Dancer Artist Statements

Each of these statements have been gathered and used with the artists permission. Use of these statements in anyway is prohibited. McKnight Artist Fellowships reserves the right to the statements below.

Sharon Mansur | 2018 Dancer Applicant

I am an embodied mover and shaker. Kinetic action is my primary expression and connection with the world, and my identity as a performer stems from my kinesthetic sense of being. Movement and performance expression is the root of my dance artist identity. The heart of other roles I embody as a director, choreographer, and collaborator. My gradual evolution into choreographing and directing increasingly immersive projects stemmed first from being a performing artist.

Improvisational performance has become a distinctive aspect of my career, evolving into a deeply challenging and satisfying approach. Experimental performance is a key expression, as well as crafting installation environments to inhabit and share. Primary themes include: identity, body and environment, beauty in the unknown and in-between spaces, as well as everydayness. Improvisation is also responsive and adaptive to a variety of non-proscenium environments and audiences, as well as sociopolitical current events, another priority within my performance practice.

These integrated threads of contemporary dance, choreography, improvisation, site-dance and visual art weave throughout my performance career and connect deeply to my body memories.

My body is full of childhood patterns from being in motion: running, tree climbing, nature wandering, swimming, ice skating, volleyball, and dance. Starting at age seven in creative movement, evolving into ballet, tap, jazz and eventually falling deeply in love with modern dance. Majoring in Dance at Connecticut College brought me under the mentorship of master teacher Martha Myers, who inspired her students to consider dancing over an entire lifetime. And find the gem of inspiration everywhere, in everyone. She also introduced integrated Somatics studies, with transformational concepts still guiding me today. Mark Dendy and David Dorfman, and Jaclyn Villamil also sparked creativity and experimentation. And expanded as well as subverted my notions of performance virtuosity during these formative years.

My first professional years were at the dance presenter/studio hub Dance Place, in Washington, DC. A key incubator period for me as an artist, educator and arts administrator. My growth as over those eight years was also deeply influenced by co-directing the Quiescence dance/performance group with Daniel Burkholder, beginning our twenty-five year plus artistic partnership. Immersion in the Laban Movement Analysis certificate program also deepened my well of possibilities as an artist and human being.

In New York City for two seasons, I was honored to be a core quartet member in Sara Rudner’s four hour durational Dancing-on-View for Danspace Project’s 25th anniversary concert at St. Mark’s Church. Embodying her signature Twyla Tharp fluid-yet-rigorous style still deeply resonates with me. Other NYC performance highlights: Love Songs, by David Rousseve at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the New York Improvisation Festival at Judson Church. New York Times reviewer Jennifer Dunning wrote of my improvisational solo Lightfast: “…a tour de force of authoritative, evocative performing, its kaleidoscopic physical imagery voluptuous, elegiac and whittled keen from moment to moment.”

Returning to Washington, DC, starting mansurdance and MFA Dance studies at George Mason University honed my performative improvisational projects, marking another creative growth period. Keith Thompson (Trisha Brown), Jim Lepore (Limon), and Dan Joyce and Susan Shields (Mark Morris) pushed my technical and artistic depths, balancing Somatics studies with Karen Studd. Dance reviewer George Jackson noted that my dancing had evolved to be like “a freshly sharpened pencil.”

While a full-time dance professor at Winona State University (2005-08) and University of Maryland-College Park (2008-15), I developed and performed in numerous projects, including festivals throughout the U.S as well as Ecuador, Ireland and Mexico. And I continued performing choreography and improvisation, one approach informing the other. Reconnecting with David Dorfman (NYC) by commissioning the duet Depth of Perception, and being a guest performer in 1/2 Life at PS122 in NYC by BodyCartography (MN) fed my more structured side. And Miguel Gutierrez’s Freedom of Information was an intense 24-hour improvisational live streamed dance ritual was an intense wide open field of the unknown. And being an invited guest dance performer at the 2013 High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music in Baltimore, MD, fed my collaborative play interests.

I also perform improvisationally in my dance films, both integrated into live performance and stand-alone. variation on residue and INSERT[coda]HERE, both in collaboration with videographer Brian Harris, have been screened in festivals throughout the U.S. as well as Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Ireland, and Italy. Additional recognition includes: Metro DC Dance Award Finalist 2004 Outstanding Individual Performance in Depth of Perception by David Dorfman; Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Awards in Solo Dance Performance in 2002, 2010, 2014; and Best Performance Award, Mirror Mountain Film Festival, Canada, 2015.

