Tag Archives: Houston Ballet

Random Acts of Art

News_Nancy_tripping over art_WITS students_Menil exhibit space

Reprinted from Culturemap.

What did you do this summer? I cleaned about 100 junk drawers in the process of selling my family home in Buffalo, NY., and found a gorgeous tabletop biography of Anna Pavlova. Just recently, I learned that my own ballet teacher, Kathleen Crofton, known as “Pavlova’s baby,” danced in her company during the 1920s. No way was I going to leave this treasure behind. My ballet roots run deep according to the contents of my junk drawers.

It’s no wonder that I’m called an arts evangelist; every other object I came across in my house seemed to have something to do with dance, music, theater, visual arts or literature. My life path left its mark in the remnants of my childhood home. From a reel-to-reel recording of Joan Sutherland singing Norma to a dusty collection of prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I literally grew up tripping over art.

All of this got me wondering, how do we attach to art?From a reel-to-reel recording of Joan Sutherland singing Norma to a dusty collection of prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I literally grew up tripping over art. All of this got me wondering, how do we attach to art?

Finnish choreographer Jorma Elocame to dance via ice hockey. Watching Houston Ballet perform his wild ride of a ballet ONE/end/ONE, I wondered what other movement practice inhabited his body. With Elo’s daredevil lifts, swooping contours and breathtakingly reckless partnering, hockey seems about right. I’m heading to see Elo’s piece again when Houston Ballet makes their big return to New York City at The Joyce on Oct. 11-14.

This weekend you can watch Houston Ballet principal Simon Ball dancing Jerome Robbins’ romantic classic, In the Night. Both Ball and Robbins came to dance by hanging around their sisters’ ballet classes. Aren’t you glad their mothers didn’t have anything else for them to do back then?

Robert Moody, a guest conductor for River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO), has a great story on becoming a musician. Moody is music director of the Winston-Salem Symphony in North Carolina. He did not grow up in a musical family at all, it was a prank that led him to the cello, when his 4rd grade girlfriend signed him up for a demonstration on string instruments as a joke.

“As a 9-year old, I had no idea how to explain any of that to a teacher, so instead, I just got up and went to the class. I started on the cello, and that is why I’m a musician today,” writes Moody in the ROCO program notes.

I attended the superb concert last season, and extend my personal thank you to his childhood girlfriend.

When Houston native Everette Harp performed at the Hobby Center as part of a Musiqa benefit, he mentioned growing up in a house with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Harp spoke honestly about what the impact of Davis’ seminal jazz album had on him.

Later in the evening, Ricky Polidore gave his now-famous speech on exposing kids to art. It’s a plea to keep arts in children’s lives as moving as Jane Weiner’s hilarious rant/dance called Salt, where she argues that art is as essential as salt for our subsistence. I have no trouble believing that some of Weiner and Polidore’s students will end up populating Houston’s future audience seats and stages.

Let’s hear it for the schools

Certainly schools play a huge role in the attachment process. Bravo to Todd Frazier and his cohorts over at Houston Arts Partners for making it easier for educators and arts organizations to connect. I’m looking forward to their conference next Tuesday at the MFAH, especially Musiqa chief Anthony Brandt’s talk, “Why Young Minds Need Art.”We can’t leave it all for the schools, arts organizations or even parents. Life unfolds more happenstance than that.

“I’m using brain science to put forth an argument that, I hope will be both clear and convincing,” says Brandt. “I’ve never worked harder to prepare a talk.”

Houston artists are making a difference in the city’s classrooms. It works best when, like Writers in the Schools (WITS), it’s not a passive experience. For example, this summer, young writers visited Houston Ballet to investigate everything from tutus to toe shoes. Writing is a form of attachment. WITS partners with numerous arts organizations, including The Menil, Art League Houston, Blaffer Art Museum, among others.

Yet, it’s too much of a burden to think that the school system is our sole exposure to the arts. We can’t leave it all for the schools, arts organizations or even parents. Life unfolds more happenstance than that.

An arts version of Pay It Forward

Perhaps we should go the way of BookCrossing, a practice of leaving a book in public places. How could we use that concept to bring art more into the world? We could leave a Houston Met class schedule, a pack of colored pencils, the Glassell School course catalog, a magazine folded to a enticing story, Matthew Dirst’s Grammy nominated CD, or a pair of Miller Outdoor Theatre tickets.

