Fringe fried


by John Munger | 8/10/09 • So after the parade has ended we all collect our wits, heave a sigh, and feel post-partum depression. Or relief. Or something. I was busy this year. I had a successful but not award-winning show (“My Body Made Me Do This” at the Ritz). I saw and reviewed all but one of the so-claimed “pure” dance shows, for a total of 16. Add that to my five performances, the five time-slots before, and the five time-slots after my performances, and you get thirty-one time-slots occupied by The Fringe. Not counting the time I spent writing audience reviews and blogging for tcdailyplanet. I made a big mistake this year. I took the week leading into The Fringe off from my day-job, cashing in vacation time, but I didn’t take the week of The Fringe itself. I imagined in my optimistic mind that I would work during the day, do two performances (Tues and Weds) in the evening, and spend the other evenings comfortably seeing Fringe shows. So I would deal with Dance/USA in the morning and early afternoon then shift gears. Bad.

going through the movements is the blog of john munger, one of seven bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet.

It isn’t the total hours that’s hard. It’s the energy it takes to shift gears. Plus it didn’t work like I planned. This mistake will not be repeated next year. The bottom line is that if you’re as involved as I am with The Fringe, the shows, your own show, blogging, reviewing and all the rest of it, that’s the only thing you can really do for ten or eleven days. When Sunday arrived I didn’t go to any shows. I slept part of the afternoon. I splurged on a steak dinner. I went to the closing party at The Guthrie. More on that later. Then I went home and crashed seriously. I am Fringe-Fried. I am re-confirmed in my belief that the Fringe Festival is the most exciting and most significant performing arts event in the Twin Cities. I say that as a 64-year-old man who has seen thousands of shows of many kinds at all levels in many cities for over 50 years. I saw a live performance of the original “My Fair Lady” on Broadway when I was 11. I have seen every single major dance company in America live, including New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, San Francisco Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, American Ballet Theater, and 50 more. I have seen small, medium and major work in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Kansas City, Birmingham, Miami, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, Columbus, Houston, Pittsburgh, and even Grand Forks and Orlando. I have seen beginner work and cutting edge work across the nation in venues large and small. I have seen first works by a score of artists, many of whom are now nationally recognized. And I’ve seen thousands of failures. Forgive me, please, if I have the humility to believe that I’m not necessarily right. No-one is necessarily right. Except, of course, for certain kinds of people who already know they are right, regardless of what they say or what the topic might be. But please equally grant me the belief that in all humility I think I have had some experience. Having said that, I want to push back against a writer whom I will not name who opined about The Fringe and about dance in Minnesota that it’s nice to see these upstarts being self-indulgent and that it’s a pity that we don’t have more dance companies like (and she named an out-of-town Fringe company) because Minnesota has so little dance. Her prominently stated credentials were that she is a published author and I will add that her choice of language was educated, grammatically sophisticated, and just generally very upper-crust. Madam, I hope you have occasion to read this… The Twin Cities are commonly regarded by dance professionals across the nation as one of about six or eight truly significant dance communities in the nation. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Twin Cities, Greater Washington DC, Philadelphia, and then some runners up like Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, Columbus, Boston and maybe one or two others. But this woman doesn’t know that. She thus exemplifies a problem that has persisted for dance in the Twin Cities for over thirty years. Namely, the dance is damn good, but the general public at large just doesn’t know it. Does she know that we have more mid-range companies with budgets between $100K and $1 million than any other city in the nation except New York on a per-capita basis? Consider: Zenon, Ragamala, TU Dance, MDT, Stuart Pimsler, Jawaahir, James Sewell, and ten others. We have 17 companies in this budget range, while Chicago has 19 but has two and a half times our population. I don’t think she knows that. I won’t fault her for being a snob, a class-warrior or a liar. I’ll fault her for being uninformed despite her resume. Humility is defined not as “putting yourself down” but as “putting yourself in honest perspective.” My personal and humble opinion is that this person does not actually know anything about the Twin Cities dance community and she has no business judging it. She has apparently never dug into it. I’m reminded of a donor who was telephoned by a Twin Cities dance organization who said “I support world class dance; how can the locals possibly compete?” Makes you feel respectful toward that person and want to take your cap off and step into the gutter, doesn’t it? In the second half of the 19th century live performance moved out of the villages into the cities and became professionalized for the benefit and delectation of the moneyed