I moved back to Winona, Minnesota full-time in 2015. Since March 2016 I have been curating and performing in SHIFT~performance salons, hosted by Infinity Yoga Studio, providing an experimental forum for movement research as well as making contemporary performance accessible. I invite a visual, sound, poetry or dance artist to collaborate and get acquainted within an improvisational setting, including informal audience conversation, and sharing food together.

In 2017 I created and performed Dreaming Under a Cedar Tree, an evening-length solo performance/installation/food sharing and discussion project based on my Arab-American identity. This project was supported by a $5000 Southeastern Minnesota State Arts Council Established Artist grant, a Springboard for the Arts-Hinge Artist Residency in Fergus Falls, MN, and the Inverse Performance Art Festival in Arkansas and California. My current performance project, …in the space between, is funded by a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant. First a weeklong studio/lab at the Watkins Gallery at Winona State University, it will evolve into a dance film shot this summer in various Winona locales, with videography by BodyCartography.

I am looking forward to cultivating more performance and creative research opportunities in Minnesota, developing my body of work, and deepening connections to my local community, throughout the U.S. and abroad. Next up is Cedar Tree 2.0 during the 2018-2019 season. In my mid-career phase, I am both looking back and gazing forward, and as Martha Myers encouraged, plan to continue dancing for my lifetime.

Erin Thompson | 2019 Applicant

I’m 63 years old and, having danced professionally for five decades, am still deeply involved in the continued investigation of dance performance. This is the first time that I have applied to the McKnight Dancer Fellowship. I feel outrageously lucky to be asked to perform at my age with younger dance artists and to still be a muse for choreographers. This is an anomaly in the field of dance. Actors, musicians, vocalists all perform well past middle age, but that hasn’t been the case in the eurocentric contemporary/modern dance or ballet world. Even if a dancer’s body is still able to perform movement at a high technical level, we are not used to seeing older faces and skin onstage. In our culture, older women are supposed to fade into the background. It took courage to apply this year. It was not an easy decision, yet it feels incredibly powerful to acknowledge myself as a performing dance artist. What follows are the chapters of my career.

I began dance training at the Contemporary Dance Playhouse which became the Minnesota Dance Theatre. Under the direction of Loyce Houlton, the MDT school and company offered highly professional dance experiences. I trained with Mrs Houlton in her ‘contemporary’ style which was inspired by Graham and Limon techniques, and she regularly brought in guest teachers from the Graham company, American Ballet Theater, and the Royal Ballet. The MDT company performed primarily at Northrop Auditorium as well as at the Cedar Village Theater, (now the Cedar Cultural Center), where we had regular seasons. In 1971, I danced at Jacob’s Pillow and in Spoleto, Italy, where we also learned choreography from Glen Tetley. My first work sample is from 1979 in a performance of Loyce Houlton’s Song of the Earth set to Gustav Mahler’s song cycle of the same name. Footage is from the TPT film, Loyce.

When the Twyla Tharp dance company toured to the Walker Art Center in 1979 I was smitten with the movement and received a MN State Arts Board grant to study with the Tharp company outside of Boston for 5 weeks. Her company members suggested that I move to New York and I did so in 1980. I almost made it into the Tharp company but a week later was hired by Nina Wiener, who had herself danced with Tharp. I spent a decade dancing for Nina, including tours throughout the United States and Europe. Nina used post-modern problem solving processes that involved the dancers in creating virtually all of the movement from a few phrases that she choreographed. This process was endlessly fascinating and allowed the dancers to have such intimate connections to their performances. Bebe Miller danced in Nina Wiener’s company when I joined, but left soon afterwards to make her own work. I was in her first piece, a duet for the two of us, as well as several other works she choreographed. In 1986, I received a Bessie Award for Performance for Nina Wiener’s Enclosed Time, a full evening work in three acts, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival. My second work sample is from that piece.