The Trey McIntyre Project has a blast dancing in the streets, cafes and shops of whatever city they happened to be visiting. Or imagine the delight of pedestrians watching a shoot from Jordan Matter’s Dancers Among us. He literally sneaks dance into the urban landscape. I’m just dying to trip over some of those mini figures in The Little People Project: abandoning little people on the street since 2006. What wonder!

If random acts of kindness work, why not random acts of art? Although can we hold on the flash mobs? Once they are on commercials, they are done for me.

As I was scurrying about my Buffalo house for one last look, I found a grand illuminated volume of William Blake’s poems and prints. Just before I stuffed it in my suitcase, I thought to myself, no, don’t take it, leave it for the next set of dwellers.

Years from now, I picture a young poet talking about finding this book his grandmother’s house. It could happen.

Now go leave some art out there for people to trip over.

Image: WITS students from St. Michael Catholic School take an exclusive tour of the Menil exhibit space and write about what they see. Photo by David A. Brown

Tagged , ,

Art Wakes You Up

Walter De Maria, Bel Air Trilogy, 2000–2011 (detail), stainless steel rod with 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air two-tone hardtop Photo by Robert McKeever Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery/© Walter de Maria


Reprinted from Culturemap

Sleepy? Lethargic? Listless? Having trouble focusing?  Don’t remember what you did yesterday? Walking around the house in daze, looking for your glasses while wearing them?

I have just the thing for you — art.

Yes, you heard it here first. Actually, I heard it elsewhere first, but I’m the one selling art as the wake-up cure. If all this art-making holds the potential to not only bring something of beauty into the world but also wakes us up, you have to admit it’s considerably more alluring than gulping an energy drink.

I’ve heard it all: art generates cash when we eat out, park and pay the babysitter. Art helps kids learn just about every subject, or at least make it more interesting. And then there’s my favorite rant, art has value, now just get over and on with it.

But when I heard Anthony Brandt utter, with a mischievous smile, “I protect consciousness, what do you do?” during his talk “Why Young Minds Need Art” to an eager crowd of educators and arts administrators at the first Houston Art Partners conference held at the MFAH last month, I thought, well now, that’s a new one. The premise of Brandt’s theory is that art has the power to wake us out of our coma though a process of bending, breaking and blending an idea.

Brandt is an associate professor at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and artistic director of Musiqa. He runs the popular Exploring the Mind through Music conferences and likes to hang out with neuroscientists. Later this season he teams up with celeb scientist/authorDavid Eagleman for Maternity – Women’s Voices Through the Ages, premiering with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra on April 21. The guy knows his way around gray matter.

But let’s let the brainy composer speak: “Human minds constantly make a choice — prune neural networks for efficiency and reliability, which removes options and makes the behavior unconscious; or allow redundancy to thrive and promote networking, which offers flexibility and allows the conscious mind to participate,” says Brandt. “Activities that involve drilling and rote learning lead down the path to streamlining; that’s why habits are so hard to break.  Activities that offer novelty, problem-solving and subjective reasoning keep the brain’s options open. That’s how the arts protect consciousness: They fight automation and keep us awake to our experiences.”

Here’s how the three B’s rouse us out of our automated trance: Bending involves a transformation to the original. Breaking happens when we smash up the pieces to make something new. Blending occurs when two sources merge.

It’s no wonder I could penetrate Stanton Welch’s angled offshoots from classical technique in Indigo, during Houston Ballet’s recent performances. In fact, much of Welch’s work bends classical forms to new contours, summoning many a “how did they do that?” sort of experience. Nice, Mr. Welch, keep that up. I wasn’t alone in my accolades; the audience went bananas. We like waking up when it comes to ballet.

Amy Ell, artistic director of Vault, challenged the norm of partnering inTorn as part of her DiverseWorks residency ConTornTion. Bending the rules of aerial dance, Ell twists the rules of gravity as the dancers lift each other through novel uses of rock climbing harnesses. Later in the piece, a trio hanging from the ceiling further skews our perspective by dancing perpendicular to a wall. The founder of “area” dance, the choreographer considers walls, ceilings and floors all reasonable places to dance. “Activities that offer novelty, problem-solving and subjective reasoning keep the brain’s options open. That’s how the arts protect consciousness: They fight automation and keep us awake to our experiences,” says Musiqa artistic director Anthony Brandt.

