Issue 586 cover Johanne Jakhelln has worked with unorthodox spaces before. As the artistic director for Ballet Quad Cities, Jakhelln, for example, has had to deal with the choir step on the stage at Augustana College's Centennial Hall. "You have to be creative to integrate that into what you're doing," she said.

So the Mississippi River is no big thing. For this Saturday's one-hour performance One River Mississippi, Jakhelln merely needs to choreograph and coordinate more than 60 volunteer performers at seven sites along the river from the Centennial Bridge to the roller dam at Locks & Dam 15. She will just work with dancers, water skiers, boaters, and a Native American medicine woman. And it only needs to be coordinated with six other river sites - Itasca, Minnesota; Minneapolis; St. Louis; Memphis; New Orleans; and Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana - and set to music.

No big deal. Just like at Centennial Hall.

Of course, this type of site-specific performance piece would challenge anybody. Think of the opening or closing ceremonies of an Olympics - on a smaller scale, obviously - but outside of an arena. At the Olympics, Jakhelln noted, "you don't have a river between groups of dancers. ... You don't realize how large this space is."

One River Mississippi map One River Mississippi will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday. (See the map to the right for viewing and performance locations.) WVIK 90.3 FM will broadcast the introduction and music to which the performance has been choreographed. Other dance performances will be held at the same time in the six other participating communities on the Mississippi.

The goal is to create a program that combines art, culture, education, connectedness, and healing, that heightens awareness of the Mississippi River and creates a relationship between people and the water. "I hope they [audiences] see this as something extraordinary," Jakhelln said. "I hope they view it as going to a different place."

There is an environmental component to the event - symbolically in the performance, explained in the program, and reflected in an awareness survey, for example. Environmental groups will be doing water-testing and rain-garden demonstrations, too.

But Jakhelln said that One River Mississippi - of which the River Cities' Reader is a sponsor - is less about lecturing than creating or strengthening a bond. "You're trying to change emotionally how people feel about the river," she said.

Most of us look at the Mississippi as a barrier. Jakhelln noted that many people drive 45 miles an hour over the Centennial Bridge, eager to get over the water as quickly as possible. She hopes that being able to see One River Mississippi unfold from the bridge or a levee might prompt people to slow down, and to actually look at the river.


"A Strong Connector"

A One River Mississippi dancer One River Mississippi was created by Marylee Hardenbergh, who has choreographed site-specific dances on the Mississippi in her home of Minneapolis since 1985.

That initial performance likely planted the seed for One River Mississippi. After the first dance performance on the Mississippi, Hardenbergh recalled in a phone interview, one person said to her, "Did you feel that sense of community on that bridge? Nobody wanted to leave." Another audience member looked her number up in the phone book and called her, saying, "Thank you for giving the river back to the people."

Both responses suggested an impact that Hardenbergh hadn't planned on. "I was surprised," she said. "My intention was to create a beautiful dance. I didn't really understand what he meant [about giving the river back]. It took me a few years to under that, oh, this form of art is really a strong connector of people's hearts to these spots on the planet."

One River Mississippi began as an idea more than 15 years after that first performance. "Four years ago, I just had an image of thousands of people standing on bridges over the Mississippi River, up and down the river, and it's taken this long to bring it to fruition," she said. "When I first conceived of it, I thought of having 40 bridges. Well, just to keep my sanity, we whittled it down to seven."

The basic goal is to reinforce that the river itself is a connection between communities, she said: "The river is the bridge between us."

Hardenbergh is the creative director for One River Mississippi, but she has given each of the site choreographers freedom. "I never would have thought of adding water skiers" as Jakhelln has done in the Quad Cities, she said. "There have been little surprises at each of the seven sites, where the local choreographers have pulled in elements that are site-specific."

Planning for the performance was already well underway when Hurricane Katrina hit late last summer, but Hardenbergh said it didn't realign One River Mississippi. "We already had the intention of healing and creating beauty before the hurricane," she said, "but definitely the devastation downriver has created a sense of poignancy to the piece."

Hardenbergh said she hopes to draw 15,000 people to the seven sites, including 4,000 to the Quad Cities event.

But she wouldn't commit to doing One Mississippi River again. "This isn't a good time to ask me that. It's sort of like the mother who's in labor right now: ‘Don't you ever touch me again!' ... This has been a wonderful challenge." 


Plentiful Challenges

"Challenge" is a word that shows up frequently, particularly as it relates to the management of multiple sites, including the seven performance spots at the Quad Cities location.

