Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Twin Cities Housing and Architecture

Two weeks ago my spouse and I went to the annual Minneapolis St. Paul Home Tour.  We've been attending this event since 1992.  Each year, people living in St. Paul and Minneapolis who have remodeled or renovated, open their homes to the public for the weekend and show all the changes they've made. 

Me, I call it free entertainment.  Where else can you go and see different styles of architecture and living spaces, both old and new, within the Twin Cities?  It's also fun to see the way other people live.  Over the years we've visited Victorian houses in Crocus Hill, on Nicollet Island, and along Park Avenue in Mpls.  We've explored new condos built in the warehouses of downtown Mpls. and historic buildings of St. Paul.  We've seen people make living spaces from old fire stations (the pole still intact!), former churches, a steam plant, and turn-of-the-century carriage houses.

In the early years that we attended, we tried to go to as many houses as possible.  A few days before the tour, we'd sit down with the tour map and pick out the places that looked most interesting.  Then, we'd plan our route, and rush around from house to house, sometimes seeing as many as 20 houses in the two days of the tour. At each stop you present your "passport" and get checked off.  You remove your shoes, and either leave them among the others at the entrance or carry them with you.  If it's raining, you're often provided with a pair of thin hospital blue "slippers" to cover your feet.  When you leave, just make sure you grab the right pair of shoes! 

In later years of the tour, we've visited fewer houses and have been a bit more selective either because we'd seen similar places before or we had limited time.  This year we decided on five of the houses.

The first two were near Como Lake in St. Paul.  But before we started, we had to stop for a coffee at the Black Bear Crossings in the Como Park Pavilion.  Good coffee, a few gluten free treats (although not vegan), and on that particular day there was a rather sizable group of guitar pickers playing folk songs in the cafĂ©.  I didn't catch the name of the group, but they were fascinating to watch - mostly older gentleman carrying out a tradition, but there was also one young woman as well.

Anyway, back to the tour.  The first house we chose because it was a B&B and we're always interested in B&Bs.  The Como Lake Bed & Breakfast was a Craftsman style house built in 1925.  The current owners were the third owners of the house.  They had gutted it and made changes, and after their family grew up and moved out, they renovated it to include 5 bathrooms, an enlarged and upgraded kitchen and skylights.  I especially liked the decorative plates on the kitchen wall - from different states and countries that they or their friends had visited.  The third floor suite is where guests can stay - a bedroom, kitchenette, bath, and dining area.

The second Como house, built in 1920, had a beautiful view of the lake. The original kitchen had been a small area near the back of the house, so the owners added an extension and created a "hang-out space" that included the kitchen, an eating area, and entryway.  On the second floor, the main feature was the solar panels.  Not only did the panels generate electricity, reduced energy costs (with tax incentives!), they also provided a unique shading over their second-story deck. 

One more house we had to visit in St. Paul - an 1880 Victorian in Crocus Hill.  I had hoped to see more of the historic features of this house, but the only part on tour was the kitchen.  It was a beautiful kitchen with a island and sleek modern features.  And I always like it when the kitchen includes an extra space with a couch, chairs, bookshelves or a desk - a windowed alcove where you can sit and look through your cookbooks as you plan your meals for the week.  It seems like no matter how small a kitchen is, of course it's the place where everyone congregates, so the extra seating is for guests who want to be involved in the cook's conversations and creative concoctions.

On Sunday we went to two Minneapolis houses.  The first was in Prospect Park, always fascinating because it's the area with the water tower that looks like a witch's hat.  The owners, an older couple, had decided to make changes to accommodate a single-story lifestyle. An office space at the back of the house had been converted into a kitchen that opened into the main living room/dining room area.   Just off of the kitchen was a greenhouse which had been there from the beginning.  I loved seeing the efficient use of space in the kitchen.  There were little shelves and cupboards tucked into the center island and in reachable corners next to the regular cabinets.  A extension on the island could be pulled down to create a counter space that you could sit at while you chopped your vegetables.  Once again, the theme was to put the kitchen in the area with the most light and connect it with the "social" areas of the house.

The last house we saw was in the Kenwood Park area near Lake of the Isles.  The owner had a sense of humor—as we walked through the front gate, two stone lions on either side "roared" at us.  (Sound coming from a nearby recording.)  The style of the house was 1922 Mediterranean.  The inside had been stripped to it's joists so that everything was new and architecturally interesting. The faucets in every sink and basin looked more like hoses with levers.  There was music piped into every room from a "brain" closet in the basement.  We were trying to figure out the career of the owner - a musician (judging by the collection of autographed guitars in the office) or maybe an audiophile?  A designer or an architect, but definitely, someone who likes to entertain.

Two more floors above had bedrooms, walk-in closets, and fireplaces.  The third floor was a whole suite with a bedroom, wet bar, bath, and a walk out deck with a fireplace that was large enough for probably 20-25 people in close conversations. 

And that ended our tour route for this year.  It always makes me proud to live here in the Twin Cities because of the people who enjoy their living spaces and take time to preserve the old and take risks to create new things.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pilobolus Dance Theatre - Making Connections

photo courtesy from the Ordway
My first experience with Pilobolus occurred several years ago when someone sent me a YouTube link of their performance at the Oscars.  Amazing—a group of people moving in silhouettes, rolling onto the stage, and morphing into animals, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty or a five-petaled flower.

Pilobolus Dance Theatre is a modern dance company based in Washington Depot, CT that began over 40 years ago.

Pilobolus?  A dance company named after a fungus that grows on cow dung?

