My Writing and Updates

Stanton Welch: Houston Ballet’s Fast and Furious Choreographer

Reprinted from Arts + Culture Magazine Houston
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Stanton Welch's Cinderella -- Photo by Amitava Sarkar

HOUSTON BALLET’S ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, Stanton Welch wasted no time ascending to world renown as a choreographer. Once he got started, that is.

Most dancers expect to spend years in the studio and on the stage before moving on to a choreographic career. The offspring of professionals in the field usually start clocking their hours even before they can walk.

Nevertheless, Welch, whose parents Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch were both principal dancers with The Australian Ballet and pillars in their country’s dance community, managed to grow up without taking more than an arbitrary jazz class until he was 17.

Still, one cannot have dancing parents without a great deal of exposure to the art form. It was the perspective he gained as an audience member that finally drew a teenage Welch into the dance studio, where he began an intense period of training and excelled, making his mother and father progenitors of what would become known as “The Royal Family of Ballet” in Australia.

Before dance, acting captured Welch’s attention. “I did some TV shows as a child and lots of film and acting lessons;” he recalls, “even writing plays and films.” –– transferable creative skills put to good use when, right away, as part of his dance training, Welch began to choreograph at his parents’ ballet school.

“I had always wanted to be involved in the creation as well as performing,” explains Welch.

And, create he did. His very first piece, “Hades,” made during his initial year of training, won numerous prizes and praise. Therefore, it should not surprise that only four years into his pursuit of ballet, he took on his first professional commission, creating “The Three of Us” for The Australian Ballet and “A Time to Dance” for The Dancers Company (the regional touring arm of The Australian Ballet) in 1990.

Patrons were already buzzing about Welch’s work when in 1994 his ballet “Divergence” debuted. A milestone work for the choreographer that continues to delight audiences worldwide, the sultry and virtuosic piece entered Houston Ballet’s repertoire on its 10th anniversary. Not yet another decade later, Houston audiences will likely find that the iconic “Divergence” remains as fresh and relevant as ever when it appears again this season in the mixed-bill “Rock, Roll, & Tutus.”

“I liken Stanton Welch’s choreography to a well-tailored suit; intelligently constructed, refined, and neatly executed, Stanton’s choreography expects impeccable technique and beautiful line,” says Houston Ballet’s newest principal, Danielle Rowe, who as a former dancer with The Australian Ballet has appeared in “Divergence” in her home country.

“Divergence” is not the only work Welch is dusting off in 2012. Though it has not sat long on Houston Ballet’s shelf, his darkly romantic (with a feminist twist) version of “Cinderella,” created in 1997 for The Australian Ballet, has a revival in late-February.

“Ballet is a living art form,” Welch explains. “The ballets don’t start to age until I am dead. Every revisit can feel new. Every time it evolves.”

Though he created “Cinderella” while still in his 20s, it was not Welch’s first full-length ballet. In 1995, The Australian Ballet gave Welch the opportunity to pour his passion for the opera, “Madame Butterfly,” into a ballet. The production received a standing ovation on its opening night and is frequently considered Welch’s signature work. Restaged by not only The Australian Ballet and Houston Ballet (look for it again in 2013), but also by companies throughout the world, “Madame Butterfly” resulted in the naming of Welch as a resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet and sparked a prolific period of dance making as his work became internationally sought-after.

Recognized as a choreographic shapeshifter within the dance world, Welch explores classical technique and execution while easily adapting to ballet’s contemporary or classical modes of expression –– all with a hint (sometimes more) of rebellion and defiance. Welch’s “Cinderella,” for example, is no waif pining for a prince. Instead, a tomboy that in the end –– well, let us not spoil the ending here. To say that it is a fairytale fit for young girls in the 21st century will suffice.

In 1999, Welch created his first work for Houston Ballet, then under the direction of Ben Stevenson. Veteran principal dancer, Mireille Hassenboehler notes that before “Indigo,” she had never danced in a ballet with bared legs and midriff.

“I think it was the first time I felt like a strong, sexy woman on stage,” she exclaims. Probably due to his early acting experiences, helping dancers develop a role is one of Welch’s strengths. “He is very good at communicating motivation and expectation,” says Houston Ballet principal, Melody Mennite, who has created roles in several of Welch’s ballets, including another strong female — the title character in “Marie,” Welch’s ballet about the doomed Marie Antoinette. Assuming artistic directorship of Houston Ballet in 2003 hardly inhibited Welch’s creative habit. He has premiered more than 20 ballets in less than a decade. He affirms that ideas for new ballets sometimes hit him suddenly, while others slowly come to a boil in his imagination.

