Second Annual Texas Dance Improvisation Festival

Texas Dance Improvisation Festival

Don’t call it improv. Not only does it look like a typo in print but, as Leslie Scates, one of Houston’s leading improvisational dance artists will tell you, “using “improv” continues to connote the work as casual.” In fact, it takes a particular kind of dexterity, vital to today’s dancer, to go beyond auto-pilot in improvisation and the preparation that goes into pulling off a spontaneous masterpiece is anything but casual. It’s no surprise then that The Second Annual Texas Dance Improvisation Festival (TDIF), to be hosted by Rice University October 7-9,  is filling up with registrants from the widespread cities of Texas.

“Improvisational dance is a form that demands as much practice, intention and craft as any other dance technique,” says Rosie Trump, co-facilitator of this year’s event and Assistant Director of Rice University Dance Department. Addressing the need for a Texas-based event, she adds, “This is a legitimate form with a recognized lineage and secure future. Although TDIF is a relatively young festival, there are dance improvisation festivals that happen all over the country and internationally.”

The event, conceived by Jordan Fuchs, was facilitated in its inaugural year by he and Sarah Gamble at Texas Women’s University Department of Dance. As an attendant of that event, it was Scates who advocated for bringing the traveling festival to Houston for its sophomore assembly.

Funded in part by grants from the City of Houston Mayor’s Special Initiatives Grant program of the Houston Arts Alliance, TDIF will kick off with an improvisation jam at 6pm on Thursday, October 7.

Two full days of improvisation classes will follow. Movers of all types and improvisational novices are welcome to register for the festival classes. “Because you define the physicality in your dancing while improvising, it can be very appealing to all levels,” says Trump. “We have a variety of sessions to suit registrants at different stages of experience.”

Describing what even veteran performers and students have to gain from studying the craft of improvisation, Scates says, “Improvising teaches them to pay attention to choice-making in their dancing brain. It turns their bodies into 3D dancing instruments rather than instruments that constantly get and require feedback from a mirror or a particular ‘front.’ It teaches them to craft movement for repeatable choreography, improvise with other bodies and vocabularies, and to see other people as source material providers and not competition.” She points out that the related practice of contact improvisation “provides ample technique for creating partnering and becoming a versatile post modern dance machine.”

This year, TDIF will welcome Los Angles based dancer, improviser and arts activist, Meg Wolfe as its featured guest.  “She is this visionary force in the LA dance scene,” explains Trump. Adding that “Southern California is a difficult place to navigate as a dance artist,” Trump explains that Wolfe curates Anatomy Riot, a regular choreography showcase; organizes a master class series called DanceBANK; co-edits the L.A. dance journal, and is the coordinator for a new grant program in Southern California. “I am very excited about what she will be able to share with the the Texas dance community, because so much of what she has initiated has been done without institutional or traditional support systems,” remarks Trump.

In addition to classes, two evening jams and a panel discussion will all take place at Rice University’s Barbara and David Gibbs Recreation Center, 6100 Main St, Rice University.

A performance and closing jam will be presented Saturday, October 9 at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, in downtown Houston.

Though the movement will be unplanned, Scates insists that there is no “phoning it in” during true performance, improvisational or otherwise. “Improvisers rehearse. Improvisers create scores so that the craft of improvising choreography has a setting, limits, definition and intent. Improvisers learn to capitalize on a brilliant moment and develop it.” The public is welcome on a first-come, first-served basis (with priority given to registrants) to attend the performance and jam at Barnevelder for an unrepeatable, “improv”-free evening.

Participants must register though the Texas Dance Improvisation Festival is completely free of cost.

Find more information or sign up for the full or partial event at tdif.rice.edu.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

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Dancing Diana

Photo by Anthony Rathburn
Photo by Anthony Rathbun

I had the pleasure not long ago to participate in The Frenetic Fringe Festival here in Houston, performing a work titled Dancing Diana. Featuring colorful stories and text by Diana Weeks, it was choreographed by Lydia Hance, whom I’ve danced with in Suchu Dance.

I had little chance to write about the experience here. The rehearsal period was quite short. Each dancer worked one-on-one with Lydia, learning a solo (or duet) within just a few sessions. I happened to have a vacation planned with my family so I was able to learn my solo portion of the choreography before leaving town for two-and-a-half weeks.

The show opened one week from the date my family and I returned. We had essentially two rehearsals to learn and feel comfortable with the connective tissue (all the performers remain on stage during the solos and Diana herself is featured on stage as if watching or remembering her experiences). Then, it was time for dress rehearsal (the first time we were actually all together) and three performances!

The feedback was very positive and I feel grateful to have been part of the process and performance. Robert Boyd wrote about the event on his blog. The photo featuring yours truly above (as well as some more wonderful moments from the festival) can be found at the Freneticore website and was taken by Anthony Rathbun.

