‘Dancing diplomat’: choreographer to take lessons from her time at Trollwood

“How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying”
Presented by Trollwood Performing Arts School
July 16 – 19, July 23 – 26, July 30 – August 2
All shows at 8 p.m.
Bluestem Amphitheatre

Aysha Upchurch refers to herself, half-jokingly, as a “dancing diplomat.”

It might seem like an odd mashup of concepts, but her logic is pretty sound. In addition to studies in opera and dance, she pursued an international relations degree at American University. Over her 10 years as a dance instructor and choreographer at Trollwood Performing Arts School, she has taught and connected with hundreds of students. Her stint at Trollwood will end after this season, and she will enter graduate school at Harvard with a goal to advocate for the arts in mainstream American life.

All of it stems from one basic fact, Upchurch says: Dance is her preferred way to communicate.

“Dance is my body’s way of going, ‘This is how you are; this is your release.’ I’m not afraid of words, but I think I would choose to dance something or make it a presentation or performance before words. I think I was just meant to do that,” she says.

Upchurch’s time with Trollwood began in 2003, when a friend heard of the opportunity to teach dance at what is now called Trollwood Academy, spending a few weeks teaching here each summer away from her home in Washington, D.C.

She made the move over to choreography for the Trollwood main stage show in 2010, and has choreographed the last four main stage productions including this year’s “Mad Men”-tinged presentation of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

She says her time as an educator at Trollwood has given her a new set of expectations to take out into her other work.

“I am in awe of this organization, its mission, and the caliber of instruction from both the faculty and the students,” Upchurch says, “I was just amazed this existed, and I drank all the Kool-Aid.”

That passion is reciprocated when Upchurch works with Trollwood students, says Trollwood Executive Director Kathy Anderson.

“She’s so personable and cares so much about these students,” Anderson says. “It’s a very student-centered approach. She’s patient, and she has the vision for what she’s looking for and she knows how to get it.”

“Plus, she works with a lot of different levels of students, some who haven’t had a lot of dance in their background, and she is able to pull out of them something that they didn’t think was possible,” Anderson adds.

Those students are even taking Upchuch’s instruction out with them professionally.

Grace Kidder, 17, just graduated from Shanley High School, and will attend Oklahoma City University in the fall to take up dance performance. She’s been working alongside Upchurch as a student leader, assisting her in choreography duties. In the process, Kidder says she’s been pushed to improve her dancing, particularly tap dancing, while picking up some behind-the-scenes skills.

“I learned how to be a leader while still maintaining an attitude of fun, having people respect you while still liking you,” Kidder says. “She’s taught me how to be more creative with my blocking and choreography, setting up people so everyone can see as opposed to just the center stage.”

James Hoselton, 17, will be a senior at Shanley High School in the fall, and is involved with his third Trollwood main stage show. He says Upchurch introduced him to hip-hop styles while teaching the idea of choreography and its “complicated” process. He adds that her expertise goes beyond dance.

“She’s given me so many life lessons. Knowledge is constantly spilling out of her, and I’m standing by with a bucket ready to catch it,” he says, laughing.

Upchurch says she’ll miss the interaction with the students of Trollwood, but, as she moves out into her career, she’ll be taking a lot of practical experience with her. She credits the wide embrace of the arts by the schools in the Fargo area and wants to see similar funding models put in place elsewhere in the country. As an educator, she also hopes to create more dancing diplomats.

“I love teaching dance because I love to be able to present my world to students of all ages,” she says. “I like giving them that opportunity to be in their bodies and be in touch with their bodies. It opens up something in people, I think, to be able to kinesthetically get to know yourself.”

Image: Aysha Upchurch leads a dance lesson with students at Trollwood Performing Arts School. Photo by Dave Samson / The Forum.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the Wednesday, July 17, 2014 issue of the paper.

‘A conversation of images’: Sandy Spieler talks about the power of puppetry

Thursday Night Live, featuring Sandy Spieler and Dwight Mickelson
5 – 8 p.m., free and open to the public
Plains Art Museum

This week has been an exciting one at the Plains Art Museum, as it’s hosted Sandy Spieler, artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theatre in Minneapolis.

Spieler has been hosting her free toy theatre workshop for ages 16 and up. With small tabletop stages and boxes, participants have created their own little worlds, particularly focusing on the relationship between oil and water.

