The Making of a Dance Salad: A Conversation with Nancy Henderek

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Compagnia Aterballetto
Photography: Ammerpohl

Dance Salad heads into its 12th year with another spectacular line-up of new and returning troupes. All will be new choreography for Houston, which is always a treat. Dance Salad Artistic Director/Curator Nancy Henderek gives an inside glimpse of life at the salad control center.

Do you remember the moment you conceived the idea of Dance Salad? Were you, perchance, eating something green and leafy?

NH: I was living in Brussels for 4 years and had a wonderful dance critic friend who began inviting me to go with her to see the best dance companies that toured through Brussels, Amsterdam, and many smaller cities nearby. I received a first class education of what was going on in dance. At the time I was the Choreographer-in-Residence at the International School, and there was a beautiful theater for the students. The school had a professional music series so I decided to start a dance concert, too. I called it Dance Salad because I wanted it to be easily remembered, like Jacob’s Pillow.

And no, I was not eating a salad, more likely a supremely good pastry.

When do you know the recipe is complete?

NH: It’s never complete until the last performance is over.

How much of your time is taken up in logistics vs. curating?

NH: I wish I could say 50/50 but the logistics of booking, visa work, ticketing, grant and financial oversight always take more time than anyone knows (except for those who also do this work). I love the curating the most.

News has it the Russians are coming. This is a first. Tell us about Alexei Ratmansky’s piece.

NH: Ratmansky uses the strength of his dancers. Middle Duet is a personal piece for him, a connection between his two dancers and himself. This piece, when performed by New York City Ballet, was described by the New York Times as a “…foray into sexual politics”…where “there is no room for throat-clearing.”

I’m very excited about Aterballetto coming. Artistic Director Mauro Bigonzetti is setting a work on Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre in May and this will be a great sneak peak at his work. Tell us a bit about Cantata.

NH: Cantata is an earthy, raucous piece with 4 Italian singers adding boisterous interaction with the dancers on stage. This piece is an audience grabber and makes people want to jump up and join them. I have been waiting for several years to have this piece of choreography come to Houston.

You spend a good deal of time scoping out Asian Dance Companies and have
a new Korean find for this year. What will they be dancing?

NH: Burying Together, by choreographer/Artistic Director Kim Eun Hee, uses a mix of Korean traditional music and contemporary styles. The most distinctive characteristics of Kim’s dance style are speed and explosive strength that has no equal in the Korean dance scene.

I see that newly renamed BJM_Danse/Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal is performing Aszure Barton’s Le Chambers de Jacque. She’s very hot right now. I saw her work at APAP two years ago and she’s all over the place now. What drew you to her work?

NH: The director of Ballet Jazz de Montreal called me up and said that I had to see Aszure’s new work. They were deep into rehearsals and he knew I would love this piece. He invited me to their premiere. I watched and immediately booked it for this year’s Dance Salad Festival. I am fascinated by her work; it’s very creative and fluid. I am drawn in by her imagination as she captures me from beginning to end. We worked together to decide on the curated version that will be seen here.

You actually select the piece rather than the company per se. Do your
companies ever have to switch out what they will be performing in the
last minute?

NH: Very rarely. But it can happen. Then I look for what else can fit in.

In the past the show has run long and audience exhaustion sets in. This year have you trimmed the length?

NH: This is a festival, and in festivals people expect to see a lot. When I go to festivals around the world, everyone spends hours seeing performances continuously from afternoon through night. You run from one performance to another to experience lots of dance. This is the difference between a single dance show and a dance festival. If the audience is exhausted, it can be from a feeling of elation, like the end of a good race. People spend more time at most operas, football games or many movies. We are just not yet accustomed to thinking about dance in that time frame. Dance Salad is like traveling, when we come home, we find we have opened up to more than we started with. Maybe in Dance Salad Festival all the stimulation of so many different pieces, foreign dancers and choreographers can be overwhelming for some. But learning always is.

What’s the most engaging part of curating?

NH: Being with the dance companies, watching works created on them by wonderful choreographers; also working with the choreographers and directors to curate many of the pieces in a shorter version to become part of the Dance Salad Festival. For example: Dance Salad presented David Dawson’s Grey Area several years ago as a premiere in North America. I was there, in the Amsterdam studio with the choreographer and Dutch National Ballet dancers the first day of rehearsal for this new creation. David had all of the dancers lie down on the floor, close their eyes and listen to the music for the first time. I heard it, too, with them. I listened to David explain what the music meant to him and that it was 4 1/2 min. of a Bach Violin piece that had been slowed down and stretched to a 14 minute piece by music technicians. He then started the rehearsals for his movement. After this rehearsal, I booked the piece for Dance Salad Festival that Spring. It has since won awards, and is currently in the rep of many major dance companies.

Have other cities started similar festivals?

NH: I have been told by many people that Dance Salad Festival is a unique way of presenting dance. I have seen many festivals, but I know of none that change pieces to actually become different from when they will be performed again; sometimes we have full evening works that are refigured to be only done here. Some examples are last year’s Tchaikovsky Suites by Nicolo Fonte, Tim Ruston’s Silent Steps, or this year’s Le Chambers de Jacque by Aszure Barton; it’s a way of seeing not just an excerpt, but a new version of a piece.

Give us a good backstage story from a past Dance Salad.

NH: Last year, as the Bejing LDTX Modern Dance Company was performing All River Red to the Rite of Spring music by Stravinsky, the dancers of the StaatsOpera Ballet of Hannover were backstage dancing their own new version of Rite of Spring, called Sacre, by choreographer Stephan Thoss, while Trey McIntyre was watching intently in the audience, thinking about his own vision to this music that he was busy creating at the same time. Dance Salad is a time when all the invited dancers and choreographers are learning from each other, opening their minds to what dance can be.

What would you be doing if you weren’t cooking up Dance Salads?

NH: If I could name something else, I would be doing that.

The third Annual Choreographer’s Forum will be held on Wednesday, April 4th, at 6:30 pm at the MFAH’s Brown Auditorium. Free.

Dance Salad takes place on April 5, 6 & 7 at 7:30 p.m., Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. For Tickets visit or call 877-772-5425. For information contact Julie Lambert at 713-355-9011.


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