For the triple-bill, “Rock, Roll, & Tutus,” which in addition to “Divergence” will feature the Jagger-inspired, “Rooster” by Christopher Bruce, Welch aims to debut a new piece that is the polar opposite of the other dances.

“I hope ‘Tapestry’ will be a very different type of work from the high-impact ‘Divergence;’ says Welch “I’d like it to be a very subtle, pastel, romantic work.”

Now in his early 40s, Welch has been creating diverse and notable choreography for nearly half his life. “We are preparing to do a newly composed score,” he divulges, “This is a new, difficult, and exciting frontier.”

It is just one more challenge to meet as he finishes his ninth season as Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director. Asked if his work has changed during this time, Welch’s answer is matter-of-fact: “I must focus not just on what I need as a choreographer, but also on what the company and the city needs.”

February 23–March 4:  “Cinderella”

March 8–18:  “Rock, Roll & Tutus”

Brown Wortham Center
www.houstonballet.org

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Psophonia Dance Company Puts Their Finger on a New Pulse

[@DanceSource @psophonia] #Houston

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As the heart of Psophonia Dance Company, co-founders and Artistic Directors, Sophia Torres and Sonia Noriega have been pumping out new dance work for 13 seasons.

Their partnership has even survived a transplant. “Sonia has lived in Chicago for 5 years now and I don’t think in all that time we’ve had a break in our stride,” Torres reflects.

In that vein, the two are keeping the work flowing even while giving up their choreographers’ chairs to some fresh blood – their dancers. New Pulse, which presents at Barnevelder November 18 and 19, will feature original choreography by current and former members of the company.

Nurturing young talent and providing company members with production and artistic support is an idea that’s been on the table for some time. It’s also giving the company’s two matriarchs a chance to clear their heads before scrubbing in on any new operations. “I actually went through a creative spurt this spring, setting three new works on Psophonia, one on University of Houston, and one on Houston Community College students. I was ready to step back and regenerate,” explains Torres.

To assemble the program, Noriega and Torres asked the dancers to submit work that had been previously set. The dancers proffered work created in college or for other companies and events. While the choreographers who wanted to revise sections of their work were given support and suggestions on editing, the content was left in their hands. “Sophia and I have always respected and encouraged each other for our individual choreographic voices to develop,” says Noriega, “so giving them their freedom and encouraging them to express their work as they see fit just seemed natural for us.”

New Pulse will feature seven works from seven new choreographic voices.

Patty Solorzano’s “Entre Irse Y Quedarse/Between Going and Staying” is inspired by childhood recollections of Mexico and her struggle to adapt to a new culture when her family relocated to the U.S.  Dancers manipulate long skirts in this contemporary work influenced by Mexican Folkloric dance and prop photographs represent memories and a boundary between past and future. Fittingly, Solorzano’s challenge was transmitting the movement and emotional context of the piece to the performers in only one week before making her next big transition, a move to Michigan.

Tapley Whaley premiered “Cry of 146 at “Not For Sale”, a concert benefiting the anti-human trafficking organization, Love 146. “The subject matter is current, intense, and tragic, “ remarks Torres. “I applaud Tapley for choosing to tackle such a weighted subject and working with other organizations to raise awareness.” Whaley took time away from the company in March to have a baby. Now raising a seven-month-old, Whaley considers the creative opportunity to re-set “Cry of 146” and time with other dancers a blessing.

Jeanna Vance, who is also on leave from the company to start a family, describes the personal adversity she faced during a two-year period of her life. “It was like a storm that wouldn’t end.” A resulting introspection and surrender, bringing waves of relief and peace, inspired “First Breath.

Collaborators Kendall Kramer and Marielle Perrault provide an element of surprise with some clever light manipulation in “I. Photo II. Synthesis”. “I don’t want to give the ‘secret’ away, but it is great fun to watch,” says Torres.

Meanwhile, Emily Bischoff manipulates sound in “Shenanigans”. Recording discussion from the current cast of dancers, she has edited and reversed their voices to accompany a section of the piece. This work emerged as Bischoff contemplated the complexities of the brain, which seems to generate information in curious ways. “Random events stirring up organized and clear thoughts,” Bischoff observes.

Boroto, set to the contemporary African music of Badenya Les Freres Coulibaly, originated with the music. Choreographer Marielle Perrault explains, “I created movement inspired directly from what I heard. Every step is a reaction to the drums, the vocals, the climactic build.”

