Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dancing in the great outdoors: From Miller to Discovery Green, it’s a summer arts thing

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Step Afrika


Late last summer I stood motionless on a breezy evening, utterly transfixed while watching Balanchine’s iconic Serenade, beautifully performed by Purchase Dance Corps on theInside/Out stage at Jacob’s Pillow.

“You know Serenade was first performed outside,” Norton Owen, the Pillow’s archivist, said to me in passing. I don’t recall whether I knew that or not, but I do remember thinking that perhaps the ballet’s famous outstretched arm is really a gesture to halt the wind.

The natural world is still the best dance teacher out there.

Between Miller Outdoor Theatre and Discovery Green, Houston is one busy outdoor performance hub, and the season is well under way withThe Metropolitan Dance Company’s Sizzling Summer Dance taking place Friday night at MIller, a favorite venue for The Met. Now celebrating its 15th season, The Met’s brand of high-octane energy easily blasts over the hillside.

Sizzle they will, with the likes of choreographers Joe Celej, Paola Georgudis, Kiki Lucas, Jason Parsons and a world premiere by Julie Fox.

“The dancers love performing there. It’s a great way for many people who wouldn’t normally come to our other performances to get a chance to see us,” says Marlana Walsh-Doyle, the Met’s managing director. “We look forward to this show every year, however, it’s also end of our season, so it’s a time to reflect on the year as a company.”

Just last June I watched one fantastic performance by Step Afrika with Walsh-Doyle at the Dance/USA showcase. We turned to each other and said, almost at the same time, “We have got to get them to Miller.”

So it’s no surprise that Walsh-Doyle and I did a happy dance when we found out that the world-traveling company lands on the Miller Stage on July 2. For founder C. Brian Williams, it’s not just a visit to Houston, but a trip home and Step Afrika’s first main stage performance in Williams’ own backyard.

Step Afrika is the first professional company dedicated to this uniquely African-American art form, comprised of percussion footwork and chanting. Step dates back to 1920, with origins in the Black Fraternity system.

“The roots of step are right on the yard of college campuses,” Williams says. “It translates so well to the outdoors because the dancers are also musicians. We are the dance and we are the music, there’s no recorded music used in our show.”

Step Afrika has performed at outdoor arenas all over the globe. Williams fully expects a lively exchange with the crowd. “We need that energy,” he says.

Dancing in the great outdoors is also front and center because I’ m packing my bags to return to Jacob’s Pillow, where I will be a scholar-in-residence for a few weeks. I will also be visiting Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch, while he creates a new work with the Ballet Program students for the Pillow’s annual Gala. The newly rebuilt Henry J. Leir Stage will be just buzzing with dance with free shows Wednesday through Saturday during the season.

What a great way for families to be introduced to the art form. So many photos and films of famous dance folk there were taken outside.

“That’s because it was the only place with enough light,” Owen tells me.

Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers spent much of their time doing hard work outdoors, it was part of his ethos. “Well, it was the depression and someone had to do the work,” quips Owen, reminding me not to get too romantic about the whole thing.

There’s a continuum here, from an outdoor platform with a breathtaking vista to more traditional arenas, some of which come with a roof, fancy lights, seats, and slurpees. Still, looking at those Yup’ik dance masks atThe Menil Collection’s Upside Down: Arctic Realities, I’m reminded that the first time anyone moved in a symbolic way, it was most probably outside.

“And it was probably dark, too,” offers Emily Todd, the Menil’s deputy director. Wow, no one will let me get remotely sentimental on this subject.

Dance doesn’t have to be in the woods to be captivating. When the acro/dance troupe Galumpha performed at Discovery Green earlier this spring, its risky air candy moves were framed by Houston’s dramatic urbanscape. Tall buildings make a perfect backdrop for bodies stacked up on top of each other. I wasn’t able to go, but  Discovery Green’s programing director Susanne Theis filled me in.

“It was amazing,” Theis says. “I’d seen these incredible athletic artists in a small theater in New York and was eager to see how their show would change outdoors on Discovery Green’s open stage. Their athleticism and artistry was enhanced by being viewed against the backdrop of the activity in the park, the drama of the skyline and the movement of the sun overhead.”

I expect people were grooving to the Raul Malo’s tunes at the Capital One Bank Thursday Concert on the Green. Just last week, I ran into spontaneous dancing to the soulful tunes of  Rue Davis “The Man with Many Voices” as part of Blues & Burgers on the  Anheuser-Busch stage, while American Association of Museum conference attendees looked on.

Even the tiny tykes skipped through the Gateway Fountain in rhythm.

Leave it to the little ones to teach us that we don’t need a roof, walls or AC to bring our bodies into motion.

Reprinted from Culturemap.


True confessions: Choreographers with an independent streak bare all at Big Range Dance Festival

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Paola Georgudis Photo by Lynn Lane

Bare your soul, investigate your past, reveal the anatomy of a disease you struggle with everyday of your life, are these pages from a journal?

No, pages from the stage at the Big Range Dance Festival, where choreographers with an independent streak dive deep into personal material to craft this new batch of dances running at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex from Friday through June 18. Spanning three weekends, with several choreographers on each bill, Big Range is Houston’s end of season danceblast. Don’t let the plain names, Program“A, BC,” fool you either. There’s nothing ordinary about the subjects some of these artists are tackling. There’s not a play-it-safe artist in the pack.

