Choreographers That Move Us


Special thanks to Galen Higgins, Kole Nelson, Bill Cameron

Carl Flink. Photo by Heidi Bohenkamp

Carl Flink. Photo by Heidi Bohenkamp

The Art of Exhaustion: Carl Flink
Black Label Movement
Year Founded: 2005

Carl Flink likes to imagine his dancers as animals. “I have never asked someone to join the company without first having the image of some animal come to my mind… I have no idea why this is the case, but I know I am drawn to people who move with the natural flow and unthinking grace of animals versus the hyper-refined approach many highly trained dance artists manifest. I call this ‘natural virtuosity.'” The gibbons, leopards, grey wolfs, and big horned sheep that make up Black Label Movement must also possess an incredible amount of stamina.

Embedded in Flink’s innovative choreography is also a belief in representing each of his dancers as heavy lifters, regardless of gender. “An ethic of this company is that everyone lifts and everyone is lifted. With the male/female clichés still so prevalent in dance-making and partnering work, this approach allows us to break down assumptions of who can lift and who will be lifted to powerful social affect. My 2014 work An Unkindness of Ravens is a particularly strong example of this approach in which almost every permutation of partnering work appears on stage.”

While athleticism is clearly valued by Flink, his work can be just as intellectual as it is physical. In 2014, he began a collaboration with biologist and science journalist John Bohannon and biomedical engineer David Odde, called the Moving Cell Project, which has taken Black Label Movement to four different TED Talk presentations around the world. It’s clear that collaboration is something that excites Carl Flink, whether it be in the science community, the theatre community, the Minnesota Orchestra, or with other dance choreographers, like his upcoming collaboration with Marciano Silva dos Santo’s Contempo Physical Dance at the Cowles Center in June.

Flink is well aware of the reputation he carries for pushing dancers to the brink of exhaustion. “I am nearly obsessed with the edge of what we can endure as humans. How far can we push ourselves? I am drawn to observing and experiencing the physical, emotional, and mental choices and decisions people make when under pressure… I ask [my dancers] to engage movement that pushes them beyond their comfort zone to the edge of where they don’t know if they will succeed or fail in accomplishing the movement. That moment between success and failure is one that holds a lot of information for understanding who we are.”

Dancebums. Photo by Bill Cameron

Dancebums. Photo by Bill Cameron

A Collective Power: Dancebums
Year Founded: 2013

A collective of five dance artists born in the year 1990, Dancebums defies conventions with a structure that places each company member on an even plane. When Kara Motta, Margaret Johnson, Karen McMenamy, Eben Kowler, and Maggie Zepp created Dancebums three years ago, I was admittedly skeptical of the collective structure. However, it quickly became clear that success was inevitable, especially with their dedication to these seven commandments, written at the company’s inception: 1. There are no mistakes. 2. Not everything is right. 3. We are all different from each other. 4. Love. Love. Love. 5. Playing. You are always playing; witnessing is participating. 6. We, as individuals, have natural authority. 7. Talking can be a trap, have an escape plan. [Say] Bananas.

While the Dancebums, as a company, began is 2013, the history of their relationship and the true origin story began in 2008, when Johnson, McMenamy, and Motta began their studies at the University of Minnesota Dance Program, where Kowler had already began his training, and Zepp would soon follow. As Kowler explained, “After school, there was this moment where I think we all realized that even though Minneapolis is a rich place for the arts, not many artists were necessarily making the work we saw ourselves dancing in. We rented a share of a studio in the Calhoun Arts building and started meeting just to dance together.”

With similar backgrounds, Johnson described the union as something inherent, “We are of course inspired, challenged, supported by, and a product of the Twin Cities dance community. We have all trained and worked with people in this city and I think that shows through in the dance we make. It’s literally in our bodies.”

In addition to the allure of their collective energy, the Dancebums are uniquely dedicated to choreographing modern work that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a rare attribute for individuals with such rigorous concert dance training. As Zepp explained, “A lot of times our ideas for dances and concepts come out of jokes we make with each other. We try not to shy away from the ‘wrong’ choice or making a dance that we’re ‘too smart’ to make… There’s a mutual desire to create work that toes the line between serious concert dance and fun, party dances that our friends could do.”

