“It will all come together, I can visualize it,” says Zenon Dance Companies’ Founder and Artistic Director Linda Z. Andrews when I pull her aside between rehearsing Daniel Charon’s “The Storm” and Colleen Thomas’ “Catching Her Tears (44° N, 93° W)” at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts. The week leading into a new performance is an especially busy, stressful time for any dance company. As an ensemble moves its work from the rehearsal space to the stage, performers and crew determine spacing, lighting and audio cues, and there’s an inevitable flurry of last-minute decisions that seals the audience experience. And that time of transition is precious for any performance group – but this particular occasion has an undercurrent of bittersweet energy.
For Linda and for Zenon Dance Company, this is the last tech week in their 36-year run. Due to a change in corporate and foundational support, Zenon Dance Company will take to the stage to awe audiences one last time before that decades-long run comes to an end.
Minnesota has been fortunate to have a community of dance artists, independent choreographers and small- to mid-sized dance companies the represent a slew of genres. But Zenon’s name-recognition is synonymous with the Twin Cities dance community – and it’s hard to imagine the landscape without them.
As the dancers rehearse, there’s a palpable note of mourning in their movement and in their voices – but their emotion is also tangled up in a joy rooted in Zenon’s legacy. “The last few weeks have been focused on the job at hand,” says current company member Sarah Steichen Stiles. “I don’t know that it [Zenon’s closing] will really hit me until next October.” That’s when, in a different reality, the company would be preparing for the next show.
“From my perspective,” says Andrews,” I’m just grieving. I am so sad. I feel like it’s premature. I would have liked to have continued another five years at least… But with the funding pulled out from under us like this, it’s just coming along and way too soon.”
In recent history, the funding from corporate sponsors, donors and foundations that arts organizations like Zenon once relied on has taken a turn to focus on individual artists. Where there is give, there is take.
Aiming to elevate the level of dance in the Twin Cities, Andrews founded Ozone Dance School and two dance companies, Rezone Dancers and Just Jazz Dancers, in 1979. The companies merged in 1983, forming Zenon Dance Company, which presented both modern and jazz dance. Acclaimed jazz choreographer Danny Buraczeski joined as Zenon’s co-artistic director from 1989 – 1991 and has continued to choreograph work for Zenon, including “Song Awakened,” which will be performed in the final concert.
Unique in today’s landscape, Zenon Dance Company is a repertory company, which presents work by numerous choreographers as opposed to showcasing one singular voice and vision.
“I decided that it would be more interesting to me, especially to have a more eclectic repertory and to be able to choose choreographers that I was attracted to that I felt had some talent and give them an opportunity to grow and produce work with Zenon,” says Andrews.
Andrews has primarily scouted emerging and established choreographers based in Minnesota and New York, often commissioning them in the critical moment right before they hit it big. Over its tenure, the company has performed work by nearly 200 choreographers, including Bill T. Jones, Bebe Miller, Doug Varone, Tere O’Connor, Kyle Abraham, Seán Curran, Morgan Thorson, luciana achugar and Wynn Fricke.
“I also felt like, as a dancer, I would prefer this type of company if I could continue dancing professionally because I’d be constantly challenged. And this constant challenge and artistic growth is, I think, what has kept so many Zenon dancers dancing for Zenon for multiple years.”
Zenon’s reputation for dancer retention is a testament to the effectiveness of that philosophy. Six-year veteran Steichen Stiles may seem a relative newcomer compared to Leslie O’Neill, who has danced with the company for 13 years, or former company members Greg Waletski and Denise Armstead, who each spent more than 20 years dancing with Zenon. But Stiles Steichen admits that it was the company’s reputation for excellence and its continued focus on working with a diverse assortment of choreographers that both drew her and kept her there. “It fit a lot of my hopes in a dance company. It has something for everyone, both for the dancers and for the audiences.”
This sentiment also speaks to the talent and range Zenon company members have, as well as their commitment to constantly adapt to new movement styles and ways of working.
Former company member and current stage manager Stephen Schroeder said in a 2011 interview with TPT, “Working with choreographers at Zenon, it’s really quite amazing. They come in for whatever short amount of time – three weeks, two weeks, 10 days – and then we have to take as much as we can from that and from them to try and get their stylistic qualities, and try and get the way they move into our bodies. And so you basically have to open yourself up and become like a clean slate or even the paint for the choreographer to then make the piece.”
Andrews admits that, beyond Zenon’s final performance on Sunday, June 16th, 2019, life is a question mark. She is selling her home, getting certified as a yoga instructor and looking forward to spending time with her daughters. But beyond that, her plans still have hazy edges. “I’m going to try to keep the school going. The school is something I want to leave, which I started even earlier than Zenon [Dance Company].”
Many of the company members are also still focused on carving out a life after Zenon. Steichen Stiles shared that she will miss this family of dancers that has banded together, performed together, taken risks together with a shared mission of making the best artistic works together.
“Through the years, some really difficult, desolate years,” Andrews admits, “we were able to survive, and we were able to flourish artistically, never really financially, but artistically, which was what was important to me. My ultimate goal [was to achieve] artistic excellence on the stage. I think we’ve been able to fulfill that, and that was a huge driving force behind my whole life.”
Zenon Dance Company performs its final shows June 13 through 16 at The Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts.
COMPANY: Tristan Koepke, Scott Mettille, Leslie O’Neill, Laura Osterhaus, Sarah Steichen Stiles
JUNIOR COMPANY: J.T. Weaver
APPRENTICE: Emila Bruno
GUEST ARTISTS: Lauren Baker, Mary Ann Bradley, Patrick Jeffrey, Alyssa Soukup
CHOREOGRAPHERS: luciana achugar, Danny Buraczeski, Daniel Charon, Wynn Fricke, Colleen Thomas
Disclaimer: Brittany Shrimpton taught at Zenon Dance School from 2009 -2014.
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
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