Lindsey Thompson may be known as a favorite Suchu dancer, but at Big Range she turns dance maker with a work that explores her own battle with Type I Diabetes, the details of which she revealed to me for an Artists and their Day Jobs story. She later agreed to tell the whole dance world in my Dance Magazine Your Body column. At Big Range, she channels her story into motion, which will eventually include visuals.

“I’m working with the concept of the public vs. private self in relation to the experience of disease, and how the sharing of such experiences affects the healthcare dialogue. I’m ready to start this conversation with the public,” says Thompson. “I believe that vulnerability and authenticity are vital to making meaningful connections, so I’m making it personal. I’ll be taking it there with a live feed video and extra long tubing.”

Relative newcomer Rosie Trump gets “confessional” in her offering. Trump, who directs Rice Dance Theatre at  Rice University, has been slowly introducing her work to Houston’s dance scene. Here, she takes the next step.

“I’m really interested in upping the ante for taking risks on stage through revealing the personal and/or semi-autobiographical, and it’s not always pretty or flattering,” says Trump, who is also a budding dance writer. “It’s hard to stand on stage with your ugly hanging out, but  that’s also where some of the most interesting movement material hides, too. Even though I have been in Houston for a year and half,  I’m still a little caught up in introducing myself, and this confession project plays a part in declaring, ‘Hey, this is what I’m about.’”

Kristen Frankiewicz knows her way around a set of airborne swirling ribbons. Frankiewicz has been performing her own work since leaving the University of TexasThe Suchu veteran delves into her former life as an elite competitive rhythmic gymnast.

“The concept of contemporary dancers wielding ropes has been rolling around in my head for awhile, but I continually put off the idea, either out of personal intimidation or because it just wasn’t time yet,” says Krankiewicz. “It’s time to risk it. I had a swarm of ideas on how to use the ropes, and I knew who I wanted to dance it, so I pushed myself to take this chance choreographically right now.”

Krankiewicz may be an old pro, but the ins and outs of rhythmic gymnastics are new to her dancers, Daniel Adame, Alex Soares, and Thompson. “One challenge is to not only master the rope skills, but also to get comfortable enough with the rope so it becomes more an extension of the body. The dancers are really taking to their ropes with enthusiasm and an openness to learn these new skills. Daniel, Alex, and Lindsey have even jokingly have nicknamed our rope wielding quartet “Kristen and the Lil’ Pros.'”

Lydia Hance of Frame Dance Productions goes double duty as filmmaker and choreographer showing her video, Satin Stitch, which she describes as, “Coats, scarves, 30 degree weather, a ferry, the ocean and sand in our boots. And some people disappear too.”

Hance will also be trimming down her 50-minute piece Mortar, Sylphs Wrote, created during HopeWerks residency at Hope Center.  “I’m already cutting it, mixing it up and piecing it back together,” says Hance. “Think six dancers, big hair, Stravinsky-esque music and dancers moving from calm hypnosis to flailing a la Pina Bausch.”

The festival is also a time for Houston’s veteran pros to strut their new stuff. Rising talent Paola Georgudis collaborates with jhon stronks as they explore intimacy. Improvisational choreography maven Leslie Scates joins forces with her frequent partner Jordan Fuchs for a new duet calledProgrammed Cell Death, with a sound score by Andy Russ that incorporates sounds from current cultural media. She’s also dancing a solo created by Lower Left’s Rebecca Bryant, set to a snappy sound score and incredibly restricted movement score.

“Big Range continues to successfully present new and viciously beautiful, strange dance works by Houston dance artists and artists from other cities,” boasts Scates. “It’s the most innovative dance festival in town.”

Festival curator Jennifer Wood finds Rig Range holds a special place in the landscape of Houston dance festivals. “It’s not really about making ‘good’ work, it’s about trying new things, so the end goal is not product based. I’m interested in newness; the artists should feel as though they have the freedom to try things unfamiliar and uncomfortable to them. I want to create a safe house where choreographers can risk looking bad or stupid,” says Wood.

“The festival is a place for experimentation, especially for more established choreographers and companies, and also a place for newer artists to make work and get seen. Having a spirit of invention, openess and a willingness to give the benefit of the doubt to the untried makes performances at Big Range an exciting departure for audiences.”

This is just a taste of what makes up the Big Range’s approximately 24 choreographers. The festival lives up to its name, proving dance isn’t just a place to kick your legs high and other assorted tricks. Instead, expect risk, grace and guts.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Post Script: Normally I don’t like to preview and review. Sometimes, I don’t have a choice. Here’s my Dance Source Houston review of Program A.

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My Eyes, Your Body

Titian Diana and Actaeon 1556-1559 Oil on canvas Bought jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London, with contributions from The Scottish Government, The National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Monument Trust, The Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and through public appeal, 2009

The great recent debacle in the ballet world, known as “Sugarplumgate” and other less friendly terms, came and went in my consciousness until I found myself at a recent performance, fixated on the circumference of a dancer’s thighs.

“Watch the dance, not the legs,” I silently yelled at my brain. What’s wrong with me? And me, of all people, a thick-thighed somatic educator, who spent two decades teaching people to accept their bodies. This can’t be true. At war with my own attention, I missed the performance entirely by trying not to be bothered by a pair of less-than-perfect legs. Too distracted by so-called imperfection, I became a victim of my own learned blindness. The perceptive illusion of the stage, making bodies appear larger, doesn’t help either. How many times have you run into a dancer in public who you thought taller or larger than you imagined?