Karen Charles. Photo by Summer Street Photography

Karen Charles. Photo by Summer Street Photography

The Threads That Connect Us: Karen Charles
Threads Dance Project
Year Founded: 2011

“I knew over twenty years ago that I wanted to start a company. I recall writing down my idea for a company including the name ‘Threads’ and the mission to examine, expose, and celebrate the threads that connect us. I also recall sticking the notes in a drawer because I felt like I was not capable of starting a company. The first step to bringing the dream to fruition came when my father died from colon cancer in 2010. I found out he had dreamed of becoming a doctor and never pursued this dream. I was then nudged to not let my dream of a dance company go unfulfilled. My dad left me $10,000 and I decided to honor him by starting a dance company despite all of my fears and doubts.”

With concert work that shows great sensitivity to themes of humanity, it’s no surprise that the origin story of Karen Charles’ company feels so human as well. Threads Dance Projects has become recognized tackling issues of race, death, and injustice. Particularly since Karen Charles’ recent work, The Secrets of Slave Songs, was nominated for the 2015 Sage Award for Outstanding Dance Performance.

For her, the need to address these issues is imperative. “I think I always focus on the personal impact first and I am also very passionate about laying bare my truth in regards to these issues. I am unabashed because I think the only way we can make the earth better is by honestly approaching issues and being honest about how we really feel, knowing that some will agree with us and some will disagree. But by getting people to experience these issues through dance opens a different mode of dialogue, which can only lead to better human relationships.”

James Sewell. Photo by Erik Saulitis

James Sewell. Photo by Erik Saulitis

Ballet’s Fresh Take: James Sewell
James Sewell Ballet
Year Founded: 1990

James Sewell Ballet first began in New York City in 1990, before moving to the Twin Cities in 1993. As Sewell explained, “The years in New York City immersed us in the international scene of dance as everything seems to come through that city. Those years were an important launching point for us, but bringing that back to the Twin Cities allowed us to grow, mature and flourish in a way that is actually very difficult in New York City.”

While the majority of the company’s dancers have a strong classical background, Sewell enjoys taking ballet vocabulary outside the box, and his dancers must follow. “When I’m looking for dancers, I’m looking for people who first have a strong ballet technique and base to work from. From there they need to be open to trying anything, because I never know in which direction I’m going to want to lead them. For me, pushing ballet to deal with subject matters that are not traditionally explored within the ballet vocabulary is exciting and challenging. When I started out as a choreographer I would outline everything in my head before I would begin rehearsals. But now I find it more interesting to collaborate with the dancers in the moment and follow the creative line to places that surprise us all.”

True to his explorative tendencies, Sewell is pursuing some remarkable projects in 2016. “This spring I’m looking forward to working with the Edina High School Marching Band on a piece called Band it. This will be an energetic piece where I’ll be utilizing hover boards and moving musicians on stage. In the fall, we’ll be working with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in presenting Mendelssohn’s Octet, a piece I will begin choreographing this summer in Big Sky, Montana and complete in Minneapolis. We are also working on presenting our version of the movie documentary, Titicut Follies, filmed in Bridgewater prison for the criminally insane in 1966. I will be collaborating with filmmaker Frederick Wiseman to explore this amazing film and find a way to translate the essence of this challenging world to the ballet stage.”

Marciano Silva dos Santos. Photo by Dwayne Williams

Marciano Silva dos Santos. Photo by Dwayne Williams

Cultural Intersections: Marciano Silva dos Santos
Contempo Physical Dance
Year Founded: 2011

Many Twin Cities audience members, myself included, first noticed Marciano Silva dos Santos as a radiant new performer in TU Dance, shortly after his relocation from Brazil to Minnesota in 2006. It was difficult to take your eyes off of him. Ten years later, Silva dos Santos has established a much-celebrated dance company and garnered numerous recognitions as a choreographer and a performer.

Though Silva dos Santos first intended to focus his studies on acting, after catching the eye of a choreographer who ran a local Afro-Brazilian dance company, his professional career shifted to the world of dance. He later joined a contemporary dance company in the same city of Vitória, Brazil, which allowed him the opportunity to collaborate more with the creation of new work. As Silva dos Santos explained, “These movement experiences introduced me to two very distinct movement styles, but they were kept separate from one another. I was interested in exploring the interaction of these styles. While I was still in Brazil, I started a dance company and began to develop my initial ideas and movement vocabulary. I left those ideas for a time when I came to Minnesota to be a dancer, but they persisted within me. I felt a need to continue my movement research and it is through this desire that Contempo Physical Dance was born.”

