Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen? ~ Nietzsche
Dance has been near or at the core of my life for as long as I can remember. As a career path, dance has been like a diamond into which I keep cutting new facets.
I have been a performer in contemporary dance companies in Pennsylvania, and Houston, Texas. Private studios, community programs, and college universities are places I’ve dedicated myself as a teacher of dance.
Struck by the potential blogging held for elevating the content and dialog available to dance students, parents, and teachers online, I began the website Dance Advantage in 2008 as a completely solo experiment. I act as webmaster, editor, content director, and social media manger and more. I continue to write key content for the site but now welcome contributors and guests from all walks of dance life, reaching thousands of new and returning readers from all over the world every month.
With this development, writer has been my latest cut in the gem. In addition to Dance Advantage, I cover dance performance and news for publications such as Arts+Culture Texas, Dance Source Houston, and CultureMap. I am also a freelance blogger for the NYC Rockettes website.
I have served as Marketing Committee Chair for the National Dance Week Foundation, presented the whys and how-tos of blogging on a panel for Dance/USA’s 2012 annual conference, and continue to be excited about the ways online social platforms can be used to bring dancers together.
Texas has been my home for over a decade but I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, where my fascination with movement, choreography, and teaching was nourished in my hometown dance studio and further developed and refined in the dance program at Slippery Rock University, from which I earned a bachelors degree with honors.
I balance my multifaceted career with my role as mom to two, beautiful children who inspire my creativity and enrich my purpose.
The 33rd Annual Dance Month at ERJCC’s Kaplan Theatre
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
World premiere of inventive Tapestry highlights Houston Ballet’s “Rock, Roll & Tutus”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.