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Courtesy of Armour Photography

Courtesy of Armour Photography

This year ARENA DANCES in Minneapolis celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since founding this dance company, artistic director Mathew Janczewski has created more than 40 works, along with commissioned creations for other companies and educational institutions. We visited with him recently.

YPP: To what do you attribute ARENA DANCES’ longevity?

Janczewski: Perseverance. I started out as a project-based pickup company, lucky to get some grants and foundation support. To move forward making work from my ideas, I became a nonprofit in 2001. It’s a lot of work juggling different responsibilities including fundraising, marketing and finance; I still hold several outside jobs. I also have a board of directors assisting me and providing guidance. Not many Twin Cities dance organizations are nonprofits; it’s more common for independent choreographers to solicit fiscal sponsors. As a nonprofit, we have more opportunities for grants.

One of my goals is making dance more accessible to the general public. Most schoolkids, for example, are not exposed to dance. I wish everyone gave it a chance; there’s so many artists out there and different types of dance. Just as a viewer of art isn’t attracted to every painting by a certain artist, I hope our dance audiences keep that same perspective. You may not like everything I work on, but I hope you remain interested in seeing what’s next.

YPP: Anything you’d have done differently?

arena dances

Dancers from L to R: Elise Erickson, Lucas Melsha, Sarah Baumert, Dustin Haug, Timmy Wagner and Kimmie Allen. (Dan Norman Photography)

Janczewski: I’m very driven to produce the creations in my head, but I think there were times I could have said ‘no’ to certain activities. Looking back, we didn’t always stay true to the image I wanted for ARENA DANCES and my work. For example, we held a dance-swimwear fashion event fundraiser for eight years; it raised money but didn’t really expand our audience or advance our creativity. We attempted to create a party, fashion-show atmosphere that would also expose people to modern dance.

YPP: How do you create a dance work?

Janczewski: In my head I have works I want to create; I follow my passion. Then it’s a matter of planning the project and finding right dancers. As I’ve matured, I’m more thoughtful and focused on details, which means works take longer. Even though my works may have similar vocabularies, they run the gamut from highly physical, musical and virtuosic abstract dance to more theatrical dance with a character-based narrative.

In planning, I think about the community we’re trying to reach to research funding applications that can help us. A grant writer consultant assists me by translating my ‘dream world’ of dance into the language of the application. I also review our donor base to see who might support the work.

YPP: Among the performing arts, how does dance fit in?

Janczewski: Like any other artwork, dance is an expression of the times. That’s the beauty of dance. Beyond other art works, dance is in the moment: it’s a fleeting experience for the viewer. Dance should evoke an emotional, kinetic response. This hasn’t changed – it’s always been this way. There are just more dance styles today.

The current popularity of shows like “Dancing with the Stars” has skewed the vision of the masses, who may consider dance just passive entertainment. Modern dance isn’t like that – you have to think about it. Because it’s more open to interpretation and emotional response, dance can be more uncomfortable and intimidating for audiences. Sometimes people like more direction and guidance. I think this is one reason why dance and poetry are sometimes held in less esteem than other art forms.

YPP: What makes the Twin Cities dance community special?

Janczewski: I credit the people, starting years ago with Loyce Houlton and Nancy Hauser and growing from there. Today we are definitely one of the top five dance communities in the U.S., maybe the top three. The University of Minnesota’s dance program is highly regarded. A huge benefit is how well Minnesotans support the arts; this funding helps make our area a comfortable place to live for artists.

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