St. Paul, February 6. 2001. A yearlong collaboration among high school students and teachers, a women’s peace organization, and a Hmong refugee, all brought together by Twin Cities composer Janika Vandervelde, will reach its culmination on March 8 with a communal performance event involving singers, dancers, instrumentalists, speaking voices, recorded sounds, and projected texts.

Titled Dancing in Circles,the work gives voice to local immigrant women whose lives have been scarred by war. Partners in the collaboration include students and faculty of the Minnesota Arts High School in Golden Valley, nine members of the Minnesota Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), and Mary Yang, a Hmong woman, born in the midst of war, who for the past 20 years has made her home in St. Paul. (See below for profiles of the collaborators.)

Performances of the work will be given at 1:00, 2:30, and 7:30 PM on Thursday, March 8, in the Performance Hall of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, 6125 Olson Memorial Highway, Golden Valley. Admission is free, but seating is limited.

The collaboration is one of several organized by Ms. Vandervelde with the aid of a grant made by Meet the Composer, a New York City-based nonprofit, through its national New Residencies program. Under this program, musical performing and presenting organizations join forces with a variety of community-based organizations to host a resident composer. Over a three-year residency period, the composer creates a number of new works that speak to the aspirations and concerns of the host community, and engages community members in the development and realization of those works. The program aims to demonstrate and maximize the power of a gifted artist to expand the mind, stir the imagination, and build enduring bridges between previously unconnected groups and individuals.

"What’s most stunning about this project is the way it’s drawn such diverse people together," said Ms. Vandervelde. "As composer-in-residence, I have the enviable job of weaving the unique stories and skills of all the different contributors into an affecting whole. That’s the power of community-based art—and it’s exactly what the Meet the Composer residencies were intended to achieve."

Marilyn Cuneo, Chair of WILPF’s Arts Committee, echoed Vandervelde’s words. "The students are invigorating," she said, noting that contemporary American culture offers few opportunities for the young and the old to work together. "It’s been wonderful to cooperate with the school and with Janika on a project with such resonance, both in our own community and globally."

Dancing in Circles is the second installment in an ongoing WILPF series, ‘Sharing Stories, Creating Hope’, which focuses on local women who have suffered and survived human rights abuses. The first story in the series concerned Ethiopian women subjected to genital mutilation. Further installments are planned.

The texts incorporated into Dancing in Circles include several riddles by members of the Arts High School’s senior literary arts class and poems by students Josie Halpern-Finnerty ("Who Cries for the Mothers?") and Maya Vang ("Tearing Away" and "Dreams from an Old Land"). The work, about 75 minutes in duration, is scored for choir, solo soprano, speaking voices, marimba, viola, flute, and electronic soundtrack. At intervals during Ms. Vandervelde’s composition, Ms. Yang will tell her own story to the audience, assisted by nine members of WILPF.

"One of the core goals of the Arts High School," said Mark Youngstrom, Director of School Programs, "is to help students be aware of their own emotional, mental, and physical health while recognizing responsibilities to a larger community, both local and global. The ‘Sharing Stories, Creating Hope’ project provides a compelling connection to this goal, offering a venue for Arts High School students to create and perform work that contrasts the misery of war with the power of the human spirit."

Arts High School faculty members with key roles in the project are Janice Hunton (music coordinator), Mary Harding (dance coordinator), and John Colburn (literary arts coordinator). The many facets of the collaborative process have been coordinated by Twin Cities theater artist Carolyn Goelzer, best known for her one-woman show based on the life of singer Janis Joplin.

It is hoped that a version of the March 8th production will tour to other schools in the region.

Summing up the aims of the project, WILPF’s Marilyn Cuneo said: "It’s about making a place for people like Mary Yang to tell their stories—compelling, real-life stories that might otherwise go unheard. It’s about the importance of empathy. And it’s about reinforcing people’s determination to help prevent violence in the small sphere of influence they have."


The Arts High School is an innovative, tuition-free public high school delivering a comprehensive education centered in the arts. A statewide program for 11th- and 12th-grade students, it offers a residential component for students from outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Enrolling some 300 students annually, the school provides instruction in dance, literary arts, media arts, music, theater, and visual arts, along with college preparatory courses in English, mathematics, science, social studies, and world languages. Established in 1989, the Arts High School is part of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a state agency created and funded by the Minnesota Legislature.

For further information on the Arts High School and its programs, contact Mark Youngstrom, Director of School Programs, at (763) 591-4710.

