Dances with Houston: Karen Stokes talks about HOMETOWN

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Leslie Scates in HOMETOWN
Photo by Ed McCullough

Karen Stokes danced in NYC and abroad with David Gordon, Larry Clark, and Stephan Koplowitz. Since 1988, Stokes has choreographed over 40 original works in the contemporary genre, which have been performed nationally. Stokes has also choreographed musicals and plays for such organizations as the Alley Theater in Houston and the Shakespeare Festival. In 2005, her company Travesty Dance Group, performed in Houston, Cleveland, and Philadelphia. TDG premiered Stokes’ Pronoun Pieces at Big Range Dance Festival in June 2005. Stokes has a B.F.A. from Ohio State University, a M.F.A. from UCLA, and is a graduate of HSPVA in Houston. She has served on the faculty at Connecticut College and at Kent State University. Stokes is Director of Dance at the University of Houston and she’s about to unveil her second rendition of HOMETOWN, her ode to all things Houston.

Houston is an underdog kind of place. It’s the 4th largest city in the US. Who knew? Does your love of the place stem from its underrated status?
KS: I do love cheering for the underdog. After all, I am in modern dance. So yes, that is part of my affection. But I’m not blind in my regard for Houston. I can be as critical as the next Houstonian, but I don’t want to hear bad-mouthing from outsiders who have never been here. Ours is a city that takes time to unveil its charm. Houston has a ton of things in its favor, I think it is mundane and boring to focus on weaknesses. It’s healthy to recognize what needs to be improved, especially if the improvement lies in setting aside more land for public parks. Or in encouraging philanthropy for the arts, okay, why not say it, funding for DANCE!

You call Hometown a modern dance musical. When did you get the urge to merge singing into your dancing?
KS: I took vocal lessons all through my nine years of living in NYC. It was something I enjoyed, and that my teachers seemed to think I had a knack for. When I was a grad student at UCLA in 1992, I asked a staff musician to compose a vocal score for a piece I was choreographing. I told her, “I want the rhythm to be like this, the melody to have these qualities, the sounds to be like this” She finally said, “Why don’t you compose it, Karen?” I was shocked. What do I know about composing? But the seed was planted; I went home and wrote a vocal score. This early experience with composing vocals set me up to continue composing for my dances. Over the last fourteen years I have written around 16 songs, usually using poetry for lyrics. Learning how to do music editing on the computer has also aided my explorations in creating soundscapes for my dance.

I understand your dancers double as singers. Dancers are often nervous about making sound. How did the audition process go?
KS: Well, I haven’t had an audition in six years. I had one the first year I moved here, and hired a great cast for the piece Perhaps By Tomorrow. Since then, as I became more familiar with the dancers in Houston. I have always invited dancers to be in various projects. I have had individuals enquire about auditioning recently, so I suppose I need to re-consider having an audition at some point, to be fair.

So, how do you get modern dancers to open their mouths so often and so well?
KS: I don’t tell the dancers they will be singing until we are in rehearsal. I use the old “take them by surprise” method. They are good humored about it (even when horrified). Most do not sing at all, but it turns out that dancers are amazingly versatile when given the chance. Of course, having plenty of rehearsal time to get comfortable with three-part harmony is key. I always tell them, “You don’t need to sound like a singer in my piece, but you do need to hold your note.” Basically, we are not trying to compete with “real” singers – I want dancers who sing like real people who happen to be able to hit three-part harmony. Well, perhaps it sounds like a fantasy, but I’ve had good luck so far. Plus, there are a couple of dancers that I know in the community who do sing, and I always try to get them on board when I have a big song show. For this version of HOMETOWN, I even brought in one person as a “ringer-singer” but I’m not telling you who.

You can’t talk about Houston without some mention of outer space. We are still trying to live down that “Houston, we have a problem line form Apollo 11. How do space exploration and modern dance play together?
Oh gosh, I guess this is where I admit we use the overused “Houston, we have a problem” in the section “Space” of HOMETOWN. It’s part of a soundscape I designed that incorporates recordings from NASA. What can I say, I fell victim to its fame. But it is great stuff, isn’t it?

There is so much to say on your question regarding modern dance and space exploration. I love the pun, for one thing. What else is modern dance, but an exploration of space through movement. More to the point, there are multiple possibilities using any thematic material in dance. At the time I created “Space,” I was thinking about the highest representation of the human spirit – the fundamental desire we have to explore, understand, and hope. So this piece does not dwell so much on human error, of which there have been many in our space explorations, but on the spirit that drives and buoys the exploration. It is a reflective section, and I hope it imparts a sense of possibility, of awe, and of human interaction. Having said that, it seems supremely ambitious and huge, but I don’t mean it to be. In the end, hope is a simple experience.

I get the feeling that hometown is a cheery piece, a huge turnaround from The Pronoun Piece’s grim scenario. Can you comment on the contrast between these two works?
KS: Well, HOMETOWN has many cheery moments. But it also has moments of thoughtful repose, even sadness. But it is not grim. Pronoun Pieces came from almost an opposite commentary on the human race than, say, “Space.” In “Space” I thought about hope, kindness, and life in all its wonderful manifestations. In Pronouns, I thought about the repeating cycles of domination, repression, and power in human history. The bad end of “history repeats.” I was interested in creating an exaggerated version of reality in which the players were being manipulated and put through maniacal cycles that did not lead to peace.

You have spoken lovingly about your dancers. How do they contribute to what we are going to see?
KS: The cast is great. We have a lot of fun in rehearsal . . . it’s the berries (as my mom would say). The original cast members (seven returning) defined the parts that they play – each of them has a featured solo or a duet that picked up on some of their attributes. We have five new dancers, who are fitting into roles beautifully. Since they did not “create” the roles, they have the task of finding their own individuality within a part. They bring fresh ideas to the parts, and this gives the work new life. Each dancer is a unique individual, and this interests me. HOMETOWN is about a community and I want it to be a diverse community. I don’t want a bunch of dancers that look the same in my work. I hope at the performance that the audience will feel that they are part of our lovely community.

If people see this dance will they want to move here, or get the next train out?
KS: Oh – definitely move here! It’s a feel good piece.

What’s your next big project?
KS: The next project will be a repertory concert in the fall 2006, or early winter 2007. I’ll be doing a couple of new short works, as well as re-visiting some of my older rep pieces. After that I will be mounting of my 20th Century Europe Trilogy with 16 performers, a pianist, an actor, a drummer. It’s been done in sections, but never as an evening-length. It’s slated for 2008 because we will need time to mount it both creatively and financially. Travesty Dance Group has national plans too, my colleague Kim Karpanty in Cleveland is doing a Rock n’ Roll show that I’ll be doing a piece for in the fall.

The Hobby Center presents HOMETOWN on March 3 & 4 at 7:30 pm, at Zilkha Hall, 800 Bagby St. Visit http://www.thehobbycenter.org or call (713) 315-2525.

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