A Delicate Fire: Houston Ballet’s Karina González lights up the stage

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

Karina González stamped her foot, hung upside down on a wooden horse, and transformed from a temper tantrum– throwing girl to an elegant woman before our eyes. Houston audiences got a taste of Venezuelan verve when González took the stage as Kate in Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew, her first major role since joining Houston Ballet last season. “Shrew was so hard, it was my first stab at Cranko. I had to stop being pretty to be mean with my whole body,” says González, 25. “Comedy is tough; I had to build the character from the beginning. After dancing Kate, I knew I had officially arrived.” So did Houston.
González proved equally at home on the contemporary landscape. Despite it being her first go at the Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s odd shapes, she looked natural, adding a lightness and delicate whimsy to his signature quirkiness. “I didn’t see that coming,” read her body language when she suddenly tipped upside down in Jorma Elo’s frisky ONE/end/ONE. Elo’s swerving, air-candy dives come out of nowhere with González’s unstudied brand of dancing. “Dancing Jorma is like entering another world,” she says. “One movement will be so soft, then the next sharp, followed by some hip hop steps. I had to work hard to get it right.”
She brought the same unfussy inno­cence to Wheeldon’s pristine sculptural shapes in Rush. She knows when to turn down the flourishes to highlight Wheeldon’s kinetic architecture.
Petite, with a wide-eyed expressive face, González brings on the wonder, whether it’s a contemporary or classic ballet. Effortless technique and an alluring stage presence made her the new girl to watch last season.
For artistic director Stanton Welch, González was the missing ingredient in the company mix. “We needed younger women to partner men like Connor Walsh, Ian Casady, and Joe Walsh,” says Welch. “She’s strong, feminine, and full of that Spanish fire. It’s so great to have a Latina dancer of her caliber.” Welch noticed her right away while setting Maninyas on Tulsa Ballet in 2009. “It’s rare that you find a dancer with beautiful legs and feet who can also jump and turn. I have yet to find her restriction,” he says. “She brought out a ferocious quality in the Elo. In my piece The Core, she was all urban New York sass. She looked terrific in that blonde wig, too.”
For González, it was love at first Welch-ian off-kilter head tilt. Although she had already danced Welch’s sporty Bruiser, it was his more lyrical opus Maninyas that set her hopes on Houston. “I knew instantly, this is me, this is what I want to be doing,” says González about learning Welch’s work. “He loves power, pushing me to the limit in terms of stamina. He gives us the same steps as the men. He sees how strong you can be so you can give everything. It’s really tiring and challenging.” In 2010, she sent in her DVDs and encouraged her then boyfriend, Rupert Edwards, to do so as well. When they both got offers, she knew there was no turning back. “I never expected to be a soloist, I would have been happy to be in the corps,” she recalls. “But when Rupert was offered a contract I thought, This is a sign. I have to go to Houston.”
Born into a family of teachers, including her three brothers and one sister, González is the only artist to come out of her household in Caracas. She started dancing at age 7, when her mother thought she would enjoy folk dance class. On the way there, they heard about ballet classes. Her mother’s choice that day to take her to ballet instead determined the path of the rest of her life. As a teen she considered stopping. “But my mother said I must finish what I started,” she remembers. “After that, I realized I really love dancing.” She trained and performed with Ballet Nacional de Caracas, then joined Tulsa Ballet, where she rose to the rank of principal in two years. There she danced lead roles in Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella and Andre Prokovsky’s The Great Gatsby, as well as Swan LakeDon Quixote, and The Sleeping Beauty.
Leaving Venezuela at age 17 wasn’t easy. She had never been away from home and did not speak English. “My father didn’t believe that an American company actually offered me a job until I sent pictures,” recalls González. “Being away from my family is still the hardest thing for me about dancing. We are so close. We talk once a week; I spend a lot on phone bills.”
González credits her time at Tulsa Ballet for making her the artist she is now. “Tulsa changed my life. I would not be here in Houston without that experience,” she says. “I am thankful for every single day I spent there. Marcello Angelini and Daniela Buson believed in me.” Still, after five years she wondered what was next for her. “I was ready to try something new. I need to push myself, dance new work, and have fresh corrections,” she says.
Now settled into downtown Houston, González enjoys the life in a booming metropolis. During her off hours, you can find her Skyping her family or trying the newest Cuban restaurant. “I love the Spanish culture here, the food, and the people,” she says. “The company was so welcoming. It’s only been a year, but I feel as if I have been here longer.”
She felt an instant kinship with principal Connor Walsh, who has partnered her in several ballets. “His partnering skills are so mature,” she says. “I could close my eyes and he would be there to catch me.” The feeling was mutual. “I noticed her strong work ethic and eagerness to improve right away. She also has this non-judgmental and easygoing attitude that makes working with her a real pleasure. On the stage she is full of energy and trust,” says Walsh. “Karina also has been blessed with facial features that reach every seat in the house without any strain. I want to surround myself with people who push me to be a better person and dancer. Karina is definitely one of them.” Last summer, the two toured Argentina, guesting with the Teatro Colon.

She still stays in touch with her mentor Zane Wilson, with whom she studied in Caracas. (Wilson carries on the work of choreographer Vicente Nebrada, who had directed Ballet Nacional de Caracas.) “He’s my American father. He taught me to dance for the last person in the balcony.” Dancing Giselle has been a dream of hers. “It’s not just about technique, but you have to be an excellent actor. You become a ballerina in that role.”
Her first year at Houston Ballet was a whirlwind of new people, places, and ballets. As a soloist, she’s done some principal roles, including Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. She takes the stage this year with her usual appetite for new challenges, including Ashton’s Les Patineurs, MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, and Robbins’ In the Night.
“Just about everything this season is new, yet I don’t feel like the new girl anymore. I’m more confident; I have found my space,” says González. “There’s so much trust here. Stanton and the company really help me become the dancer I want to be here.”

From top: Karina González in costume for Jorma Elo’s ONE/end/ONE. Tutu designed by Holly Hynes; With characteristic flair, González adapted to NYC streets after her cover shoot; In Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew, with Simon Ball. Photo by Nerio Photography, Courtesy HB. All other photos by Matthew Karas.



