Catching Up With Blasts From The Past

Happy New Year!

My dance education blog, Dance Advantage, has kept me on my toes. And did I mention I’ve been doing some freelance work for the Rockettes website, too? It’s about time I get some of my more recent dance writing work on this blog.

So, I’m kicking off January with some links to the past to catch up to the present.

Photo by Jae Man Joo
Photo by Jae Man Joo

Complexions Contemporary Ballet Ready To Rock Houston

What does a dance company have in common with U2, one of rock music’s biggest acts?

With a big smile on his face, Dwight Rhoden quips, “I think dancers are rockstars”.

Rhoden’s New York City company, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, is about to rock… and roll through Houston on October 14 with a program that includes musical accompaniment big and bold enough to blow off the Wortham’s roof: The Rolling Stones, Roy Buchanan, “The Hallelujah Chorus,” and, of course, U2. The evening will close with Rise, a work set entirely to tunes from the Irish rock band’s catalog.

Rhoden gets no argument here about the exceptional qualities of dancers. However, as I see it, the troupe he founded with dancer Desmond Richardson in 1994 is like U2 in other ways, too. Both have accessibility and wide appeal, traits which some in their respective fields dismiss as if it were harder to be obscure. Both groups resist being bound by or excluded from the circles of commercial and “high” art. Both even have a frontman (in Complexions’ case, Richardson) who can command a stage like few others.

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World premiere of inventive Tapestry highlights Houston Ballet’s “Rock, Roll & Tutus”

Photo by Amtiava Sarkar || A scene from "Rooster," choreographed by Christopher Bruce, with Christopher Coomer and Katelyn May
Photo by Amtiava Sarkar || A scene from “Rooster,” choreographed by Christopher Bruce, with Christopher Coomer and Katelyn May

If any company can rock a goofy strut and some tutus made of air conditioning filters it’s Houston Ballet. They proved it at the opening of “Rock, Roll & Tutus” last week.

The program, which includes the world premiere of artistic director Stanton Welch‘s Tapestry plus two ballets previously performed (Rooster and Divergence), continues with three performances Friday through Sunday.

Marquee aside, Welch planned for Tapestry to be the antithesis of rock and roll as he set it to Mozart‘s Violin Concerto No. 5. While it showcases the rock star qualities of violinist, Denise Tarrant, the only thing “in your face” about this ballet is the talent of the company.

Daring, inventive and occasionally just plain jaw-dropping partnering punctuates the entire first section during which dancers appear in a muted tangerine and blue. To the delight of the audience, Karina Gonzalez is tossed between Connor Walsh and Ian Cassidy like a wisp of smoke — particularly sweet-scented smoke.

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Houston Contemporary Dancesquared

Photo by Simon Gentry
Photo by Simon Gentry

No, The Stoners and The Metronics are not emerging indie-rock bands.

These handles are how Hope Stone and Houston Metropolitan Dance Company members have been referring to themselves as they merge for their joint performance, squared dancer, November 9 and 10 in the Wortham’s Cullen Theatre.
An alliance built on mutual admiration and like-mindedness, Hope Stone helmswoman, Jane Weiner and Houston Met’s freshman artistic director, Marlana Walsh Doyle agree the pairing is one that has been simmering for some time.
Earlier this year, as the weather was heating up, so were the possibilities for partnership. Fresh off her August who’s-who of Houston artists, WRECK-WE-UMM, Weiner says her band of “permanent pick-up dancers,” was on a collaborative high.
“It didn’t feel competitive but it felt edgy,” Weiner recalls of that summer experience. “Everybody was pushing each other but everybody was on the same page and very ensemble-like.”

Rockettes Features:

More coming this way in 2013!

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Stanton Welch: Houston Ballet’s Fast and Furious Choreographer

Reprinted from Arts + Culture Magazine Houston
Get your March issue here.

Stanton Welch's Cinderella -- Photo by Amitava Sarkar

HOUSTON BALLET’S ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, Stanton Welch wasted no time ascending to world renown as a choreographer. Once he got started, that is.

Most dancers expect to spend years in the studio and on the stage before moving on to a choreographic career. The offspring of professionals in the field usually start clocking their hours even before they can walk.

Nevertheless, Welch, whose parents Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch were both principal dancers with The Australian Ballet and pillars in their country’s dance community, managed to grow up without taking more than an arbitrary jazz class until he was 17.

Still, one cannot have dancing parents without a great deal of exposure to the art form. It was the perspective he gained as an audience member that finally drew a teenage Welch into the dance studio, where he began an intense period of training and excelled, making his mother and father progenitors of what would become known as “The Royal Family of Ballet” in Australia.

