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Dancing on water
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As part of "Solstice River," dancers perform on structures like the St. Anthony lock and dam. (Photo by Bruce Chalgren)
Marylee Hardenbergh dances on the Mississippi -- literally. For the last eight years, she and her company have produced a Solstice Dance on and around the river in downtown Minneapolis. It's designed to deepen people's relationship to the great Mississippi.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Standing on the deck of the St. Anthony Lock and Dam by the Stone Arch Bridge, choreographer Marylee Hardenbergh surveys her stage.

Hardenbergh has been creating site-specific dance performances for years. The dances are built around the setting in which they're performed -- if you try to recreate them somewhere else, they fall apart and lose their meaning. But when done correctly, she says, they change the nature of the place itself.

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Image Marylee Hardenbergh and Tracy Fredin

"What I love about site-specific performance is that the audience will never see that site again in the same way," says Hardenbergh. "So whereas the dance itself leaves no footprints at all on the land -- it's ephemeral, it's there, it's gone -- the impact in people's minds lasts forever."

Hardenbergh's Solstice River performance was not inspired by the Mississippi, but by what she saw in it -- mooring cells, metal and concrete disks where towboats tie up while waiting to go through the locks. "One night I was walking across the bridge to buy an ice cream cone. It was in the heat of the summer, and I looked back and saw these mooring cells and thought, 'Oh! Each of those could be a tiny stage for one dancer,'" says Hardenbergh.

It was only later that the renovated Stone Arch Bridge opened to the public, and Hardenbergh was able to incorporate it into her performances as well.

Over the years Hardenbergh has tried to take advantage of many unique spaces. Dancers perform in kayaks, on the lock, on top of nearby lofts and university buildings. They perform to music broadcast across the width of the river, from loudspeakers and on the radio.

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Image Women of the Waters

Hardenbergh says she wants the dancers to appear like separate stars in a constellation surrounding the audience. She wants to draw people's eyes to the beauty of their surroundings.

"Throughout the dance they first look downriver. Then they look upriver. Then, there are dancers on the right, dancers on the left bank," says Hardenbergh. "So that it's not just a vast undefined space anymore for [the audience]. They've had these little beacons of energy and color and light to help them structure that space."

Hardenbergh was at first surprised when people told her the performance left them feeling more connected to the river, and their community. She says she's now focused on that idea, and for her the purpose of the dance has deepened over the years.

Tracy Fredin, director of the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University, which is co-presenting the Solstice River dance, says this is an opportunity to celebrate all the ways in which people interact with the river. He says Hardenbergh's performance is also an important component in a broader environmental movement.

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Image St. Anthony Falls

"At a certain point there's been a division between science and art, and even maybe environment and art. And we feel it's important to pull those back together to get an interdisciplinary approach," says Fredin. "Many of the problems that we've made in environmental situations have been because we've only looked at one level of the problem and solved that -- and by solving that problem we may have created 10 others."

Fredin says the Solstice River performance connects people to the river, which gets them to care about its health and future, and inspires them to take action. Choreographer Marylee Hardenbergh hopes he's right.

"This river is so beautiful," says Hardenbergh. "It's something many people take for granted. They drive over on the freeway, and they barely look down. I'm giving people a bowl of time. I'm giving people a chance to stand and just be."

Solstice River takes place each June on some of the longest days of the year on the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis. The event is free.

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