In 1990, I moved back to the Twin Cities and joined Zenon Dance Company for two years, dancing in the work of choreographers such as Danny Buraczewski, Doug Varone, Bebe Miller, David Dorfman, and Joe Goode. I began teaching at the University of MN and at Zenon Dance School. In 1992, my dancer husband, Byron Richard, and I founded 45 Chartreuse Dance Company. We choreographed duets, solos and eventually group work, received choreographic fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the McKnight Foundation, and performed and toured locally and across the state. My third work sample is from Miracle Lanes, a piece choreographed by Byron and me and based on stories of his family life in Toledo, Ohio. The segment you will see has me as his sister, Judy, when she had a brief stint as a gogo dancer, followed by movement and text of work situations that Byron and his sister experienced.

After I gave birth to my second child in 1997, we disbanded our small company. I continued teaching at the University of MN and Zenon Dance School, but took a hiatus from performing to be with my young children.

In the early 2000’s, I was asked by David Moore of Three Legged Race to perform in a concert with Judith Howard, Sally Rousse and Cathy Young, showcasing us as solo dance artists. That same year, Joanie Smith and Daniel Shapiro made a trio for Lise Houlton, Toni Pierce-Sands and me inspired by our shared roots in Loyce Houlton’s Minnesota Dance Theatre. We had all had successful careers in New York City - Lise with American Ballet Theater, Toni with the Alvin Ailey Company and me with Nina Wiener and Bebe Miller - before moving back to Minnesota. In 2008, Mathew Janczewski created the duet Everything, Everything for Amy Behm Thomson and me.

In the past decade my performance career has had a renaissance. My children were older and I was even more eager to be involved in the creative process of dance making in the studio. I feel incredibly blessed to have been asked to be a dancer in new works created by local choreographers whose work and creative processes I admire greatly, notably Judith Howard, Joanie Smith, Penny Freeh, Sharon Picasso and Deborah Jinza Thayer. My last three work samples are all from this past decade. The Ophelias is a trio that Joanie Smith created on Laura Selle Virtucio, Judith Howard and me in 2013. Central Supply, choreographed by Judith Howard, was commissioned by Sally Rousse for her ICON SAM concert at the Hennepin Center for the Arts in 2018. And finally, Sharon Picasso’s Throw Open the Heavy Curtain was presented at Red Eye Theater in 2018. A series of solos, Sharon interviewed each of us about the meaning of dance in our lives, and our experience of aging as dancers, then made personal movement material for us inspired by recordings of those interviews.

The questions I investigate in my pedagogical research have kept me stimulated and growing as a dance performer. My classes at the University of MN and at Zenon Dance, where I have trained and mentored generations of Twin Cities professional dancers, are an anatomical and movement playground for myself and my students. My training in classical ballet and modern dance, post-modern technique and choreographic methods, anatomical and somatic studies in NYC, and my Alexander Technique certification are layers of knowledge that I embody in my performing and teaching.

Digging into the intentions, physicalities, and nuances of movement to embody and express the ideas an artist wishes to convey is magical and continues to compel and renew me. In this past year alone, I was involved in four major rehearsal processes and performances and I have no plans of slowing down. I look forward to my continued growth as a dance artist.

Joseph “MN Joe” Tran | 2019 Dancer applicant

When I started breaking 17 years ago, I never imagined I would one day be battling my heroes — or becoming one to others. But by innovating new moves, I helped put Minnesota on the map within the breaking community and became the first Minnesota native invited to battle overseas. And after both beating and losing to the best of the best, I’m realizing it isn’t all about winning. It’s about longevity and vulnerability. That’s why I am working with BRKFST Dance Company to pave sustainable paths for breakers by broadening the canon of breaking vernacular through storytelling and diverse collaborations.

Throughout my career, I’ve built my reputation as “MN Joe” by beating breakers at top events in New York, the Netherlands, Colombia, Estonia, and LA. Since 2011, I’ve won titles at “Who Got The Flower?!” in France, “Outbreak 7” in Florida, “Fluido Jam 6” in Italy, and “Red Bull BC One Midwest” in Chicago. And in 2018, my crew and I placed in the top 4 out of 850 competitors from 50 countries at the “Silverback Open” — USA’s largest event.

I earned many of those victories through my creative approach to dance. In breaking, you are expected to contribute to the scene by constantly innovating signature moves. And in battles, you must defeat your opponent with boldness and grandiosity. It goes back to the roots: breaking was born out of poverty, where the more you creatively overcome obstacles, the more you win. And the more you win, the more your reputation is immortalized in the community. The result is a culture in which breakers strive to create as many moves as fast as possible — to create a legacy.

