Stained glass windows cast golden sunlight in an old church in Park Rapids. The church is now the Northland Studio of Dance where, for the past nine months, a group of women has been meeting to rehearse for the One River Mississippi performance at the river's headwaters at Lake Itasca.
Local choreographer Elaine Hanson guides the dancers as they pair off with a glide and a twirl, holding brightly colored scarves between them. Hanson says she designed the graceful movements to reflect the spiritual power and life-giving force of the Mississippi.
"It starts with a reach off on a diagonal, sort of punching with energy into the sky, and then a drop and a circle," says Hanson, as she describes one segment of the dance. "There's a lot of rolling qualities is what we were thinking of, the water rolling down the river from Itasca down all the way through the cities to the mouth."
When the 40-minute piece is performed at Itasca Park at 7:00 p.m. Saturday, dancers will use the river as a stage. They'll dance in and out of the water, on rocks and on a small bridge. At one point, canoeists representing voyageurs glide in and dance a waltz with their paddles. Native American dancers from the White Earth Indian Reservation will add their traditional movements to the piece. The choreography reflects the history of the river and its importance to the local community.
What's unique about the event is that it will happen simultaneously at six other sites downriver. At the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis, performers will dance on grain silos, rooftops and barges. The other venues include the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois, St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and a Louisiana plantation near the Gulf of Mexico.
To Hanson, the dance is magical because of its synchronicity with the other sites.
"To me it just feels really strong," she says. "That invisible connection will be uniting all of us along the whole length of this incredible river. And to have us dancing at the same moment with the same intention I think will be a powerful experience."
Site-specific dances on the Mississippi aren't new. Minneapolis choreographer Marylee Hardenbergh came up with the idea for the One River Mississippi project. She's been organizing river-based dance performances for years below the Stone Arch Bridge. Hardenbergh says at first she didn't understand how powerful the dances were, how they affected the audience and people's relationship with the river.
Hardenbergh decided to combine her art with an environmental message. One River Mississippi audiences will get those messages through pamphlets handed out at each site. Hardenbergh says when people learn to love the Mississippi, they become better stewards.
"We are doing environmental education totally outside the box," says Hardenbergh. "We have found that when people come to see the performance here in Minneapolis, they open their hearts to the site. They feel closer to the river, they want to take better care of the river. Then it's the environmentalists' job to do the educating about what actions people can take to help the river."
A few years ago, Hardenbergh teamed with Hamline University's Center for Global Environmental Education. They began surveying audiences on the bridge, and then again six months later. They found that 60 percent of those surveyed said that after seeing the performance they had changed their individual behaviors to take better care of the water.
Tracy Fredin, director of the center, says art has a long history of transforming culture. Fredin says the artistic experience is a powerful tool to make people aware of environmental causes.
"It's hard to be an environmentalist and not feel negative about what's happening," he says. "There's always a crisis. The other side is a real celebration of our environment and the good things that are happening. And looking for common ground in celebration, or art as celebration, can be very powerful."
The music for One River Mississippi will be simulcast on radio stations up and down the river. Each site will be linked electronically with live audio and visual interactive connections.