But words, specifically ‘lush’ and ‘sensual’, are the foundation for “Strolling le Carré, Stephanie Beall’s nod to the bateleur, street entertainers, of France.

For Beall, putting her work in front of an audience is a milestone. “I’ve never thought I was a good choreographer and had a fear of pursuing that avenue.” She and the other dancers-turned-choreographers express their gratitude to Noriega and Torres for the opportunity to revisit their dances. “I felt their support throughout the entire process,” says Solorzano.

Each also conveys appreciation for the chance to present work on a full stage with costuming, lighting, and ticket sales. Perrault summarizes, “Usually these factors are minimally accessible for beginning choreographers, but Psophonia knows the importance of developing a new generation of choreographers.”

Fans of Psophonia can take heart that Noriega and Torres will produce new work in 2012. Unlike many companies that spend months creating new choreography for a one-weekend show, they will continue to take their repertory on the road to places like Dallas, Chicago, and Cincinnati. This season, look for the company in Imagine Christmas at Moody Gardens. “This was an unexpected performance opportunity and we are excited about going to Galveston in December and performing daily for about two weeks.”

Intentions are to make New Pulse a regular event in Psophonia’s programming, making it an artistic, ahem… artery for future young dance-makers.

Psophonia Dance Company presents New Pulse Friday and Saturday, November 18-19 at 8pm at Barnevelder Movement/Arts, 2201 Preston St. To purchase tickets visit www.psophonia.com or call 713-802-1181.ext. 4.

Reprinted from Dance Source

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Houston Ballet Introduces Three Winning Works

Ballet: ONE/end/ONE, Choreographer: Jorma Elo Dancer(s): Artists of Houston Ballet, Photo: Amitava Sarkar
Ballet: ONE/end/ONE, Choreographer: Jorma Elo Dancer(s): Artists of Houston Ballet, Photo: Amitava Sarkar

The term ‘winning’ may have changed in nuance of late but it still seems a fitting description of the three contemporary works Houston Ballet has delivered to its audience with Raising The Barre. Introducing a World, American, and Houston premiere, the company displays its versatility, the prowess of its members, and three impeccable examples of ballet’s alive-and-wellness with one fell swoop.

Jorma Elo, resident choreographer at Boston Ballet, is clearly winning throughout the ballet world with a characteristically playful, always satisfying catalog that now includes ONE/end/ONE, created for and on Houston Ballet. To be the instrument and focus of Elo’s creativity is a rather victorious notch in the HB belt, as well.

Adorned in straight black tutus and rich bodices with embroidered necklines for both, men and women, the dancers’ classical appearance is a red herring in this ballet. Classical lines and structure do embed the framework of ONE/end/ONE’s three sections but Elo turns tradition and expectation on their side, if not completely on their head, as he weaves in his unique language of quirk.

With head dives and kicking legs, hip swivels and the occasional body roll, the charm of Elo’s dances is that throughout their twists and surprises, we see something human. Personality. Elo’s work is full of it, and Houston Ballet’s eight couples each add his/her own to the work.

Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez have a romantic but mischievous chemistry as he ducks a rotating leg or leads her in a somersault offstage. Melissa Hough, having danced Elo during her time at Boston Ballet and with a strong background in jazz and contemporary forms, is unleashed in the energetic third section. Following this lightening round, ONE/end/ONE skids to a halt with the final strains of a Mozart violin concerto, played with wicked agility by the Houston Ballet Orchestra and featured violinist, Denise Tarrant.

America’s past and the music of its heartland is a fascination for many an artist ‘across the pond.’ New to Houston Ballet and surprisingly, on this side of the Atlantic, is the 10-year-old Grinning in Your Face by Christopher Bruce. Set to selections from guitarist, Martin Simpson’s album of the same name, Bruce bid farewell to Rambert Dance Company with this ode to America’s Dust Bowl. Simultaneously timeless and old-timey, the slide and scratches of Simpson’s acoustic folk renderings are immediately transporting while vocals rich and raw evoke the hardships of life in the Depression-era Midwest.

With a vocabulary that borrows more from modern and folk dance than ballet, Bruce’s choreography brings a barefooted ensemble to what you might imagine is a dirty, earthen floor. The men gamble, win hearts (or not), and swagger in work clothes. The women fret, confab, and tend to one another in loose feedsack dresses.