I developed my own legacy by revolutionizing new “powermoves” — quick, powerful spinning movements. One foundational powermove is called a “windmill,” in which your torso rolls on the floor, propelled by your legs whipping around you. Once I learned the “double windmill,” I began to do them with my body contorted in different shapes — variations that virtually no one else did at the time. I revived the “double baby mill” that’d been extinct since the early 1990s, and I created “double tombstones,” “flyboys,” “chains,” “straitjackets,” “flying lotus,” and many other signatures. Before these innovations, breakers generally performed powermoves focusing on speed and quantity. Today, breakers around the world make their own unique power combinations, even taking what I’ve done to another level.

But along with these accomplishments, I’ve also faced the pressure of constantly proving my worth by winning battles and creating new moves — or risk being forgotten. While there has been a rise of new Minnesota talent, I still feel a duty to solely represent the Minnesota scene, keeping up my reputation as “MN Joe.”

One reason for that is the community’s rapid development. With today's technology, there has been an unprecedented growth in breaking’s popularity. Instant global communication and organization create new world champions every event. Breaking may even be included in the 2024 Summer Olympics. It’s hard to keep up and stay relevant.

In this youth-oriented, battle-focused dance, where breakers exude bravado and are encouraged to hide weaknesses with perfection, I wonder, how long can one maintain this attitude? What options do breakers have once they reach an age where adult obligations and the risk of injury make competing too difficult? What role should elders take? And what am I to do once I reach that point?

While I think progression is vital, there’s a need for vulnerability in the scene — especially if we want to continue this art form in a sustainable way. I believe it would be humanizing to share the work behind the battles — the struggles of creating, training, and traveling. My vision is to explore the flashy and innovative moves of breaking with pragmatism, imperfection, and emotional vulnerability, while maintaining the integrity of the dance.

If you lose in a battle, that’s the end of the line — you have start over at another competition for another chance to perform your moves. Alternatively, concert dance provides an opportunity to showcase your creativity and signatures through storytelling, without chasing victory.

That is why I co-founded BRKFST Dance Company in 2014. We are breakers who are dedicated to exploring the art on a theatrical platform, combining extreme forms of breaking with contemporary movement. Over the past five years, we’ve performed at venues in the Twin Cities including The Walker Art Center for “Choreographer’s Evening,” The Cowles Center for “Drop the Mic,” and The Wellstone Center for “Rooted.”

Our 2017 show at The Southern Theater, “SECONDS,” addressed the feeling of being caught in the rat race for fame, the need to look perfect, and the reality of being forgotten. In our 2019 show “PAPER/TRAILS,” we brought awareness to the artist’s lifestyle, examining the emotional toll it takes to maintain one’s reputation.

I’ve discovered that I can become a completely different person in concert dance. I am allowed to represent ideas that don’t fall under the MN Joe “brand.” In performance, I am unafraid to look like a fool, something I’d avoid at all costs in competition. It is liberating and challenging to break in a way that runs so opposite to what I’m accustomed to. In battles, I aggressively direct all my moves at an opponent with the intent to defeat them. On the stage, I am invested in defying expectations of the dance by deconstructing and distilling the movement through storytelling and juxtaposition.

In my experience, coming up with new moves feels like discovering a new species in nature — filled with awe and wonder. But there are days when absolutely nothing works, and I feel like I am just fooling myself into thinking that my art matters. Concert dance gives me the freedom to express the process of that journey and the emotional rollercoaster ride on which it takes me. I strive to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. And the work I create with BRKFST is cathartic and therapeutic in addressing these feelings.

That is why my goal is not just to win, but to share the story of my career through performance, teaching, and discussion. I hope to inspire our young, diverse breaking community — a group composed of mostly underprivileged minorities — by challenging them to find new ways to express their creativity. Moreover, I aim to spur honest dialogue between breakers and other artists about their experiences to create a more vibrant arts ecosystem in Minnesota.

I still believe it is important to maintain the roots of the culture through battles. But instead of just beating one another in competition, we can also lift up our community by being open and vulnerable about the unpredictable journey of dance.