Dancers get full Northfield Experience in Carleton-St. Olaf collaboration

What is the Northfield Experience? Ask Carleton's dance community and they'll be happy to show you in a window at the public library.

Thomas Rozwadowski May 1, 2018
Windows become an important frame for Carleton dancers as part of a Northfield Experience routine inside the public space.

Erin Arntson’s senior year is about to end with her dancing in the window of the Northfield Public Library. It’s one of several happy places Arntson ’18 has discovered since joining Carleton dance groups like Semaphore during her four years on campus.

Arntson (Grand Rapids, Minn.) is one of 18 Carleton dancers who’ll be participating in the Northfield Experience, a site-specific performance event from award-winning Los Angeles-based director and choreographer Stephan Koplowitz. In collaboration with Carleton, St. Olaf, and the city of Northfield, Koplowitz is using several artistic elements — dance, music, theater, visual installations, and digital media — to build an immersive walking tour inspired by several community locations. Carleton dancers will be performing primarily in and around the Northfield Public Library before a finale in collaboration with St. Olaf dancers at the Northfield Cemetery. In all, the Northfield Experience will feature nearly 300 performers and 30 visual artists in what Koplowitz describes as an ambitious project to “alter people’s perspectives of place, site, and scale, all infused with a sense of the human condition.”

We caught up with Arntson and Carleton associate professor of dance/Semaphore co-director Judith Howard to discuss their Northfield Experience work — especially all that library dancing — before this week’s set of performances.

What prompted this unique collaboration with Stephan and St. Olaf?

Howard: St. Olaf really drove this. We’ve always been looking for a way to do something with them, but our schedules never meshed. They had the connection to Stephan, and Northfield Experience really fit the mission of Semaphore (which gave up its spring concert to do this) while serving as an important bridge between the schools. There was a lot of excitement in making that connection—and really, the connection to the town itself. It’s really promising that we could also do something with Northfield.

I look at Northfield Experience as a different form of civic engagement for students and faculty. This is something happening outside of Carleton’s walls—and that’s important. Even for students to travel a block to the (Northfield) library, where Semaphore is working on their piece, means they have to rub shoulders with librarians, or engage with people in the community who walk by and ask, “Oh, what are you doing?” Three times a week, the dancers have been rehearsing in the library, which means moving furniture there, being up in the windows, counting, dancing to music. … there’s real engagement with Northfield that’s definitely a bigger part of all this.

Stephan Koplowitz oversees a Northfield Experience routineStephan Koplowitz oversees a Northfield Experience routine Photo: Dan Iverson

What’s been exciting, perhaps challenging, about this project as a dancer?

Arntson: It’s really different for us to be making a site-specific work. When we’re inside the library, we’re in these windows that are probably an arm wingspan wide, maybe three feet tall. So it’s, ‘OK, make up an eight count where you are only in the windows. And don’t expand outside the window.’ So we’d make up a phrase in the window! It dictates the movement you’re doing, which is really interesting and cool. Then you start to see Stephan’s mind work. ‘OK, what can we do with this?’ He’s really thinking it through. ‘Oh, what if you went here and did this?’ We’re very much in the process with him.

Howard: Stephan makes the final decisions, but all the way through, there’s a lot of shaping and organizing, giving prompts or little assignments so the students can go off and create. Everything you see the dancers doing in Northfield Experience has been generated from their own bodies, their own ideas. There are bigger concepts to look for, too. Not that the audience needs to know it to enjoy the dancing, but the library performance is about time and clocks, the inner workings of clocks. …

Arntson: Also, looking at books and how they serve as history, the passage of time. There’s a bigger theme there. It’s a cool process to be part of. You get to play a little bit.

How does working with a guest artist like Stephan fit with dance objectives at Carleton?

Howard: Semaphore has a lot of guest artists and faculty choreographers, so students have had exposure to guests before. But the crossover because of St. Olaf and Stephan just feels different. The scale of this is much bigger. Most of our Carleton work takes place in a theatrical setting. That’s not true of Northfield Experience.

As a Carleton dance community, we want to stretch people’s assumptions and perceptions of what dance is and where dance needs to take place. Site-specific work is an important connection to make for students. And we can’t always offer that at Carleton. But it’s an important part of the contemporary dance experience—and it’s important that we look to bring those opportunities from outside directors when we can.

Carleton dancers rehearse at Northfield Public LibraryCarleton dancers rehearse at Northfield Public Library Photo: Dan Iverson

What do you appreciate about Northfield Experience? Have you had a chance to settle on your own interpretation of what all the components mean?

Howard: We won’t know the impact of some pieces of the project until the actual performance! That’s exciting. We’ve been on the ground—so busy with the movements and rehearsing our small parts—and soon, we’re going to feel the largesse of the project. That’s what Stephan gets. He knows the entire framework. We haven’t always been able to see that. He tries very hard to bring us into the bigger project. But how this fits into a context beyond Carleton, or St. Olaf, or Northfield, or the connection between those communities—tying together history, schools, architecture, eras, people—I really hope it’ll open some doors. Or windows, if you want to be more accurate. (Laughs).

Arntson: I love that we’re bringing dance to the library, to other spaces, rather than having people come to a Carleton theater to see it. It’s not just saying, ‘Hey, come to the Weitz and see Semaphore perform.’ It might sound cheesy given the title, but it’s a way for everyone to experience Northfield in a different way. As the audience, you get to move around locations. There’s a big finale where you can see everything come together. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell my friends or other Carleton students about the project, and really, I just think it’s cool to say, 'The town you go to college in and the way you see it every day? It’s going to be totally different through this set of performances.'

ABOUT THE EVENT

Performances for the Northfield Experience cost $6 and run from Friday, May 4 through Sunday, May 6. Carleton students may attend the 6 p.m. Thursday, May 3 dress rehearsal for free with their student ID. There are also a limited number of free tickets available for college students who arrive early on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

Northfield Experience begins at The Grand Event Center, 316 Washington Street. Most locations are within walking distance, but a bus is available upon request.

For tickets or more information, including all site locations, visit the Northfield Arts Guild and The Northfield Experience.