The very next week, a whole host of emotions, from ecstasy to embarrassment, emerged while watching a large ballroom dancer wearing a fragment of a dress. I was always taught that if you gain weight, it’s time to get the tent dresses out. She moved with the message, “I am large, get over it. I am amazing. I love my body and, if you don’t get past your groundless prejudices, you are going miss this kick-ass performance of mine.” As the evening when on, I could not take my eyes off her; the rest of the show seemed to recede into the background. I left awestruck, confused, and completely exhilarated. Something about her dancing taught me to see again. Where were those skills a week earlier? Maybe my vision – or my brain – needed a shock treatment.

A casual comment by a ballet master after a local modern dance show said it all, “I am not used to watching normal size bodies dance, you know, it’s really interesting.” He nailed it. We have habituated our gaze toward a narrow set of proportions based on the kind of dance we watch and the expectations we bring to our viewing. Our eyes have grown lazy. We simply don’t see enough professional dance with a variety of bodies on stage. And I have interviewed numerous artistic directors in the ballet and contemporary genres over the years who claim they love all kinds of bodies. Sure, they hire a few shorter and taller dancers, but it’s rare that we see even average weight dancers in professional modern or ballet companies.

Certainly there couldn’t be anything wrong with me. It’s my brain, and something even larger, the human brain. (When in doubt, blame your species.) Ideas of beauty converge across multiple fields, from psychology to philosophy to evolutionary biology. Scientists have been trying to unravel the beauty problem for decades. We have biological reasons for preferring certain proportions that are more ideal to continue the species. Numerous studies propose that we like symmetry, things that match, and small bodies, because they remind us of youth. According to the late philosopher Denis Dutton’s findings, we know from early tools, that humans have appreciated high levels of skill before they had language, which explains a preference for ballet, but certainly not types of bodies doing ballet. I take no comfort from any of these findings. Why be imprisoned by one’s biology? Why shouldn’t it be possible to grab the wheel of our perception and drive the vision ship? Aren’t brain scientists telling us that neuroplasticity – the ability to rewire our brains in response to experience – is all the rage, too?

Perception’s faultiness is not only well documented by David Eagleman, of Baylor College’s medical school, and other neuroscientists, but somewhat necessary. According to Eagleman, if we actually processed all that our eyeballs take in we would never get past the front door. We are need-to-know perceivers. So taking all that inherent wobbliness to task, do we really need to add social and cultural filters to the mix? When normal folk heard about Jenifer Ringer’s supposed extra pounds, the insular world of ballet bubbled to the surface. Regular people thought the whole situation ludicrous. There’s yet another great waking up right there, in that the general American public became privy to ballet’s harsh standards.

If I’m too easily distracted by what I perceive as imperfections, then my attentive skills need some rigorous buffing up. Why not become conscious of the forces acting upon my brain or seeing? It seems the responsible choice. The aesthetics of ballet may remain a rarefied world, where the long, lean, and small-headed occasionally rise to the top. The cloud of perfection, recently stirred by the spell of Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, Jennifer Homans’s masterful book Apollo’s Angels, and Alastair Macaulay’s now-famous remark, may forever haunt the dance world. But why let it? Can’t we take more control of the perceptive process and truly let go of norms we have agreed to?

A curious thing happened to me while watching the gaggle of all-sized students in Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class in the national tour of Billy Elliot. It seemed no big deal. Could I have broken in my vision already?

Attention is a muscle that responds to discipline and persistence. I want to live in a larger dance watching world, where the entire domain of all moving bodies has something of beauty of offer. I plan to embrace imperfection; it’s what makes the world juicy. So with that mission, I dedicate this year to turning my vision filters off and my eyes on.

Reprinted from Dance/USA’s Green Room.

Post script:  Since viewing the Titian and the Golden Age of  Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland at  the MFAH show, my eyes have had some further practice looking at a variety of bodies. True, none were ballet or modern dancers, still eyes need all the help they can get when it comes to physical diversity. I had forgotten how much visual art contributes to our ideas on the human form. Silly me.

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Artists Lillian Warren, Michael Crowder and Joan Son trade praise and inspiration at the Caroline Collective

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Detail of Michael Crowder's "Mariposa mori"


Talking with artists is how I refresh my vision. Being in a room with artists talking to each other works even better, which is why, on a whim, I invited Crowder, Warren and Son to spend an hour in a room with me one sunny Friday afternoon at the Caroline Collective. My choice of these particular visual artists was not random. All three are in highly active stages in their careers.

Crowder’s work dwells in history, memory and the museum itself as a history-maker. He has just returned from a residency in India called “Buddha Enlightened – to be,” held in the village of Bodh Gaya in the northeastern state of Bihar near Tibet. Warren has recently made a huge shift in the look and feel of her work. And origami master Son has been venturing out of her folding cocoon.

All have upcoming or current exhibits, and nothing gets an artist out of the studio and eager to talk about their work like a new show.