Grinning is the theatrical centerpiece of Houston Ballet’s program, displaying a series of encounters rather than a single narrative. Assuming the velocity of a hummingbird, Melody Mennite (formerly Herrera) flits charmingly through one scene as the yellow-winged “Little Birdie.” The heart sighs along with Rupert Edwards and Jaquel Andrews as their duet recalls the exuberance and mischief of young love. Their entanglement resolves with a twinge of menace before giving way to lighter subject matter, including a stamping, sweeping social soirée featuring the full cast. As a lone motherly figure, Jessica Collado is the witness weaving each episode into the fabric of memory.

Where war seems at times celebrated as the boon that brought America out of their 1930’s economic depression, Bruce wraps up his work with a disquieting homily reminding us of the cost and violence of combat. The connection this Texas audience has with the often somber but heartfelt Grinning In Your Face is palpable.

In contrast to the sepia palette of Grinning, Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed Rush cascades onto stage with a splash of color. The elegant geometry of the costume design and opposing lines and diagonals of the staging have a cool art deco feel. The ballet, originally choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet in 2003, has a familiarity rooted in Balanchine and the traditional ballet hierarchy of two principals, four soloists, and a corps of ten.

Having attended the Saturday performance, I missed the pairing of Houston Ballet’s new addition, Danielle Rowe with Simon Ball. It was my good fortune, however, to view the exquisite Sara Webb whose quintessential feet and legs seem to go on forever as they envelop partner Ian Casady. Though a single red line of light extends across the backdrop, the central pas de deux frequently surrenders Webb to the floor and the air in what seems an unbroken helicoidal pathway. Is the homage to the spiral intentional? Who knows, but Wheeldon breaks through this aloof and evasive magic with more canon and color, ending it all in a gratifying flourish.

Ripe with prepossessing charm, all three works are welcome additions to the Houston Ballet repertoire. This city is winning as our resident ballet company continues to raise the bar… barre.

Raising the Barre performances continue this weekend, June 3-5. Visit houstonballet.org or call 713.227.2787 for tickets or more information.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

May Feature in Artvoice for Neglia Ballet

My second article featured in Buffalo, NY’s Artvoice publication. The first was published last March. See Shuffling Off to Buffalo.

A Few Firsts For Neglia Ballet

Jose Neglia, Sergio's father, dancing his celebrated title role in Jack Carter's "The Witch Boy"
Jose Neglia, Sergio's father, dancing his celebrated title role in Jack Carter's "The Witch Boy"

New works, Balanchine, and a son honors his father

In early October 1971, seven-year-old Sergio Neglia was in the audience for his father’s final performance. “It was a Sunday,” explains Sergio. “The next day he got on an airplane with nine other principal dancers from the Colon Theatre [the main opera house of Buenos Aires]. The plane went down and nobody survived.”

Nearly 40 years later, on May 14, during An Evening of Mixed Repertoire by Neglia Ballet Artists at the Rockwell Hall Performing Art Center, Sergio Neglia will finally step into the role of the Witch Boy. This title character, from the ballet by Jack Carter, is a role for which Sergio’s father, José Neglia, won great acclaim, including the Vaslav Nijinsky Prize from the International Dance Association and the gold star at the sixth International Festival of Dance in 1968. It is also the same role in which José last appeared.

José Neglia’s superior artistry in The Witch Boy (El Niño Brujo)…
Read more: http://artvoice.com/issues/v10n18/dance_feature#ixzz1OKnnBOHz

Shuffling Off To Buffalo

I recently penned a preview of Romeo and Juliet for Neglia Ballet Artists, a Buffalo dance company. The article is now live at ArtVoice. Below is an excerpt:

Sergio Neglia and Silvina Vaccarelli in Romeo and Juliet. (photo by Gene Witkowski)
Sergio Neglia and Silvina Vaccarelli in Romeo and Juliet. (photo by Gene Witkowski)

Collaborators blend dance, music, and story to present Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

Though Neglia Ballet premiered their Romeo and Juliet in 2008, this marks the first time it will be performed with live music. “There is no comparing a performance with live music to a performance with CD,” says Halt. “The actual sound of the music is so much richer.”

Indeed, the audience and the dancers are more keenly aware of the details of Prokofiev’s score, one of ballet’s most lush and lyrical orchestrations, in a performance with live musicians. “My favorite music is when Juliet has a moment of clarity before her tragic end and at that moment she resolves to do what she has to do. The melody of the bedroom pas de deux, the lovers’ farewell, is repeated but much stronger and somewhat desperate. For me it is the climax of the score,” observes choreographer Sergio Neglia, who is also the production’s Romeo.