classes who lived in the mansions on the hill. That’s also when a great many museums were created, on a similar basis. Today we are seeing a new resurgence of what Richard Florida calls “art close to the sidewalk.” The Fringe Festival is about that resurgence. If the writer I have just pushed back against would rather live on her high hill, let her do so. That said, I’ll be the first to grant that out of 162 Fringe Shows there were probably about 80 that had some merit but aren’t ready for prime time, about 40 more that were great except for certain lapses, and maybe 10 that were small masterpieces. And there were some gobbling turkeys. Welcome to the real world. That’s normal. That works in a lot of other situations as well. For example, I bet that out of 162 dental hygienists there are about 80 who piss you off with good reason, 40 more who are working hard but aren’t perfect, and maybe only 10 who measure up to the highest standards. Shall we also consider truck drivers, lawyers, lawn-care professionals, IT specialists and even prostitutes? Not to mention politicians? That’s the way it is. That’s real life. Get it? The arts are part of real life. One of the things I love so dearly about The Fringe is that it reflects real life on so many levels. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the fabulous. That’s how art should be. It should be real. I won’t sit still for any snotty patronization on this subject from anyone, including published authors, established critics with bylines, or MPR weekly interview personalities who don’t mingle with the rabble. We have to take all levels. We have to grow up and take ALL levels, just as a parent who raises children takes all levels as they come along. All levels. That’s our world, like it or not. Celebrate the fabulous, comment on the imperfect, encourage the youthful, despise the rip-offs, help the newcomers, just plain effing be a community where it takes a village to raise an artist. So what I’m saying is that The Fringe is a better leader than The Guthrie. The Fringe is real, but the Guthrie is perhaps beyond being in touch with what’s really happening. The Fringe supports a future. The Fringe mostly rewards good art, despite good or bad name recognition or publicity, and mostly gives hard experiential lessons to weaker art the hard way. Nobody is in charge of this. It’s a community process. That’s The Fringe. I love and support it. Now to the end of The 2009 Fringe. Sadly, it occurred at the Sea Change restaurant and in the central lobby of The Guthrie. Dearly as I love The Fringe and its staff, most of whom I know personally after all these years, I have to label this as a creative idea gone poo-poo. When Executive Director Robin Gillette gave her thanks at the microphone in the central lobby, only a third of us could hear it. The acoustics were impossible. It was one of the most useless and aurally painful public speech experiences of my entire life, and I’m relatively old so I’ve been through many. I’ve experienced bad several times. This was the absolute worst in my 64 years. When we tried to socialize with fellow artists we were in a restaurant, subdivided into areas and with tables where people could eat. And some did. God bless the wait-staff, I hate to think what they were experiencing. The restaurant was further subdivided into two main areas, plus there was an outside patio that was additionally subdivided by enormous constructions (Walls? Flats? Architectural gratuitous obstacles?) depicting Tennessee Williams, Tyrone Guthrie, and archival productions. You had to thread your way through architecture to find a conversation with people you wanted to reach. Nowhere did critical mass have a chance to gather. And finally, saving the best for last, WHAT THE EFF WAS THE FRINGE FESTIVAL DOING AT A MEGA-MILLION MAINSTREAM ICON LIKE THE GUTHRIE? Now that I’ve yelled in caps, let’s all remember how and why the Fringe Festivals began in Edinborough in 1947 or 48. I spoke with half a dozen people who found that fact alone a reason for anger. A significant minority bailed out and went to Bedlam instead. There the drinks were cheaper. The space was more open. And the aesthetic ambience was less like the writer I took to task above would have respected and more like what we, in The Fringe, are really about. If I had had more energy and if I had been on vacation from my day-job I would have headed over to Bedlam myself. The experience in the restaurant was difficult but manageable. The experience in the main lobby was horrific. But I bailed out as soon as I could with reasonable grace and I went home. Sigh. I realize it was the biggest, the best, and the best-selling Fringe ever. But let’s be very very careful to keep it “The Fringe” even when it’s the best thing going. And indeed the best “Fringe Festival” in America. Yes, it is. And the reason that it is the best is that the staff and Board have the wisdom and expertise to restrict their tasks to the thankless jobs of raising money and organizing an enviably tight ship. Does anyone outside The Minnesota Fringe realize how much superior this Fringe is to other cities where they haven’t got it fully organized yet? Everything else is up to the artists. Wow. Utterly wow. And now I’m Fringe-Fried. NOTE: This blog does not reflect the opinions or policies of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Dance/USA, nor anyone other than the author. These are purely and utterly my own observations and views. John Munger ( has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.

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