Dance Month Scratches A Niche

The 33rd Annual Dance Month at ERJCC’s Kaplan Theatre

Company E. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson
Company E. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson

Find a need and fill it.

She didn’t directly quote this old success adage, but it’s a precept Maxine Silberstein, Dance Director of the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston (ERJCC), puts into practice when coordinating the organization’s Dance Month series, which kicked off last weekend with Israeli folkdance workshop, Tirkedu Houston.
Laura Gutierrez. Photo by Rick Cullough.
Laura Gutierrez. Photo by Rick Cullough.

Take, for example, the revival of Houston Choreographers x6, a program designed to present premiere work by six of Houston’s professional, but still emerging, choreographers on the Kaplan Theatre stage January 26 and 27.“Any opportunity to present work is important to Houston artists,” Silberstein explains. “We have a vibrant community of dancers and choreographers so we try to give them that opportunity.”

Until several years ago, Choreographers x6 was a regular feature of the annual post-holiday affair. “For 14 years, we had different choreographers every year,” Silberstein recalls. “Then, there came a time in the Houston scene where all of a sudden there were other companies or people who were starting to present programs introducing new choreographers.”

Choreographers x6 was shelved for a few years but returns this month. Why now?“ “There is a new pool of choreographers that we have not presented and yet they’ve already proven themselves as choreographers,” says Silberstein.

Kristin Frankiewicz. Photo by Stephen Pruitt.
Kristin Frankiewicz.
Photo by Stephen Pruitt.

This pool includes Kristen Frankiewicz, Laura Gutierrez, Lydia Hance, Erin Reck, Jhon R. Stronks, and Sandra Organ-Solis. Organ-Solis appeared on the playbill for the very first Choreographers x6. This time, she’s crafted Ella, a tribute to Jazz icon, Ella Fitzgerald. It will be just one of a diverse selection of new dances premiering on the family-friendly mixed bill.

Dance Month programming goes beyond providing space and stipend for six artists, however, also giving Houston-area students and pre-professional choreographers a chance to show their work, providing master classes for dancers, lecture demonstrations in schools, and this year, an occasion to highlight Dance on Film.

Consider that Silberstein annually selects a dynamic, professional dance company on the rise to headline the Houston happening, and the role of Dance Month as a cornerstone event within the local dance community becomes very clear.

This year, Silberstein set her sights on Company E, a small repertory company from Washington D.C. only in its second year. Paul Gordon Emerson, Co-founder and Executive Director of the company, is no fledgling, though.

Company E. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson.
Company E. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson.

He came late to dance at age 27, yet somehow his unique and varied history in the arts and government – he’sworked in campaign politics, defense and foreign policy analysis, served as a legislative director, a radio and cable-TV broadcaster, a journeyman in construction and design, and he’s a published author, dabbles in sculpture, and is an accomplished photographer – melds within this art form and within Company E, which aims, not only to perform high-quality dance, but also serve as international cultural ambassadors for the U.S.Company E has already built partnerships with the Embassy of Israel, the Embassy of Spain, and have traveled to the Central Asian nation of Kyrygzstan to engage in cultural exchange with Samruk Dance Company, a relationship fostered and supported by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Mission to Kyrygzstan.

Silberstein first read of Company E in The Jewish Daily Forward as they prepared to debut their first home-town performance, NEXT: Israel at D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre, which featured the work of some of Tel Aviv’s most progressive choreographers.“

We asked for a program that featured Israeli choreographers,” Silberstein divulges, “because I think, and Martha Graham felt the same way, that Israel has some very strong dancers and choreographers, and because we’ve had Roni Koresh and Andrea Miller on our stage before.”The one-night-only performance NEXT: An Evening of Choreography of Israel and Spain on February 9 at the Kaplan will indeed feature Theatre of Public Secrets by Roni Koresh (founder of Philadelphia-based Koresh Dance Company); and two works, Alma and Inside It’s Raining, by English-Israeli choreographer Rachel Erdos.

As the program title suggests, the Kaplan audience will also stamp their passports in Spain with the performance of Y, a collaborative work created by Company E for their evening-length Kennedy Center performance of Looking for Don Quixote, and Few by Barcelona choreographers, Thomas Noone and Nuria Martinez. You Go First, by New York dancer and choreographer, Loni Landon, brings a touch of home to the evening’s trot around the globe.”We look for smaller companies while others bring in bigger, more well-known groups and we look for very strong companies, the majority of which have not been in Houston before,” says Silberstein. “It’s a big risk for us to bring companies to Houston, and yet, I think this is part of our niche.”

Learn more at www.erjcchouston.org

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

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The New Crop: The Ecology of Houston’s Emerging Choreographers

Reprinted from Arts + Culture Magazine Houston

Nick Muckleroy of Urban Souls Dance Company in Courtney D. Jones' ...and the bodies drop. Photo by Sam Li.
Nick Muckleroy of Urban Souls Dance Company in Courtney D. Jones’ …and the bodies drop. Photo by Sam Li.

In the decade since I first came ashore on Houston’s dance scene, I’ve experienced how rapidly this particular dance performance landscape and its inhabitants evolve and regenerate.

