Pictures: Jack Steinmann & Story: Lisa Steinmann
The stage was set. A perfect summer day on a stretch of the Mississippi River. The performance space was water, measured off between the sleek, cement Broadway Avenue Bridge and the angulated, iron truss bridge just in front of Orvin “Ole” Olson Park. The backdrop was the scrubby shore and the powerline-punctuated treeline of Northeast Minneapolis against a late-summer sky. A floating dock anchored to shore held Improvestra, a group of strings, horns and drums that provided music that moved with the rippled water–sometimes pulling like an undertow and sometimes hovering like a river gnat. A crowd had gathered on the grass and yellow vetch tangled north shore, to watch Patrick Scully’s 2015 Boat Ballet, the featured attraction this year at the the third annual Riverfront Fest.
No tutus here; just a variety of boats, sunglasses and hats. Prominent were the kayaks in a popsicle array of colors. These nimble watercraft, with paddles oscillating, moved in circles and lines crossing the span of water from shore to shore in coordinated, rthymic courses and circles, passing through a line of canoes from time to time–much to the pleasure of the audience. In the background sunfish sailboats puffed through on gentle river breezes. But no one was closer to the river than the rowers from the Minneapolis Rowing Club. They appeared to sit on water in their slender vessels, muscling their way with pencil thin paddles to center stage from the south, where a perfect bouquet of downtown’s skyscrapers was posed. The rowers brought to mind the tireless crawling of water striders.
Voices, crackling and muffled, belonging to Scully or his assistant Kalen Keir, could be discerned, as they called via walkie-talkies to the fifty or so dancers who kept the audience entranced. Besides the ususal watercraft there were stand-up paddle boards and a several unique vehicles: one a mini catamaran powered by a bicycle and a couple more like it, only with reclined bicycles. There was also a drone (I imagine a video camera-equipped one); a strange insect-like presence, buzzing above the action with glowing green eyes.
As the sun dipped the music grew to a beating crescendo and the water craft massed on the west shore and proceeded straight for the audience. As they arrived on the beach they raised and their paddles in joyful victory. The crowd offered up applause and wild whoops–Twain would have gripped his cigar in his teeth and joined in, I imagine. It was wild and fun. That’s the Mississippi spirit.