Carl Flink gives dance a sporting chance

Athletic dancing
Carl Flink says his background in soccer has a definite influence on his style of choreography. He says he enjoys creating dynamic movement, without the added element of competition prevalent in sports.
Photo by Justin Christy

Minneapolis native Carl Flink is a seasoned dancer. He danced in New York City for ten years with, among others, the nationally known Jose Limon Company. But he's the first person to admit he's never looked the part.

"I just did not and do not have a traditional dancer's body," laughs Flink. "Indeed when I was with the Limon company, even after being a senior dancer and soloist, I was the dancer most likely to be mistaken for a stagehand."

Carl Flink
Carl Flink has had a roundabout journey on his way to becoming the director of the University of Minnesota's dance department. Flink was initially a soccer player, then went on to law school, but finally succumbed to his real passion - modern dance.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Flink looks more like a linebacker than professional dancer. His Black Label Movement Company is a no-nonsense modern dance group with moves heavily influenced by Flink's many years playing soccer. In the dance "Lost Lullabies" the sounds of dancers gasping for breath and stomping the floor become as much a part of the soundtrack as the music.

Flink says he still loves to play soccer, but he chose dance over sports because he wasn't interested in all the competition.

"The best dance photos I've ever seen in some ways are on sports pages," says Flink. "Three guys diving for a football and they're all horizontal to the floor. That's what I want in my dances, except I want to take the ball out of the image. I want to have three dancers flying, not because they're trying to score or stop someone from scoring but purely for the joy of diving and being horizontal to the floor."

Flink took his first dance class when he was nineteen and a student at the University of Minnesota. He had tried before. He remembers when he was a freshman in high school, already showing promise on the soccer field. He had a crush on a girl who was taking ballet, and he thought he might like it to, so he asked her how he could sign up. She laughed in his face.

"And it was a really strange moment," says Flink. "By the end of the day I was surrounded by about three or four senior athletes who had come up to me and said 'Hey, what's wrong with you? Why do you wanna go be a dancer?' The whole point they were making is there were concerns about my sexual identity."

This Bleeding Heart
"This Bleeding Heart" is one of six dances that Black Label Movement will perform in its first concert in the Twin Cities.
Photo by Justin Christy

Flink says he'd heard of athletes taking ballet classes and even performing, so he knew it could be done. But he caved to the peer pressure.

"I just said 'I'm done, I'm not going to take a dance class, it's just sports for me, yadda yadda yadda,' and so I just put that dream away," says Flink. "And it wasn't until five, six years later that I was able to say 'no, I really wanted to do that.'"

Having a non-traditional body turned out to be an asset. Flink headed to New York to see if he could make it as a dancer. At the time he couldn't even touch his toes. As an athlete he was willing to throw his body around in ways that might scare a professionally trained dancer. He joined the Limon company and at the age of 31 the former political science major found himself performing at the White House for President Clinton. The dance company was brought in through the servants' entrance.

"If you'd asked me when I was 20 when's the first time you'll ever be at the White House, the last thing in the world I would have ever said was 'as the entertainment,'" says Flink. "I would have figured I would be a congressional page or some politicians assistant or what not and that was the moment that sent me thinking about law school, and is dance what I want for the rest of my life."

Flink got a law degree at Stanford, dancing all the while. In 2001 he came back to Minnesota as a lawyer, but in his spare time he taught dance classes at the U of M.

Then he became a father. Flink realized if he was going to be a part of his daughter's life, he had to choose between law and dance. He followed his heart, and chose dance. Now he's heading the dance department at the University of Minnesota. He says it's synthesized all the skills he's learned in dance, law and even soccer.

Carl Flink's dance company, Black Label Movement, is made up of what Flink calls "movers." He encourages them to take risks, but also to find ways to make those physical risks as harmless as possible.
Photo by Justin Christy

Flink's choreography is dramatic, intimate and athletic. In his piece "fractured Narratives for a sad Ending" Flink tells the story of his relationship with his adopted sister. She died just over a year ago, after two decades of fighting her addiction to drugs.

"This piece is my first effort to try to reconcile the mysteries around her death and the struggles around her life," says Flink. "The last time I actually saw her I visited her at a county jail in Milwaukee where she was living and we were in a visitor's room, separated by glass."

In the dance Flink attempts to capture his desire to get closer to his sister, and his frustration at being blocked by an invisible barrier. Flink runs full tilt at the dancer portraying his sister - only to be jerked back by a rope tied to the wall. Flink admits, in the last days of rehearsal, he still hasn't attempted the move.

"It's going to hurt! And you just don't know what's going to happen," laughs Flink. "And that actually in some ways sums up Black Label Movement. There's a reality, there's an honesty to it that the audience member has to viscerally experience. It's not just 'Oh, that was a beautiful set of movements he put together.' Those are the risks that are worth taking."

Flink says he's seen the Minnesota dance community change and grow over the past 20 years. Yet now, as the Director of the university dance program, he's dealing with some of the same problems he faced as a freshman in high school.

"Where are the men? Why aren't they here? You have these reservoirs, you go to a soccer team, you look at a basketball team, a football team, a gymnastics team," says Flink. "These are untapped raw resources of dance movement. These are people who can jump 35 inches in the air, who can lift anything that's in front of them. What an incredible group of people if you could bring them into a dance class!"

Flink says students aren't just getting pressure from their peers, but from their parents, too. He says he often has to reassure parents that it's not the end of the world if their son wants to dance.

"We're regularly asked by parents, 'What does my child do with a dance major?'" says Flink. "The idea being that the only reason why a person would major in dance is to get into dance company or become a choreographer or become a dance teacher. That's not a question that people ask of English majors."

Flink says he hopes to help people to see dance for what it is - a physically demanding, athletic art. He'll start tonight at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.