Warren’s Urban Landscapes at Rudolph Blume Fine Art/ArtScan Galleryruns through June 4. Son’s Part Geometry, Part Zen: A Personal Exploration through Paper continues through August 13 at Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC). Crowder is part of a special exhibit to coincide with the American Association of Museums Conferenceon May 22-25 at Wade Wilson Art, where he will be showing a condensed version of his L’heure bleue installation. Crowder’s work is also included in Crafting Live(s): 10 years of Artists-in-Residence, June 11-September 3 at the HCCC.

“You are all geek craftsmen, in that there’s such a meticulous nature to all of your work,” I told the three, with mixed results. I had to explain myself a bit. “What I meant to say is that you are all really good at what you do,” I said, rephrasing my thought. That went over better.

I’ve been a fan of Warren’s surreal urban landscapes for years, so when I heard she has making a shift, I wanted to call her up and say, “Hey, I like your old work, what’s with all the changing?” A selfish thought indeed.

“Nothing is worse than wanting to make a change in your work and not making it,” admits Warren, who is a firm believer now in minding the muse. The painter’s new work is less controlled, more whimsical, with more left up to the viewer to fill in the blanks. Color is spare, unpredictable and bold. Gone is every detail about a particularly eerie traffic light and convenience store. We only get half of the picture now, with a more active hand.

“These are drawings,” says Warren, who is growing more comfortable with the look of her new work.

“The paint has a mind of its own. It pools and runs and creates all kinds of interesting shapes,” says Warren. “The images evoke all kinds of issues for me: Personal isolation and conformity; what would happen if one decided to go against the flow; environmental and societal issues of urban sprawl and dependence on hydrocarbons; our thoughtless obsession with personal independence and convenience; how we as a society shape the environment and then it begins to shape us. Yet, the subject matter of elevating something ordinary like a traffic scene remains a constant.”

Change is a much subtler thing for Crowder. “I don’t really change — my materials change, but there’s a continuum to all my work,” he says, showing us pieces from A Sense of History, an installation that addresses a museum of memory.

Attracted to the most ephemeral materials, such as glass, sugar, paraffin and ashes, Crowder carefully constructs objects which possess a pervasive fragility, a lightness in their presence, almost dream-like. Crowder’s perfect replica of a gramophone crafted from glass has us all transfixed. An elegant sugar bowl feels as if its sugar particles would crumble if we even exhaled near it.

The temporal nature of Crowder’s work is a built-in aesthetic. Elevating simple objects like a balloon, also made from glass, forms part of his mission. We all want to touch his pieces. “That’s the point, the seduction of the object under glass, making it even more precious,” quips Crowder.

Son’s enthusiasm for paper parallels Crowder’s interest in delicate materials. “We throw paper away,” says Son. With a structure borrowed from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love, Son’s newest work investigates everyday objects too, with a deeply personal approach to her media.

I gasp when Son shows us a dramatically crumbled piece of paper dabbed in gold. “Why, that’s not even folded,” I told Son, who is known for her intricate origami pieces. “I know,” Son replies, smiling mischievously. She goes on to reveal more of her new work, some of which even involves unfolding. Son describes herself as “crazy for paper,” whether it be a rare piece of Japanese washi or a lottery ticket. “It’s been a scavenger hunt for me every day, even in my own studio, putting this exhibit together,” she says.

Each takes turns showing each other their most recent work, asking questions, trading praise. Some common threads surface. All three work every day with a sense of diligence. Yet, as we travel through images on their laptops, it becomes increasingly apparent how differently each approach their media and process.

We bid farewell, exchange postcards and promise to keep in touch. I am left with the idea that change happens every time an artist turns to their media. The world is altered by their efforts. I return to my empty conference room, which now feels blessed, charged and well, changed by its recent inhabitants and their images. Art is like that.

Reprinted from Culturemap


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The Range is in the Dancing: Program A sets a high standard for Big Range Dance Festival

Jordan Fuchs and Leslie Scates. Photo by Ian Douglas


Every June, I look forward to the dancing at Big Range Dance Festival, now in its ninth year. It’s not that the choreography isn’t noteworthy. Not at all, it’s just that choreographers are often dancing their own works, or finally getting to work with dancers who understand their idiosyncratic qualities. All of this leads to more impassioned, nuanced dancing.


In Program A, this virtuosic phenomenon started with Leslie Scates, who is hands-down the most interesting mover in Houston. I say “mover,” rather than “dancer,” because her range pushes beyond traditional and contemporary vocabulary into a larger inclusion of human movement possibilities. We see gestures we not only recognize but have done, pushing, reaching, pulling away, all there, slighting abstracted, deeply human and immensely communicative. In her duet with another outstanding performer and Assistant Professor at Texas Woman’s UniversityJordan FuchsProgramed Cell Death, the pair created an electric field, where anything can happen, love, repulsion, support and mystery. And anything does happen when Fuchs sticks his hand up Scates’ pants, creating an extension of himself in one sexy/funny section. It’s charged and highly volatile. To call it intense would seem like an a gross understatement. Andy Russ’ bizarre sound score amplified the tension.
Scates is moving into a level of mastery in her performance we rarely see on the contemporary scene. As a regular atLower Left’s renown improvisational dance workshop, March 2 Marfa, she sets a high standard for continuing to train for the work one does. Looking more chiseled and defined, her technical facilities have moved up to compare with her imaginative capabilities. In her solo Suite Female part one, Scates shows a more minimalist side. Set to a movement and sound score by Lower Left’s Rebecca Bryant, the piece lets the audience in on the visceral sometimes brutal edge of improvisational choreography.