Art Wakes You UP

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Reprinted from Culturemap.

Sleepy? Lethargic? Listless? Having trouble focusing?  Don’t remember what you did yesterday? Walking around the house in daze, looking for your glasses while wearing them?

I have just the thing for you — art.

Yes, you heard it here first. Actually, I heard it elsewhere first, but I’m the one selling art as the wake-up cure. If all this art-making holds the potential to not only bring something of beauty into the world but also wakes us up, you have to admit it’s considerably more alluring than gulping an energy drink.

I’ve heard it all: art generates cash when we eat out, park and pay the babysitter. Art helps kids learn just about every subject, or at least make it more interesting. And then there’s my favorite rant, art has value, now just get over and on with it.

But when I heard Anthony Brandt utter, with a mischievous smile, “I protect consciousness, what do you do?” during his talk “Why Young Minds Need Art” to an eager crowd of educators and arts administrators at the first Houston Art Partners conference held at the MFAH last month, I thought, well now, that’s a new one. The premise of Brandt’s theory is that art has the power to wake us out of our coma though a process of bending, breaking and blending an idea.

Brandt is an associate professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and artistic director of Musiqa. He runs the popular Exploring the Mind through Music conferences and likes to hang out with neuroscientists. Later this season he teams up with celeb scientist/author David Eagleman for Maternity – Women’s Voices Through the Ages, premiering with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra on April 21. The guy knows his way around gray matter.

But let’s let the brainy composer speak: “Human minds constantly make a choice — prune neural networks for efficiency and reliability, which removes options and makes the behavior unconscious; or allow redundancy to thrive and promote networking, which offers flexibility and allows the conscious mind to participate,” says Brandt. “Activities that involve drilling and rote learning lead down the path to streamlining; that’s why habits are so hard to break.  Activities that offer novelty, problem-solving and subjective reasoning keep the brain’s options open. That’s how the arts protect consciousness: They fight automation and keep us awake to our experiences.”

Here’s how the three B’s rouse us out of our automated trance: Bending involves a transformation to the original. Breaking happens when we smash up the pieces to make something new. Blending occurs when two sources merge.

It’s no wonder I could penetrate Stanton Welch’s angled offshoots from classical technique in Indigo, during Houston Ballet’srecent performances. In fact, much of Welch’s work bends classical forms to new contours, summoning many a “how did they do that?” sort of experience. Nice, Mr. Welch, keep that up. I wasn’t alone in my accolades; the audience went bananas. We like waking up when it comes to ballet.

Amy Ell, artistic director of Vault, challenged the norm of partnering in Torn as part of her DiverseWorks residencyConTornTion. Bending the rules of aerial dance, Ell twists the rules of gravity as the dancers lift each other through novel uses of rock climbing harnesses. Later in the piece, a trio hanging from the ceiling further skews our perspective by dancing perpendicular to a wall. The founder of “area” dance, the choreographer considers walls, ceilings and floors all reasonable places to dance.

If Houston Ballet and Vault woke up my eyes, then the Catastrophic Theatre woke up my ears in their recent production of Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,running through Oct. 23 at their Sul Ross office. The entire play rolls off the tongue in rhyme. You don’t want to miss a word. Even the title represents a clever arrangement of words. The set-up of two William Blake scholars facing the aftermath of a night of public love-making on the yard of the their fledgling liberal arts college makes for a rich language feast. Blake liked to mess with the order of words, too. In fact, “I happy am” from Songs of Innocence factors into the drama big time. Maher bends language with a breathtaking originality. The terrific cast has a blast with Maher’s word wonk ways.

For breaking, head over to 3705 Lyons St. to see Dan Havel and Dean Ruck’s Fifth Ward Jam, made possible in part by a 2008 Houston Arts Alliance Artist and Neighborhood Project grant. The public art for the everyman team, who gave us the sucked in house called Inversion, sure know how to smash up a couple of bungalows to show us what breaking looks like.

I found blending in the most unusual place — the 18th Century — as part of MFAH’s Life and Luxury: The Art of Living in Eighteenth-Century Paris. French aristocrats’ savvy silversmiths merged their designs with the food underneath it. Who would imagine broccoli would blend so well with silver?

Bending, breaking and blending are harder to discern at The Menil in Walter De Maria’s Bel Air Trilogy, featuring three red shiny 1955 Bel Air Chevrolets, each speared by a 12-foot-long stainless steel rod, resulting is something new, bent, broken, blended and quite extraordinary.

See what I mean? Nothing refreshes our neural networks like art.

As we continue to quantify the value of art in our children’s lives, Brandt’s thesis may be the one with staying power. Too often, we speak about creativity as a vague, mysterious thing. Clearly defining the territory, as Brandt elegantly did, elevates the discussion. Musiqa  does their part with their NEA-funded school programs Around the World and Musiqa Remix.

I’ve often gravitated toward art as a way to change my brain, my mood, or just to jar me into a new perspective. As I traipse the the city, eyes wide open, I see much to keep me awake.

Image: Houston Ballet artists Sara Webb and Luke Ingham in Indigo, choreographed by Stanton Welch. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

A Decade of Dance: Stanton Welch Celebrates 10 Years at Houston Ballet


With the 2013-14 season, Stanton Welch moves into his 10th year as artistic director of Houston Ballet, one of the leading companies in the nation. With a new building, a young company of top dancers, and new work on the season menu, Houston Ballet continues to be positioned for growth. Welch visits with A + C editor Nancy Wozny about this milestone in his career.

Arts + Culture: I just reread our five-year interview inArtshouston where we promised to chat again in five years. And here we are. We are still here, unlike the magazine. I remember you saying that the first five years felt like five days.

Stanton Welch: Now it feel like five years. It feels fast. I was just at American Ballet Theatre casting Clear. It’s amazing to think that it’s been over ten years since I was living in New York.

A + C: Did you first come here to create Indigo?