If Houston Ballet and Vault woke up my eyes, then theCatastrophic Theatre woke up my ears in their recent production of Mickle Maher’s There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,running through Oct. 23 at their Sul Ross office. The entire play rolls off the tongue in rhyme. You don’t want to miss a word. Even the title represents a clever arrangement of words. The set-up of two William Blake scholars facing the aftermath of a night of public love-making on the yard of the their fledgling liberal arts college makes for a rich language feast. Blake liked to mess with the order of words, too. In fact, “I happy am” from Songs of Innocence factors into the drama big time. Maher bends language with a breathtaking originality. The terrific cast has a blast with Maher’s word wonk ways.

For breaking, head over to 3705 Lyons St. to see Dan Havel and Dean Ruck’s Fifth Ward Jam, made possible in part by a 2008 Houston Arts Alliance Artist and Neighborhood Project grant. The public art for the everyman team, who gave us the sucked in house called Inversion, sure know how to smash up a couple of bungalows to show us what breaking looks like.

I found blending in the most unusual place — the 18th Century — as part of MFAH’s Life and Luxury: The Art of Living in Eighteenth-Century Paris.French aristocrats’ savvy silversmiths merged their designs with the food underneath it. Who would imagine broccoli would blend so well with silver?

Bending, breaking and blending are harder to discern at The Menil inWalter De Maria’s Bel Air Trilogy, featuring three red shiny 1955 Bel Air Chevrolets, each speared by a 12-foot-long stainless steel rod, resulting is something new, bent, broken, blended and quite extraordinary.

See what I mean? Nothing refreshes our neural networks like art.

As we continue to quantify the value of art in our children’s lives, Brandt’s thesis may be the one with staying power. Too often, we speak about creativity as a vague, mysterious thing. Clearly defining the territory, as Brandt elegantly did, elevates the discussion. Musiqa will be doing their part in that mission on Oct. 25 through 28 with their NEA-funded school programs Around the World and Musiqa Remix on Dec. 6 and 7.

I’ve often gravitated toward art as a way to change my brain, my mood, or just to jar me into a new perspective. As I traipse the the city, eyes wide open, I see much to keep me awake.

Tagged , , ,

Power to the People

The cast of Theatre Under The Stars' VOTE! A New Musical playing at the Hobby Center September 16-17, 2011. Photo by: Claire McAdams Photography

Update:  Houston is still voting crazed. Take Vote!, a new Theatre Under the Stars musical, penned by two Rice Alum and staring local performers goes down this weekend.  Jane Weiner of Hope Stone has her own voting frenzy going on with a Pepsi Refresh Project for her kid’s program . She wants your vote.

The story did arouse some wise feedback from Catastrophic Theatre artistic director Jason Nodler, who had some good points.  Do we really want the audience  driving programming? There are better ways to get them engaged.  I tried to concentrate on people using a voting process in more innovative ways,  yet Nodler’s worries are founded. We could easily go a little American Idol crazy.  Next up at Catastrophic is Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness that Morning is, running Sept. 23-Oct. 23 at Catastrophic’s offices on 1540 Sul Ross.

Oh, and guess who got elected at BalletMet? Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch was selected through the BalleMet onDemand program. His piece Return, set to music by Benedetto Marcello opens on Sept. 23.

Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Christopher Duggan

Reprinted from Culturemap.

“The people have the power,” screamed Patti Smith in her now iconic song from Dream of Life. It’s official. Art lovers don’t want to just plop in row “J” like a lump anymore. Selecting our seats, where to eat and whether or not to valet park just doesn’t cut it these days. The era of the passive viewer is winding down. First, the audience wanted a party, now they want some authority.

To be specific, they want a vote.

Simon Cowell may have come and gone (to The X Factor), but theAmerican Idol template is everywhere, from Houston Grand Opera’sConcert of Arias to Opera Vista’s Competition/Festival. Most ballet competitions have audience choice awards, which dancers cherish. It means something to have the audience speak up. The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.The performing arts have gone contest happy. All good for the most part and way better than draining your brain on shame-based reality TV shows.

