must be accepted into the program after auditioning, but nonmajors are also allowed to enroll.

While the program has a heavy modern influence, students also take ballet and jazz, along with electives such as tap dance or African movement.

Dancers are essential in collaborations, said sophomore Miki Hegg. “We, as dancers, are used to different styles of dance and can transfer those styles to different art forms.”

Last year, as a first-year student, Hegg performed in ARTSmosis – a collaborative art event – piece designed by an art major, which incorporated music and dance in the three-level skyway between the West Bank’s Blegen Hall and the social sciences building.

“It was incredible to see how the three forms were so distinct but were still able to combine into one artwork,” Hegg said.

Art coursework complements students’ re-envisioning of project boundaries
by Erin Adler
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In the past, people envisioned the visual artist as a potter or painter locked alone in a studio, said Cindy Cribbs, director of advising for the art department.

But that image is changing, thanks to trends in the contemporary art world and developments specific to the University’s West Bank Arts Quarter.

“It’s out there that (visual) artists want to work across media, because their message might be more powerful and reach a broader spectrum of people that way,” Cribbs said.

The art department encourages collaboration in many ways, she said. In the past three years, collaborative events (this fall’s ARTSmosis, for example) and conferences (last winter’s Art and Commitment conference) sent the message to students, faculty members and the community that visual arts work well when combined with other fine arts.

The department offers a concentration and coursework in time and interactivity, an area rooted in interdisciplinary work. Projects using things like Web design, sound art, digital cinema, 3-D animation and performance art are possible through the concentration.

The mission and physical arrangement of the entire West Bank Arts Quarter also supports this cooperative vision, according to Nick Shank, director of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery.

“It’s convenient as hell to have all of us together here,” he said.

Mayumi Amada, a Master of Fine Arts student, said she created a collaborative piece of artwork earlier this year. Amada made a giant doily and asked a dancer to dance around the piece.

She called the project a “great experience” and said she hadn’t thought she could do such a thing with her work.

Mary Johnson, another MFA student, also recently collaborated with music and dance students to create her piece, “Not Your Mama’s Fashion Show.”

In the show, four dancers performed choreographed movements while wearing costumes Johnson created from recycled materials; the ensembles ranged from an insect-like bodice and tail, made from discarded car parts, to helmets with a medieval appearance. While the dancers moved, four musicians played tribal music by playing sheet metal and other makeshift instruments.

The piece was performed as part of the ARTSmosis event, Johnson said.

“The collaboration has been wonderful because of the connections I made,” she said. “Also, the dancers and musicians were able to do their own thing without my direct instruction, because of their training.”

Such collaboration adds to the visibility and identity of the school’s fine arts programs and the West Bank Arts Quarter, Cribbs said.

It has other benefits for students, too, Shank said.

“It’s very important that students learn to work together – it relates to any work field as adults. It’s sort of a lab for life,” he said.

When he’s not dazzling us with dance, Merce Cunningham whimsically dabbles in drawing
by Katrina Wilber
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It’s a simple sketch. A little tan rabbit, nibbling on a little green branch.

Scribbled on the page with an ink pen and shaded with colored pencils, the rough edges of the sketch ñ indeed, the roughness of the sketch itself ñ belie the imagination and aesthetic genius of the artist.

Dance enthusiasts know the contributions Merce Cunningham has made to the world of dance, but he’s hardly ever talked about in the area of visual art. “Exercises,” a collection of Cunningham’s drawings and notations, is part of the University’s “Month of Merce,” a celebration of the contributions Cunningham has made and continues to make.

“It’s an attempt to put together the many aspects of his work,” Thomas Rose said. Rose, a professor in the Department of Art and the curator of this exhibit, said he believes Cunningham is the epitome of an artist who does not focus on only one art form.

“His drawings are engaging and informal, and there’s no pretentiousness in his artwork,” Rose said. “They’re straightforward, not lush, and they’re like his choreography.”

This is the first time Cunningham’s artwork has been shown in the Twin Cities, and it’s also the first time it’s been used in conjunction with his choreography. The exhibit contains videos of two of his dances, as well as a set piece from another dance.

Such integration is becoming common on the West Bank. Art students use dancers to paint a living, moving picture, while actors and musicians work together on a new musical.

Whether by itself or in conjunction with another art form, “Exercises” stands as a testament to the West Bank’s art. Disciplines mix and meld or work independently, but the four areas are still distinctive ñ just like Cunningham’s works.

Music Department students play with interdisciplinary collaboration, despite its challenges
by Jenna Ross

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As a music master’s student, Zachary Crockett studied art inside the box at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. Literally.

“There, you show up, they put you in a practice room, they lock the door and they throw away the key,” he said. “And four years later, they break down the door and hand you a degree.”

But Crockett had long been interested in interdisciplinary art. So when it came time for his Ph.D., he chose the University’s School of Music.

“It’s easy to make interdisciplinary things happen here,” the second-year Ph.D. student said. “For one thing, there’s more funding here.”