On a more traditional front, yet still on the luscious dancing idea, Kristen Frankiewicz and Lindsey Thompson make a gorgeous team for Teresa Chapman’s somber duet, Reach. Chapman successfully taps into these dancers’ voluptuous  generosity. What a joy to watch a choreographer and dancers matched so well. Dancers perform at the top of their abilities when this occurs.

Occupying the impressive out-of towners spot were Matthew Cumbie and Amanda Jackson, who messed with our heads with their racy gender exploration thinking seeing standing feeling object of attention. Crashing into each other with a sassy finesse,the pair employed turbulent partnering, overt sexual gestures and an eye-locking connection to created a terse but steamy climate. Captivating movers both, their raw but slick style exudes a “downtown,” aesthetic, but they hark from Texas Woman’s University. Let’s hope we see more of them.

Erin Reck provided yet another example of creating work for people who can hop on your wavelength in her tense trio Flux, performed by Reck, Brit Wallis and Jacquelyne Boe. Dancers whisper stream of consciousness thoughts to begin the piece, which takes off when they stop and start dancing with a knowing presence. The don’t so much as dance as listen to each other move. A pristine moment towards the end suggests that each senses the space the other just occupied. Nice.

Jennifer Wood, the festival director, lightened the mood with Slam School, a quirky romp alluding to her difficult days in gym class, danced by the home team Suchu Dance. Squeaking tennis shoes were a blast. No way is Tiny Shariffskul going to get picked for the dodge ball team, but she’s adorable while she tries.

Bravo to Wood for continuing the festival at this level. Lighting by Jeremy Choate helped to make each dance distinct. The Big Range continues with Programs B and C through June 18, at Barnvelder, which boasts a swanky Big Range lounge with DJ Justin Klein’s cool music and a nifty light sculpture overhead.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

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The Judges’ Pet Peeves: Frank advice about what really counts at competitions

The judges’ panel at YAGP finals last year. From left: Kee Juan Han, Washington School of Ballet; Garry Trinder, New Zealand School of Dance; Adam Sklute, Ballet West; Mavis Staines, Canada’s National Ballet School; Gailene Stock, The Royal Ballet School.

Photo by Rachel Papo

When a dancer fell flat on the floor during herEsmeralda solo at Youth America Grand Prix finals one year, it cost her a few points, recalls judge Phillip Broomhead. But she compounded it  by how she handled the mishap. Tears welled up. She fell again in the next section of pirouettes and began visibly crying. She wept through the rest of the usually sassy solo, half bowed, then ran offstage, sabotaging her performance completely.

Competition judges have seen it all—and they have a long list of what they never want to see again. From choice of variation to interpretation to final bow, it all counts. Pointe interviewed three veteran judges who have seen enough Kitri solos to recognize a red flag a mile away. They shared their views on appropriate variations, the importance of professionalism and the difference between technique and artistry.
Sick Of  Sugar Plum
Do judges get tired of certain variations? “I never want to see Sugar Plum, or one of Aurora’s solos or Flames of Paris again,” says Broomhead, ballet master at Houston Ballet. “I’ve seen Kitris with no spark, fire or emotion. Whatever you choose, don’t just go through the motions. Every step needs to tell a story.”

Paul Chalmer, a former dancer with National Ballet of Canada, and a recent Prix de Lausanne judge, believes a dancer’s choice of variation says a lot about how she perceives herself. “Sometimes you wonder if a variation has been imposed on a dancer by a coach because it’s so far from the dancer’s own look, personality and sensitivity,” he says. “You can see the dancer has no affinity with the steps or temperament of the piece. A badly chosen variation may make the difference between winning or not.”

John Meehan agrees. Now a professor of dance at Vassar College, he has judged Prix de Lausanne, YAGP and the USA IBC in Jackson, MS, and has seen dancers struggle with variations that seem alien or unflattering. “Even the way you walk from the wings can say a lot about you and your comfort,” he notes.

Dance To Your Strengths
Judges look for clean technique. Triple and quadruple pirouettes may wow, but only if you can pull them off effortlessly. “I’d rather see two well-placed pirouettes than five spinning out of control,” says Broomhead. Dancers and coaches need to consider how to best showcase a dancer’s qualities. “You better make sure what you are good at is in your variation,” says Meehan.

Striking a balance between technique and artistry can be difficult, especially for younger competitors. Ideally, each serves the other to make a complete dancer. “Using technique to communicate is what we strive for,” Chalmer says. “For me, a dancer who communicates, even if incapable of technical fireworks, will have my vote over someone with lots of turns or very high extensions, but nothing to say.” Broomhead agrees. “I’ve seen a technically strong dancer deliver absolutely dull, lifeless performances.”
How Bad Is Falling Off-Pointe?
When Sarah Lane’s music stopped at YAGP in 2002, her split-second decision to continue to the end of her variation impressed the judges. “We could hear the music through her dancing,” remembers Meehan. “It was very impressive.” Lucky for her, American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie was in the audience and soon Lane, who had recently completed her training at the Timothy M. Draper Center for Dance Education, had a contract with the Studio Company; now she’s a soloist at ABT. Lane had transformed a problem into an opportunity, showing a can-do spirit that captivated the audience as well as the judges.

