My Writing and Updates

Flash Response: “Marie” Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet's Marie; Ian Casady and Melody Herrera; Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet's Marie; Ian Casady and Melody Herrera; Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Sunday was probably the only day this week that I might have had a “day off” from dance. I’m currently preparing to perform in the latest Suchu Dance work which opens this Thursday so, for me, the next seven days will be intensely movement and production oriented. I didn’t take the day off, however. I couldn’t resist the one chance I would have to see Houston Ballet premiere Stanton Welch’s new ballet, Marie.

Although I have long been a student and teacher of dance and ballet technique, my primary interest has been in the contemporary/modern dance realm from practically day one when my dance teacher encouraged me at a young age to investigate dance through improvisation. Therefore, I’ll admit, it is rare for me to put a narrative ballet at the top of my must-see list. So, why would I give up my one, dance-free day to see Marie? Three reasons…

One.

I enjoy a good story, and the life of Marie Antoinette certainly seemed like intriguing fodder for a ballet.  It is smart to mount a ballet in which the historic central figure has recently shown up on the pop-culture radar. It has been only a few years since the release of Sophia Coppola’s stylish interpretation, therefore calculated or not, the choice of subject is timely.

And, although monarchial tales are nothing new for classical ballet, certainly Marie’s beheading alone sets her apart from the ethereal heroines found in most storybook ballets. In watching, I found it refreshing to encounter a strong female character as she faces obstacles, ridicule, and ultimately death with dignity. Though she begins as a child bride thrust under a spotlight of scrutiny, by Act II a more grown-up Marie makes no apologies for living her life to the fullest while remaining firmly devoted to being a good mother to her children. As a mother, myself, I can relate to these complexities of womanhood. It is one of many aspects of this period ballet that will resonate with a 21st century audience.

Two.

I enjoy good dancing and Houston Ballet typically delivers. There were a few somewhat ungainly partnering moments and a couple of times that costumes seemed to hinder the movement (although, kudos to all the ladies accomplishing pirouettes in long, heavy skirts) but, I was truly not disappointed. In fact, in addition to excellent dancing, the performers produce fine acting performances. From my vantage point, I had the pleasure of seeing clearly the dancers’ faces and the skill with which they convincingly pulled-off complicated emotions, relationships, and (the often more difficult) situational comedy. However, given the rousing standing “O,” I am pretty positive that these played to the back row, as well.

Three.

As Stanton Welch himself states in his program notes, “In today’s financially challenging environment, few ballet companies are devoting the time and resources to the creation of new narrative ballets with original scenarios.” So, frankly, I just didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see this rare breed for myself!

As for resources, it is obvious that quite a bit was directed at this production. The costumes are beautifully crafted with a variety of fabrics and textures. Great attention was paid to an overall design that was cohesive from start to finish. I was particularly enamored with the muted silvers and lavenders in Act I, among which were carefully placed accents of white, red, and black. These made the colorful couture of Act II all the more eye-popping.

Consisting of three acts, Marie is over two hours long. Therefore, from the music, to the large cast of characters, to the emotional sucker-punch of an ending, there is much I could write about this ballet. Rather than bore you or spoil things with more detail, however, I’m going to just suggest you follow my lead and not miss this one. Don’t worry, you can still catch Suchu, too!  But, as for Marie, there are three remaining performances this weekend at Wortham Center.

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Suchu Dance – How to Absorb the Colorama Format

How to Absorb the Colorama Format

Suchu Dance’s second premiere of the 2008-09 season, features six newly recruited and four veteran Suchu Dance performing artists in this breathtaking and unusual dance theatre premiere conceived and crafted by Suchu Dance founder and artistic director Jennifer Wood.   Set inside one continuous, 45-foot diameter circle of 13-foot tall translucent panels enveloping both performers and audience alike, with dramatic lighting by Suchu Dance resident light designer Jeremy Choate, the scale of this production is at once intimate and gargantuan, with imagery that is bold, colorful, at times surreal.   Wood’s cutting-edge, powerful, and highly inventive choreography is complemented by even more of her unique creative contributions:  original stop-frame video animation, a dazzling array of costumes, her signature humor and twists, and a few select Wood original musical compositions.