Houston Metropolitan Dance Company “Mixing it Up”

Houston Metropolitan Dance Company’s Mixing it Up revisited the past and premiered three new works, all the while looking toward the future as their dream for a new dance center becomes a reality. With the announcement of a signed letter of intent from the developer and a sneak peak of  building designs, the audience was energized from the start by the potential a new space holds for the company, its school and outreach programs, and the Houston dance community.

Making quite an entrance, the full company lurched, jolted, and jerked single file down the far aisle of the theater to the electronic sounds of the musical duo Matmos. The work, A Polite Social Gesture,” by choreographer Peter Chu which was premiered in 2004 by the company, displayed the group’s expertise in precise and fierce unison movement. Unfortunately, it was a point that would be driven home often throughout the program. In the majority were large group works that featured all or most of the company dancing lengthy passages simultaneously. It was a relief, therefore, when, on occasion, solo and duet work made an appearance, particularly in light of the considerable performance skills of members like Marlana Walsh-Doyle, Kiki Lucas, and Jocelyn Thomas.

Formerly presented works on the docket also included The Yawning by Brock Clawson, a work not unlike David Parson’s Sleep Study in thematic material yet not as cleverly crowd-pleasing; Whatever Lola Wants,” a short one-liner of a dance by Joe Celej that offered some needed comic relief (I’m pretty sure the program should have included a disclaimer that some fruits indeed were harmed during the making of this production); and Pattie Obey’s “Zoom,” a jazzy jaunt featuring eight female cast members. The dancers’ fast-paced zips across stage never really zoomed but, these ladies were enjoying themselves, taking the audience along for the ride.

Of the three newest works,Chambre Noire” by international choreographer and New York City Ballet Arts faculty member, Nina Buisson, stood out as the most fully realized and structured offering. Lauren Garson, showed impressive fluidity and control as she maneuvered around, over and across a low table while her counterpart, Marlana Walsh-Doyle, exuded a strong, though remote presence. An expansion of a duet created for Nina Buisson Contemporary Move, this piece would ultimately have benefited from a more cultivated integration of additional cast members. The work’s second act incorporated six more of the company to little affect as they performed duet material in unison. It was not until the final moments of this composition that two delightful feats – the daring transport of Jocelyn Thomas, held aloft atop the table, and the scaling of a mountain of people – revealed a purpose and payoff for additional performers.

Houston Met’s Resident Choreographer, Kiki Lucas, and Met Too’s Pre-Professional Company Director, jhon r. stronks also presented new works. Lucas’s “Imbalanced, Detrimental, Overbearing Thoughts,” was strong in its execution and offered some pleasing contemporary partnering but it suffered from a stream of consciousness style that seemed to drift around an intention that even Lucas’s accompanying text did not illuminate. The unflattering, shapeless shirts worn in this piece hid the dancers’ lines, one of this troupes strongest attributes.

A work in four acts, Stronks’ contribution felt like three separate statements. The first segment featured a fresh and promising use of contemporary music and joyous group choreography, blending the rhythmical undulations of jazz with a contemporary aesthetic. There was shared connective tissue between this and the work’s bookend, however, the middle portions were incongruous. A fashion show of dancers in Studio 54-esque costumes felt like an inside joke to which only those associated with the company or school were privy. And, a short segment set to a jazz spiritual seemed heavy-handed with it’s emotive camaraderie and hand-holding. Though met with a response that brought many audience members to their feet, I couldn’t help but feel puzzled by the finale to this long evening.

In fact, as someone seeing Houston Met for the first time, the entire production left me feeling a bit confused. A strong ensemble with talented professionals, the company offers strong and committed performances. With virtuosic flexibility and power backing up each movement, this band of dancers could execute a wide range of choreographic material. Yet, the offerings on this night seemed one-dimensional despite the mixture of jazz and contemporary styling. I had the feeling that with this material Houston Met is preaching to its choir of supportive and enthusiastic patrons. As the Houston Metropolitan Dance Center continues to dream big, its dance company has great potential for expanding its dance audience, however to do so may require a diversification and push to explore new, more layered choreographic territory.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

Ros Warby’s Monumental Full of Surprises

Ros Warby -- MonumentalLast evening the down-pouring rain in Houston ceased for a few hours. Day had turned to night throughout a drenching storm but, as I drove to Wortham Center to see Ros Warby’s solo dance work, Monumental, the low-lying sun returned to bid farewell. Regarding the performance, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew Warby to be an Australian contemporary dance artist. I knew the work utilized bird imagery and included references to Swan Lake. On all three points, I was informed correctly. Yet, though I went in with little expectation, Warby’s work continually greeted me with the unexpected.

