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

The Big Range Dance Festival
June 1-16, 2012

Reprinted from Arts + Culture Magazine Houston


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

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston