Kristin Van Loon, a former competition figure skater and today best known as one half of the choreographic duo Hijack, walks into the café, her small frame covered by bulky winter clothes. It’s early in the morning – 7 AM to be exact – and she is on her way to a tech rehearsal at the Bryant Lake Bowl, where Hijack’s 10th anniversary retrospective played on November 20th and 21st. She orders a big breakfast, insists on paying (“We’ve got a Bush Fellowship,” she says, as if she’s won the lottery), and sits down with me to talk earnestly about her past, the process of making dances, and the art of stealing ideas.
The “we” who received the prestigious Bush Fellowship refers to herself and Arwen Wilder, her frequent collaborator. Separately, they are both talented dancers and choreographers; with their powers combined, they form the choreographic wunderkinds known as Hijack, creators of some of the most inventive, challenging, goofy and awe-inspiring dances I’ve had the pleasure of seeing anywhere. Their story has been told a few times over by now – both women grew up in Chicago but didn’t meet until a composition class at Colorado College, where Van Loon was majoring in geology. Completely isolated from the dance world, the two immersed themselves in liberal arts and dance classes, quickly became bored, studied ballet to pass the time, and then started experimenting with movement. These explorations led to questions about gravity, resulting in what is notoriously known, revered, and reviled among the classicists (and the timid) as contact improvisation.
The history of contact improvisation can be traced back to a Steve Paxton workshop taught at Oberlin College in 1972, with Nancy Stark Smith becoming the main proponent and teacher of the form. Contact was in turn influenced by the 1960s postmodern dancers of New York City’s Judson Church Dance Theater, where visual artists, choreographers, filmmakers, theatre directors and musicians collaborated and experimented with form, story, rhythm, physicality, space, and the notion of theatricality. These dances were performed in parks, on sidewalks, in traditional spaces, on film, and utilized both pedestrian and athletic movements – in turn asking “what makes dance, dance?” Highly influenced by Merce Cunningham and John Cage’s chance theory, the Judson Church dancers (among them Yvonne Rainer, Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs, and Tricia Brown) performed barefoot, in sneakers, in street clothes, naked, without music, to improvised scores of music or text or silence. Without question, the Judson Dancers have influenced a broad range of artists and artistic genres, even if their experiments are not widely known or directly referenced.
Contact improv, in its most elementary form, is the “giving and taking of another person’s weight.” (This is easy for Van Loon to say. I personally find it terrifying.) In practice, this can result in death-defying leaps toward another dancer’s open chest, or daring falls that leave bruises the size of melons on one’s legs and arms. In performance, it can either be a thrilling combination reminiscent of bungee-jumping or a horrendously self-indulgent exercise that pushes the tolerance of the audience. If bad contact has taught us anything, Van Loon says, it’s that what is discovered in the privacy of a studio does not necessarily make for good art. Even improvisation needs structure, and a good performance – even one that appears loosely composed – has that as well. And this, my friends, is the genius of Hijack.
Neither Van Loon nor Wilder has studied contact, and in their own way they seem to have invented it themselves. Secluded at their small liberal arts school, they challenged each other to turn off their inhibitions, fears and reflexes, resulting in a process that would ultimately inform their work together. Even though their “discoveries” are not news to the dance world, theirs is a particular kinesthetic vocabulary that is vital, exciting and new at almost every performance. “Stealing, copying, imitating – reading a lot of art history, exploring that space between the modern and the postmodern” are all contributing factors in how their dances get made.
If you ask Van Loon about the history of modern and postmodern dance, however, you’d be more likely to hear about her love of geology, how the monumental elements of mountains and molehills inform her perceptions of scale. She tends to favor extremes, big spaces, and distinct elongations of time. “Catastrophic events – time, gravity, change, art movements, geology, stratigraphy, big transitions” are the unchanging obsessions that inform her work. “It was cool to be so isolated because I wasn’t aware of what was cool in dance,” she says of her time at Colorado. Watching Hijack’s 10th Anniversary show at the Bryant Lake Bowl last fall, however, was very, very cool.
The show consisted of 11 dances co-choreographed by Van Loon and Wilder from 1993-2003 (1993 being the year their collaboration obtained a “rock star” name), performed for the first time by other dancers. The ten duets and solos featured a kiddie pool in which Susan Scalf repeatedly dunked herself, Brian Sostek and Megan McClellan frantically peeling carrots, and a special “bonus track” of a new piece called “Fetish,” performed by the auteurs themselves. Compositionally, the pieces are solid, similar but varied in their movement and all explored some sort of idea or particular challenge. It’s easy to imagine Van Loon and Wilder shoe-shopping together, seeing a pair of mid-calf boots and saying, “Wonder what’d it be like to dance in those?” In “Fetish,” anyway, it’s not much different from their other dances – highly aerobic, slightly erotic, and very very smart, the way Armani suits are smart. The way Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey is smart. The way moving to Minneapolis was smart.
It is assumed that most artists move to New York or Chicago from Minneapolis, and not the other way around. While she has performed all over the country and in various parts of the world (including Russia, Taiwan, and the aforementioned New York City and Chicago), Van Loon is quite happy living and working in Minneapolis. She’s been the recipient of some major awards, including a McKnight Fellowship, two Jerome Fellowships and the now-defunct MN State Arts Board Opportunity Grants, with generous support from FORECAST Public ArtWorks and the now-defunct MN Dance Alliance and 3-Legged Race. (If you’re tiring of reading the word “defunct,” I suggest you make a private donation to the Minnesota State Arts Board, whose funding was cut significantly – the legislature reduced the Arts Board’s appropriation for grants by 30 percent for the coming biennium, from $8.2 million in fiscal year 2003, to $5.8 million in fiscal year 2004. The Arts Board’s administrative budget took an even larger hit—61 percent—for the coming year. Still, in comparison to other states, Minnesota arts funding is exceptional.) Van Loon acknowledges that “the clichés are true – dancers are really valued in Europe…New York City is too expensive without enough resources.” Even though she says it’s also hard to have a presence here in Minneapolis, Van Loon has no intention of leaving, even as Hijack and her individual projects travel to other places. We are lucky to have her, and she has been fortunate to be recognized both critically and financially in our town.
Of course, not all Minneapolis-based dancers get the grants they need to survive, and not all Minnesotan artists choose to stay here. Some leave for the more glamorous coasts, and others – like Dylan Skybrook, choreographer of The Dylan Skybrook company – are moving to the other side of the pond. Skybrook has lived and worked in other U.S. cities, including San Francisco and New York, but feels that Brussels, where he is planning to relocate in the spring of 2004, has “a lot going on in the dance world.”
“Moving is purely an economic question,” he explains, citing the reasonable cost of living and the fact that, as with many other European cities, artists there receive government funding and are expected to make art full-time. In other words, it’s their job to make art, they get paid for it, and they don’t have to work 40-60 hours a week at one or more jobs and rehearse in basements at odd hours in order to pay their bills (which is what I was doing in New York, along with everyone else I knew).
“In San Francisco, art was very exciting but people were starving to death. Things are really possible [in Minneapolis].” But for Skybrook, moving to Europe opens up a world of possibilities, financially and collaboratively, that he doesn’t have here. Another advantage to the move is that, theoretically at least, he will have money to pay his dancers, which means he would be able to employ the same dancers for different pieces, helping to establish a specific movement vocabulary and style that would be impossible to do otherwise.
Does this mean that Europe is a better place to work as an artist (particularly as an émigré)? Only time will tell. In the meantime, both Van Loon and Skybrook continue to make their dances here and elsewhere, driven by their determination and passion for the pieces they create.