SW: I came once before that, when I was on holiday as a young dancer. I was visiting a friend in the company. I was about 19 or so. I even took class. I stood behind Barbara Bears. She was extraordinary. You know, she’s coming back for Blessed Memory.

A + C: Bears is so elegant. Say more about the ballet.

SW: Blessed Memory was my very first piece. I choreographed it for my mother, so it will be perfect for Barbara.

A + C: What else stood out about your visit?

SW: I remember driving through the Wortham, that stuck in my brain, to have a theater that you can drive through.

A+ C: You are right, that is kind of weird. What were your impressions when you came to choreograph Indigio, which has really turned out to be one of your signature pieces for the company?

SW: I was still dancing with The Australian Ballet at the time, and there was something about Houston Ballet that reminded me of Australia. I found them to be a great company and, very clearly, I wanted to keep choreographing there.

A + C: Well, certainly you have continued choreographing, creating a serious body of work for the company this past decade. Take us back to the time when you arrived to take the job. There was a huge photo of you on the Wortham Center that read “Welcome Stanton”. That had to be daunting.

SW: It was not my idea. It made me recognizable, which usually choreographers are not. It’s rare that people know the faces of directors. But I wasn’t driving by it much back then because I was still on my bike.

A + C: The company is mostly a new company from when you arrived, a handful of dancers remain from that time as dance is a short career. Now, all but one principal was appointed by you. How would you describe the team you are going forward with?

SW: I would like to think that we are a company of extremely well-rounded  artists, accomplished in all forms of dance from contemporary to classical, absorbing and open to learning and development. I believe that is what people see.

A + C: It was interesting to me in rereading our five-year interview that there was no mention of a new building. I just drove by the old West Gray site, and it’s gone, and now you all seemed quite moved into the classy downtown space. How has Center for Dance been a game-changer?

SW: We are still discovering what it does for us. The summer intensive was the largest it has ever been. There’s no question about what we should rehearse because of space concerns. We could grow the company, do more coaching, and add more classes with more levels. We got the dance world’s attention; The building made people aware of how much Houston supports the arts. These are very important messages to get out.

A + C: Let’s talk about the season, which you launch with four new works, two by seasoned hands – Christopher Bruce and James Kudelka – and two by a pair of young dance-makers, Garrett Smith and Melissa Houston. That’s a lot of pressure for young choreographers.

SW: I would have thought that, too. But it’s the other way around – the older ones are daunted. It’s generational thing, perhaps. Garrett and Melissa are so secure, and have such a strong level of confidence.

A + C: It’s a funny coincidence that you opened your fifth season with The Merry Widow and here it is back for your 10th anniversary.


SW: I grew up with this ballet; it was created for The Australian Ballet, and  it’s what enticed my mother back from retirement. It’s such a special role, in that it’s about an empowered woman who is charge of her own life and not a victim. It’s ideal for a comeback.

A + C: So, that’s how you got the marvelous Amy Fote to return to dance the role of Hanna, one of the many triumphs of her career. We will be glad to see her again. She grew into the dazzling artist she became in part under your leadership. Ten years is long enough to have made a mark on an institution. How would you describe the mark you have left thus far?

SW: Well, in the qualities of our dancers which I mentioned earlier. I also believe I have created an environment that choreographers, teachers and dancers want to work in because of the energy and atmosphere. It’s not about stardom here, but the art form. I didn’t reinvent the wheel; The work ethic always been there. I took the direction Houston Ballet was going in and turned it up. That’s the mark I would like to leave, and hope we are well on the way to that now.

Image: Stanton Welch in rehearsal.
Photo by B. Bennett.

Reprinted from Arts + Culture TX.

Wim Wenders’ PINA

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Walking down a dark street on a balmy Austin October night, a truck driver stopped to ask me if he knew where he was supposed to pick up some redwood trees. Normally, I would think that was an odd request, but still under the deep spell of Pina Bausch’s Nur Du (Only You), I replied calmly, “Right here.” Redwood trees, mountains of carnations, a pile of dirt or a carpet of velvet green turf, Bausch’s theatrically charged dances spilled out on otherworldly surfaces during the course of her unparalleled career. This November, Bausch’s dances will be projected in 3D in Wim Wender’s extraordinary tribute to the seminal German choreographer, Pina, one of the many arts-focused films headlining the 2011 Cinema Arts Festival, that runs Nov. 9-13 in Houston.

Pina is also part of the Festival’s international thrust, which includes films by Patricio Guzman (Chile), Zhu Wen (China) and Mahmoud Kaabour (Lebanon).

There hasn’t been this much excitement in the dance film world since Natalie Portman flapped her bloody feathered wings in Black Swan,screened at last year’s Cinema Arts Festival. In fact, Festival curator Richard Herskowitz  has quite a track record for including significant dance films; in 2010, Frederick Wiseman’s, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, proved a Festival favorite.

The year was 1996 when Tanztheater Wuppertal performed Nur Du at University of Texas as part of a larger project examining Bausch’s work and contribution to dance theater history. I had the extraordinary privilege, courtesy of the Goethe Institute and UT, to spend two weeks in Austin, taking daily class with the veteran Tanztheater dancer Lutz Förster, and attending lectures on the development of dance theater. Förster not only taught us a section from Bausch’s 1980, my favorite piece of hers, but even shared some of Bausch’s psychologically rigorous creative process. Dancers coming of age during the 1980s straddled the post-modern aesthetic and the emotionally brutal edge of Bausch’s brand of depth truth telling.

Although she had a distinct dance signature, Bausch embodied a fusion of influences. She studied with German modern dance pioneer Kurt Jooss at the Folkwang School in Essen. She also spent a year at Juilliard School, where her teachers included Antony Tudor, José Limón, Alfredo Corvino and Margret Craske. As a dancer, she worked with Paul Taylor, Paul Sanasardo and Donya Feuer. After she returned to Germany in the late 1960s, she eventually took over Wuppertal Ballet (renamed Tanztheater Wuppertal) in 1973.

