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

News_Miller Outdoor Theatre_Step Afrika

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.

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