But that fungus, which thrives in sunshine, has an amazing ability to propel its spores, sometimes up to 8 feet, with speed, strength and accuracy.  So, the name is very fitting.  Not only does it describe the style of movement, but it also conveys how the company has grown throughout its history.

In 1971 the primary goal of Pilobolus was "to make dances, spend time with people we admire, and have fun." Over time, the company's boundaries have expanded, propelling them into television commercials, film, business, science, and education.  They've embraced connections between dance and other disciplines such as visual art, comics, biology, robotics, engineering, puppetry, journalism, and music videos.  They also have an institute where they work with schools and other groups, teaching their movement and collaborative choreography style to people of all ages and abilities.  So, this group is also creating community.

The performance of Pilobolus I saw at the Ordway on Saturday night was a lot different from what I saw on YouTube, but much more than I expected.

photo courtesy of Ordway
In the first piece, Automaton, the dancers moved like machines while three full-length mirrors rotated around them.  Toward the beginning of this dance, one of the more human-like dancers interacted with the other machine-like ones, as though initiating a more human quality to their movements.  Self-awareness occurred as some of the dancers interacted with themselves in front of the mirrors, and at one point the mirrors were held at an angle above so that to the audience, it looked like their reflections were floating.  The dancers broke into duets, their movements exploring partnering relationships, and the effect of the partners moving in front of the three enclosing mirrors was surreal.  The dance progressed with the whole group moving into and out of light and shadows in smooth, wave-like motions.  Toward the end it, was as though they had become one well-oiled unit instead individuals doing their own mechanical stuff.  At the close, the human machine wound down into a cluster that eventually jerked to a stop.

A soft exclamation rose up from the audience.      

In between each piece short film clips were shown - explosions of eggs, household items, etc., rapid growth of various plant life (spores!) an x-ray of a person swallowing, cloning themes and mirror images of automation which reminded me of Huxley's Brave New World.

photo courtesy from the Ordway
Skyscrapers, the second piece, was a series of tango-like dances with partners dressed in colors that matched the changing backdrops.  (See photo.)  As the colors of the dancers changed, so did the backdrops.  There were humorous surprises as the backdrops took on multiple colors—green and orange, and the dancers came out dressed in half green and half orange.  Or a female dancer would enter wearing red while the backdrop was a different color (say blue), and with a flip of the upper part of her dress, she was wearing blue.  A male dancer wearing purple walked out into the purple-and-white scene to meet his partner, who also wore purple, and as a final surprise, she yanked at her dress and it became white.

Transformation was a small slice of what was projected at the Oscars, beginning with a single female shadow and a larger-than-life hand reaching down to interact with her.  The hand covered the girl completely, removing her head, and then covered her again to bring her head back!  The hand changed her into a dog with a wagging tail and an extended paw.  In the final transformation, the dog was changed back to the girl, now wearing a hat and toting a bindle over her shoulder, ready for her next adventure.

The last piece, Sextet 2013, began with glowing 10-foot ropes.  They became like sine waves as the dancers rippled them in rhythm to the different sounds in the music.  Dancers began jumping over and dodging under the ropes, winding them around different body parts, theirs, as well as the other dancers'.  One male dancer hopped around with his leg in a rope like a sling, and in another sequence, a group of dancers formed a human cat's cradle pattern.

In the Talk Back discussion after the performance one of the artistic directors said they had searched for a specific Northern Mexican music selection to use for this piece, but discovered the Nortec Collective based in Tijuana.  The group worked with them, observing their choreography and responding musically. In turn, the dancers responded to the music created; the musicians responded to the movements with more music, back and forth, in Pilobolus' signature creative interactive style.

After the show it was neat to hear comments from the dancers and artistic directors.  "Choreography is about moments and intentions.  Not defining what it is, allows us to be ourselves."  Since the Pilobolus founders came from non-traditional movement backgrounds, the company's creative process is very organic and doesn't have "standard" steps as in ballet or jazz.  Often dancers decide who's going to lead and who's going to follow, and they go from there.  They make up names for moves that they create such as "Hollobred" or  "Trendytrain."  (Probably spelled wrong here.)  The rule is, if you make the move, you get to name it. 

When asked, "What's your favorite part of dance?" there were a variety of responses.
 "I took engineering in college and lost all my stress when I was able to live on stage, not even thinking about the audience." 
"I have a lot of energy. I was a hyperactive kid." and "I needed a place to channel my energy."
"Dance is my way to process the world."
"I'm always choreographing in my head."
"I like creating dances and teaching, especially kids."
"I like making new things and speaking without words."
From the lighting designer:  "In my mind I can be young and thin."
 "I like that, for 2 hours I can live on the stage with the rest of the dancers, and my only thought is how to interact with them."
"Joy, wonder and awe - dance touches people like nothing else does."
And my favorite response, which encompasses the whole theme of Pilobolus Dance Theatre:  "I get to learn about psychology, music, art history; I get to look up information about all these things which I wouldn't have done if there wasn't a dance about it." 
If you'd like to see any other performances at the Ordway, check out or call 651-224-4222. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Web-footed Guests

Resident Ducks

A few days ago I discovered this pair of ducks huddled under the pine trees just outside our front door.  I didn't expect them to stay, but they've been here for three days now.  It's a busy area—noisy retail stores, nearby traffic and no water in sight anywhere—why are they here?  I would imagine that as the weather gets warmer they'll get frightened away by the neighborhood dogs & cats, the lawn mowers, people passing by, but for now, they're hanging around.  I suppose if the rabbits, squirrels and the wild turkeys can coexist with us human beings, (often dodging cars to cross the street) then maybe the ducks have decided to give it a try as well.

Resident Turkeys
March 2013