Born in 1940, Bausch lived through war, violence, epic changes in Europe, all of which played out in her work. Yet, it’s the personal nature of the dancers’ interactions that she is most remembered for. Whatever story unfolded in front of us, it was danced by real people, who delved deeply into their own lives to make something authentic happen on stage. Through athletic movement, a keen eye for set design elements, an uncanny musicality and shreds of a fractured narrative, Bausch let us in on a pre-verbal and unconscious layer of expression. Her name and the work she created while directing Tanztheater Wuppertal defined the dance/theater genre from 1970s until her sudden death on June 30, 2009, just five days after being diagnosed with cancer.

When I first heard that a Bausch film was in the works, I was excited. When I found out that it would be directed by Wenders, I was ecstatic. When I learned that Pina would be coming to Houston, well, simply starry eyed. The legendary director of Paris, TexasThe Buena Vista Social Club and numerous other films, seemed a perfect fit for the choreographer’s enigmatic world. (Wender’s wistful Wings of Desire, selected by SWAMP’s Mary Lampe as part of MFAH’s Movies Houstonians Love, screens on Nov. 7.)

I’m not surprised that Wender’s film is 3D because Bausch’s work operated on numerous dimensions, drawing from dreams, personal memory and psychological investigations of human behavior. The 3D medium may be the best way to capture her raw physicality. It was Wenders’ use of the 3D technology that originally drew Herskowitz to the film.

“His use of 3D is innovative and appropriate. The viewer is drawn into her dances.” says Herskowitz. “I’ve admired Wenders’ work for a long time, yet it’s interesting to note that his arts documentaries are among his finest works. Buena Vista Social Club was a knock out. It makes sense to include a favorite director working at full tilt.”

Herskowitz is also a Bausch fan. “I saw many of her pieces at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), and have always revered her work,” he adds.

Pina includes excerpts of such ground breaking works as Cafe MullerLe Sacre du Printemps, Vollmond and Kontakthof, along with archival footage of the choreographer at work and short solo performances by her one-of-a-kind dancers. Wenders enlisted Bausch’s methodology of using questions to drive the action. The solo sections, filmed in and around Wuppertal, derive from Wenders’ inquiry into the dancers’ memories.

For years, I thought nothing of driving four hours to see her work at BAM. I’ll never forget sneezing through 1980, which sprawled out on a bed of real green grass. The film’s tag line “dance, dance, otherwise we are lost” cuts to the core of Bausch’s transcendent work. We lost a dance giant when Bausch died. One can only imagine the dances she never got to create.

Wenders’ film draws us back into Bausch’s visceral terrain, honoring her legacy in the process, and letting us take one last spin on the lawn.

Discovering Theater Outside of Houston


IT ALL STARTED A FEW YEARS back in a ladies’ room in Terlingua, Texas, a place that felt like the end of the world — or at least, the end of Texas.

I happened upon a poster for a theater company performing Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s raucous, apocalyptic comedy, Hunter Gatherers. I had recently seen a fabulous production by Houston’s Catastrophic Theatre and wondered how Nachtrieb’s feral approach went over in Brewster County.

I ran to tell my traveling companions, who chalked it up to the delusions of a performaniac. We had been traveling all day, and it had been at least five days since I had seen a performance of any kind, so I could very well have been making up stuff. It has been known to happen.

I didn’t give the whole incident much thought until the daunting task of finding out about theater outside of Houston landed on my plate when A + C Houston and its North Texas sister morphed into A + C Texas.  As a contributing editor for Dance Magazine, reconnecting to dance across the state was more about catching up with old friends. There’s more of an epic aspect to discovering theater in the rest of Texas.

Then, I wandered into Texas NonProfit Theaters, the statewide service organization for all nonprofit theaters in Texas. I clicked on the map, and a thick sea of theater company balloons popped up. I’m guessing that our great state has more theater companies than gun shows, folks. Then, my eyes drifted west toward a lone red balloon smack in the middle of Terlingua. Lo and behold, I discovered Last Minute Low Budget Productions (LMLBP). They did, in fact, perform Hunter Gatherers in 2010. LMLBP describe themselves as a loose aggregation of theater lovers from Terlingua, Big Bend National Park, Study Butte and Lajitas.

For the next few weeks, I became rather obsessed with clicking on theater company balloons. The density in the Dallas/Fort Worth region is staggering. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I noticed a healthy number of theater companies in the middle tier, which is something missing in many urban centers, where the one big and many tiny are more the norm.

With Paper Chairs, Hidden Room Theatre, Loaded Gun Theory, Poison Apple Initiative, a chick & a dude productions, The Duplicates and Trouble Puppet, Austin not only wins hands down in the weird and poetic name category, but also in the production of collaborative, original and devised work.

Some other miscellaneous Texas theater trivia: contemporary Russian theater lives in Austin at Breaking String Theater; the “Three” in Theatre Three in Dallas stands for the author, the actors, and the audience; there’s a place called The Globe of the Great Southwest, and it’s located on Shakespeare Road in Odessa, the town most known for its famed football team in Friday Night Lights. Austin’s Zach Theater, the oldest continuously operating theater in Texas is not named after Zach Braff, but rather Zachary Scott, who starred in Mildred Pierce and The Southerner, which is considered Jean Renoir’s greatest American film.

And then there’s the pattern of plays, as I watched Clybourne Park spread  from the flatlands of Houston at the Alley to the hill country of San Antonio. David Ives’ Venus in Fur lands at the Alley, the Playhouse in San Antonio and finally, at a chick & a dude productions in Austin.Les Mis makes a similar swing by the big cities, starting at the Zach.

Texas has an ongoing love affair with Will Eno and Annie Baker, judging from the number of plays that dot the theater map. You could see Baker’s The Aliens during the same week in Houston at Horse Head and in Dallas at Upstart Productions.

It’s now many an email list sign-up, Facebook “like,” and Twitter “follow” later. For a while there, my life became “another day, another theater company”. Yesterday, it was Teatro Vivo, a bilingual theater company in Austin; today, The Vexler Theater in San Antonio. If you leave now you can still get to Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers at the Vex, running until Sept. 7.

Really, this is going to take a while. I am just getting started, and still sorting out the “theater” from the “theatre” types. I knew something shifted in my formerly Houston-centric thinking when I unconsciously introduced myself to a crowd of dance watchers at Jacob’s Pillow as a Texas-based arts writer.

As for theater in this great state, it appears to be everywhere, even in the state capital when a dedicated group of Texans shouted, “Let her speak” during Wendy Davis’ now-historic filibusterer. We simply have drama in our bones. Somewhere in Texas, it’s opening night.

Merde, y’all.

IMAGE: Brock England and Nathan Jerkins in Hidden Room Theatre’s award- winning production of Rose Rage. Photo by Kristen Wrzesniewski.

Reprinted from Arts + Culture TX.

The Sports/Arts Disconnect


The season is off and running. At press time, Texans and Cowboys are off to an OK start, the Mack Brown drama continues, and Johnny Football had three seconds on the bench.

Oh, yeah, that other season started too. So what’s my cheeky point here? Why do we often position sports as the enemy of the arts? Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Houston Area Survey on Health, Education, and the Arts asked participants about attending either sports or arts events. This is Texas, people; why not see who’s going to both?

Example: I see a guy take out his phone out during the intermission at Houston Ballet. “What’s the score?” I asked him, knowing full well he was checking on the UT game. A lady in Row D chimed in on the tragedy of arts events occurring on Aggie game-days. When Horse Head Theatre launched, artistic director Kevin Holden mentioned “no shows on UT game days” alongside his promise to present raw‑to‑the‑bone theater.

I’m from Buffalo, and the Buffalo Sabres rehearsed — OK, OK, practiced —once a week at my high school. I get the excitement of a game, especially the  geometry, of a good play in football, and the visceral velocity of ice hockey. When I can’t find an idea for Halloween, I just stick my Buffalo Bills cap on and call myself  “despair.”

Plenty of Texas artists are sports freaks. I’ve learned never to ask for anything from our Dallas team after a Cowboys loss, which is sadly, too often. After all, sport and arts, especially dance, have so much in common: dangerous virtuosity, a college education with little promise of a job, a life brutal to the body, and endless drama. Andy Noble of NobleMotion Dance is a crazed Florida State University fan. FSU was playing for the National Championship while Noble was in a dress rehearsal for Orpheus and Eurydice. He watched the game in full devil regalia from a back stage monitor. That’s dedication, folks. Noble’s recent testosterone-fueled creation,Maelstrom, featuring an all-star team of 14 men from several local dance companies, felt like one of those Samoan pre-game rituals, containing all the excitement of those plays that has everyone screaming. “He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.”

But where’s the requited love? Why doesn’t the sports field pay attention to us? “Not so fast,” says my colleague and associate editor at Dance Magazine, Jenny Dalzell. “One could argue that this bridging of sport and art happens on Dancing with the Stars, in the way that athletes, like Hines Ward, Emmitt Smith, Apollo Ono, and recently Jacoby Jones, are finding out what it means to be in a dance studio and training,” says Dalzell, who just happened to have a super blog post on this very subject. How true, and who didn’t enjoy Ono’s finesse off the ice?

Dalzell reminded me that Lynn Swann, pro football Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver, danced with Twyla Tharp and then New York City Ballet star (now director) Peter Martins in Tharp’s Dance is a Man’s Sport, Too, a made for TV dance in 1980. She also brought up the fact that more recently, Mike Piazza, considered one of the best-hitting catchers in history, played a hit man in a Miami City Ballet production’s of Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.

Why don’t these two worlds collide more often? Just think of the pageantry and ritual surrounding sports events, everything from those weird diagonal walks that marching bands do to the 100-girl kick lines of dance teams. Consider The Kilgore Rangerettes, the nation’s first dance team launched in 1930 by Miss Gussie Nell Davis, who brought the first touch of Broadway to half time. If anyone is going to make a sports/arts connection, it’s Texans.

Kudos to University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts for commissioning En Masse, Daniel Roumain Bernard’s collaboration with UH’s Spirit of Houston marching band. DBR will return for another new work for the band for the opening of the new football stadium in 2014. I appreciate the Mitchell Center’s embrace of art and college life. Bravos are in order to The Dallas Opera for the simulcast of Turandot at the Cowboys Stadium last April. Let’s share our theaters. Houston’s Mercury-the orchestra re-defined played before Astros and Aeros games. That’s the spirit.

Of course, there’s much about these worlds that collide. We are an art form not a competition, although looking at the rise of dance competitions that is less true these days. But hey, listen to Paul Taylor Dance Company member Francisco Graciano on the subject. “If you think professional sports are inspiring, then go see Taylor,” says Graciano, who will be performing in Houston at Jones Hall on Oct. 12.  Any sports player would be hard pressed to keep up with the athletes of God from the Taylor company. Now, if only the touchdown dance would come back.

IMAGE:   UH Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts’ Artist in Residence Daniel Bernard Roumain with the UH Spirit of Houston Cougar Marching Band, in Discovery Green Park in Houston, TX during En Masse, a four hour long public performance on April 20, 2013.  Photo by David A. Brown.

Reprinted from Arts + Culture TX. 


Forklift’s Allison Orr Powers Up


Forklift Dance Works founder Allison Orr, formerly fearful of heights, can now climb a power pole. Don’t expect her to fix your electricity when it goes out, but she knows way more about energy than your average choreographer.

“It’s my job to know how the power travels from the plant to the costumer,” says Orr, who premieres her newest opus, PowerUP – A Performance by the Employees and Machinery of Austin Energy, on Sept. 21- 22, on the grounds of the Travis County Exposition and Heritage Center.

Orr attended a lineman’s rodeo a few years back and thought, “Yes, absolutely we can do a show around this.”  Then she sent herself to pole climbing school to get a better idea of the work into her body.

“I had to show that I was all in. I showed the video of me climbing to recruit performers,” says Orr. “These guys are the last cowboys, and often they come from generations of power workers.”

