Falling for Sunshine and Dance Festivals

It’s early fall so there’s much to write about in Houston dance. First up, my review of Fringe Festival contribution “The Sky Was Wild With Sunshine,” choreographed by Ashley Horn Nott. Followed by a feature article for Arts+Culture Magazine’s October issue, available in print and online, entitled “The Fest Test: The Impact of Dance Festivals on Texas Dance.” Click the images to read the articles.

Review: The Sky Was Wild With Sunshine

The Fest Test: The Impact of Dance Festivals on Texas Dance

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Writing on Texas Dance in 2016

The year is coming to a close. I’ve written pieces for Houston’s premiere dance organization, Dance Source Houston; Texas’ primary source for Arts+Culture news, A+C Texas Magazine; and even wrapped Houston Ballet into the content at Dance Advantage.

Click the photos below for a small taste of my work and what Texas dance had to offer in 2016.

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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

Weekend One of FrenetiCore’s Houston Fringe Festival

Freneticore's Houston Fringe Festival 2010 Weekend 1

Growing up, fringe was the dangly stuff on my 1980’s era dance recital costumes. By the nineties, the embellishment all but vanished from the recital fashion landscape, however what I recall about the stuff is that it is particularly difficult to untangle. After you remove that little thread the costume companies weave between the strands, the fringe never hangs all in the same direction again.

Now, I identify fringe as that marginal, sometimes eccentric, expressive rendering out there on the edge of art. FrenetiCore’s Houston Fringe Festival did not consistently make it all the way to the edge with its opening weekend program, but like any good fringe performance it was a jumble of presentational art, providing a little something for everyone.

CORE Performance Company, which splits its time between Houston and Atlanta contributed CORE-poreal. The four short works, choreographed and skillfully danced by members of the company were the evening’s most sophisticated and arresting offering.

In the beginning there was a word and the word was love inventively depicts a couple (dancers Alejandro Abarca and Mary Jane Pennington) traversing the obstacle-ridden road of courtship and love. Though in a clever finale we see who wears the pants in the relationship (literally, if not figuratively), Corian Ellisor’s duet is, throughout, a subtle and honest display of vulnerability and dependency between two lovers.

Veteran CORE member Blake Dalton has produced an intriguing dialog in Find. The rich layers of Dalton’s spoken word and accompaniment wash over while the always captivating, Claire Molla, echoes and responds. Ellisor meanwhile cuts a statuesque figure in Abarca’s quenching Red MANgrove, and though Pennington apparently struggles with headings, Untitled III, her pas de trios with Abarca and Ellisor, is effortlessly elegant.

On opening night, FrenetiCore’s own dance and multi-media collaboration, Tread Lightly was waylaid by technical difficulties. The fragments that made it to the stage promised an imaginative use of luminary technology.

The collective Architects of Cinema delivered an improvisational conversation between Sandy Ewen’s scratching, creaking, prepared guitar and Y.E. Torres’s snaking undulations, while filmmaker Chris Nelson’s close-ups of hands and feet interacting with natural elements like twigs and water shifted to dark figures transporting a cheerless lantern in a dark hallway. The effect was tranquilizing for an opener.

In Soar, Virginia-based actress, Lindsey Carey is engaging as Polly, a storyteller who takes the audience through a series of theatrical episodes about women and their romantic entanglements with jerks. Her exploits in this one-woman-show ramble like one of those water park river rides; generally amusing with a few surprises. Carey manipulates her facial expressions with such clarity during an engaging pantomime that the mundane choice of song (an Alanis Morissette anthem) is pardonable, and a mathematical equation proving that girls are evil, followed by a proof that men are worse, is mischievously funny. However, things take an unhappy turn when Polly reveals the true tale she’s been smothering under a pillow of fluff. There is not a progressive crescendo to this climax and, as a result, the moralistic conclusion seems abrupt and incongruous though charged with affectingly sincere emotion.

The Rat Girls are an absurdly funny duo from Austin that poke fun at art and culture while wearing detachable tails, scarfing wieners, and clogging to Beyoncé. The satire is craftier than that sentence might imply. Also in the lineup, The Nonsense Music Band, a one-man orchestra (namely Dug Falk) administered a nerdy brand of anecdotal hip hop that served as an entertaining conclusion to a lengthy program.

Like the trimming on my old costumes, weekend one of FrenetiCore’s Houston Fringe Festival featured art that dangles in that free-form, all-over-the-place kind of way. Untangling afterward is as intriguing as the performance itself but, if it all hung with factory-issue tidiness, well it just wouldn’t be fringe, would it?

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

Houston Met Mixes Up A Flavorful Meal

Dancer Kiki Lucas; Photography by Ben Doyle, Runaway Productions

Serving up the menu of a mixed program can be tricky. I’ve seen what goes on in the background on the reality show Hell’s Kitchen. There’s a science to arranging dishes and getting them out on time. Open the oven too early and the soufflé drops. Houston Metropolitan Dance Company cooked up a flavorful bill of fare on Saturday night when they tried Mixing It Up, Again.