"Raising the money was easy," said Joedy Cook, Ballet Quad Cities' executive director and the coordinator of the Quad Cities portion of One River Mississippi. The cost of the local elements is roughly $40,000, Cook said, with $21,000 raised locally.

Cook called the size of the performance arena both "the biggest opportunity" and "the biggest challenge."

The logistics are one obvious difficulty, but also consider approaching the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Modern Woodmen, and the Davenport and Rock Island casinos about getting permission to conduct a dance event at their sites.

When they approached the Corps of Engineers, Cook said, "They didn't want to meet with us." She added that she wasn't surprised by the reaction. "It sounds a little ... should I say ‘kooky'? It's hard to explain over the phone what the point is."

"They had this sense that, no, this isn't going to happen," Jakhelln added.

"It took a year," Cook added. She noted that she and Jakhelln agreed to participate in One River Mississippi in August 2004.

But once the people she and Jakhelln were talking to grasped the concept, Cook said, organizations have been enthusiastic. "It's amazing how people have flipped," she said.

Getting permission to use unconventional performance spaces was just the beginning. Consider not being able to rehearse at all on the Centennial Bridge, and not having a dress rehearsal until a day or two before the actual event. Jakhelln said that she had held many practice sessions in LeClaire Park because "I felt it was important to be close to the river."

It was also difficult getting a Native American to perform a water blessing at the beginning of the One River Mississippi performance. "I've been trying to find someone for a year," Jakhelln said. "They don't want to feel they're putting on a performance." Debby Two Feathers, a Lakota medicine woman, will conduct the ceremony, which will be followed by an honor dance by Dorian Byrd.

Beyond those practical issues, it was also critical to re-think what dance is outside of the context of a theatre; audience distance from the performers can be measured in thousands of feet rather than dozens. "Props are very central to this kind of performance," Jakhelln said, "because you need to extend the lines of the body" so the audience can see it. The choreographer added that she sought "things that will read in such a big space."

Colorful fabric will help performers stand out, as will scale, such as the 12-foot-tall flags that dancers on top of the casinos will wield.

Each elem ent of the performance has been carefully thought out in terms of what it means. The dancers on roller dam's service bridge, for example, represent the area's eagle population, while dancers in LeClaire Park and water skiers "represent the recreational use of the river," Jakhelln said, "the playfulness of the water."

It's that spirit - of a multifaceted ecosystem that provides joy to many people, water for our communities, and life for many animals - that One River Mississippi hopes to tap in to. And best of all, the river itself will serve as the stage.


For more information on One River Mississippi, visit ( To listen to the Reader's interview with Marylee Hardenbergh, click here.


Schedule of Events

Arriving at the River

[1] 7:00-7:07 p.m. Introduction, Mark Schwiebert, Mayor of Rock Island

[9] 7:07 - 7:14 p.m. Water Blessing, Debby Two Feathers

[1] 7:10 - 7:15 p.m. Audience practices Chord

[all] 7:15-7:17 p.m. One River Alive Chorus led by Pam Margules


Waking the Waters*

[9] 7:17 - 7:19 p.m. Dance blessing, Dorian Byrd

[7] 7:19 p.m. The Eagles dancers begin

[9 & 2] 7:22 p.m. Floating: Quad City Rowers Assoc appear and pass by LeClaire Park where dancers appear


River Life

[13 & 6] 7:25 p.m. The Fish and the Fishermen: Dancers (fish) appear on both casinos and [2] Fishermen appear on walkway

[10] 7:28 p.m. Waters at Play: Barefoot Plus water skiers and leisure crafts with dancers appear and [3] Figge Art Museum fabric unveiled

[14] 7:31 p.m. Dancers appear at Modern Woodmen

[2] 7:35 p.m. Dancers along LeClaire Park walkway


One River

[7] 7:37 p.m. Seven sites of One River perform to the same music and barge with dancers comes thru The Lock.


Dancing Waters

[7 & 14] 7:41 p.m. River Colors and Eagles during seven site musical movement

[1] 7:41 p.m. One Eco System: Dancers come up the Centennial Bridge to mimic the watershed forming the river,

[ all ] 7:41 p.m. One River, One Dance; Audience and all dancers join thousands in the world's largest movement choir, honoring the Mississippi River.

[ all ] 7:54 p.m. One River Alive: Audience Chorus

  • Please note that the local dance/performances between 7:17 and 7:37 p.m. are approximate.

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