Both Sides of the Mississippi

By Georgia Finnegan

Rivers draw me to them.  Flowing waters, gurlgling ripples, and iridescent rocks near a shoreline entice me to linger at a riverside and idly watch as present time moves on.  Perhaps this enticement is rooted in my Native American background; or, perhaps from living close to a river almost my entire life.  The Neckar River in Heidelberg, Germany, the Seine River in Paris, and the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in Saint Paul have all exerted a hidden influence on me.  The most impressive influence comes from growing up and hearing my father often say his favorite phrase both sides of the Mississippi.  This phrase became my father’s way of affirming my efforts and achievements, however minimal or significant: “Georgia, that blueberry pie you baked was the best one, on both sides of the Mississippi“. Like flowing river water, these words touched me and made an indelible mark on my character.  Little did I realize that these words, both sides of the Mississippi, set me up for a river fascination. This quote from Leonardo da Vinci really resonated with my spirit, “In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.”

On a bleak autumn day in November 1973 the belle et douce France, 4,200 miles east of the Mississippi River, beckoned me to come and study.  Destination Paris, the “City of Lights”. As the plane took off, I twisted my body to look out the window to give my au revoir to the river below and to my Saint Paul home.  Paris is nearly a perfect city for me to live and study.  The Seine River divides Paris between the Right and Left banks, as the Mississippi divides the Twin Cities between Saint Paul and Minneapolis.  As a consummate francophone, I always long to go back to France. when I do go, I also yearn to travel back westward to America, the Mississippi, and my home.

Stirring memories of rivers and places where I lived, worked, and danced capture my attention as I read and write during quiet early morning or evening hours. My current reading, A Dancer’s Twilight Tales, Volume II:  The Age of Ares by Loyce Houlton, holds me spellbound as I read her memories as founder, artistic director, and teacher at Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT).  I did not know her, nor did I train with her.  But I did know that grand jetés across the Mississippi River to the other city’s ballet and dance classes were discouraged.  My training, dancing, and teaching centered in Saint Paul, rooted in the classical ballet training of Lorand and Anna Andaházy.  I rarely “traveled” west to Minneapolis for any ballet or dance.  The Mississippi was not only a grand geographical divide, it was also a great cultural and artistic divide.  Towering giants of the ballet and dance world, Loyce Houlton in Minneapolis and the Andaházys in Saint Paul had two distinct perspectives on training and producing ballets.

After I hung up my pointe shoes, my career as a seasoned balletomane moved into arts administration. I then made that huge leap across the Mississippi to Minneapolis. “Traitor!” some people have teasingly called me.   My husband said he dragged me across the Mississippi with my heels smokin’.  I crossed over to the other side of the ballet and dance world, and began working at Minnesota Dance Theatre.

Loyce Houlton’s A Dancer’s Twilight Tales sits on the shelf in my study and beckons me to open it again and again.  Her descriptive words detailing her many artistic undertakings captivate me as I re-read paragraphs two or three times.  Loyce’s vision of the family in Act I of the Nutcracker scintillates with unique choreography and design.  The father in Act I whose kindly manner masks a wild and vivid imagination, turns into the giant woman of drag—Madame Bonbonniere with a three- foot pompadour wig, massive bosom, outlandish make-up…. Oh, it was fun plotting it all.  Oh, it is fun reading it all!

For me, A Dancer’s Twilight Tales, Volume II:  The Age of Ares puts to rest the great cultural divide between Saint Paul and Minneapolis–the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes.  Good ballet is good ballet, from wherever one hails.

Georgia Finnegan served as the Advancement Director for Minnesota Dance Theatre in 2017-18, and currently as an advisor to its Board of Directors. With over 30 years in the nonprofit industry in Minnesota, she focuses on education, and arts administration. Georgia, founder of Saint Paul City Ballet (renamed St. Paul Ballet in 2014), continued its growth and development for sixteen years, garnering foundation, corporate, and individual donor support. Georgia works with her husband, Erik Saulitis, a dance photographer, helping market his business, Danceprints. She is a firm believer that the arts, in partnership with corporate, business, and community support, augment the economy of a city and increases the vitality and aesthetic beauty of its community.

Share this post