 The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) is an international women’s peace organization with branches in 42 countries. Founded in 1915 by Jane Addams and others, it is the oldest organization of its kind. Headquartered in Geneva, WILPF seeks to empower women as peacemakers by advocating for peace at the international level, lobbying for the non-violent resolution of conflicts, and working in concert with United Nations agencies and other non-governmental organizations.

The Arts Committee of WILPF’s Minnesota Chapter grew out of meetings held in 1994 in preparation for the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. The Committee’s subsequent activities have included puppet shows, videos, traveling exhibits, and the ‘Sharing Stories, Creating Hope’ project, devoted to women in the community who have experienced and overcome human rights abuses. The first story in this continuing series concerned Ethiopian women who had been subjected to genital mutilation. The story of Mary Yang, which reveals the effects of war on women and children and represents the stories of many of the 70,000 Hmong Americans now residing in Minnesota, is the second in the series.

For informatin on WILPF and its activities, contact Marilyn Cuneo, Arts Committee Chair, at (612) 825-9419.

Mary Yang was born into the White Hmong clan in northern Laos around 1955, the third of 14 children. War was constant throughout her childhood, and her family was always on the move, repeatedly fleeing into the forests to escape the fighting. In 1971, she was abducted and forced into marriage by a Hmong soldier. Distraught, she attempted suicide. But she survived, and in 1973 gave birth to a son, the first of her eight children. She remains with her husband.

In 1975, after American forces withdrew from the region and a genocidal campaign was launched against the Hmong people, Mary Yang and her family fled on foot to Thailand, where they lived in a succession of refugee camps. In 1979 they came to the United States, spending six months in Casper, Wyoming before settling in the Twin Cities and embarking on a new life in an alien culture. Today, Mary Yang speaks English, drives a car, and works in a medical clinic. But she still dreams of running through the Laotian forest, clutching her mother’s skirt, with soldiers in pursuit. Hers is the story of her people and her generation.

 The mission of Meet the Composer is to increase opportunities for composers by fostering the creation, performance, dissemination, and appreciation of their music. Founded in 1974 and based in New York City, it serves composers of every kind of music throughout the United States. Its New Residencies program, established in 1992, embodies the conviction that individual artists can have a deep and lasting impact on the cultural and social life of communities.

Under the program, performing and presenting organizations form partnerships with community groups (such as schools, neighborhood centers, social service agencies, and places of worship) to host a resident composer. During the residency, the composer creates numerous works for the host communities, involves community members in the development and presentation of new works, and engages diverse individuals in experiences intended to make them more acute and committed listeners.

Funding for New Residencies is provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts and other donors.

Composer Janika Vandervelde has written more than 70 works for orchestras, choirs, instrumental ensembles, and the stage, including the operas Hildegard and Seven Sevens. She has been commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Dale Warland Singers, the Guthrie Theater, Zeitgeist, and others, and has received grants and fellowships from the Bush Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Minnesota State Arts Board, and Minnesota Composers Forum. She has taught at the Arts High School since 1990.

Ms. Vandervelde’s Meet the Composer residency began in 1999 and concludes in 2002; other partners in her residency consortium are the MinnesotaChorale (lead organization) and the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota. Her recent compositions include a concerto for Twin Cities-based pipa virtuosa Gao Hong, premiered in San Francisco last May, and Cosmos, an "all-persons’ guide to the orchestra and space adventure," premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra in January. Her Adventures of the Black Dot, a staged choral fantasy also created in the context of her residency, will be premiered by the Minnesota Chorale and assisting artists at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on Friday, May 18.

Contact Ms. Vandervelde at (651) 690-3000.

Dancing in Circles in brief

who: composer Janika Vandervelde, students and faculty of the Arts High School, members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Hmong American Mary Yang

what:  Dancing in Circles, a multi-media communal performance event, based on immigrant women’s stories, for singers, instrumentalists, dancers, speaking voices, recorded sounds, and projected texts

where: Performance Hall, Perpich Center for Arts Education (Arts High School), 6125 Olson Memorial Highway, Golden Valley, Minnesota

when: three performances (about 75 minutes in duration) on Thursday, March 8, 2001, at 1:00, 2:30, and 7:30 PM. Admission is free, but seating is limited!

further information: For information on the Arts High School and its programs, contact Mark Youngstrom at (763) 591-4710. For information on WILPF and its activities, contact Marilyn Cuneo at (612) 825-9419. For other information relating to this event, contact Janika Vandervelde at (651) 690-3000.

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