Thus far, Orr has practiced her unconventional method of dance-making on a traffic officer, 200+ two steppers, Venetian gondoliers, firefighters, roller skaters, maintenance men, a college grounds crew, women over 65, pregnant women, plus trained dancers and dance students of all ages (6 months to 90+). She doesn’t so much make dances as she choreographs the world that is already dancing around us. With a background in anthropology, Orr considers field work first in any dancemaking project.

Orr spent a year getting to know men and women working at Austin Energy before she created her first step. “I’ve interviewed field crews, admin and office-based staff,” she says. “I have probably met over 250 workers, and interviewed over 50.” It’s Orr’s ability to join in that makes her dances so authentic. Orr feels honored to be welcomed into the Austin Energy community.

“I get my inspiration from talking with people about their lives,” she says. “It’s the best part of my job.”

Fresh on the success of The Trash Project, a piece captured by Andrew Garrison’s award-winning film Trash Dance, Orr turned her attention to the power people.

“The film gave the project legitimacy,and it helped with fundraising.”

Orr showed the linemen a snippet of Trash Dance, which was followed by dead silence until one person the chimed in, saying, “Our dance is going to be better than that.” Austin fully embraces Orr’s inclusive method of dancemaking.

The Austin American Statesman named The Trash Project “the year’s #1 Arts Event” upon its premiere. Orr has been named the year’s most outstanding choreographer by The Austin Critics Table three times and The Austin Chronicle’s “Best Movement Illuminator” in 2012.

PowerUP will feature more than 50 linemen and electrical technicians, plus bucket trucks, cranes and field trucks and a set of 25 utility poles. The score is by Orr’s frequent collaborator Graham Reynolds, and will be accompanied by a string orchestra led by Austin Symphony Conductor Peter Bay. Stephen Pruitt’s lighting and production design completes the artistic team. The Trash Project turned out to be terrific practice for PowerUp.

“I’ve learned a lot about navigating city bureaucracy and how to do that with grace, how to work on such a large scale successfully, how to bring on and collaborate with other artists (like Graham and Stephen) so that the dance functions on many levels and the work is stronger, and finally, to dream big, because what seems impossible can actually happen if you just build the relationships.”

Reprinted from Arts + Culture TX.


Ben’s Last Ballerina

Houston Ballet Mireille Hassenboehler in The Merry Widow choreographed by Ronald Hynd
Mireille Hassenboehler and artists of the Houston Ballet  in The Merry Widow. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar

Mireille “Mimi” Hassenboehler is Ben’s last ballerina, in that she is the last remaining principal appointed by former Houston Balletartistic director Ben Stevenson. I’ve had my little play on Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer story in my mind for some time now, I just didn’t expect to be doing it for her last dance. Hassenboehler ends her 21-year career at Houston Ballet after her final performance as Hanna in The Merry Widow on Sept. 28. (She also performs this Thursday and Sunday.)

“Oh, what better way to go than with a glass of champagne and a waltz,” quips Hassenboehler, trying to cheer me up.

And she’s right, if ever there was a delightful exit ballet for a dancer with a smile as bright as Texas, it’s The Merry Widow. “It’s a role for a woman of substance — that’s Mimi,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director. “It feels sudden,” I tell her. “It is and it isn’t. I’m 40 and I can feel it,” she replies.

The difficulties of raising a special needs child with a husband who travels a lot have caught up with the elegant dancer. “It’s been challenging,” Hassenboehler says. “I’m going to be mommy diva now. I have so much to learn about special education. That’s my new career now.”

Eventually, she also plans to hunker down and finish college. Returning to dance in some capacity will take place on her own time.

“I’m open to it, but I need a big hiatus from ballet. I want to take a big breath,”  Hassenboehler  says. “One of the things I have learned from other dancers is that you need to separate yourself for a while. I want to learn some new things, and return with a fresh frame of mind.”

The Goodbye

Leaving Houston Ballet is bittersweet. Hassenboehler literally grew up there. “It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend,” she sighs, “Ballet is my first love. It’s a big thing to leave.”

The New Orleans native first came to Houston Ballet at 18 to study in the Academy. By the next year, Hassenboehler joined the company. “I spent what seemed like a lot of time in the corps before moving up,” she recalls.

During her tenure at Houston Ballet, her repertoire was extensive, dancing all the major classical roles, and excelling in contemporary work. Her elongated lines proved a perfect match for Welch’s crisp, geometric choreography. Welch cherished choreographing on her. “I started with Indigo and I never stopped,” he says, with a tone of sadness in his voice. Clearly, Welch is going to miss his leggy muse.  “When you see her on stage welcoming the audience, that’s really her. It’s not an act,” he says.

More than once life imitated art. While she was preparing to get married she danced Jiří Kylián’s Svadebka, which chronicled the tale of a bride and groom. While Hurricane Katrina was destroying her hometown, she was dancing Kylián’s Forgotten Land, which deals with the power of the sea overtaking the land. Hassenboehler possesses a powerful fluency in Kylián’s work, which she explains articulately.

“I understood the movement immediately because I could see a connection with Stanton’s vocabulary,” she says. “His work prepared me for Kylián’s, I could feel the lineage. I always found one ballet prepared me for the next.”

First soloist Linnar Looris partners her in The Merry Widow. As a fellow tall dancer, he relishes the opportunity to take this last waltz with her.

“She trusts her partner fully, which builds a lot of confidence to work through even the hardest moves,” Looris says. “She has a lot of patience, and it makes any role or partnership as perfect as it can be, something that one does not always expect from a principal ballerina.

“And she has a great sense of humor. It makes the whole process from the studio to the stage easy and fun.”

Hassenboehler will be honored during the Jubilee of Dance on Dec. 6 with a special video tribute. We will miss her radiance on and off stage. I will miss the zest she brought to every single role.

Although the ballerina is heading for the departure gate, she’s right on her game, ready to deliver a breathtaking goodbye. “It’s odd to be exit mode and gearing up at the same time,” she says. “But I don’t want to sizzle out. There’s no backing off.”