Let’s look at some innovations that go beyond the Idol format. Apparently, it’s not just the vote that matters but contact with the people you are voting for, as in the artists.

There are tons of fundraisers that get folks engaged through a voting process. Gift of Gift of (GOGO) is the love child of a contest and crowd fundingThe idea is for new collectors to have a chance to support emerging photographers while sipping a martini. Yes, there’s a party. Always a party. Write that part down. It’s a crucial step in leaving lumpland. The ticket price of the party gives you three votes.

GOGO held an open call for entries for photographers to submit work. The vote and party night goes down on August 20 at Spacetaker. The artists come to chat up their work and vie for your votes. The cash haul from the party tickets helps the group purchase the top-voted photographs, which are then gifted to a museum, in this case it’s theMuseum of Fine Arts, Houston. GOGO plans to expand to other museums across the country.

Earlier this spring, the team from Black Hole, Poison Girl and Antidotethrew a $20-a-head SuperNova party where they listened to impassioned pitches from four Montrose non-profits: Tara Kelly from the Mandell Park Association on an idea for a video podcast tour of the park, Lindsay Burleson from BooTown Theater on a bloody puppet show on ice, Maureen McNamara from the Wilson Montessori PTO on a natural play space for Spark Park and Ryan Perry on a mobile astronomy lab.

Even the losers are winners in that they have potentially reached a few new folks. The Spark Park won the pool of $640 but runner-up Emily Hynds of Bootown reports, “It was a blast.” Partygoers feasted on soup, beer and bread.

“Ideally, I’d like to see these happen at other places in other areas of the city. I’d love for it to be known as something we do in Houston, that neighborhoods get together and make these kinds of decisions together,” says Scott Repass, an owner of Black Hole. “It could have a real impact on how we feel about our city and our neighborhoods.”

I like the mix of arts, science and community projects.


David Rafaël Botana, left, and James McGinn in Jonah Bokaer's "Filter. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell "

It’s not always about getting money, sometimes it’s an aesthetic choice. If you liked the lighting in Jonah Bokaer’s newest work, Filter, you can thank the audience, they voted for it in a smartphone app called Mass Mobile. When Bokaer arrived at Ferst Center at Geogia Tech he knew he wanted to develop some form of audience interaction. When Stephen Garrett, a graduate student at Georgia Tech Music Technology Program came forward with his idea of creating a special app, Bokaer was thrilled.

Known for his meticulous dances, Bokaer was fully ready to let go of the lighting. Audiences chose between four options and the timing of each choice. Bokaer was amazed at how well it all worked out. Several trial runs and the fact that he worked closely with his lighting designer, Aaron Copp, helped with that outcome.  University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts has plans to help Bokaer develop his next big project this spring.

During Psophonia Dance Company’s spring show, “Rip in the Atmosphere,” co-founder Sonia Noriega had the audience watch three versions of the same solo, each set to different music. During intermission, the audience voted on which music worked best. During the second half of the show, dancers repeated the piece as a trio with the winning piece of music. “Voting gave me the opportunity to interact with the audience,” says Noriega, who spent the intermission urging people to cast their vote. “People really got into it.”

BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, goes a step further in letting audiences curate the bill that opens the September season through a voting process in BalletMet onDemand. I voted for Dominic Walsh and Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch, who has a long relationship with the innovative Ohio troupe. Mildred’s Umbrella also lets the audience sit in the curator’s seat this season with their Fresh Ink Reading Series, where the audience votes for which play to produce next season.

Choreographer Jane Comfort takes the voting concept to the deepest place, letting selected audience members judge a Barbie beauty contest smack in the middle of her new work, Beauty, performed by Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week. The judged get to play judge in Comfort’s biting examination of the impossible standards of beauty set by mainstream media. I voted for Barbie #4 and she won. I felt, well, powerful.

I can’t wait to see what artists want me to vote on next. While the wisdom of the crowd is still being negotiated, I firmly believe that the future of art is in direct and lively communication. If it comes with some soup and beer, even better. Tired of just sitting there, we want to be a part of the action.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

New Buildings for Dance

Kansas City Ballet’s Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity. Photo by Lisa Lipovac.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Update:  The story may have posted a while back but my interest in new buildings for dance continues.  The Kansas City Ballet’s Bolender Center for Dance and Creativity  in the renovated 1914 Power House building on the Union Station campus, opens on August 22, 2011. With seven studios, including the main studio floor of the Ginger and Michael Frost Studio Theatre, the Bolender Center will serve as the destination for dance for the company, the school and the community as well.  I had the good fortune to spend some time with Kansas City Ballet’s Music Director Ramona Pansegrau at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this summer, who told me about their new dance digs. The building opened on Aug. 22, 2011.  I finally did get to write a story on Ballet Austin’s downtown choice in Dance Teacher.  I am also happy to report that I have not gotten lost in Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance in at least a week. The building is breaking in nicely and I still get a thrill when I drive by.

“When I get my career off the ground, I’m going to perform in this alley,” I told my brother some three decades ago. The pathetic part is that I wasn’t kidding.

That alley was eventually officially named “Dance Alley,” even though the venue was forced into an even more marginal area. During my dancing life, I performed in all manner of hovels, ramshackle spaces and places that the fire marshal deemed not fit for the public (fine for dancers though).

So you can just imagine my joy when I returned from summer vacation two years ago to find Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance already on its way to becoming Houston’s temple of dance.

Artists Jordan Reed and Katlyn Addison rehearse in the new Houston Ballet Center for Dance. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

New buildings and arts organizations make a touchy subject. Putting money into bricks and mortar has bankrupted many a theater company in this nation. But I was the one getting defensive if anyone gave me grief about Houston Ballet’s new digs. I would ask, “Have you ever been in C.C. Conner’s office when the men are jumping? Houston Ballet needed a new building to match the level of their national stature. Let’s get on it with.” And they did.

As a card carrying-citizen of Planet Houston dance, I take pride in that shiny new structure. My name is scribbled on the last steel beam, along with those of the staff, the company and members of the entire Houston Ballet community. I walked into the building with the company for the first time, and watched their very first plie. Company class may have been business as usual, yet I imagine the day stirred many a dancer to wonder, “I work here?”

Here’s a question: How do you know how society values you based on the buildings you work in? I set off on a pilgrimage to find out.

New York

I nearly fell over crossing 55th Street, when I first laid eyes on the Joan A. Weill Center for Dance, home of Alvin Ailey American Dance TheaterAiley II and The Ailey School in New York City. It’s that impressive. Large windows allow you to gaze on all kinds of dancing. Light and airy, if buildings could breath, this one does.

The in-house theater has perfect sight lines for dance, too. I like to pop in every time I’m in New York and feel in a “dance is in the dumps” mood. I perk right up as I imagine the some 5,000 students do who train yearly in the 77,000-square-foot facility. It’s a dance monument, if I have ever seen one.

Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn, New York Photo by Michael Hart

I ventured over to Center For Performance Research, Brooklyn’s first L.E.E.D. Certified green building of its kind. The award-winning lab offers affordable space for performance and rehearsal along with innovative programing. Developed by Jonah Bokaer and John Jasperse, the 4,000-square-foot space is a mixed-use residential and commercial condominium that also houses a non-profit community arts facility on the ground floor. It’s one smart way of having a place to develop your work.

Bokaer and Jasperse, two seminal American dance makers, built the studio’s floor themselves. I had to think about that for a minute. You should too.

Ballet Austin's Butler Dance Education Center in downtown Austin Photo by Andrew Yates


I promised I would drive by Ballet Austin for a brief chat with their artistic director Stephen Mills last year when Dominic Walsh was featured in the troupe’s New American Talent program Two hours later, I was still there, entranced by the tale of how executive director Cookie Ruiz  granted Mills’ wish of finding a downtown location.

Today, the Butler Dance Education Center houses two schools, Ballet Austin’s Academy, The Butler Community School, along with the professional company and Ballet Austin II, who just happen to be performing Thang Dao’s Quiet Imprint  in Houston on Saturday at the Hobby Center. The building is glamorous, a total looker, just teaming with motion and so welcoming.

If a building could say, “Hey, come on in,” this one does. No wonder I didn’t want to leave — that and everyone’s warm Texas hospitality.

James and Nancy Gaertner Performing Arts Center at Sam Houston State University

Sam Houston State & Others

There are buildings I have written about but have yet to visit, like ODC’s The Dance Commons in San Francisco, Mark Morris Dance Group’s Brooklyn-based The Dance CenterJoffrey Ballet’s Joffrey Tower in Chicago and Booker T. Washington’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas’ sleek new arts district. I’d like to see Atlanta Ballet’s snazzy new place as well.