Crockett is a board member of the Arts Quarter Collective, a student group that promotes the kind of art he’s interested in.

Last year, he worked with the annual Spark Festival, which blends electronic music and art. This year he hopes to compose work for it.

Assuming he gets the OK from festival organizers, he will work with an undergraduate dance student to create music. The tempo, rhythm and volume will correspond to her movements – movements detected by computers the size of a stick of gum attached to joints on her body.

Crockett said that undergraduate students, like his project partner, have an incredible opportunity to create interdisciplinary art here. And they do so with “a ton of enthusiasm to explore.”

Undergraduate student Jacob Frush spends a lot of time inside and outside the practice rooms in Ferguson Hall. Most Mondays and Wednesdays, he spends close to all his time in the building.

He practices the French horn, he takes classes, he studies.

He knows, however, that although it’s easy to do, he must not isolate himself from the arts community around him.

“The worst thing we could do is alienate ourselves to our own art,” said Frush, a junior in the School of Music. “Art is dying out. We have to support and work with each other.”

But Frush is an undergraduate performance major. And, as other music majors also expressed, it’s hard to fill performance requirements while still getting involved in other arts.

The same often goes for professors.

“As a performer, I have – and a lot of my colleagues have – a hard time imagining a real collaboration,” said professor David Baldwin, who focuses on trumpet performance.

Last year, Baldwin worked on an interdisciplinary project with the visual arts department. It was “a totally monumental misunderstanding” in terms of funding and artistic vision, he said.

But he is interested to see how the idea of collaboration plays out, he said. He does calligraphy and hopes to do a music video project at some point. If he decides that he wants to do such a project, the funds are out there, he said.

“We (professors) certainly have been getting a lot of e-mails about the possibility of grants,” he said. “That’s the name of the game now: diversity and collaboration.”

Performance of modern French ‘fable’ marks theatre department’s 75th anniversary
by Tatum Fjerstad
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Raye Birk wore his spectacles at the end of his nose, clutched a yellow legal pad and delivered notes to actors before rehearsal for “The Madwoman of Chaillot.”

In each move, each direction, each piece of advice, he put to practice skills he learned at the University 40 years ago.

Birk directs the opening play of the department of theatre, arts and dance’s 75th anniversary season. It’s the first time Birk has been at the

University since he studied directing as a graduate student in the 1960s.

But in those days, he spent his time in Scott Hall, as Rarig Center was built in 1972.

“This building was only blueprints when I was here last, and it’s kind of considered old now,” Birk said. “It’s nice Ö but it needs paint.”

While the building expanded, Birk has noticed shrinking in other areas, he said.

“The whole nature of the department seems smaller, with the number of the graduate students and faculty,” Birk said. “Everyone seems more interested in the academia and literary aspect of theater now.”

The constant reminder of the department’s 75th anniversary has little bearing on the way Birk directed “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” he said.

“If it was the 76th anniversary, I would do the show the same way,” Birk said.

“The Madwoman of Chaillot” is a politically charged French absurdist piece about greedy businessmen looking for oil in Paris, which results in society’s demise. The Madwoman and her friends battle the businessmen and save the world in the process.

“To do the play you have to believe that the world can be saved,” Birk said. “It asks that of everyone that’s doing it. That’s the heart of the piece.”

While Birk has only recently returned, Lance Brockman has been at the University for 33 years.

Brockman, 58, professor of scene design, has worn several caps in his time in the department.

Brockman started as technical director in the 1972ñ1973 theater season, the same year Rarig opened. He went on to become scene designer, department chairman, project manager for the University Showboat Theater and, last year, interim chair while Michal Kobialka was on sabbatical.

Brockman was part of the 50th anniversary. He’s part of the 75th. But he doesn’t expect to be around to see the 100th, he said, laughing.

In his lengthy stint with the department, Brockman has seen many challenges – financial and otherwise.

“It was hard to find ways to make this four-theater complex work for the students and, at times, we were understaffed for the ambition of four theaters,” he said.

He has noticed a change in the students frequenting the Rarig Center as well.

“Students now are more commercial oriented. They want to make money at this,” he said. “And more importantly – their parents want them to make money.”

If he had his way, the future would see a partnering among the theater program, the School of Music and the musical theatre degree, Brockman said.

“Musical theater is the solo voice of American theater and that’s what we bring to the table,” Brockman said. “Sorry to use a pun, but the music department has sort of always marched to the beat of their own drum.”

Amid practicing lines to the air before him and jotting down notes, actor Marc Halsey, 21, said he is intrigued by the theatre department’s development and looks forward to seeing the visiting alumni.

But it is hard for him to fully grasp the novelty of a 75th anniversary because he will be a part of the department for only four years and then move on, said the Bachelor of Fine Arts theater, English and political science major.

“You are one point on a lineage that reaches far back before you were born and beyond when you’re gone,” he said.

Art Crawl Dance Visual Arts Collaboration Music Theater