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Full Heart Dancing

Paul Taylor’s Esplanade elevated running, jumping, leaping and gleefully sliding across the stage into something sublime. Today, Taylor’s iconic dance, composed mostly of everyday movements, remains a seminal statement in the American dance canon.

Society for the Performing Arts presents the Paul Taylor Dance Company on Oct. 12 at Jones Hall in their first Houston show in a decade, with a program that includes such renown works asSunsetAirs, and Taylor’s signature masterpiece,Esplanade. This engagement features Mercury in the pit.

PTDC’s performance is the second event in SPA’s unprecedented focus on great American Dance. It would be unthinkable to not have Taylor on the season; he’s that important.

SPA presents Paul Taylor Dance Company on Oct 12 at Jones Hall Airs by Paul Taylor photos by Paul B. Goode.

Airs by Paul Taylor
photos by Paul B. Goode.

The renowned dance writer Arelene Croce famously calledEsplanade “unfaked folk art.” Company member and San Antonio native Francisco Graciano brings us inside the Esplanademystique: “Those slides are thrilling,” says Graciano. “There’s a great sense of satisfaction and confidence knowing you are about to perform a dance that audiences around the globe have connected with and adored for decades.”

Company member Parisa Khobdeh, a native of Plano, Texas, addresses the joyful spirit of the work: “Esplanade is the most cathartic dance I have ever danced. It reminds me that happiness comes from the heart; walking, running, jumping, sliding, falling is dance at it’s purest.”

Graciano and Khobdeh are excited to be dancing in their home state of Texas. “It just feels good to bring great modern dance to a community where it’s not prevalent,” says Khobdeh. “The feeling is amplified because it’s happening in the place I grew up.”

With Antoine Plante leading Mercury, the music of Bach, Handel and Edward Elgar  will come to life on period instruments. “Paul Taylor’s musicality is really genius,” says Graciano. “You really do see music come to life through his lens.”

SPA presents Paul Taylor Dance Company on Oct 12 at Jones Hall Airs by Paul Taylor photos by Paul B. Goode.

Airs by Paul Taylor.
Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Since it has been a while since Houston dance lovers have seen the company, Graciano gives us a primer on what to expect. “Paul’s work can’t be pigeonholed. One dance will make you laugh. Another will scare the daylights out of you,” says Graciano. “And yet another may send your soul searching. Paul has an uncanny gift for observing people and his ability to present the human element so succinctly in his dances is second to none.”

Khobdeh finds a thread running through the program. “All three works have one thing in common: they are revealing of the human heart, imbuing feelings of passion, love, loss, distance, joy, peace and harmony,” she says.  “They serve as a mirror to ourselves.”

Dancing with the modern dance master is an ever-evolving process for the company. “Over the years, I have learned that Mr. Taylor will show you where to look and what to look for, but the rest you must do yourself,” says Khobdeh. “Mr. Taylor is a gentleman and most respectable in nature; you’d think he was a Texan.”

Reprinted from Arts + Culture TX

Contemporary Flamenco 101: A visit with Niurca Márquez

Niurca Márquez in Morada de los Dioses. Photo by Liliam Dominguez

Niurca Márquez is a contemporary Flamenco dancer who is part of an ongoing evolution of this world dance form. She holds a BA in Dance, an MA in Cultural Studies and has trained professionally both in the US and Spain. She is in town for the Feldenkrais Center of Houston’s training program, and will perform this weekend as part of her visit. She brings A + C editor, Nancy Wozny, into the contemporary Flamenco mix.

A + C: It’s unusual to have training in both contemporary and world forms. What brought you to Flamenco?

Niurca Márquez:I owe that combination to a series of twists and turns in my training, and in particular to having been trained in the US, where we do not see this as a conflict, and boy am I thankful for that.

But as per your question on what brought me to Flamenco, it’s the second time this week I’ve been asked to consider that question and quite honestly, my sense is that it was always there. I’m the daughter of Cuban immigrants, and my grandmother was the one who first enrolled me in ballet classes. It was also she who continually made reference to our Spanish ancestry, made sure I saw all of Sarita Montiel’s movies and sat and watched Carlos Saura’s “El Amor Brujo” with me. It was Spanish actress Trini Moren, wife of El Niño de Utrera, who first noticed the fact that ballet was not the best choice for me and insisted that her daughter bring a Spanish Dance teacher to the studio to work with me. I have her to thank as well.

I have to say that, after living in Spain and getting to know the inner workings of Flamenco, I suspect that my father’s love of music, particularly Spanish rock from the 1960’s, probably also had something to do with it. I was well into my dance studies in college when I decided to focus on Flamenco. I continued to experiment with other forms, such as Afro-Cuban, Argentine Tango and contemporary dance, performing in these styles on a number of occasions. In the end, Flamenco felt closest to home, it was a language I understood and resonated with on a very deep cultural level.

We have an idea of what Flamenco is, however, a term like “experimental Flamenco” is new to many of us. Can you explain what it looks like?

That’s a trick question. I say this because experiments can often yield many different results. My work is very much in line with contemporary Flamenco, a line that has developed considerably in the last 10 years or so, primarily at the hands of artists who were looking to create content-based work that stepped outside the boundaries of traditional “theatrics.”

It’s work that seeks to delve deeper into the hidden or underlining elements in Flamenco and bring them to the forefront in an attempt to strip away all the unnecessary packaging and present work that is relevant to our own individual here and now. Because of this, the music, costuming, set, lighting and movement can be drastically different from one piece to the next.

Can you give us an example?

Sure, in one work I will begin barefoot and either work my way to my shoes or not use them at all. In some works I use very traditional music and deconstruct the movement vocabulary to create a different correlation of events. In other works I have played with the make-up or traditional elements of flamenco like the fan or the “bata de cola” (train dress) in very non-traditional ways.

And finally in some, although I use traditional music and costuming, I have dismantled the traditional dance structures to further explore the lyricism of the music or to tell my story.

Is it still Flamenco though?

