Portable Karen: Stokes Choreographs a Life Between Company and Class

There’s a virtual whirlwind around Karen Stokes these days as she puts the final touches on her newest batch of work for Travesty Dance Group. Stokes tours her seven-dance rep concert Portables with a welcome stop at Zilkha Hall this month while balancing her job as University of Houston’s Head of the Dance Division.

“It’s a juggling act,” says Stokes, while she grades papers and prepares for a Philadelphia tour. “I am learning to delegate, but I think it’s pretty rare in the academic world to have a company as active as mine.” Stokes appreciates the safety net of a full-time job but also admits it’s important to have a research component, like a professional modern dance company, to stay competitive in academia.

Heralded for her full-evening works such as her nostalgic Hometown and the darker Pronoun Pieces, Stokes takes a diverse approach with Portables. “A rep show offers you a different experience as a company, an audience member, and a choreographer,” she says. “It’s a fun format that we have gotten a little bit away from lately as evening-length works are more the trend. I think of it as sewing seeds and I promise the audience will not be bored.”

Each “Portable” offers a different glimpse into Stokes’ choreographic imagination. She may very well develop some of these seeds into larger works, but for now she just wants to see how they fly as shorter pieces. Balance, a Houston premiere, explores the different regions of the brain, the part that makes you crazy, the joyful parts, and the place in the center, hence balance. “So far, we have just gotten to the dark part,” she adds.

Stokes found herself pushing her usual creative habits in Transparent, where she collaborated with composer Rob Smith for a recent premiere with Musiqa. The idea was to build a piece based on Margaret Atwood’s poem “Variations on the Word Sleep” simultaneously, rather than just have Smith hand over his music. “Usually I work closely with a piece of music until it’s embedded into my psyche,” says Stokes. “Neither one of us knew what the finished project would be like until the very end.”

For his part, Smith found the process invigorating. “Both Karen and I have a penchant for creating high-energy works, however in Transparent, we created something that was much more introspective, mysterious and slow moving,” says Smith, Associate Professor of Composition and Director of the AURA Contemporary Ensemble. “Exploring new directions with another artist was a great experience, as we were able to continually bounce ideas off of each other which made the process exponentially more effective.”

Orange takes its energy from the color much the way an earlier work of Stokes’ Green did. “It’s extremely quirky and strange,” she says. “It’s one sassy color.” Set to music by Bill Ryan, Orange conjures a sense of place created by the psychological tone of the color. “Rob introduced me to Bill’s music and I fell in love with every piece I heard,” enthuses Stokes. Raw Silk, a piece she showed an excerpt of at Framing Dance last fall, is set to Ryan’s jazzy contemporary score. “It’s really a reflection of the marriage between my movement ideas and the music,” Stokes says.

Stokes sees her work at UH and Travesty as crucial in her mission to forge a vibrant bridge between the community and the university. Since taking the UH helm eleven years ago, Stokes has continued the mission set up by her predecessor, Joanna Friesen, by opening up UH’s studios to the faculty. “Toni Leago Valle, Sophia Torres, Teresa Chapman, Sarah Draper, and Becky Valls all rehearse here,” says Stokes, about the dance hub she has created. In addition to community outreach, Stokes placed the choreographic process front and center when she launched the Center for Choreography in 2000. “It’s more of an approach to the curriculum that influences everything, from how we teach dance history to the work we do with guest artists,” says Stokes. “The emphasis is on dance making.”

Department Director Steven Wallace was so impressed with Stokes’ deep connections within the dance community that the first thing he did when he arrived at his post at UH was add the word “dance” to the Department of Theatre. “Karen’s approach has become a model for me,” says Wallace. “I knew we needed to create the same kind of connections to the theater world that Karen has been making in the dance community. My philosophy is to open the door of the university and that is precisely what Karen has done.”

Travesty is a tri-city company Stokes started in 1997 with fellow dance academics Kimberly Karpanty and Rebecca Malcolm-Naib. Performances have taken place in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, Cleveland and Houston.“I am probably the most active member of the trio,” Stokes admits. The company got its curious name from a car conversation among the three as they were schlepping from show to show discussing the ongoing challenges of running a small dance company. One of them blurted out, “This is a travesty.” Shortly afterwards, the trio realized they had named the company. The Houston Travesty keeps nine dancers under contract and rehearses three days a week, which includes a mandatory company ballet class. Stokes is most proud of the troupe she has brought together, many of whom have graduated from UH.

“I get to know the dancers as people and what they are capable of as performers,” she boasts. “The group is very cohesive. We have bonded together as a community and we truly like each other. We have reached a point of togetherness that is more like a marriage than a fresh romance.”

Travesty dancer and independent choreographer Mechelle Flemming has been working with Stokes for several years now and enjoys the rigorous process. “Karen provides challenges that not only push me physically, but mentally,” says Flemming.“I believe the source of her dance mojo lies within the creative process. Her ability to allow the work to become what it will is by far an amazing thing. Karen will go in the direction the dance takes her.”

Known for including a vocal component, Stokes couldn’t quite imagine a concert without some of her own musical compositions. In the past she has composed scores for several of her works and her dancers have been required to sing complicated harmonies. Admittedly, “Portables” does not contain the big modern dance choirs of her earlier works, still Stokes has written a special for song her solo, Interlude, set to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Yes there will be singing,” she quips, “there has to be singing.” The show ends with Sorbet, a big juicy dance-dense romp set to Mozart. Stokes says, “It’s a closer, all right.”

Travesty Dance Group presents “Portables” at Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on December 11-13 at 7:30 pm. Call (713) 315-2525 or visit www.travestydancegroup.org


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