"Out There" started pretty impulsively.
Then Walker Performing Arts Curator John Killacky was a year into his tenure and wanted to make an impression. Southern Theater Artistic Director Jeff Bartlett wanted to fill seats during the post holiday lull, but he told Killacky the artists should be "out there."
Suddenly, for a few weeks in January, the Southern became home to some of the most cutting edge performance work around. Little did Killacky know they had launched an enduring tradition.
"What's thrilling is you know, you had a little baby there and it was fantastic and 20-years later, it's grown up but it's not tamer," Killacky says.
"Out There" has traced the evolution of performance work over the last two decades, from solo identity art to ensemble pieces that are more complicated and technologically sophisticated.
It's also become more national and international in scope, especially with its move from the Southern to the Walker's new Maguire Theater.
John Killacky's successor, Phillip Bither, says many internationally known experimental performers, including Ping Chong, Ann Bogart and Elevator Repair Service, have gotten a huge career boost from "Out There." Bither admits many of these artists might be too under-the-radar for people to take a chance on them individually.
"But because its under a banner that people have come to trust and are excited about, and they know they can come and have a drink with the artists after opening night, or they can come and hear them talk on Fridays or take a workshop, there's a frame of the excitement of a festival that people just say 'I've never heard of Miguel Gutierrez but I'm gonna go cause it's opening Out There,' " he says.
For people seeking an offbeat, far-out movement theater experience, the opening night performance of Miguel Gutierrez and his Powerful People company didn't disappoint.
The audience was seated on the stage, which provided a somewhat unnerving proximity to the artists. The show began with company members walking out and staring at the audience for several minutes, while a cymbal tapped ominously in the background. It ended with the performers pairing up and passionately kissing each other as they gradually left the stage.
In between, there were convulsions of improvised chaotic movement, an exercise in which the performers ran in a line back and forth across the stage like athletes in a conditioning drill, and a multi-voiced monologue reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.
Afterward, audience members got a chance to mull it over and share a cocktail with the performers in the Walker's 20.21 restaurant. Nora, of Minneapolis, needed time to process.
"I'm not sure that I've absorbed it yet," she says. There were moments where it felt very manufactured to me, and other moments where it felt really organic. I'm still taking it in a little bit."
Nora, who dances herself, tries to take in one "Out There" show a year. Her friend Sarah, also a dancer, has seen every "Out There" performance for the last five years. Sarah says she's just thankful for the opportunity to see this kind of work.
"There's something about trying something out there, and putting it on stage, and if it's not something I love, that's fine too," she says.
That open attitude, says free lance dance writer and critic Linda Shapiro, is what you need at an "Out There" show.
"You can have an epiphany, or you can have a sort of numbing experience, or you can be bored," she says. "You're taking a chance, and what else is there to do in January?"
Shapiro says since the 1970s, the Walker, through its performances, workshops and artist talks, has emphasized risk taking.
"And I think that spirit of experimentation, of questioning the traditions became embedded in this community. And I think that Out There is a manifestation of that spirit."
Shapiro says the Twin Cities dance and movement performance scene is generally regarded as one of the most innovative and exciting in the country outside of New York. She says that's due in large part to the Walker's annual infusion of art and performance that's out there.