The unifying element is that they all begin with the very essence of Flamenco, what I like to call the “flamenco state.” They are characterized by an attention to narrative, a need to communicate an experience (much like you would see happening between artists in a traditional flamenco work), physically the presence of tension and distension or oppositional relationships in the body, a close relationship with rhythm and the sound environment and the appearance in some way of text, whether in the singing or in another form.

These to me are the primary elements of Contemporary or Experimental Flamenco. The experiment usually entails playing with how many of these are present at any given time and how they interact. The clearest examples are the variety of works presented each year at the “Flamec Empiric” Festival curated by Juan Carlos Lerida in Barcelona.

Tell us a bit about your teachers Belen Maya and Juan Carlos Lerida?

They have been two very important people in my life over the past seven years. It feels strange to call them teachers as I have not had a traditional student-teacher relationship with them. There have been others who fill that space, but they have been friends and mentors in so many ways. They, along with Yolanda Heredia, have been instrumental in this search for a personal voice in my dancing and choreography.

When I arrived in Spain to live there permanently in 2007, I thought I’d have to quit dancing for many reasons, and it was Belen who basically coerced me back into the studio to “play.” She later choreographed a solo work for me and continued to advise me as I created works of my own.

Juan Carlos gave me a space to voice my work at the first “Flamenc Empiric” in 2009. It was quite a risk he took with a few of us. His insistence that there were other voices that needed to be heard and that this Contemporary Flamenco was a place that looked very different depending on the guide was gutsy, given that this was the first major festival of its kind. He was also the one who first introduced me to Katsugen and dusted off many long-forgotten tools for creating work that until then I’d relegated to the archives of my college years.

The last one to give me a final push was Yolanda Heredia, who I first took classes from in 1998, and then re-encountered when I participated in Flamenc Empiric. Heredia is a recognized flamenco master from a long line of gypsies in Sevilla who gifted me her technique for the “bata de cola” and actually trusts me to teach it outside of Spain.

Heredia has been quite inspirational in the development of my own teaching methodology and ideas about how to delve even deeper into the roots of Flamenco in order to really understand it. Not the designer flamenco we’re used to these days or the flamenco in a “dark smoke-filled tavern,” but rather the flamenco that is passed down from one generation to the next, in the kitchen listening to your mother sing, in the way people speak to each other on the street, in the way we inhabit and share space.

She was there when I presented my first really experimental piece in 2009, and I was terrified as I knew her to be extremely traditional and one of a very small number of masters of the bata de cola (the piece basically deconstructed the bata). What she said afterwards, which I will not repeat here as it was very graphic, was the best compliment I could have ever received. She took me on as a student after that, so I guess she appreciated my attempt.

I’m curious how the Feldenkrais Method informs your dancing practice?

In 2002, I was at a concert when I began to feel extreme pain and discomfort like I had not experienced ever. Weeks of bed-rest and an MRI later showed a considerable injury to my neck and I was told I could not dance anymore. At the time, I was a soloist in one company and was a collaborating artist in another, so this was out of the question. The director of one of the companies put me in contact with Dale Russel, a Feldenkrais practitioner, who over the years has become a close friend, and the rest reads like most of these stories.

At first, I used the method to find ways to move around the injury until it was better. Then it progressed to using it as a warm-up of sorts, to keep me safe and healthy as I continued to dance. Eventually though, I realized that it had seeped into much of what I did, including my understanding of movement and how to create works. I started the training program in Barcelona in 2008, but had to leave it for personal reasons.

I continued my own practice in the studio, but in 2010 that changed drastically. I had the opportunity to work with choreographer Georg Blaschke and Sascha Krausneker, who are part of the Vienna Training program, and something clicked for me. They have been using the method to create work and suddenly in their lab everything made sense. I had finally found my in to teach and choreograph Flamenco in a way that made sense, from the inside out so to speak instead of from a final goal, look, speed or image.

It also solidified what I had already been noticing in my teaching over the years as a way to enter movement that was natural for my students and construct or mold the Flamenco from there, instead of from some idea of what it was, that was distorted to begin with.

So in essence what had been part of my personal practice for some years began to be an active part of both my teaching and composition practice.

Do you ever use Awareness Through Movement (ATM), the group movement part of the method, to create dances?

Yes, I worked with another dancer in Seville to create a work based on ATM’s. Essentially, we would start with an ATM and then look at the “residue”, or what was left in our bodies afterward, and would improvised based on that, so the movement signatures where born out of the ATM’s. It’s the same process I’m using in my new work “The History House.” Because of the work’s theme it seems like a good approach…we’ll see what happens.

Tell us about the show coming up on May that you are doing with your husband, the contemporary flamenco guitarist and composer Jose Luis Rodriguez?

Mi Sentir” is exactly that, our way of feeling. It’s a compilation of sorts of some of our earlier collaborations, sprinkled with some new material. It will feature all original compositions by Jose Luis and two to three “interventions” in dance.

When we first started to work together, much of what we did revolved around the idea of making the dance a visual representation of the music. We were both frustrated by the fact that so much of conventional flamenco is ruled by the dancing, and as such much of the beauty and intricacy of the music has been lost. So no, there will not be any lengthy footwork sections or “look at me” moments in the dancing…it will be much more about look at this, feel this, experience this. One of the dances is from our work “Intimate Spaces” that is currently on tour, and another is part of an upcoming project of Jose Luis’ “Resonancias” that we hope to debut sometime in the Spring of 2013.

This show tends to shift and morph depending on where we are and how we’re relating to our environment. In this case, we wanted to pay tribute to some of the palos or rhythms that we each love and share that with our audience, give them an opportunity to experience them rather than simply listening.

The evening won’t include the more experimental work, we hope to get a chance to show some of that in September when we return, but even when it seems “traditional,” I think folks will see and more importantly feel that there is something different happening. We hope that they will start to understand how we experience our own “Nu Flamenco.”

Niurca Márquez and Jose Luis Rodriguez perform at Casa de Lucia on May 19 at 8pm & May 20 at 5:30 pm, at 7016 Culmore Drive. Call 832 721-0357. Suggested donation $25.