With a distinct fusion of Afro-Brazilian, capoeira, and contemporary movement, Silva dos Santos’ process requires a lot of exploration. “I like to research movement before I arrive in the studio with the dancers. I spend a lot of time exploring movement on my own. I try the movement on my own body first to understand how it will impact the dancers’ bodies. Then when I arrive in the studio, I try things out with the dancers and see how it works on their unique bodies. The movement is dynamic and sometimes changes once I am working with the dancers because they bring their own life to the movement.”

In regards to the expectations of his company members, Silva dos Santos sets the bar high. As the only company in Minnesota with his unique movement genre, transitioning into the company can be the most difficult part for his dancers. As he explained, “When they join the company, they have to work hard to capture the styles on their body… I want each company member to have a fire behind their dancing. They need to be able to attack the movement and be very precise, but at the same time, I look for subtle qualities such as expression and an ease within all of the physicality.”

A most anticipated event in the Twin Cities will be Contempo’s show with Black Label Movement, the Cowles Center’s first-ever collaborative dance concert. Both Carl Flink and Silva dos Santos are tremendously excited. “Performances will feature two world premieres: a duet with myself and Carl Flink and an ensemble work blending our two diverse and intensely physical styles.”

It’s inspiring to see this budding choreographer achieve such excellence in the Twin Cities after moving from South America only ten years ago.Silva dos Santos is quick to credit our local scene for its support. “The Twin Cities community encouraged me to go forward with my choreography. When I created my first short work for the Ritz Theater’s choreographers’ evening, Renovate, in 2008, it was well received by the community. I remember people asking me when I would create my next work, so I was energized to dig deeper into my movement vocabulary. I felt that I had something different to share with the community.”

Joe Chvala. Photo by Bill Cameron

Joe Chvala. Photo by Bill Cameron

Rhythm and Theatrical Dance: Joe Chvala
Flying Foot Forum
Year Founded: 1991

While his affinity to percussive movement gives Joe Chvala’s choreography a distinctive flavor, he’s been known and appreciated for shaking things up. “We are always changing what we do within the very wide umbrella of our mission to keep our audiences interested in coming back. The overriding idea of the Flying Foot Forum is to find all the ways that rhythmic dance, percussion, and percussive dance can be stretched onstage. We do pieces that are pure dance and others that are mixed with music and drama. We do short pieces no longer than two minutes and full evening length works. We do pieces that tell very clear narrative stories and very abstract work. We handle all sorts of subjects: dramatic, wild, quiet, sweet, sentimental, outrageous, satirical, funny, etc.”

Outside of Flying Foot Forum’s impressive 24-year legacy, Chvala has also choreographed regularly for the Children’s Theatre Company and the Guthrie. Weaving clear narratives with advanced choreography is no easy task, but Chvala demonstrates a finessed understanding of storytelling through movement. Currently, he’s looking forward to breaking proscenium conventions with a new original work slated for late summer/early fall, “We are calling it Passing Through Pig’s Eye. It will be an immersive piece that will divide the audience into three groups and bring each group on a tour that happens in downtown St. Paul moving from one location to the next. Each location will feature different pieces of choreography, and music by various company members and guests.” With Chvala’s track record, it will likely be a show of epic proportions.

Mathew Janczewski. Photo by Armour Photography

Mathew Janczewski. Photo by Armour Photography

Celebrating 20 Years: Mathew Janczewski
ARENA Dances
Year Founded: 1995

Though his company recently celebrated 20 years, there is something divinely youthful about Mathew Janczewski’s ARENA Dances. Whether it be the playful nature of his creation process or his unabashed fusions of concert dance and pop culture, Janczewski’s choreography has maintained cultural relevance and intrigue through the years.

Reflecting on the past 20 years, Janczewski was quick to credit the contributions of his dancers, donors, and board of directors, before speaking on the value of perseverance. “All of my mentors really modeled and embodied the word ‘perseverance.’ Dance-making is a struggle largely because so many people are not exposed to modern dance. So by necessity, exposing and educating audiences becomes part of the work. Engagement with our audiences has been an important part of the work, though I do not think there is really any strategy or ideology that guides the work itself. When I was dancing with other companies such as Shapiro & Smith Dance, JAZZDANCE, Dancing People Company, along with many others, they taught me to follow my gut. I am making work that excites and interests me and I hope to bring that excitement to my dancers and then to the people we share it with.”

With a busy 20th season, ARENA’s next concert, TWITCH, will take place at the Southern Theatre April 124. In addition to repertory, Janczewski will premiere a new work commissioned by the Kevin J. Mossier Foundation. Then, in November, Jaczewski is excited to bring the company’s history full circle, “ANTHEM is our season finale in November which will be held at the Fitzgerald in St. Paul. This city holds a special place for us, as it’s where ARENA first debuted in 1997. For this performance, we are remounting other repertory favorites, and premiering a new duet that I am very excited about. This new work features myself and longtime ARENA dancer Amy Behm Thomson, who is returning to Minneapolis to perform with me.” This much anticipated performance will likely make for a terrific close to the season!

URI Sands. Photo by Brandon Stengel

URI Sands. Photo by Brandon Stengel

Generosity and Courage: Uri Sands
TU Dance
Year Founded: 2004

A young dancer from Miami, after training at the New World School of the Arts, Uri Sands spent five years working as a principal dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Sands also had the opportunity to dance for Philadanco, The North Carolina Dance Theatre, Complexions, James Sewell Ballet, and Minnesota Dance Theatre. To work with companies of this caliber were undoubtedly formative to his development as an artist, but Sands credits his mother as a key mentor, “[She] always encouraged me to stay in pursuit of my dreams.”

With a dancing career that allowed him to tour internationally and work with the likes of Judith Jamison, Dwight Roden, and Desmond Richardson, in 2004, Sands shifted gears to start TU Dance with his partner and co-director Toni Pierce-Sands.

Sands’ choreographic style is most often defined as a fusion of modern dance, classical ballet, African-based and urban vernacular, but what I believe sets Sand’s work apart is the commitment he demands of his dancers. Dancing for TU is a full-time job, and in order to find dancers who can deliver the artistry, grace, and technical prowess needed to fulfill his vision and the commitments of the company as a whole, TU Dance has scouted and relocated dancers from New York City, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. While their ability to move is of clear importance, Sands prioritizes their emotional components as well, “The most important factors for Toni and I when we select dancers for the company are generosity and courage.”

With Toni Pierce’s vast knowledge of pedagogy, and the dynamic elegance of Sands’ choreographic style, TU Dance has quickly become one of the most celebrated contemporary dance companies in the Twin Cities, winning the 2015 USA Knight Fellowship in Dance, among countless other honors.

Sands attributes a large part of the company’s success to a singular core belief: “The arts (particularly dance) has the unique power to be able to transform lives and TU Dance exists to ensure that all people, regardless of socioeconomic background, have the opportunity to experience this transformative power.”

Watching a TU Dance concert is an emotional experience. Sands’ choreography, while technically complex, is simply beautiful. As he explains, “Inspiration for new works or creations often comes from random and simple everyday experiences. Music for certain conjures ideas, but I’ve found for me, that more often it’s the random daily happenings, like seeing a cavalcade of leaves being blown by an autumn wind, that spurs the ideas for new works.” TU is currently preparing for upcoming performances at the Cowles Center, the culminating concert of their 12th season.

Taja Will. Photo by Sean Smuda

Taja Will. Photo by Sean Smuda

Taja Will
Taja Will
Year Founded: 2008

“My work insists on a personal relationship with the material, dancer-choreographer co-creation of movement vocabulary and an aesthetic of spontaneity. Improvisation has been my core training and exists at the heart of my process.” For Taja Will, this creative process often begins conceptually. She may start with an idea, question, or mind map, before moving on to an embodied response. The majority of Will’s dancer/collaborators have been those that strike her immediate attraction based on the way they are able to speak about their love for the art. She admires those that are driven to ask questions and aims to create an ensemble built on a strong sense of individuality. “My dancers are my chosen family, we talk a lot about love and support. In the center of my work are always, always deeply rooted relationships.”

When starting out, she took full advantage of a lot of the open forum opportunities for new choreographers to show work. Will expresses great gratitude toward the Red Eye Theater and their New Works 4 Weeks program. “I was first selected for the Works-In-Progress program in 2010, when I was in the process of becoming acquainted with my artistic voice.”

It was through the feedback structures in this program that she felt herself settle into the beginning of her signature aesthetic. “There are so many great platforms here, 9×22 Dance Lab, the open cabarets at Patrick’s and the audition process for the Walker Art Center Choreographer’s Evening, plus so many more.” To other aspiring choreographers she expresses that you should not be afraid to advocate for yourself. Simply anything can happen.

In the year to come, Taja Will is extremely excited about the diversity of projects that she is working on. Will is currently a collaborative director with Aniccha Arts on Census, a large-scale, interdisciplinary work premiering June 11 at the Northern Spark Festival. She is also collaborating on A Hill in Natchez, a surrealist interdisciplinary performance premiering at the Southern Theater in July.

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