Dancers: Kara Ary, Thomas Henderson, Catalina Molnari
photo by Bill Olive
For Houston dance lovers we know it’s fall when A Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance (WTCD) shows up at Miller Outdoor Theatre. We grab our wine, blankets, and perhaps a few friends, to sit out under the stars to enjoy a tasting of Texas dance. With the exception of a no-show pesky hurricane named Rita, the Weekend is 13 years strong. “I started it because I wanted to give Houston choreographers and companies a chance to have their work seen by large audiences under the best possible conditions,” says Christina Giannelli, Executive Director of Dance Source Houston and the festival’s founder. “At the time, access to professional venues was scarce.” Things have changed somewhat for Houston’s dancers as more and more are renting the Hobby and the Cullen. Perhaps it was WTCD that gave them a taste for the big stage. Giannelli curated the first ten shows but eventually expanded into a committee which this year includes Giannelli, Joanna Friesen, and myself. The process involves a lot of dance watching and dance talking to arrive at the final program.
Friesen enjoys the freedom of curating. “Essentially, I enjoy curating the Miller performance because I am both lazy and nosy. After directing the dance program at the University of Houston for 21 years, it is terrific to be able to see and enjoy good dance in Houston,” says Friesen. “All I have to do is check out the current dance scene and then give my opinions about what appeals to me and what does not. You can’t get a better gig than that.”
We didn’t always agree but we learned a lot about each other’s preferences. The end result is that we spent hours watching Texas dance and were quite stunned by the sheer volume of activity. Once we picked the program there’s more work to do in selecting the actual work and setting the program order. For myself, it’s something I haven’t done since I ran my own company back in the 80s. And frankly, it’s fun and healthy to put the critic hat down once in a while. All of us are grateful to Louie Salatan, director of Barnevelder Movements Arts Complex and one of the founders of Big Range Dance Festival, which allowed us to preview much of the work on the bill.
The line-up this year is as diverse as the neighborhoods of Houston. Austin-based choreographer Leslie Dworkin, the lone out-of-towner on the bill, first came to our attention when she performed in The Big Range Dance Festival last June. Dworkin’s fluidity rocked our socks in her touching duet, Sanctuary. “My piece deals with the psychic and actual space between the inherent aloneness of each person and the desire to connect to something or someone outside of yourself, whether it be to another human being, our history, a place, or allowing some space for the divine,” says Dworkin. “Rather than the bold, explosive movement that I’ve been playing with in recent work, Sanctuary finds a subtle power in delicacy, the delicacy of gesture, as in classical Indian dance, or a yogic mudra.”
Karen Stokes and Travesty Dance Group have participated in WTCD three times in the past nine years. This time around Stokes will be presenting an excerpt from Green which premiered at Barnevelder last February. “I’ve always loved the color green, which for me is charged with humor, energy, quirkyness, growth, and renewal,” says Stokes. “This is a piece about the essence of green, as I see it. On the other side of the coin, I’m also interested in suggesting Green as a statement of our efforts to help our green earth, the environment that we exist in.” For Stokes, it’s also particularly meaningful to have Green presented in the great outdoors.
WTCD can also be a time to try out new work, which is exactly what Jane Wiener and Hope Stone Dance Company will be doing when they present Companion Planting from SEE Me, an evening-length work slated for next January at the Cullen. One way to find out if your work is going to look good on the big stage is to put it on the big stage. “It’s wonderful throughout the creation of something new to have plateaus along the way to stop, take a breather and take a look around. This chance to do so with my new piece is a gift,” says Weiner. “The piece is based on vision, blindness, and the experience of being seen, I get the chance to step back and really see.”
Showcasing the next generation is also part of the event’s mission. A few years back Giannelli realized that there was a wealth of dancing talent and choreography happening at the university level that never gets seen on the professional stage. For the past several years dancers and choreographers from local universities have been on the upswing. Corian Ellisor from the University of Houston ENSEMBLE will be dancing his short and witty piece, Say Cheese and the San Jacinto Community College Dance Collective will be dancing Michelle Manzanales’ tender quartet, Repose.
WTCD is also a perfect spotlight for both established companies like Ad Deum Dance Company and up-and-comers like Revolve Dance Company. Artistic Director Randall Flynn premieres his new duet, Reconcile My Heart. Flynn speaks passionately about the significance of WTCD, “Contemporary or modern dance is an emotional and philosophical form of dance that unfolds itself to deeper dimensions beyond the technique and artistry,” says Flynn. “The contemporary dancer is a bard, they are out to communicate. This is the gift of WTCD to our city and to each artist involved.”
Revolve is three for three on the festival circuit having also been selected for the JCC’s Dance Month and Big Range Dance Festival. “It’s been a whirlwind year,” says Dawn Dippel, company co-director and dancer. “We have all been to several of these concerts and seen many great artists take the stage for this annual event. And now to be one of those performing artists is an important step towards the future of our company.” Cain and Dippel’s moving A Wider Lens will showcase the company’s fine dancing and intricate choreography.
The evening will conclude with a bang, danced by the world renowned hip-hop crew Havikoro. After winning 3rd place in the global contest “Battle of the Year” in 2005 Havikoro has traveled to 33 countries on a U.S. Embassy mission of peace and global cultural exchange. Mario Jaramillo, an original member of FLY Dance Company, will be dancing in Swing House along with other members of this world famous crew. Jaramillo, who is thrilled to see his crew alongside contemporary dance, describes the piece as “the fight between good and evil and balancing the two to keep sanity.”
For Giannelli the show is about creating the right mix that works on the Miller stage. “There is something extremely special about creating a performance for the Miller. It is like choosing a gift for someone, I want to share what I love and care about with that person, but I also want the gift to reflect them, I want to please them, to enhance them, to enlarge their experience and enjoyment. So how do we do that for a 4500 people?,” asks Giannelli. “We choose dances that individually touch the audience in some particular way and that together represent a broad range of styles and types of companies, reminding people that contemporary dance is not any one thing. And hopefully we are able to give Houstonians an opportunity to celebrate themselves and another aspect of the cultural richness of our city.”