Mistakes can range from one missed turn to an embarrassing splat across the stage. How you cope in a tricky situation says a lot about your character. “It’s not important if someone falls or falls off-pointe,” says Chalmer. “I’ve seen the greatest dancers in the world flat on the floor, and I’ve been there myself. A missed pirouette is unfortunate, but not a major problem.” However, mistakes that cause the rest of the performance to deteriorate show a lack of focus. “I’ve seen dancers completely fall apart,” says Broomhead. “It’s important not to be thrown off; you must pick it up quickly and have a backup plan. If you did fewer turns, then you will have time to fill.”

However, repeated mistakes can clue judges in to a bigger problem, notes Chalmer: “If a dancer falls because she is not centered, because of a bad understanding of basic technique, that is another matter.” Broomhead adds, “One or two mistakes are expected, but numerous mistakes point to a technical issue.”
Don’t Screw Up The Class
Many competitions make technique class a component, and, surprisingly, it’s where the judges often see the oddest behavior. A high-handed attitude at the barre has become one of Broomhead’s biggest frustrations. “It’s not good when a student looks at you like you are from another planet when you give them a comment or correction,” he says.

Chalmer has also noticed a lack of respect in class. “Making faces or even stopping mid-combination, when a dancer thinks they haven’t done a step as well as they could, is very off-putting,” he says. While he understands that behind it may be insecurity, he cautions it can be read as a form of arrogance. Further, he notes, it’s “disrespectful and unprofessional” to change a combination to steps you prefer.

Onstage Etiquette
The grace you show onstage extends beyond the steps you perform. Immature behavior at any point can count against you. “Once a dancer did a little shuffle with her foot to indicate that the floor was too slippery, bowed sullenly, then stormed off,” recalls Meehan. Of course, professionalism factors into the actual performance as well. Broomhead recalls a time when a competitor decided to cheese it up for his final windup. “Winking and blowing kisses at the audience was just in poor taste.”

In the end, what matters most is something hard to put in words: the artist rising above all that is out of their control. It’s a contest, and judges judge. Yet they do their best to put artistic sensibility into the equation. “I think what is most important is a dancer’s soul. Attitude, both physical and mental, is vital because it’s all about potential,” says Chalmer. “I try to award dancers for what their talent and intelligence might allow them to achieve in the future.”

Reprinted from Pointe Magazine.


No loss for words: Houston Ballet warriors explain the moves that make them move

Joseph Walsh and Karina Gonzalez in “Rush,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Photo by Amitava Sarkar

In classical ballet most of the movements have names, just like an alphabet. In contemporary dance, the terrain gets trickier when it comes to putting words to the usual moves of such leading dance makers as Christopher Bruce, Jorma Elo and Christopher Wheeldon, whose works graceHouston Ballet’s Raising the Barre mixed repertory program Thursday-June 5.

Nothing says weakling in the dance writing biz like saying, “It’s hard to explain,” so I popped into the Center for Dance to watch a program rehearsal. Sure, I have my own ideas on what makes each choreographer’s movement engine tick, yet enough about what I think, let’s hear from the dancers who bring these works to life.

It’s a myth that dancers would rather dance than talk. Read on and you will see that nothing is hard to explain for these ballet warriors. They get it in their bodies and can easily tell us how it feels.

Danielle Rowe’s grace is a match for Wheedlon’s Rush

Wheeldon’s Rush is his third work for the company. Like Carnival of the Animals and Carousel, there’s an understated elegance to all his work. InRush, shape holds a potency that’s anything but stagnant. Wheeldon’s sculptural forms arrest the moment, lending a visual excitement. New soloist Danielle Rowe, a total natural for Wheedlon’s choreographic temperament, brings us inside the beating heart of Rush.

“The first and third movements contain symmetry and precise formations resulting in a structured blur of activity that complements the urgency of the music,” says Rowe, who moved here from Australia in January.  “The second movement contrasts with the vibrant quality of the other movements, with the inclusion of an elegant yet haunting pas de deux that suggests a feeling of longing.”

According to Rowe, shape goes beyond its dimensions. “The challenge lies not so much in achieving the shapes required in Wheeldon’s movement, but highlighting those shapes appropriately. It is important to make each transition seamless so that the beauty of individual shapes can be emphasized and appreciated.”

Rowe’s pristine dancing fits Wheedlon’s minimalist tenancies. “Wheeldon’s choreography invites me to pare back any affectations I might have in my dancing,” she says. “It does not need any emotional embellishment. By refining my movement quality and allowing the choreography to speak for itself, my dancing feels honest, calm and pure.”

Samantha Lynch completely undertands Bruce’s Americana homage in Grinning in Your Face

Bruce is more of a chameleon, inventing a new language for each piece.Grinning in Your Face draws from social, contemporary and everyday human gestures. Lynch recently spotted as “On the Rise” in Dance Magazine by yours truly, looks in her element in Bruce’s feisty piece.

Grinning in your Face has many contrasting layers, beginning and ending powerfully with a message of strength and a sense of community. Within the ballet there are moments of tenderness, love, joy and subtle sadness. All of these qualities are shown through Chris’ movement that completely speaks for itself,” says Lynch, who is known for her contemporary work. “I love to dance this ballet because it has a real sense of togetherness and pride. It’s extremely challenging and I feel the choreography allows me to tell a story with my body using my full range of movement and musicality.”