Unlike other ballet narratives, which can have sketchy storylines and a variety of musical interpretations, Prokofiev provides a “roadmap” through Shakespeare’s very familiar plot. “The music tells me exactly what needs to happen in Romeo and Juliet,” says Neglia, who like Prokofiev, sticks closely to the original character-driven tragedy. Adds Halt, “Sergio is a great storyteller and is quite remarkable in conveying what he wants. When he demonstrates the character, he is the character.”

Neglia often takes on several of these roles almost simultaneously during his choreographic process, admitting that this can sometimes drive his cast crazy.

Luck of the Draw — Earthen Vessels (SODC)

Art can almost always teach us something about ourselves, our spirituality, our culture, our history. Part of the fun is discovering the unexpected – something you didn’t know you wanted to know. During Luck of the Draw, the annual Black History Month performance by Earthen Vessels (previously known as The Sandra Organ Dance Company, or SODC), the audience is introduced to luminaries both local and less often lauded. The highlighting of Southern musicians and artists like Billy Taylor Jr., Scott Joplin, Dr. John Biggers, and William H. Johnson is welcome education and serves as choreographic stimulus for some of the program’s finer moments.

Artistic director and choreographer, Sandra Organ Solis has gathered together thirteen capable dancers with a variety of strengths for her company. They work well as an ensemble in the character-driven Joplin and Johnson. This mash-up sets the vibrant work of William H. Johnson, an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, against the King of Ragtime’s jaunty melodies. Though living and working during different but consecutive eras, the two artists share commonalities, including somewhat tragic ends, which are revealed by the brief biographies projected prior to the dance work. The juxtaposition is complimentary and the comedic, often slapstick performances are entertaining, making the most of the dancers’ unique abilities.

New works premiering earlier on the bill are undermined by clunky costumes and performances that lack conviction. The adjustable domino-like aprons in Dominoes aka Bones seem like an interesting concept as dancers move about like pieces in a game, but the dancers end up looking as uncomfortable and stiff as the awkward fabric they are wearing. Similarly, the Big Parade quartet looks more inhibited than jazzy in their red marching band regalia.

Fortunately, the dancers appear more at home in the Act I closer, Rails, Rows, and Seasons (also new for 2011). Solis draws inspiration from Four Seasons, a work by muralist, draftsman, and lithographer, Dr. John Biggers. Even if his name is not familiar, it’s likely you’ve seen Biggers’ work around Houston. His murals grace Wortham Center, and the Texas Southern University and University of Houston campuses. Accompanied by a sophisticated Bobby McFerrin groove, the company (costumed in this work by Pat Covington and Pat Padilla, with some additions from Aaron Girlinghouse) is awash in golden hues pulled directly from the artist’s palette. Solis cohesively weaves four female soloists, each representing one of Biggers’ seasonal matriarchs, among a chorus of dancers. This corps moves regally in response to the four season characters, an embodiment of the rail lines and shotgun homes featured as a backdrop in Biggers’ lithograph.

Rock, Paper, Scissor (2004) is revitalized and contributes to Luck of the Draw’s game of chance theme. Sketches of the three basic hand signals for this popular pastime prove unnecessary as the dancers scissor their legs, roll, and float in three distinct sections of choreography. Less clear is the motive for the quartet’s military fatigue attire. However, the partnering is inventive, highlighting the athleticism of dancers Corey Greene and Le’Andre Douglas (two young men versed in urban dance and working with URGEWORKS), and Candace Rattliff and Courtney D. Jones.

Other revived works are included in the program. Between Us is a flirtatious pairing of two duets that never quite sizzle. Angry and Bookends are a coupling of short works inspired by an hilarious boxing sketch (once again delivered to the audience as a precursor). Featuring Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, and Tim Conway, the real fight occurs between rounds. Not exactly a one-two-punch, Solis’s response to the skit takes a solemn tone, while a more direct re-creation finds its way into Joplin and Johnson. Delight Songs features poetic contributions from young students recorded in 2002 for an assignment within the Writers in Schools Project. The audience views this simple and elegant interpretation twice in a row, the only change, a different piece of music. The experiment becomes a bit of a game as the audience can cast a private vote for their favorite. For the record, I preferred what was behind door #1.

Though the artistry and performances are not always consistent, Earthen Vessels (SODC) is particularly and uniquely strong in its delivery of history and genuine entertainment through the contemporary dance medium. Luck of the Draw presents enough variety to provide a little something for everyone and would be especially enjoyable and educational for families.

Performances of Luck of the Draw continue at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex next weekend, February 25-26 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, February 27 at 2:30pm. For tickets visit organdance.org.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston