I had a chance to visit with Linda Phenix, Artistic Director of Chrysalis Dance Company about her recent collaboration with the Houston Met and Fly at the Cullen entitled Quirky Works. In addition to her years directing and choreographing for Chrysalis and Rice University, Phenix directed The Big Bang and Boy Groove for Theater Lab. Currently she is directing I Sing also for Theater Lab.
DH: What makes Quirky Works quirky?LP” The three companies presented works that were “quirky” in a sense. This does not mean that each piece was humorous; rather Quirky was a door we felt we could all go through in a variety of ways. For example, the Met’s piece by Peter Chu was really odd in an intriguing way. The Met has been enlarging their artistic palette for some time now, including works you might more readily see on a modern troupe.
Chrysalis’ piece by Lisa Nicks was shown again and was expanded from 6 to 8 dancers. Nicks’ choice of La Valse by Ravelle at first glance has a traditional feel to it as this piece has been used in the ballet world. But, her treatment was anything but traditional. It was quirky with the blending of odd gestures and weird partnering for women. Ravel was creating a piece about the end of the waltz era in Europe. The music reflects a kind of unsettling nature in places juxtaposed with the luscious sounds reminiscent of waltzes at that time. Nicks was abstractly addressing the theme of change with the piece building slowly from a quiet duet to the entire ensemble on stage and concluding the piece with a visual stroke– almost a metaphor for a new written symbol in space.
Our other piece, Sabrina Madison-Cannon’s Bittersuite was almost something you would see the Met do. A collection of Nina Simone Songs served as the focus for the 17-minute suite. Starting off with “I Put a Spell on You,” the stage was filled with 12 dancers moving sensuously in the tradition of Simone’s dramatic and throaty voice. One of the sections was especially quirky and offbeat as all get out. Simone wrote a protest song about the Church bombings in the South in the early 60s. She put a weird spin on it though. It sounds like an upbeat show tune, and the choreographer had a trio of dancers dancing through space as though it was a happy, upbeat song. One of my favorite lines that Simone sings in this section is, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written yet.” As the song and movement continue, the viewer becomes aware of a hard-hitting edge, a real bite at the old south. It seemed really important in light of current events.
Fly often meets my definition of Quirky, especially the way they mix modalities. One does not expect to see the Fly Boys dancing to classical music for example. I think audiences enjoy this aspect of their work, and they were certainly warmly received by the audience at our concert in November.
DH: How do you like presenting at the Cullen?
LP: I love it! Chrysalis could only afford to do this (especially these days) by partnering up with other companies. I know some people are critical of showcases, but it is hard to get companies to work around a theme. For one thing, everyone does not interpret a “theme” the same way. For another, we don’t have tons of resources to create new commission new choreography and must combine existing repertory with new repertory. To plan this concert, Kathy Wood, Michele Smith and I met quite a bit and listened to what each other would be presenting. This becomes harder to do of course when a piece is new. One can never predict where a choreographer will go, and he or she needs room to change an original concept.
DH: What do you like about the showcase format?
LP: While I have never conducted a formal study, I think audiences like variety. They will like certain pieces and hate others. Don’t get me wrong, I love evening length pieces, but Chrysalis and the Met are repertory companies showing work by more than one choreographer. To build audiences, I think we need both repertory concerts and evening length pieces. We also have contributed to many local dancers creating works on our companies. In addition, our missions have been to bring in outside choreographers to set works on the company–a good move for local dancers.
DH: I heard you had a huge audience. How did you get them in the door?
LP: We had over 700 people at the show. In addition to the usual marketing things, the “grass roots marketing” was (and usually is) most successful. This is where dancers come in. Chrysalis had 15 dancers in this show (the met probably had the same and fly had 4). I “inspired” my dancers to pre-sell tickets. This makes them like walking press releases. To sweeten the deal, I held a contest. For every 20 tickets sold the, dancer received $25. In addition, the first 4 dancers to sell 20 tickets received an additional $25. I had four dancers who sold many more than 20 tickets. I believe we pre-sold something in the neighborhood of 225 tickets. All dancers need to be helping to sell tickets in all of our companies. I mean, not just promote, but actually be set-up to pre-sell with incentives if necessary.
DH: Can you speak to the issue of choosing between or big or small venue?
LP: We need both! Chrysalis has probably spent more of its performance life in small to mid-size venues. But, when you go to a large space like the Cullen it forces you to “ramp up.” I purchased two pieces that would read better in a larger space. I needed large casts for the two dances. My costuming budget was more. I spent more time getting tickets sold. There is more at stake in terms of the art and also expenses.
DH: How did the money part pan out?
LP: Believe it or not, we did just as well as we would have producing a Chrysalis only concert at say the Heinen or the JCC. While those spaces are much less expensive, when you add in other costs unique to these venues it ends up being the same. This is mostly due to the bills split by 3 companies at the Cullen make it possible to have a budget similar to producing at a less expensive (non-union) house. Also, at the Cullen, I don’t work so hard. I don’t have to go and find ushers or tech people, etc. It is all provided (but not cheap). I was not exhausted. Another important thing to note: I barely knew Michelle Smith before these projects. I knew Kathy and Mike Wood, but hardly ever interacted with them. I feel like I have some new colleague/friends. Dance companies need to collaborate more than ever. I feel like our modern dance community has been scattered and disorganized for years. When people work together, they solve problems beyond performances.
DH: Thanks for the debriefing on all thinks Quirky.