Lynch relates to the story-telling aspect of the ballet. “This piece is a great portrayal of how people deal with war and devastation. Even though I’m not an American, I can still have an emotional connection to this piece. This is my fifth year in the U.S., and the more I learn about this country the more I find similarities with my own country Australia,” she says. “The sense of pride people have here about America is definitely something  I can relate to. War is still very present all over the world and I know that people will connect very easily to this piece.”

Garrett Smith goes for broke in Elo’s ONE/end/ONE 

Elo’s signature may be the most distinct of the three. Quirky breaks in the action, strategically placed squiggles and abrupt shifts of ballet business-as-usual characterize his work. It’s a joy to watch Smith navigate Elo’s surprising switchbacks. Smith owns this wild ride of a ballet. Thrilled to be cast in Elo’s piece, Smith, a budding choreographer himself, had much to say.

“Elo gives us ultimate artistic freedom. We, as dancers, get to put  the movement to the music. You feel like you are creating with him, as opposed to just being told  what to do,” says Smith, who choreographed a ballet for Houston Ballet’s last Jubilee (the annual showcase held every December). “I do feel like I have some insight into his vocabulary. I feel most at home with Jorma’s genre of  movement. It’s been lots of fun being a part of the making process, because I can relate with him. I feel that I grasp, and understand the dynamics, and quirky moments.”

Smith had no trouble describing Elo’s mark. “It’s got a classical line, fused with funky, wavy, magnetic moments of energy.”

Joseph Walsh raises his own barre by dancing all three ballets

There’s nothing quite like dancing three ballets in a row to understand the differences between each, which is exactly what soloist Walsh will be doing. Part of a rare breed of do-it-all dancers, Walsh is ready for the task. He sees the experience as a chance to deepen his versatality.

“Each piece brings its own set of challenges to conquer. Grinning in Your Face is my first opportunity to dance a work by Bruce. His choreography pushes me to be more grounded and controlled while still staying true to the character development he has provided us with, a Great Depression kind of vibe,” says Walsh. “His movement is extremely satisfying to dance once you have a grasp on where your center of gravity is. I have the feeling my torso is constantly orbiting in opposing directions from my legs throughout Grinning.”

Walsh dances with Venezuelan wonder Karina Gonzalez in Rush. “While much more classically based than GrinningRush is equally as difficult to tune my body to. For me it’s about the precision of extremely classical shapes, paired with an exciting energy and musicality usually found in a more contemporary ballet,” he says. “While the Bruce piece is more about controlling the lower half of the body and letting the top half go, Wheeldon’s is on the opposite end of the spectrum, showing precision in the upper body, while pushing the lower half to surpass normal classical technique.”

The soloist finds Elo’s work completely original. “I have always been an enormous fan of his work, and the only way I can think to describe it is ‘ballet break dancing.’ Being part of the creation process has really been a treat. We are able to learn the movement first hand from the choreographer, while having artistic input at the same time. Jorma combines a funky pop and locking technique with extremely challenging classical ballet tricks and turns,” he says. “It will really push us to a new level of contemporary ballet. “
And who said dancers are nonverbal? Next time I’m at a loss for dance-describing words I know exactly where to go for help.
Reprinted from Culturemap.
A Tiny bit of Jorma Elo’s ONE/end/One with Melissa Hough and Joseph Walsh.
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Wendy Wagner at Darke Gallery

Wendy Wagner In Hoppity Horse Heaven Mixed media painting on canvas, 50″ x 50″, 2010

I always get a big mental boost when I see work by Wendy Wagner. It’s like a bolt of strange that sets me straight. She brings us into her enchanting world in Once Uponse a Time in the Land of O-Poppida …with new paintings, prints, ceramics, installation art and animation at DARKE | gallery. Here, Wagner moves into portraiture embedded in her distressed surfaces, creating a calm/not calm dynamic.  The wall sculptures are simply delicious.  I want a Wendy Wagner house.  A movie too.  There’s just so much wit in her work. Stills from her animation amplify her characteristic unsettling atmosphere.

Imagine whimsy on steroids, cartoons with punch and a delicious range of media, and you can get an idea of Wagner’s work. The 2008 Hunting Art Prize winner conjures her signature brand of virtuoso weird, daring to get dangerously close to sentimental in her investigation of memory, dreams and the anatomy of  “cute.”  Oh, and her dog is in some of the pictures.

On display through June 10, with installation and artworks continuing in the upstairs gallery through July 9

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Beam Me Up by Wendy Wagner

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The Comeback of the Crescent City: New Orleans

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Photos by Phillip Wozny

New Orleans, you had me on my first beignet, (not to be confused with any such concoction you might find in your hometown of the same name). When I told my friends I was heading to the big easy, the collective response was, “I can’t wait to hear how it’s changed.” At this point I need to confess that this was my first trip to this glorious city. I figured I should get there sooner rather than later. One left turn on I-10, an easy six-hour drive later, and I was in another world, the Big (and beautiful) Easy. The French Quarter, the Garden District, the Warehouse District, the Marigny, and more, are open and ready to wine, dine, and enchant.

hotel monteleone

My first stop was none other than the historic Hotel Monteleone, a New Orleans landmark, nested in the heart of the French Quarter. As I walked in the door I passed a case listing all the famous writers that have graced the halls of this remarkable structure. The list includes Pulitzer Prize winners Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Richard Ford. Truman Capote claimed to have been born there. He wasn’t, but it makes a good story. I’d like to claim to be the first dance critic/spa writer to have stayed there. If Capote can get away with it, why can’t I?