My most recent visit was to Sam Houston State University‘s new James & Nancy Gaertner Performing Arts Center, which opened this past fall. I was there to visit classes, catch up with the faculty and review their inaugural concert in The Dance Gallery, built especially for dance. The building is graceful, there is no other way to explain it. A dramatic James Surls sculpture fills the atrium of this spacious facility, which encourages students of various disciplines to mix and mingle.

Dana E. Nicolay, associate dean and professor of dance, treated me to an in-depth tour. As a key person in the planning process, Nicolay could explain the thought behind every decision in elaborate detail. The pride he exuded was palpable. We lingered for a long while, watching classes through the expansive windows.

The experience of a new space is considerably different for those who endured the difficulties of the dance department’s former quarters than for freshmen, who have only known this elegant place.

Even though I already knew the answer to my question, I couldn’t resist asking. “Do you think it affects dancers’ self esteem to learn in a building like this?” The look in Nicolay’s eyes told me everything I needed to know.

His comments made me think about the Summer Intensive students who will enter Houston Ballet’s building soon and never know anything different. This will be their first impression of Houston Ballet.

If buildings could talk, this one is whispering, “You are valued.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Adventures through art: Land, sea and far-off places are all part of the creative canvas

Joey Lehman Morris, “Black Mountain Detachment:Two Nights, From Waxing to Fully Stated,” 2008

I heard the ice crack today, a shrill wind too, possibly people trudging through the Arctic in snow shoes.

No, I didn’t go anywhere. I hate to travel. I do all my adventuring through art. I was at Upside Down: Arctic Realities at The Menil Collection, where precious objects from Ekven in Russia, Ipiutak in Alaska, and Old Bering Sea cultures float in a sea of white, while eerie sounds intermittently penetrate the icescape.

The Yup’ik Dance Mask from 1880 caught my attention, mostly because I’m on my way to see Emily Johnson this weekend, who is of Yup’ik descent, perform in her piece, The Thank-You Bar, at Diverseworks as part of This is Displacement: Native Artists Consider the Relationship between Land and Identity, which Johnson curated with Carolyn Lee Anderson.

I wonder, will she bring Alaska to me or her displacement from Alaska?

Artists, like everyone else, become attached to land and sea, a sense of home, place and belonging, all enchanted by our history, a longing for the past and an imagined future. “Where?” often comes before “What?” in our human inquiry.

So it makes perfect sense that the surf and turf thread surfaced in my hometown land/lake of Buffalo, N.Y.,while traipsing through the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s exhibit Surveyor. Zhan Wang’s Urban Landscape Buffalo 2005-2010, crafted from stainless steel pots, pans and kitchen utensils, re-framed my treasured birthplace, while Matthew Ritchie’s On Morning War spills a map of the universe on the walls and floor.

Place gets even more abstract with David Fulton’s painting, the surface from the shore ( across and into), as he traces the outline of lakes to achieve his delicious canvases, which conjure all manner of biological processes, from bone to waterways. “The title suggests the shifting of visual positions one experiences when standing on the constantly reforming edge of a large body of water,” Fulton explains.

Fulton’s work has always had a particular resonance for me as someone who grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. But I’ve lived in Houston longer than lived in western New York, so Texas is part of my ground story now, too. So it’s no surprise that I felt a sense of nostalgia looking at Leigh Merrill’s  photos of Texas as part of Into the Sunset at Lawndale Art Center.

Merrill’s images are constructed from hundreds of different photographs. “I wanted to create an image that showed an expansive characterization of the west, where the fiction and the ‘real’ place blended into one another,” she says. “I knew that the typical parking lot that we see with a storefront needed to be altered so that the image further disrupted our understanding of place.”

For more wild west mythology, you had better run to Romancing the West: Alfred Jacob Miller in the Bank of America Collection, because it closes on May 8 at the MFAH. There’s nothing remotely romantic aboutPLAND‘s (Practice Liberating Art Through Necessary Dislocation) approach to the West. Independent pioneer artists and curators Nancy ZastudilErin and Nina Elder make a patch of Taos, N.M., land their canvas. The team’s off-the-grid residency program welcomes Suzanne Husky and collaborative duo Joshua Hoeks and Ryan Rasmussen, who will be building necessary structures to survive on a piece of land.

