One River Mississippi celebrates the river with dance


Marylee Hardenbergh was walking across the Third Avenue bridge in Downtown Minneapolis one day about 20 years ago when she got the inspiration that led to an outdoor dance performance on the Downtown riverfront that has become an annual summer tradition. For the last several years it has been known as Solstice River, and this year it will be a much larger, multi-site event called One River Mississippi, to be performed this Saturday, June 24—simultaneously in Minneapolis, Itasca, the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and Plaquemines Parrish, the very last community on the Mississippi.

She looked down from the bridge and noticed several large, round, concrete platforms in the river, and she thought, “Wouldn’t it be so cool if there was one dancer on each of those nine round things?” says Hardenbergh, a choreographer.

Thus she began a search for the owners of the “round things” that led her to the Army Corps of Engineers, who told her to talk to the stewards of the lock and dam. She called them up: “I just opened my mouth and said, ‘Can I speak to someone with an open mind please?’ And they said, ‘You must want Roger,’” she recalls.

“So I took Roger out to lunch at the Fugi Ya [restaurant—then on the riverbank]. I said, have you ever had hot saki? So we had hot saki. Then I said, see those things out there; he said those are called mooring cells; I said I want to create a dance on those; he said write a proposal, I’ll kick it upstairs—meaning he’d send it to the higher officials. It took so long that when he called back and said, ‘Hi, they said yes,’ it took me awhile to figure out what he was talking about.”

In the summer of 1985 passersby were treated to a free outdoor dance performance—nine dancers on the nine mooring cells in the Mississippi River Downtown. “My intention was simply to create beauty and art,” she recalls. But something else happened that day.

“The next day, this guy called and said, ‘Thank you for giving the river back to the people.’ . . . I was puzzled, I didn’t really understand.”

Over the next several years Hardenbergh created outdoor dance performances around the country that incorporated the extant features of their locales, from oyster boats to in-line skaters. But it was a performance in Duluth in 1994 that made her realize that this art form was about something more. There she put dancers on the aerial lift bridge as it rose, and she worked with the bridge operators and a composer to get music perfectly timed to the rising bridge. And then something magical happened.

“It was just jaw dropping when that music started, deep resonant and slow, and the bridge started to go up. It was amazing,” she recalls. About 4,000-5,000 people came to watch the performance. People still tell her that they drive over that bridge and “feel happy” because of the association with the event.

And it’s not just a good feeling, it appears to be having a real impact on behavior. The Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) at Hamline University has been a partner in the solstice performances for several years. They have conducted surveys of people who attended the event, and followed up six months later, and found that some 60 percent said they had changed their personal behavior to become better stewards of the river because of what they learned at the performance.

And so Hardenbergh discovered that what she had been doing all these years was joining people to the landscape. “There’s something that leaves a really lasting impression, and people feel more connected in their hearts to that site than they did before,” she says.

One River Mississippi
Sat., June 24, 7 p.m.
Downtown riverfront, Minneapolis

View the performance from the Stone Arch Bridge, a foot bridge that can be entered from the west side of the river at West River Parkway and Portland Ave., or from the east side of the river at Main St. SE and Sixth Ave. SE.

The program will have 20 minutes of original local music with dance performances at different points around the site, then there will be an audio connection where the audiences at all the different sites can hear each other and will participate in some coordinated music and movement during the last five minutes.