Antonio Monteleone opened his historic hotel in 1886; four generations later, it’s still family owned. The hotel weathered the 1929 depression and, more recently, Katrina. After the storm they re-opened in record breaking time on October 15, 2005, after being closed for the first time in 120 years.

Located on Royal Street in the center of antiques district, Hotel Monteleone is only one block away from the 24/7 party on Bourbon street. One block the other direction on Chartes Street, and you will find yourself gazing at Ansel Adam’s work and the like at the A Gallery, a renowned spot for fine photography.

You don’t need to leave the building for a fabulous meal. Chef Buck’s delicacies are a regular feature in the Hunt Room Grill the Monteleone’s famous, but cozy restaurant.  As a non-seafood eater I was a bit concerned about what I was going to be eating for five days. The Black Angus Sirloin with crimini and shitake mushrooms, roasted garlic, and caramelized shallots put those fears to rest. For the shrimp and crab-loving folk, the choices are divine according to my dinner partner. The heavenly turtle soup is a must try and don’t forget to leave room for the Amaretto Crème Brulee, a house specialty. Much of what you have heard about New Orleans food is true; it’s not lean cuisine. Keep in mind that it’s a walking city and you will be clocking in hours on your Adidas to burn off all that remoulade sauce. Plan to stay up late for a night cap at the famous Carousel Piano Bar and Lounge. And yes, it does spin, one revolution per 15 minutes. The good news— you won’t notice no matter how many Sazeracs you have. (A Sazerac, a favorite New Orleans cocktail, combines bourbon, licorice liqueur, and bitters.)

Should you venture out for a stroll know that you are a stone’s throw of some of New Orleans’s finest eateries including Arnaud’sBrennan’s, and Galatoire’s. Don’t skip (no matter how much you ate) the Bananas Foster at Brennan’s. Chef Paul
Blangé created this world famous desert in 1951. Apron’s off to Brennan’s for impeccable service, extraordinary food, and fabulous flaming bananas, on day two of re-opening.

The elegant in-hotel Spa Aria is separately owned by Sandy Blum. I started my day on a suitably exotic path with the Moroccan Cocoon with Rassoul, an ancient magnesium-rich mud treatment from North African. Weeks later my skin still feels soft and healthy. Spa Aria is wild about the Pavonia line, and for good reasons, they are on the leading edge of botanical spa science. The Myoxy-Caviar facial, (think crushed pearls) promises cellular renewal continues to be a top treatment. My visit concluded on a wonderfully decadent note, The Aria Ultimate Pedicure, compete with rose-pedaled water bath, some serious exfoliation, and a special rejuvenating mask. My toes are now the color of shrimp Creole which is about as close to seafood as I got on my trip. Spa Aria was the first to re-open in the French Quarter after Katrina. “People needed what we had to offer more than ever,” remembers Blum on those first few incredibly trying weeks after the storm. “It wasn’t easy to re-establish a staff, but somehow we did it.”

bed and breakfast

There’s more to New Orleans than the French Quarter. I headed off to the Marigny Manor House, a stately Greek Revival Sidehall Cottage located in the heart of the Faubourg Marigny. Don’t let the “cottage” word fool you; in 1848 cottages resembled mansions and this is one antebellum jewel. With its original cypress doors, crystal chandeliers, and period silk and ecru lace window treatments, I felt like French nobility. Owners John Crew and Gilbert Rome double as historians, and filled me on everything from the most authentic pralines (at Loretta’s next door) to the best local restaurants. Crew and Rome, both New Orleans insiders, are full of colorful tales of life in the Big Easy. The bohemian feel of the Marigny makes it my kind of place. Chic restaurants and jazz bars are just footsteps away on Frenchmen Street and if that’s not enough, the French Quarter is a quick five-block walk.  Famed jazz joints, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro and The Spotted Cat are located right up the street. Friday nights you can catch the fabulous Jazz Vipers at The Spotted Cat.

Jazz isn’t the only thing happening in New Orleans. Check out the Tsunami Dance Company. These folks created a work about Orpheus drowning before Katrina hit. Talk about mysterious coincidences. Currently the troupe is at work on a new venture called Portraits in a Forgotten City. New Orleans Ballet Association brings in all kinds of dance troupes This past season included the Houston Ballet, Savion Glover, American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, and Ron Brown’s Evidence. Delta Festival Ballet held a sold out Nutcracker this year complete with theLouisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Keep an eye out for the New Orleans Ballet Theatre, another up and coming dance company under the direction of Gregory Schramel and Margorie Hardwick.

Although the sliver by the river was relatively untouched, 80% of the city was flooded. The disaster tour is optional; I went for the option and toured the ninth ward and St. Barnard Parish with a friend. Gray Line offers an official tour should you feel like you need to be in the hands of a pro.  Never in my life have I been so close to so much devastation; the reminder to me is that our work helping this one-of-a kind city is not over. So many people from all over the U.S. reached out to help Katrina victims.  You opened your homes, hearts, and pocket books to the fine people of Louisiana and Mississippi. Now you have a chance to continue your generosity and have unforgettable time in the process—your table is waiting.

Reprinted from Total Body Magazine and CultureVulture.

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