She hopes to use puppetry as a catalyst for conversation and forming human connections.

“It’s definitely an intimate form,” she says, “as opposed to puppets in the theater, which are ceremonial kinds of puppets. But toy theater lends itself to a more intimate kind of conversation. And when I say conversation, I don’t necessarily mean words. It could be a conversation of images.”

Oil is a significant regional issue that she hopes the workshop can find different, creative ways to address.

“I know that because the oil fields are so close and they’re on these train rides that go through Fargo, there’s all kinds of questions and opinions and wonders and curiosity about what this means. So this is a chance for people to investigate what that means in a different way than what the newspaper stories are.”

Puppetry is a flexible art form that lends itself to many possibilities, as Spieler points out.

“The puppet itself does not necessarily have to be human—it can be a spirit, it can be an animal, it can be an inanimate object… a house can suddenly come alive and tell its stories. It builds a very poetic layering of stories that are present at any one time.”

Tonight, the Museum will host Thursday Night Live, where the workshop participants will conduct a live performance for the general public, followed by a talk by Dwight Mickelson about the Nature Experience and Shelter Transformer (NEST), a center he hopes to construct as a haven for nature-based art, music, and dance, with the help of local artists and community volunteers. Thursday Night Live will run from 5 – 8 p.m.

More than anything, Spieler wishes to share her passion for the art form, and for the history and culture behind it.

“I really think that this form of theater—puppets, masks—really rose up as people created a form to be able to express their connection both to each other but also to the earth and to past times, and ancestors and to their gods and goddesses and… really looking at the connection of the cycles of earth, life and death.”

Spieler has been the artistic director of In the Heart of the Beast Mask and Puppet Theatre for thirty-eight years. In addition to live puppet performances, this theatre’s events include the May Day Festivals, collaborations with the Minnesota Orchestra, and neighborhood youth programs.

Image: Sandy Spieler from the Minnesota Original series on Twin Cities Public Television, via TPT.

The Week Ahead: ‘How to Succeed’ | BLOCH | Meredith Lynn at TMI

 Fargo area arts events for the week of July 17 – 23, 2014
Through the weekend

Trollwood Performing Arts School opens their main stage production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” opens tonight and continues through Saturday, kicking off a three-week run at Bluestem Amphitheater. To whet your appetite for the show, check out our profile on Trollwood choreographer Aysha Upchurch in today’s Forum–she’s pretty spectacular. All shows are at 8:30; visit the Trollwood website for ticket info. [Trollwood]

The Downtown Street Fair kicks off tomorrow, giving all us downtowners an even more enviable set of lunch options. It also will be the setting for Fargo’s public debut of BLOCH (top of page), a global art project created by Swiss artist duo Com&Com that is making its only scheduled North American stop in North Dakota. BLOCH will be on display in the US Bank Plaza … but trust me, you can’t miss it. It’s a large tree, after all. But, be sure to step in closer to catch the amazing detail a number of local artists are adding to it. Use #blochnd in your Instagrams, Facebooks, and tweets with BLOCH, and we’ll compile them all on our ongoing Storify, here. [Downtown Street Fair]

Blur Productions will present their production of “The Great Gatsby” at the Fargo Theatre with a run from Thursday through Monday, two shows a day at 7 and 9 p.m. at the Fargo Theatre. Details: [Blur Productions]

The Gooseberry Park Players will conclude their run of “The Sound of Music” with 7 p.m. shows through Saturday and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. at Concordia’s Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre. Tickets and info: [Gooseberry Park Players]

Straw Hat Players are into their home stretch, concluding their 51st summer stock run with stagings of “Fiddler on the Roof” tonight through Friday at MSUM’s Hansen Theatre. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. [Straw Hat Players]

Thursday, July 16

All Sky Here small

Book artist and illustrator Meredith Lynn will open an exhibition of new work entitled “Elkhorn Ranch” (above) as part of TMI Hospitality’s artist in residence program (a collaboration with us here at The Arts Partnership). Lynn’s series draws from a traumatic experience that manifests itself through humor, unlikely details, and a connection to the landscape. The reception runs from 5:30 – 7 p.m. at TMI Headquarters. Check out our video of Lynn talking about the project here. [TMI Hospitality/Facebook]