As usual in my case, the dessert course was the highlight. Delivering the strongest male performance of the evening, Kerry Jackson is trapped in a box of light. His passionate tirade in Consumed, an introduction to Kate Skarpetowska’s slightly scary world of driven conformists. Leaping from the stage he escapes an army of “suits” that urge surrender to their worker bee mentality. A Julliard alumni, Skarpetowska has danced for David Parsons, Lar Lubovitch, and newly named Alvin Ailey Artistic Director, Robert Battle. These influences are clear in athletic choreography, rich with human peculiarities. The work captivated through to a humorously disturbing finish. An odd sort of dessert I suppose, this was Houston Met at its most gritty and menacing, in no small part aided by Meredith Monk’s eccentric vocals and a pulsating score by Richie Hawthine. Dramatic and robust, the supercharged work accentuated the company’s prime attributes. Not a bad way to send the audience out the door… appetite satiated.

A patchwork of lyrically stirring appetizers, Braham Logan Crane’s History introduced the full company. The piece though, did not come into its own until the majority dispersed and sheer curtains of fabric rained down on female soloists, Kiki Lucas, Lisa Wolff, and Jocelyn Thomas. The choreography twines and twirls around a pristine vocal/piano by Angela Ai, a singer-songwriter with inflections akin to Tori Amos and Kate Bush. The dancers’ performances tightened during the latter half of this collection of excerpts as the songs build to a joyous finish. Joe’l Ludovich and Will Matthews’ well-coordinated visuals of ancient rock, architecture, and surging water filled the expanse of the Cullen stage.

In Kiesha Lalama White’s Unsung Moment, Marlana Walsh-Doyle, Terrill Mitchell, and Lucas depicted fear, denial, and confrontation (respectively) with clarity in this study of the underlying emotional conflicts provoked by war. Unfortunately, odd choices in projection and musical transition were occasionally disruptive.

The optimist in me lost the internal bet I’d waged that a work titled Bound would not include a tether. Convention aside, Houston Met veterans Walsh-Doyle and Lucas are engaging performers and this duet by Joe Celej did not overstay its welcome.

In her turn as choreographer, Lucas infused Semi Detached with powerhouse moves and grooves. There is meticulous structure reinforcing this clever battle for control over a chair. A short, sweet sorbet, Pattie Obey’s Passada provided a tinge of romance, its sensual rhythms kindling a triangle of longing and flirtation.

These four world premieres were diverse enough in scope and theme to keep Houston Metropolitan Dance Company’s full-course meal interesting and the program zipping along.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

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Squeeze – Psophonia Dance Company

All you need is love… right?

Perhaps, but in their new work Squeeze, which was presented at Barnevelder last weekend, Psophonia Dance Company articulates we are under pressure to “need” a lot more. A big house, more stuff, the latest, greatest, and… a ShamWow? No wait, that’s the rug that is being yanked out from under our feet as poor spending habits finally catch up with us.

The show has visual and auditory appeal. Black, white, and red all over, the costuming pops with graphic prints and bright solids. Lighting designer, Jaime Melendez supports this motif with splashes of warm hues, choosing appropriate moments to cast deep shadows with stark white lighting. And the score, featuring everything from Beatles tunes to Soujla Boy and mixed by Jeremiah DiMatteo, is equally playful and fetching.

During portions of Squeeze, co-directors/choreographers Sophia Torres and Sonia Noriega are gently wagging their fingers but in a non-discriminatory way toward themselves, the powers that be, the audience. In a swipe at creditors, the evening’s ringmaster/narrator played by Toni Valle, describes the convoluted conditions upon which the audience can secure the return of their money, should they wish to do so following the performance.

But, Squeeze isn’t all about finances. There’s a smidgen of sensuality as the dancers parade onto and across the stage in a Vegasy opener. And, a touch of technology — the audience is invited to text or, for the tragically hip, “tweet” during a brief intermission. Also there’s a “healthy” dose of paranoia as a few sneezes and the threat of swinish germs undermine the dancers’ ability to connect with one another.

These big ideas, however, seem to appear and then fizzle as metaphors. There’s the tantalizing proposition that we’ve been invited to a three-ring circus, but the references disappear by Act II. There is an underutilized set piece shaped like a house. There are tomatoes begging to be squashed that remain untouched until the finale, where they meet their fate without even a squish. Torres and Noriega are tossing concepts at the audience without follow through. By the conclusion, I am not certain if they are commenting or simply caving to a deficit in attention by squeezing this many hot topics into a one-hour show.

Guest artist, Valle, well-known for her own dancing and choreography is more actor than dancer in Squeeze. She delivers convincing monologues, her strong stage presence a plus. The theatrics, however, dominate the production, sometimes eclipsing the choreography. Exceptions include a clever section in which the dancers partner orange bathmats, sliding them from place to place with their hands, feet, and other body parts, as well as the aforementioned sneeze segment. A moment, featuring  dancer Stephanie Beall, also stands out. She is revealed on a stool, pulls an imaginary chord, alters her position in darkness, and is revealed again. It is simple but effective. Torres, herself, is a welcome addition in the small ensemble. She carves broad strokes with her movement, distinctive when she appears as a soloist, but blending well with performers, Scarlett Barnes, Stephanie Beall, Naphtali  Beyleveld, and Tapley Whaley otherwise.

On opening night more than one group of late-arriving patrons was allowed to cross in front of the performers throughout the evening, even with only 5 minutes remaining in the production. This is disappointing because one would hope that on the lips of audience members, as they filter from the theatre, would be the performance itself.

Though Squeeze is inconsistent in shape and direction, it succeeds as an entertaining portrayal of current events. It does not enlighten with answers, nor does it cause deep introspection or questioning. Rather, it holds up a mirror. I recognized the image and walked away nodding.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston

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.