Thursday, March 5: dinner at 7 pm catered by Huynh, Houston’s hottest, most critically-acclaimed new Vietnamese restaurant, followed by Sneak Preview show at 8 pm — $29.99 (or show only for just $14)
Friday, March 6: show at 8 pm — $16
Saturday, March 7: show at 8 pm — $18
Thursday, March 12: show at 8 pm — $14
Friday, March 13: show at 8 pm — $16
Saturday, March 14: show at 8 pm — $18

Additional $4 discount per ticket if purchased 24 hrs in advance or student/senior at door.

Artistic direction, choreography, costuming: Jennifer Wood

Light design: Jeremy Choate

Performers: Stephanie Beall, Chelsea Books, Kristen Frankiewicz, Lydia Hance, Ashley Horn, Leo Muñoz, Jessica Prachyl, Tina Shariffskul, LaKesha Sowell, Nichelle Strzepek


Yes, that’s me!

As always, a week before a show opens, it feels like there is so much to try and pull together. There are certainly a lot of elements in this show. As mentioned above, a huge curtain of panels surrounds the stage and audience. Entrances and exits can come from just about anywhere! The lighting is sure to be inventive (I haven’t seen it yet) but Jeremy always has something up his sleeve! The music includes an eclectic mix of styles and soundscapes. And, for this show, Jennifer has created some colorful and whimsical animations that will fascinate and amuse. Oh yeah! There’s dancing too! The work is imaginative and often juxtapositions elements that are unexpectedly cohesive – well, I think so anyway – but you’ll have to see for yourself!

So what’s it all about anyway?

Well, if you’re looking for a story, there isn’t one. Unlike ballet or other narrative dance works, there are no characters or plots (not in the traditional sense, anyway). In this case, the work allows the viewer to look for their own meaning or story, and understand the relationships between people, or music choices, or video segments in their own way. Often the movement exists simply for movement’s sake without much intention to express something. Therefore, each audience member is free to interpret for themselves what they see in the dance. Or not! They are also free to watch, enjoy, laugh, cry, and just be present – witnesses to theatrical magic and mystery!

The elements of the production don’t exist in a vacuum, however. There are relationships (though you may have to search to find them). And, certainly the inspiration for these components come from somewhere. In fact, if you’re wondering about the title, I suspect… yes, even the dancers are typically kept in the dark… that the Kodak Coloramas were an influence in the naming and design of this particular show. But, again, you’ll have to see for yourself to determine if I’m right!

We are excited to premiere this new work so I hope you’ll come out and see it. Jennifer Wood’s choreography is always creative and a bit zany. You are sure to chuckle and maybe even guffaw! And, seriously, how often do you get to do that at a dance performance? (not enough!)

Review: SODC Seen and Unseen

When it comes to Sandra Organ’s choreography, what you see is what you get. In titling her latest concert, Seen and Unseen, her 11th offering in honor of Black History Month, Organ has discovered a play on words that evokes shades of meaning. Perhaps the most tangible example is the inclusion of both premiere and revisited works in the program — some of these from the earliest days of the company’s history when Organ first transitioned from her 15-year career with Houston Ballet. Digging deeper, however, motifs throughout the presentation indicate expressions of the (unseen) spirit. In addition, Organ’s newest dances are layered with themes regarding the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom, from a status of invisibility to visibility within our nations’ history, and depict the invisible (but no less palpable) bonds of prejudice and bigotry. Her dance-making style is brief and to the point, like an anecdote rather than an epic; movements are offered without pretense; there is little guesswork as to the meaning or intention of gestures; strong narratives are applied with heavy use of extracted text and, at times, song lyrics.

Organ patently reveals her origins in and fondness for the liturgical, or sacred dance aesthetic and she displays an obvious passion for the written word. The centerpiece of the evening, a work titled Douglass/renouncing the slave machine, depicts the life of Frederick Douglass from his time as an enslaved boy to his emergence as a leader and abolitionist. The action is accompanied by a supportive array of musical selections but it is the text (excerpts from Douglass’ autobiography) and narration (eloquently provided by Phillip Brent, Sr.), that is featured most prominently.

Because the choreography is lovely in form and design, the overall effect of the evening is an enjoyable one. However, with so much straightforward translation of text and ideas to movement, the dances reveal all, leaving little room for inference or conjecture. Inevitably, then, there are moments in this collection of short works that fail to keep the audience’s imaginations engaged. Nonetheless, Organ expertly crafts beautiful pictures and viewers cannot help but feel connected to the honesty, sincerity, and humanity in her work.

There is a range of technical skill within the company yet the dancers move well together. It would be nice to see some of the dancing truly let loose, particularly in the final number, Freedom, which includes the entire company. As it stands, small ensemble and solo sections throughout the evening are most notable, including a well-executed pas de deux by Richard Hubscher and Paola Georgudis, the small groupings in All That You Have Is Your Soul, featuring music by Tracy Chapman, and Organ’s heartfelt solo, Invisible No More. In a post-show Q&A company members offered a glimpse of the life of contemporary dancers when asked what they do when they are not dancing, revealing that most companies cannot afford to pay dancers enough to make a living through performance. Hopefully, this is among the unseen truths that the audience took away with them opening night.

Seen and Unseen is an uplifting production that has the informality of a community gathering, or perhaps a lecture demonstration. The works presented in Seen and Unseen may not be a model of dance that appeals to everyone — those that appreciate more abstracted or complex structure in contemporary dance art, may find Organ’s work too literal for their taste — but it is accessible to everyone, making Sandra Organ Dance Company’s contribution to dance an important one for helping to bridge the gap between art and its public.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

New Performance Art Piece at DiverseWorks

From the website:

Scott Turner Schofield

Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps
Feb. 20 & 21, 2009
8pm
Commissioned by DiverseWorks with The Pat Graney Company,
7 Stages, and NPN
DiverseWorks Theater (Houston, TX)

Scott Turner Schofield puts his personal journey from female-bodied boy to butch girl to unrecognizable woman to man on display through his performance, Becoming a Man in 127 EASY Steps. Schofield has created a “Choose Your Own Adventure” solo play, where the audience chooses which of the 127 autobiographical stories he has developed. These stories, conveyed through storytelling, stand-up comedy, fantastical movement sequences and drag routines, explore Schofield’s transition from female to male, exploring his origins, childhood and young life as a transgender person. Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking in their frank emotional honesty, these wildly original theatrical performances last from 30 seconds to five minutes and give audiences a view into the many parts of a person that make up the whole.

I highly recommend a visit to the DiverseWorks website for a link to a sneak-preview video that is touching, poignant, sad, and brutally honest – probably a good sampling from what you’ll get with this show. I am unable to go but if you see the show, I’d like to hear what you think.

Here’s a YouTube promo clip featuring Scott Turner Schofield…

Houston’s Dance Salad Festival Draws Artists From All Over the World

Texas is known for steaks and BBQ but when it comes to dance, make sure “salad” is on the menu!

Now celebrating the 14th anniversary season in Houston and 17th season since its inception in Brussels, Belgium, Dance Salad Festival promises another gathering of world-class performers. Famous in their own countries, the dance companies have won praise from critics and audiences wherever they have toured.

Classical, modern and contemporary dance share the Dance Salad Festival stage to form a mix of movement and compelling choreographic invention. Members of some of the world’s best dance companies come to Houston to participate in this week long Festival. Each night’s production is uniquely curated and designed as a coherent, expressive performance; to see the full range of the choreography presented requires attending two of the three evenings.

This multicultural presentation has received international recognition for its quality and innovativeness and has consistently been a source of cultural pride for many foreign communities come to Houston to participate in the Dance Salad Festival. Houston’s 83 member Consular Corps is a community partner and many country members serve as sponsors and hosts. Director Nancy Henderek strongly believes that through the arts bridges can be built between different countries and cultures. Also during the Festival week, master classes will be held in various locations throughout the city so that students and professionals can learn from these invited master choreographers.

Dance Salad Festival has been praised by local, national and international publications. Dance Magazine said: “Producer Nancy Henderek’s eye for some of the best international dance is unparalleled…(Dance Salad Festival) could wind up as the premier contemporary dance festival between the East and West coasts.” In a recent special section of The Houston Chronicle entitled “Houston’s Ultimate People,” Nancy Henderek is described as a “one-woman United Nations.” Detailed information about the festival is continuously updated and available on the web site at: www.dancesalad.org

Performances are scheduled for

April 9,10 and 11 at 7:30 pm at Wortham Center, Cullen Theater in Houston, TX.
Price range of tickets is $17-$47.
Buy tickets online at www.dancesalad.org
Print out yourself!

Dancers and Artists from the following companies have been confirmed for the 2009 Festival:

  • English National Ballet (London, England), England’s foremost touring ballet company, will present David Dawson’s new version of A Million Kisses to My Skin and the intensely emotional Trois Gnossiennes by Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen, set to music by Erik Satie.
  • Mats Ek (Stockholm, Sweden), presenting his heartfelt piece, Memory, will be performed by the choreographer himself and the internationally admired dancer, Ana Laguna, his wife and muse. Ana Laguna will also perform O Sole Mio, an  exuberant  piece by Mats Ek, set to music by Di Capua with  lyrics by Capurno to the voice of  Luciano Pavarotti. Ek will also be featured in the Choreographers’ Forum, in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on April 8.

  • The Royal Swedish Ballet (Stockholm,Sweden), presents Apartment, yet another outstanding choreography by Mats Ek.

  • The Royal Danish Ballet (Copenhagen) with their US premiere of Lost on Slow choreographed by the Finnish-born Jerma Elo, who is one of the leading contemporary choreographers in the dance world today.

  • Dresden SemperOper Ballet (Germany) will perform William Forsythe’s masterpiece, Steptext; On the Nature of Daylight created by the company’s resident choreographer, David Dawson, with music by Max Richter; Intimate Distance and Unintended Consequence, by the young choreographer, Jiri Bubenicek.

  • William Forsythe (Frankfurt/Dresden, Germany)- Dance Salad Festival will present the World Premiere of a new choreographic work by William Forsythe – a new solo with music by his long term music collaborator, Thom Willems, especially for Dance Salad Festival. This will be performed by US-born dancer, Noah Gelber. Noah has performed in The Forsythe Company and is also known as a rising choreographer with his own pieces presented in New York and in Montreal and for the Kirov Ballet in Russia.

  • Goteborgs Operans Balet (Sweden), will present a pas de deux from Kenneth Kvarnstroms OreloB, set to music by rock musician Jukka Rintamaki, and with costumes by the Swedish fashion designer Helena Horstedt.

  • Staatstheater Ballet Wiesbaden (Germany) will perform Visions Fugitives created by outstanding contemporary choreographer Stephan Thoss, the company’s Artistic Director.

  • Carte Blanche (Bergen, Norway) is premiering in the United States with a choreographic work by Hofesh Schechter: his widely praised Uprising.

  • Xing Liang, principal dancer and house choreographer of Hong Kong’s premiere dance troupe City Contemporary Dance Company (CCDC), brings his own solo performance, Existence.

  • Company Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui/Toneelhuis (Antwerp, Belgium), will present curated selections from his major choreographies, Myth and Origine, with live music by members of Ensemble Micrologus, an Italian Medieval and Renaissance instrumental and vocal group.

Choreographers’ Forum: A Conversation, Wednesday, April 8, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 6:30 pm, a special opportunity to glimpse the creative process from some of the Festival’s  invited choreographers, to hear their points of view and to see film clips of their work. This year we will feature Mats Ek as well as several other outstanding artists. This highly anticipated event is generously co-sponsored by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. lectures@mfah.org

Toni Leago Valle’s Tetris Excavates, Resonates, and Captivates

From the outset, Toni Leago Valle’s latest work is an interactive experience. Upon taking their seats, the audience may feel a box of popcorn is order as they are treated to movie clips (circa the 1980s) and trivia regarding the production’s ensemble of Houston dancers. It is a device that simultaneously puts viewers at ease and prepares them for their reciprocal role in the performance to come.

Rooted in the psychological theories and concepts of Voice Dialogue, Valle’s first maneuver is to introduce the audience to the Operating Ego. No mincing words here, our subject literally breaks the fourth wall of traditional theater (something that occurs often throughout the work), steps into the audience, shakes some hands, and introduces herself… well, she tries anyway. Unable to complete her sentence and offer her name, it seems our heroine is a bit unsure of who she really is. It is no mystery that the audience is being invited to come along as she discovers her many “selves.”

Creating this cast of inner beings has surely been a personal exploration for Valle. In fact, she embodies The Inner Critic in her own production, first appearing in a dramatic duet with The Operating Ego, played by the uniquely stunning Mechelle Flemming. Viewers are given a taste for each personality as they are introduced and interact with one another. Other than given titles such as The People Pleaser, The Special/Perfect Self, and The Dependent Child, the audience is given few clues as to why the characters act or react the way they do. However, the information is unessential during the parade of personalities, engaging performances, clever and often humorous choreography, and heavy dose of bittersweet nostalgia, which transports and sustains the audience through an enjoyable evening.

There are many moments in the production that deserve note. The entire cast are well-suited for their roles and they all fit together like the gigantic blocks (shaped like tetrominoes in the popular video game, Tetris) that are skillfully utilized as set, platform, shelter, and cage throughout the piece. Catalina Molnari is a stand-out in an athletic and emotional adagio atop a set of these blocks. Jennifer Magill and Joe Modlin ham it up deliciously during an entertaining duet, Corian Ellisor is both dapper and disquieting in his role as The Absence of Love Self, and in a touching duet with Mechelle Flemming which includes sequences of spell-binding gesture, young Bianca Torres-Aponte, who portrays The Vulnerable Child, is simply mesmerizing.

Tetris is a testament to Valle’s ability to create interesting characters and creatively unfold motifs, both lighthearted and solemn, one chapter at a time. In addition to presenting one woman’s journey of self-discovery, she takes the audience through events and experiences of the 1980’s and early 90’s with perhaps less rapid-fire speed than the Billy Joel hit “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (which actually chronicles about 40 years of America’s modern past) but not without a similar pop sensibility. With selections from Violent Femmes, The Cure, The Smiths, and even Donna Summer, the score plays like the soundtrack of someone‘s life, if not specifically Valle’s. Gen-Xers will find it hard to resist the small jolt of joy they receive when a fragment of Reality Bites appears on the backdrop during Act II, despite the clip’s weighty subject matter. In fact, although the overall effect is often uplifting, many of the themes in Tetris are far from feel-good fare. Valle asks patrons to once again watch the Challenger spaceship explode as Peter Schilling’s Major Tom plays and the dancers mournfully scan the skies. She encourages a re-visitation of such gloomy events as the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana, the OJ Simpson trial, the AIDS epidemic, and the Rodney King beating. Like Prego, “It’s in there.”

In mining her own history, Valle has produced a work that resonates and captivates. Even those too young (or too old) to appreciate what it was like to come of age during the indulgent and somewhat narcissistic era of the 1980’s will be charmed by this romp down Memory Lane. In fact, the commonalities rather than the divisions between generations and between individuals can be found in the tale Valle tells through Tetris. She has invited the audience to join her (and/or “Alex,” The Operating Ego) as she excavates her own experiences but what she uncovers, to the delight of most spectators, is a story shared by all.

Remaining performances of Tetris, playing at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex in Houston, TX are at 8pm February 5-7. For more information or to purchase tickets visit www.tonileagovalle.com.

Pat Graney’s House of Mind Adds Dimension to Contemporary Dance Art

Pat Graney Company - "House of Mind"It would probably be possible to present the choreographic elements of Pat Graney’s House of Mind on a traditional proscenium stage. An audience member could purchase their ticket, enter the theater’s “house,” find his/her seat, and watch at a comfortable distance as dancers move exquisitely about and interact with portions of a carefully constructed set. It could be done. Fortunately, Graney and a team of supporters had an alternate and more expansive vision.

As it stands, ticket-holders for the latest event at Houston’s DiverseWorks Art Space, gain access not only to a stellar performance, but are admitted entrance to an arcade of Graney’s own memories. This quite literal house of mind, which has transformed the whole of Diverseworks’ theater and gallery space, has several rooms, each containing images, items, and representations of the choreographer’s past. Viewers are invited to roam through these alcoves which include a reconstruction of Graney’s childhood bedroom, a closet full of gigantic party dresses that evoke the perspective of a young child, and the office of Graney’s police officer father as viewed through a remote and hazy window. Having passed on while his daughter was still young, the patriarch is also represented in a hallway lined with his typewritten police reports dating from the 1940’s and 50’s. Through these somewhat mundane artifacts it seems his vague or fading imprint is solidified.

The audience meanders through each nook, eventually trickling into and exploring what will become the performance space. In this expanse spectators, who have been granted a unique opportunity to first touch, sense, relate to, and even interact with artifacts “on display,” take their seats. At this point their role is perhaps more conventional, however, their engagement as the dancers occupy and maneuver within the space is not.

Pat Graney Company - "House of Mind"The movement vocabulary within the performance work is both creative and familiar. Those expecting flamboyant virtuosity from the dancers may be disappointed for, instead, the audience is treated to inventive inhabitation of the space and imaginative manipulation of a collection of battered but sturdy wooden chairs (relics extracted from a period of Graney’s early development as a dancer/choreographer) as well as a set of over-sized kitchen drawers. The talented dancers shine in moments of both precise unison and individualistic expression born of the collaboration which Graney fosters in her creative process. Participants in the generation of movement, the dancers’ own memories and experiences mingle with Graney’s in a way that reads universally to the audience.

Soundbites and musical selections such as Crimson and Clover, Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter, and even one dancer’s spirited version of You’re the One That I Want from Grease, are expertly woven into the fabric of the piece. It is within the sound score that Graney’s mother recollects family lore and poignantly discusses the evaporation of her memory due to Alzheimer’s. The work also makes clever use of projected images, film, and home movies that, to great effect, occasionally appear in unexpected places.

More than a performance, Pat Graney and her colleagues have created an entire environment within which dance is viewed. The pleasant side effect of such a concept is that the audience is drawn in as they connect with the objects, characters, ideas, and even smells with which they are presented. Although the inspiration is clearly Graney’s own experience and memories, the recollections of each spectator are activated as they investigate this rich atmosphere, transforming them into willing participant. Adding another dimension to the traditional, albeit equally valid, two-dimensional proscenium stage set-up typically utilized in dance, this work/installation is (metaphorically-speaking) contemporary dance art in 3-D.

Pat Graney Company - "House of Mind"

The installation for House of Mind will be on view in Houston, TX at DiverseWorks during gallery hours through February 21st. Admission to the gallery is free and open to the public. Remaining performances, however, are scheduled for February 5-7. See the DiverseWorks website for more information and to purchase tickets.

Audiences in New York and Miami will also have the chance to see a re-creation of this unique work. To learn more about Pat Graney, her company, upcoming performances, or other projects please visit PatGraney.org.