Want to share the thrill of a live show with your whole family? The Moorhead Library will host local folk faves Amanda Standalone and the Pastry Shop Girls with a free, all-ages concert starting at 6:30 p.m. [Moorhead Public Library]

At the HoDo Lounge, you can catch folk/bluegrass singer Julie Buck, starting at 8 p.m. No cover. [Hotel Donaldson]

Friday, July 18


Painter Kim Jore has been painting portraits of local watering holes for five years, and this year’s series heads east to the watering holes next to … large holes of water. Her “Pubs and Places by the Lake” series features some of the tiny, out-of-the-way bars and restaurants that have been quenching thirsts for generations. Look for our story in Monday’s Forum, and in the meantime, check out the opening reception at the Speakeasy in Detroit Lakes, 6 – 9 p.m. [Kim Jore/Facebook]

Sunday, July 20

The Fargo Park District will host a German Folk Festival at Rheault Farm from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can enjoy kuchen (!), listen to music, get an accordion lesson, sample some German beer and wines, and get that bratwurst covered in some tangy sauerkraut. Also, you can revel in the recent World Cup victory (but try to act polite if you meet someone from Brazil). [Fargo Park District]

Monday, July 21

The MSUM Summer Cinema Series presents “The Lost World (1925).” The show will start at 7:30 p.m. in Weld Hall, and it’s $4 a ticket.

Forecasters are telling us to brace for some heat next week. Good news for the tomatoes, bad news if you don’t have central air. You can beat the heat and get the family out of the house-oven with a trip to Island Park to watch “Shrek” projected on an inflatable screen. The show starts right around sundown, 9:15-ish. Free Pepsi and popcorn while supplies last. Bring a blanket! [Fargo Parks]

Wednesday, July 23

Act Up Theatre opens its second production of the summer season at The Stage at Island Park with “Next to Normal,” a play that explores how a family deals with crisis and mental illness. The show Wednesday through Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. All shows are 7 p.m.; head over to the website for tickets: [Act Up]

Images, from top: Ruth Evenson and Larry Longtine of the Red River Valley Woodcarvers work on BLOCH, photo courtesy of the North Dakota Council on the Arts; “It’s All Sky Here,” illustration by Meredith Lynn, courtesy of the artist; “Speakeasy,” watercolor by Kim Jore, courtesy of the artist.

Landscape, winter, bad jokes: Meredith Lynn’s deeply personal ‘Elkhorn Ranch’

“Elkhorn Ranch,” new illustrations and book art by Meredith Lynn
July 17 – November 9
Opening reception Thursday, July 17, 5:30 – 7 p.m.
TMI Hospitality HQ, 4850 32nd Avenue South, Fargo

A number of disparate ideas pop up in Meredith Lynn’s new series of drawings and book art, “Elkhorn Ranch.” “The Cosby Show.” Leaves. Teddy Roosevelt. Jokes about Wisconsin. And, Lynn herself.

Good stories often have their peculiarities and non sequitors, tiny concrete data points that can only come from direct experience, their unexpectedness reminding us of the give-and-take relationship between that experience and memory while offering us invaluable avenues for interpretation.

A Totem (leaf) small

In Lynne’s new TMI Hospitality exhibition, opening Thursday evening, these details collude to document the sudden death of her college roommate and the emotional manifestations she noticed in herself in the subsequent weeks and months. These tiny details–falling asleep to “The Cosby Show” and waking up to hear the bad news, for instance–orient that memory for her and, for us, lend it atmosphere.

The death happened during the winter of 2012 and, as Lynne recalls in the embedded video, she began to find some solace in the bitter cold and stark winter landscapes of North Dakota and Western Minnesota. She found a historical parallel in the life of Teddy Roosevelt, who absconded to his ranch in North Dakota to mourn the deaths of his first wife and mother, which both happened on the same day and in the same house.

Cosby Show small

“It seemed to me that he was doing the same thing I was doing, where he was using this area and the harshness of this area to help him deal with these really difficult feelings,” Lynn says, “this series of drawings is really about that experience and the ways in which landscape, climate, things like that … we can form this intense emotional relationship to these things.”

Images, from top: “All Sky Here;” “A Totem (leaf);” “Cosby Show.” All works by Meredith Lynn, images courtesy of the artist. Video by the author.