Where artists have pruned or redirected their energies, new growth is consistently emerging and making room in the bed of Houston dance. To understand how dance gets made here is to study the city’s dance ecosystem and the creative organisms currently emerging and thriving within it. With the Big Range Dance Festival running June 1-16, this is a perfect month to examine the ecology of the new crop of choreographers.

Oh, What a Garden

In bloom at any given time in Houston are a variety of self-presenters and independent choreographers. Self-presenters build an organization around their own work or a collaborative. Independents are generally dancing for self-presenters, while pursuing festival-style opportunities to present their own choreography.

Stephanie Wong, a former dancer, is the executive director of Dance Source Houston (DSH), which offers vital publicity support to choreographers and companies in the city.  From her vantage point, getting work presented is one of the primary challenges to new choreographers.

“For someone just starting out, being able to dip a toe in the water, rather than jumping in all at once can be advantageous,” says Wong, “Building audience and interest in what you’re doing also takes a lot of time and patience.”

Kristen Frankiewicz. Photo by Kim Espinosa.

A rising independent choreographer currently building interest in her work is dancer and University of Texas at Austin alumni Kristen Frankiewicz. She did some company time in San Francisco, but found a more appealing and exciting fit in Houston’s dance sphere.
Choreography has come about naturally for Frankiewicz, who is showing her newest work, Glass Scratch, during “Program A” of The Big Range. Although she’s presented frequently over the last few years in both Houston and Austin, she says she doesn’t have the “hunter gene” for composing new work. Instead, the work has a way of finding her.

“If an idea moves me, then I get down to business and hunt it out,” says Frankiewicz. “I like to keep my choreographic perspective fresh and informed, and really only present work when I feel it has the potential to add something to the table.”

Likewise, since her return to the area from Broadway touring, native Houstonian Courtney D. Jones has found a home for her work with Urban Souls Dance Company. Her second work for Urban Souls, ….and the bodies fall, premiers June 2 at the University of Houston’s Cullen Hall. The Hope Stone dancer and triple threat (she’ll appear in Houston Grand Opera’s Show Boat next season) will join the faculty at University of Houston and serve as guest choreographer at Rice University this fall.

“I was thrilled to see such diversity in options,” says Jones. “It feels like almost every weekend there is a little something for everyone to buy a ticket and enjoy.”

Among these “somethings” are events like the Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex Dance Gathering, Hope Stone’s Hope Werks, and 12 Minutes Max, a combined effort of DSH, DiverseWorks, and CORE Dance, each one offering a unique opportunity for emerging choreographers to present without the overhead expense of self-production.

Dance Film Takes Hold

Up-and-coming dance-for-camera artist Lydia Hance founded Frame Dance Productions in 2010. (Some disclosure: You’ll find me in recent films produced by Frame Dance, for which I’ve also served as a board member).

Hance’s work often requires projectors and surfaces to project upon, but conventional dance venues and producers are rarely prepared to meet these needs without compromise. As a result, she’s concluded that, despite the extra legwork required, for now, self-producing events is less challenging than the alternative.

“I don’t want to pull myself out of these festival environments. I want to be part of the dialogue, even if it takes time,” Hance asserts. “In the meantime, I will continue self-producing. I didn’t look at the Houston dance community and think, ‘I need to fill this niche.’ I looked at my work, looked at the Houston dance community and thought, ‘there’s room for me.’”

CONTEXT, her most recent installation at Winter Street Studios, proved a stunning success, and is evidence of efforts to carve her own path, not only in terms of the spatial context in which dance is viewed, but in the trans-discipline defining of dance.

Wong (DSH) is struck by the amount of dance for film currently being presented, stating, “There seems to be a real interest and momentum behind the exploration of video as a medium and the normal limitations that medium allows us to transcend.”

Rosie Trump, Director of Dance at Rice University and a choreographer/filmmaker, has actively sought local dance filmmakers to feature in The Third Coast Dance Film Festival she founded in Houston. Though she could easily have filled the roster with imports, Trump wants to foster dance film production in this community.

It’s the accumulating presence in Houston of dance for camera by individuals like Hance, Trump, and Ashley Horn, that most sets the city’s current yield of dancemakers apart from its more established artists. Horn’s Big Range offering is Jazzland, a dance film with an original score composed by improvisational pianist Robert Pearson.

The Laboratory of Evolution

NobleMotion and Recked Productions, the creative conduits of Andy and Dionne Noble and Erin Reck are generating fresh excitement in Houston. All three individuals on the dance faculty at Sam Houston State University have found a home on the Big Range. This year, they’ll each present work the first weekend in June on the festival’s Program A.

“Essentially, audiences will support good work,” says Wong. The creation of new dance work is reinforced by an infrastructure of time, space, and money but is fueled by a kind of mutual advocacy as well. No dancer is an island. Erin Reck asserts the need to work in support of oneself and one’s art by staying active in the field and not living in a cardboard box, “Basquiat style.”

“Artists need other artists to help them grow,” Reck reflects. “We are inspired by each other, pushed and challenged by each other, pinched when we try to create something gimmicky or mediocre and applauded when we successfully step outside our box.”

Urban Souls Dance Company
June 2, 2012
www.urbansoulsdancecompany.com

The Big Range Dance Festival
June 1-16, 2012
www.bigrange.org

Reprinted from Arts + Culture Magazine Houston

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

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

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