Houstonians know Jane Weiner as a woman with a cause, several causes actually. As founding member of the Pink Ribbons Project, Dancers in Motion Against Breast Cancer, her high-spirited fundraisers are legendary. Others know Weiner as someone who cares about kids from her multi-disciplinary arts program, Kid’s Play. She is the artistic director of one of Houston’s finest modern dance companies, Hope Stone. Wait, there’s more. She’s also a co-founder of the annual benefit for HIV/AIDS called The Illumination Project.
Last season she remounted her whimsical look at all things food, The Cooking Show, and this month she revisits a more serious piece, ‘s (a tale of possession), created in 2002 during a DiverseWorks residency. Weiner’s dance takes shoes as a jumping off point (in more ways that one). “Shoes are very user-friendly, we all own shoes,” says Weiner. “It just seemed a natural place to open a discussion about our possessive culture.” Weiner’s dance poses the question, “Do we really own anything or anybody.” With a back wall of stacked shoe boxes, the dancers slip in and out of various pairs of shoes, identities, and relationships.
Weiner’s dance has an interesting history. She was just coming off the success of the premiere of The Cooking Show in 2002. Sixto Wagan invited her to be part of DiverseWorks 20th anniversary celebration. “Jane is such a key person in the community. She’s great at creating these wonderful community events with casts of 100 or so,” recalls Wagan. “The company was really starting to gel. I wanted her to just think of herself as a choreographer and explore what she had built with the company.” He also wanted a new work. Exhausted from just having mounted a huge show, Weiner wanted to perform The Cooking Show. Wagan was insistent that she do a new work; after all DiverseWorks is all about producing new work. “Sixto is a rock star to me,” jokes Weiner. “In retrospect, it’s astounding to think how important he was in the evolution of this piece.”
Normally, Weiner is a slow-cook choreographer, and enjoys a long gestation time for each piece. “This was the first time I was coming into the studio without a plan,” remembers Weiner. “But the dancers and Sixto trusted me enough to create from a different place.”
Weiner had a life-changing experience that put the piece’s message in her head. In the middle of the might a fireman knocked on her Montrose townhouse door to tell her to vacate due to a restaurant fire next door. Weiner and her parents, who were visiting along with her dog, left her home in the middle of the night. The fireman asked Weiner if there was anything in the house he could retrieve in case her home caught fire. She looked at her parents, and her sweet dog, and responded, “No, I have everything I need.” In an instant, the idea of ownership shifted into a perspective that deeply informed her dance.
In the end, Wagan was glad he pushed and was more than pleased with the result. “It was amazing to me that Jane, who is so good at making people laugh, could make something so emotionally raw,” says Wagon. “It was by far the most serious piece I had ever seen her do.”
Wagan is excited to see this work again. “It makes me happiest as a producer to be part of the trajectory of an artist’s career.” Weiner is looking forward to transferring the piece to the big stage at Cullen; that means a whole lot more shoeboxes, 3,000 to be exact. Wiener’s frequent collaborator DJ Shwahh Mass, arranged the sound score, an eclectic sampling smoothie of Klezmer through David Byrne, and sounds from grocery store self check-out machines.
Weiner cut her dancing teeth during the ten years she spent as a founding member of the acclaimed Doug Elkins Dance Company.
Now as artistic director of her own company, Weiner works on keeping her dancers motivated and challenged. Ranging in age from the early twenties to the early forties, Hope Stone dancers are a serious but fun-loving tribe. So far they are enjoying revisiting the piece and Weiner is noticing how much more they have matured as dancers and movers since its inception.
Veteran Hope Stone dancer Penny Tschirhart finds Weiner’s work involves a good dose of self-exploration. “It’s about my relationship with the people I dance with and the things I learn about myself and others during that process,” says Tschirhart. “Dancing in this piece reminds me I have a lot to learn and nothing is really mine.”
Weiner cannot leave the community behind. Young people are still at the top of her list and she doesn’t forget that when she puts on a show. The entire balcony will be filled students from Houston schools and community groups who will get to see the show for free. In addition to running her company her teen program, Kids’ Play, takes up a lot of her energy. Combining dance, music, and theater, the program is open for all students because, according to Weiner, “all kids are at-risk.” (Weiner is no stranger to at-risk kids; she ran the Youth Arts Program at Bates College Dance Festival for 11 years.) She drew her early inspiration from Jacques d’Amboise’s work with kids. “He made everyone feel as if they could dance,” says Weiner.
Weiner recently handed the reins of the Pink Ribbons Project to her sister, Susan Rafte, but still stays involved as artistic director. “Susan is going full tilt,” says Weiner. If that isn’t enough on her plate, Weiner also runs a popular dance and fitness studio which houses all of her ventures. “I am the owner and chief janitor,” says Wiener with a smile concerning the never ending work of running a studio. Whether Weiner is crafting a dance, a fundraiser, or a program for 100 kids, her humor, wit and dedication comes through. “I love selling art; it’s the best product in the world.”
Hope Stone presents ‘s (a tale of possession) on November 11 at 8pm and November 12 at 2pm at Cullen Stage, Wortham Center. Call 713-526-1907 ext. 3.