Before dance, acting captured Welch’s attention. “I did some TV shows as a child and lots of film and acting lessons;” he recalls, “even writing plays and films.” –– transferable creative skills put to good use when, right away, as part of his dance training, Welch began to choreograph at his parents’ ballet school.

“I had always wanted to be involved in the creation as well as performing,” explains Welch.

And, create he did. His very first piece, “Hades,” made during his initial year of training, won numerous prizes and praise. Therefore, it should not surprise that only four years into his pursuit of ballet, he took on his first professional commission, creating “The Three of Us” for The Australian Ballet and “A Time to Dance” for The Dancers Company (the regional touring arm of The Australian Ballet) in 1990.

Patrons were already buzzing about Welch’s work when in 1994 his ballet “Divergence” debuted. A milestone work for the choreographer that continues to delight audiences worldwide, the sultry and virtuosic piece entered Houston Ballet’s repertoire on its 10th anniversary. Not yet another decade later, Houston audiences will likely find that the iconic “Divergence” remains as fresh and relevant as ever when it appears again this season in the mixed-bill “Rock, Roll, & Tutus.”

“I liken Stanton Welch’s choreography to a well-tailored suit; intelligently constructed, refined, and neatly executed, Stanton’s choreography expects impeccable technique and beautiful line,” says Houston Ballet’s newest principal, Danielle Rowe, who as a former dancer with The Australian Ballet has appeared in “Divergence” in her home country.

“Divergence” is not the only work Welch is dusting off in 2012. Though it has not sat long on Houston Ballet’s shelf, his darkly romantic (with a feminist twist) version of “Cinderella,” created in 1997 for The Australian Ballet, has a revival in late-February.

“Ballet is a living art form,” Welch explains. “The ballets don’t start to age until I am dead. Every revisit can feel new. Every time it evolves.”

Though he created “Cinderella” while still in his 20s, it was not Welch’s first full-length ballet. In 1995, The Australian Ballet gave Welch the opportunity to pour his passion for the opera, “Madame Butterfly,” into a ballet. The production received a standing ovation on its opening night and is frequently considered Welch’s signature work. Restaged by not only The Australian Ballet and Houston Ballet (look for it again in 2013), but also by companies throughout the world, “Madame Butterfly” resulted in the naming of Welch as a resident choreographer of The Australian Ballet and sparked a prolific period of dance making as his work became internationally sought-after.

Recognized as a choreographic shapeshifter within the dance world, Welch explores classical technique and execution while easily adapting to ballet’s contemporary or classical modes of expression –– all with a hint (sometimes more) of rebellion and defiance. Welch’s “Cinderella,” for example, is no waif pining for a prince. Instead, a tomboy that in the end –– well, let us not spoil the ending here. To say that it is a fairytale fit for young girls in the 21st century will suffice.

In 1999, Welch created his first work for Houston Ballet, then under the direction of Ben Stevenson. Veteran principal dancer, Mireille Hassenboehler notes that before “Indigo,” she had never danced in a ballet with bared legs and midriff.

“I think it was the first time I felt like a strong, sexy woman on stage,” she exclaims. Probably due to his early acting experiences, helping dancers develop a role is one of Welch’s strengths. “He is very good at communicating motivation and expectation,” says Houston Ballet principal, Melody Mennite, who has created roles in several of Welch’s ballets, including another strong female — the title character in “Marie,” Welch’s ballet about the doomed Marie Antoinette. Assuming artistic directorship of Houston Ballet in 2003 hardly inhibited Welch’s creative habit. He has premiered more than 20 ballets in less than a decade. He affirms that ideas for new ballets sometimes hit him suddenly, while others slowly come to a boil in his imagination.

For the triple-bill, “Rock, Roll, & Tutus,” which in addition to “Divergence” will feature the Jagger-inspired, “Rooster” by Christopher Bruce, Welch aims to debut a new piece that is the polar opposite of the other dances.

“I hope ‘Tapestry’ will be a very different type of work from the high-impact ‘Divergence;’ says Welch “I’d like it to be a very subtle, pastel, romantic work.”

Now in his early 40s, Welch has been creating diverse and notable choreography for nearly half his life. “We are preparing to do a newly composed score,” he divulges, “This is a new, difficult, and exciting frontier.”

It is just one more challenge to meet as he finishes his ninth season as Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director. Asked if his work has changed during this time, Welch’s answer is matter-of-fact: “I must focus not just on what I need as a choreographer, but also on what the company and the city needs.”

February 23–March 4:  “Cinderella”

March 8–18:  “Rock, Roll & Tutus”

Brown Wortham Center
www.houstonballet.org