Dance that breaks the fourth wall: Voice of Culture, Maggie Bergeron, and the BodyCartography Project


In my ongoing look at performance that utilizes techniques of engagement that makes performance more fun and accessible, I want to describe two dance events that I attended on June 22 that I thought exemplified what I consider to be ideals to strive for. 

My evening started at the Outlet Performance Festival, an offshoot of the Whittier Artists in Storefronts Project, located in the basement of Los Amigos, a small supermarket on 28th Street and Blaisdell in Whittier. (Full disclosure: I’m participating in Outlet later this summer.)

I arrived at the space at 7 p.m., when the performance was set to begin. However, unlike previous Outlet performances I’ve attended, there seemed to be more performers milling about than audience members. The performers were the young stars of Voice of Culture, the organization run by choreographer Kenna Cottman, which aims to merge African drumming and dance with Black American styles. The young dancers (some as young as four and five years old) were warming up, practicing their moves and joyfully getting prepared for the evening’s performance.

More audience trickled in, a mixed group of African-American and also white audience. I had the experience of realizing that this was in fact unusual. Most of the time when I go to see dance or theater, over 90 percent of the people in the audience are white. It is only when I go to see performers of color creating work from their own perspective (Katie Ka Vang’s piece presented by Pangea at Intermedia Arts was a recent example) that I really start to see a more diverse audience. 

Voice of Culture shared the bill with independent choreographer Maggie Bergeron, who has a kind of ironic, satirical style in her choreography. I enjoyed her performance, but what hit it over the head for me was a moment when her dancers brought all of the audience members onto the stage in a big group dance, where they audience actually ended up performing choreographed movements with the dancers.

Later, in a transition between Bergeron’s performance and Voice of Culture, the latter company also brought the audience on stage to dance. In both cases, there was a feeling of exuberance both for the performers and the dancers, of sharing this moment of give-and-take, of the audience being a part of the show, rather than just observers. 

This combined with witnessing performers of Voice of Culture—from toddlers up to adults—joyfully demonstrating a growing command of their craft. It was completely refreshing. Rarely have I seen such pure excitement by performers to be doing their thing.

After Outlet, I headed over to the I-94 underpass near the Basilica to see BodyCartography Project, which was arguably more “serious” than either Bergeron’s work or Voice of Culture, and yet at the same time accessible in its own right.

The free performance, as part of the Secret City event that happened in various parts of Minneapolis on June 22, began with a solo performed by Timmy Wagner, who fluctuated between almost amoeba-like movements and moments of stillness, at times laying on the concrete underneath the freeway. At times, an ensemble of dancers would move in and swallow him up, exiting with Wagner as a part of their amorphous group.

BodyCartography’s piece was fascinating in its use of the expanse of space that the underpass provided, allowing for a wonderful scope of perspective as the performs played with how close and how far away they were from the audience.

While the majority of the audience clearly planned to be at the event, there were some passerby who stumbled in, one of the good parts of having a free outdoor performance. There was even a “party bus” that looked on from Lyndale Avenue. Mayor R.T. Rybak, who came at the end of the showing, called out to invite into the event, although they ultimately declined.

The piece ended with audience participation, where visitors were asked to hold on to the pillars of the freeway, holding it up as a gesture of gratitude for the freeway’s day in and day out holding up of so many of us on a daily basis.

I ended up feeling that I had seen a fantastic evening of dance performances—none of which occurred in a theater, all of which included interaction with the audience in some way, and all of which aimed to draw in new audiences. I should also mention that nobody bugged me about taking pictures with my phone—thank you!

Read Jay Gabler’s 2012 Q&A with Maggie Bergeron, and read Sheila Regan’s reviews of the BodyCartography Project’s 2010 performances 1/2 Life and Symptom.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.