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
www.urbansoulsdancecompany.com

The Big Range Dance Festival
June 1-16, 2012
www.bigrange.org

Reprinted from Arts + Culture Magazine Houston

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Psophonia Dance Company Puts Their Finger on a New Pulse

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As the heart of Psophonia Dance Company, co-founders and Artistic Directors, Sophia Torres and Sonia Noriega have been pumping out new dance work for 13 seasons.

Their partnership has even survived a transplant. “Sonia has lived in Chicago for 5 years now and I don’t think in all that time we’ve had a break in our stride,” Torres reflects.

In that vein, the two are keeping the work flowing even while giving up their choreographers’ chairs to some fresh blood – their dancers. New Pulse, which presents at Barnevelder November 18 and 19, will feature original choreography by current and former members of the company.

Nurturing young talent and providing company members with production and artistic support is an idea that’s been on the table for some time. It’s also giving the company’s two matriarchs a chance to clear their heads before scrubbing in on any new operations. “I actually went through a creative spurt this spring, setting three new works on Psophonia, one on University of Houston, and one on Houston Community College students. I was ready to step back and regenerate,” explains Torres.

To assemble the program, Noriega and Torres asked the dancers to submit work that had been previously set. The dancers proffered work created in college or for other companies and events. While the choreographers who wanted to revise sections of their work were given support and suggestions on editing, the content was left in their hands. “Sophia and I have always respected and encouraged each other for our individual choreographic voices to develop,” says Noriega, “so giving them their freedom and encouraging them to express their work as they see fit just seemed natural for us.”

New Pulse will feature seven works from seven new choreographic voices.

Patty Solorzano’s “Entre Irse Y Quedarse/Between Going and Staying” is inspired by childhood recollections of Mexico and her struggle to adapt to a new culture when her family relocated to the U.S.  Dancers manipulate long skirts in this contemporary work influenced by Mexican Folkloric dance and prop photographs represent memories and a boundary between past and future. Fittingly, Solorzano’s challenge was transmitting the movement and emotional context of the piece to the performers in only one week before making her next big transition, a move to Michigan.

Tapley Whaley premiered “Cry of 146 at “Not For Sale”, a concert benefiting the anti-human trafficking organization, Love 146. “The subject matter is current, intense, and tragic, “ remarks Torres. “I applaud Tapley for choosing to tackle such a weighted subject and working with other organizations to raise awareness.” Whaley took time away from the company in March to have a baby. Now raising a seven-month-old, Whaley considers the creative opportunity to re-set “Cry of 146” and time with other dancers a blessing.

Jeanna Vance, who is also on leave from the company to start a family, describes the personal adversity she faced during a two-year period of her life. “It was like a storm that wouldn’t end.” A resulting introspection and surrender, bringing waves of relief and peace, inspired “First Breath.

Collaborators Kendall Kramer and Marielle Perrault provide an element of surprise with some clever light manipulation in “I. Photo II. Synthesis”. “I don’t want to give the ‘secret’ away, but it is great fun to watch,” says Torres.

Meanwhile, Emily Bischoff manipulates sound in “Shenanigans”. Recording discussion from the current cast of dancers, she has edited and reversed their voices to accompany a section of the piece. This work emerged as Bischoff contemplated the complexities of the brain, which seems to generate information in curious ways. “Random events stirring up organized and clear thoughts,” Bischoff observes.

Boroto, set to the contemporary African music of Badenya Les Freres Coulibaly, originated with the music. Choreographer Marielle Perrault explains, “I created movement inspired directly from what I heard. Every step is a reaction to the drums, the vocals, the climactic build.”

But words, specifically ‘lush’ and ‘sensual’, are the foundation for “Strolling le Carré, Stephanie Beall’s nod to the bateleur, street entertainers, of France.

For Beall, putting her work in front of an audience is a milestone. “I’ve never thought I was a good choreographer and had a fear of pursuing that avenue.” She and the other dancers-turned-choreographers express their gratitude to Noriega and Torres for the opportunity to revisit their dances. “I felt their support throughout the entire process,” says Solorzano.

Each also conveys appreciation for the chance to present work on a full stage with costuming, lighting, and ticket sales. Perrault summarizes, “Usually these factors are minimally accessible for beginning choreographers, but Psophonia knows the importance of developing a new generation of choreographers.”

Fans of Psophonia can take heart that Noriega and Torres will produce new work in 2012. Unlike many companies that spend months creating new choreography for a one-weekend show, they will continue to take their repertory on the road to places like Dallas, Chicago, and Cincinnati. This season, look for the company in Imagine Christmas at Moody Gardens. “This was an unexpected performance opportunity and we are excited about going to Galveston in December and performing daily for about two weeks.”

Intentions are to make New Pulse a regular event in Psophonia’s programming, making it an artistic, ahem… artery for future young dance-makers.

Psophonia Dance Company presents New Pulse Friday and Saturday, November 18-19 at 8pm at Barnevelder Movement/Arts, 2201 Preston St. To purchase tickets visit www.psophonia.com or call 713-802-1181.ext. 4.

Reprinted from Dance Source