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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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