The birdlike gestures and postures, I had anticipated. The movement was detailed and fleeting and mesmerizing. I wondered if at any moment Warby would take flight as if startled by a passerby.  I was aware that I would see projected footage of birds – stock images from Canadian educational films according to video artist and collaborator, Margie Medlin. What I had not presumed was that the dancer, herself, would be captured on film like a wildlife video specimen, complete with long-held close-ups of the eyes and neck as she moved or glared, seemingly incognizant yet instinctively aware of her witnesses.

Also unforeseen was the depth of integration between dancer, imagery, and sound. In fact “solo,” in this case, is barely applicable. Warby is rarely alone in the space though there are almost uncomfortable moments where musical accompaniment and moving pictures withdraw, leaving her vulnerable in the silence. She appears beside her own duplicate, sometimes materializing as the antithesis to her White Swan in black tutu and bodice. Innocence on one hand, dark regality on the other. Throughout the work the projected images move and shift like set pieces. At one point Warby is framed by her own legs, towering on either side like two monuments. No, there is nothing solitary about this work.

Ros Warby (soldier) -- MonumentalAnd, before I paint a picture of only serene, cascading images, I want to mention the surprising humor and fascinating oddities Warby presents in Monumental. I was caught completely unaware as the dancer brought forth her own voice. It took me a moment to recognize, even despite the movement of Warby’s lips, that the seamless flow of sound layered upon Helen Mountfort’s single cello was being produced live. She warbled and sighed as a distressed swan in syllables that were so near to language yet nonsensical. She vocalized again later as the soldier, another archetype pilfered from classical ballet disassembled and reformed for the work. Only later did I discover that much of this mix of guttural rhythm and movement was improvised, explaining why it seemed so fresh and spontaneous, why it seemed a surprise even to Warby herself when she called for “Attention!,” the only recognizable word spoken that evening.

I’m still pondering what the dance meant. Not its intention, for I rarely look for this in contemporary dance, but what it meant to me. I felt every bit the observer of a different species of movement and of dance. As a result, my personal connection to the work still seems uncertain. As commanded, however, Ros Warby has my attention.

Photos by Jeff Busby

REVIEW: The Convenient Woman

The Convenient Woman, which premiered at DiverseWorks this weekend incorporates some pretty big ideas. I’ll admit I had a few concerns when preliminary press coverage of the work used words like “our” and “we” when discussing topics like feminine identity, self image, and a collective culture of modern individuals that tend to obsess, collect, and acquiesce. Mark Twain once said, “Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we.'” It may seem a bit accusatory (after all, we all like to editorialize, don’t we) but Mr. Twain has a point – what can one person really assume about “we”, or “us,” or “our?” And that’s why in dance and in art, work that aims at expressing opinions about society rarely succeeds without feeling preachy. Fortunately, even if the seed of The Convenient Woman dropped from this tree, for the most part, it has grown into something else.

Chapman and Scates have developed a vocabulary of movement and gesture that is memorable and significant but abstract enough that audiences are given room to adhere their own meaning.  They are engaging performers. They move with clarity, allowing improvisational scores to merge seamlessly with choreographed segments to the point of which many audience members will not detect the transition. Individualized and often intimate revelations of and about these two women are shared in a sprawling collage of vignettes that inhabit some space between dance and theatre, producing wonderfully treasurable moments that I’ll allow you to discover for yourself.

Speaking of treasure, Chapman struck a precious commodity when she sat next to Frederique DeMontblanc at a Fresh Arts meeting. A theatrical designer, multi-media artist, and collaborator, DeMontblanc has created inspired and supportive imagery that is no mere backdrop to the conversation between dancers. Rather than a display of animated projections, much of her work is produced live. Like the Wizard of Oz she is off in her own little corner, except there isn’t any curtain. We get to see her at work as she manipulates objects like broken glass and magazine cutouts with a sense of whimsy and sly humor. She occasionally utilizes her projections interactively with the dancers as they stand against a stark back wall. This and other elements, like the artists dressing and undressing both their bodies and their faces, are in keeping with the feeling that we’ve been invited to peek into private moments.

There are gems of material here but The Convenient Woman feels like a work still in progress and in need of some tweaking. As a teacher, I appreciate the value of incorporating students in the work. Because of this, I’m a bit torn over suggesting that it would be improved by losing the cast of extras which have been added to the piece via the Univesity of Houston. However, the piece simply doesn’t need them. Their presence just seems to pollute the more coherent strands, those gems, in the work.  A culture overrun by technological conveniences, women objectifying themselves in order to secure a mate, the quest for perfection via the surgeons knife – these are the things that could be widdled away. They are concepts that seem to be remnants of those initial seeds, those big ideas.

More interesting and more telling of the inner lives of women (in this and perhaps any era) is the self-investigation and dialogue between Chapman and Scates. This is the crux of the work, in my opinion and within it is pure gold. I would have liked for Chapman and Scates to unearth more of this, leaving behind those remnants of editorial. But in the end the stuff that shines still speaks volumes. And, it will likely speak to, if not for, many in the audience because above all the work Teresa Chapman, Leslie Scates (and collaborators) have created is personal and confessional.

You can still catch The Convenient Woman at DiverseWorks April 10 & 11 at 8pm. Visit the DiverseWorks website for ticket information.

Teresa Chapman & Leslie Scates: The Convenient Woman

After premiering an excerpt of her work, Lost and Found, at Big Range Festival in 2006, Teresa Chapman was proclaimed “a choreographer to watch” by Houston dance writer, Nancy Wozny. Chapman, an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Houston, has enjoyed a varied career as a performer, choreographer, and instructor. She is an adjunct artist with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and a member of Travesty Dance Group-Houston.

Along with choreographer and performing artist Leslie Scates and designer Frederique deMontblanc, Chapman will premiere a new work April 3 in the DiverseWorks Theater. The Convenient Woman is a dance-theatre performance that provides a personal and satirical look at our culture’s obsession with conveniences, afflictions of dissatisfaction and discontent, and pursuit of the feminine ideal. Chapman takes a moment from her busy schedule to talk with me about this collaborative project.

Can you describe the circumstances that planted this seed of collaboration with Leslie Scates?

I danced with Leslie in Karen [Stokes]’ company (Travesty Dance Group) some time ago and I’ve always appreciated her energy and performance abilities. In addition, I am fascinated by her approach to choreography and use of improvisation to create unpredictable patterns. I knew this would be a very small cast, just 2 women and I thought she would be the perfect dance artist to ask to collaborate with. I was right.

Leslie is known, in particular, for her spontaneous dance creations. What is the ratio of choreographed vs. improvisational score in this work?

I think it’s an interesting mix. Some sections begin with set material, then slide into a structured score. We used improvisation to develop a few of the sections, then set the material. We have a number of set movement phrases that can be used in a improvisational score, then other sections are completely set. I really appreciate the freedom to use both. I think people should see the show twice, then tell me what the ratio is!

Were there any challenges in meshing your processes with Leslie’s or did the blending come naturally?

It came naturally I think. We’re pretty open with each other and any discomforts were discussed immediately. We developed it together and let the work be what it wanted to be. We followed our instincts throughout and and think it worked for us.

You have a continued association with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. How have your experiences with them informed your own creative process?

We worked with text throughout the process to develop movement material using an LLDX “tool” called “equivalents.” We would free write on a given topic, then create movement (and accompanying text) based on words and phrases that spoke to us. In many ways we’ve combined thoughts and responses. Sometimes I’m telling her story, sometimes she’s telling mine. Maybe they’re the same story, maybe they’re every woman’s story.

You are also working with video and set designer Frederique deMontblanc on this project. How did her involvement come about?

I was sitting next to her at a Fresh Arts meeting and mentioned that I was looking for someone to design some video for the piece. She said that was something she was interested in. She sent me her portfolio and I was floored! Her work is multi-layered, colorful and fresh, yet slightly disturbing. She was exactly what I was looking for!

We will see you and Leslie on stage. Will there be anyone else out there with you?

Frederique will be on stage creating collages and drawings that are projected onto the back wall. She is the third collaborator/performer and a major contributor to the look of the piece. It’s only natural that we all share the space.

I understand you’ve also collaborated with folks from the University of Houston’s Women’s Studies department. Can you give us a hint about how they have contributed?

Yes, we will also have a small cast of “extras” (non-dancers and dancers) who participate in selected scenes. A friend of mine teaches a Woman’s Studies course at UH and this happens to be a class project for them. Each night we will have a different cast performing tasks, supporting background action, delivering boxes…I’m sure it will add another layer of unpredictability!

You’ve utilized some interesting texts on womanhood and the feminine ideal as inspiration for parts of this work. Without giving too much away, tell me a bit about these books and how you’ve used them as a springboard.

Ideas for this piece started with a book written in 1969 called “The Way to Become the Sensuous Woman” written by “J.” The author, “J” could be a woman or a man! I think the book itself is hysterical, offering tips on where to meet men and ways to please your partner. It got me thinking about all the things we do to make ourselves more convenient for our lovers. That lead to conversations of how we make ourselves more convenient for other people and how easy it is to sacrifice personal needs in the process. While some sections of Convenient Woman are more serious, text from the book have added a bit of comic relief.

You can catch The Convenient Woman Friday & Saturday, April 3 & 4, April 10 & 11, 2009 at 8pm in the DiverseWorks Theater. Tickets can be purchased online at www.diverseworks.org, at DiverseWorks Art Space, (1117 East Freeway), or by calling 713.335.3445. For most shows, General Admission tickets are $15, DiverseWorks Member Tickets are $10 and Student and Senior Tickets are $8. Groups of 10 or more can purchase tickets at a discounted rate by calling 713.223.8346.

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.