Then there are those who dwell in the intersection of land and sea, likeZach Moser and Eric Leshinsky of The Shrimp Boat Projects, at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at UH. These two actually took to the sea.

“We identified shrimping as one of the few remaining ways in our region that people were working in a direct connection to the landscape, and that, by participating in this way of working, we would have access to insights into the foundations of our regional identity,” Moser says from his shrimp boat (I imagine). “It’s our hope to come to a deeper understanding of our place that we will be able to synthesize the often competing interest of economy, culture, and ecology.”

The land/sea tangle sometimes ends up tragically, as in Jiri Kylian’sForgotten Land, which launched Houston Ballet’s season this year. Kylian’s classic ballet draws its power from the idea of the sea overtaking the land. How strange that Hurricane Rita caused the cancelation of this ballet’s premiere in 2005.

Equally poignant is HGO’s new chamber opera, Your Name Means the Sea, an HGOco Song of Houston: East  +West project, by Azerbaijan composer and librettist Franghiz Alizadeh, linking the Azerbaijani community in Houston with our sister city, Baku on May 21, 24 and 26. Song and dance carry place, which I imagine we will see when the Azerbaijan State Dance Ensemble performs at Ifest on May 7 and 8.

Earth and water doesn’t always have to be so serious. There’s a poetic wit to Joey Lehman Morris’ mountain landscapes, last seen at FotoFest in Assembly: Eight Emerging Photographers From Southern California. I like the way Morris props up Black Mountain Detachment: Two Nights, From Waxing to Fully Stated against the wall.

We do tend to prop up our mythic landscapes, don’t we? Morris took his conversation between photography, geology, time and place a step further in But First, Define the Mountainat the California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside.

I wasn’t the only one cracking a smile watching Hillerbrand + Magsamen’s Elevated Landscape video as part of Measured at Lawndale, which runs through June 4. Stephan Hillerband places a sprinkler on his raised piece of real estate, while Mary Magsmen takes an ax to the platform. Lawns manufacture fake land as silly, water gobbling inventions, never mind the chemicals it takes to keep them green.

The toxic details will be revealed in a screening of Brett Plymale’s documentary  A Chemical Reaction: The Story of a True Green Revolution on May 6.

Lawns are unreal all right, but so are invented places, like Mary Temple’s dreamy tree faux shadow installation, Northwest Corner, Southeast Lightat Rice University Art Gallery. You will recognize the place even though it doesn’t exist. It felt like home. That’s how potent place is to us.

Reprinted from Culturemap

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Art has value that goes way beyond the economy and testing kids

News_Nancy_art has value_I Go with My Feet

Travesty Dance Group

Photo by Karen Stokes

And now, a little rant from your resident art evangelist.

I will never forget the humiliation and anger I felt when, sitting in a meeting as the teaching artist liaison, a board member, announced that dance had the least impressive studies when it comes to helping kids learn math. Well, excuse me, lady, let me just run over to Houston Ballet, call all my choreographer and dancer friends, and tell them to quit because dance doesn’t help us learn science, math and social studies as well as the other arts.

Her comments speak to a system where we only value an art form in its ability to do something outside of itself. It’s a disturbing trend.

I have used this space to highlight a number of outstanding arts and education outreach programs in Houston, such as Musiqa, Houston Grand OperaHouston BalletSociety for the Performing ArtsTravesty Dance CompanyInterActive TheaterMain Street Theater (MST) and many more. These are the people who are introducing the power of the arts to Houston’s students. If curriculum connections manifest, terrific, go for it.

The best arts programs leave open the possibility that children are equally excited by the arts as they are the subject tie-ins. Designed to deepen and freshen teachers and students’ experience with the Shakespeare canon, MST’s peer to peer Shakespeare program is a perfect example of an initiative that puts art first.

Talking about the arts only in terms of its economic value, a virtual mantra of the arts community in Houston, is another concept that makes me want to scream at an annoyingly high pitch. Cancer makes a lot of money, too. Shall we shout that from roof tops as well?

Apparently, Houston arts bring in some $626.4 million into the city’s economy. We eat before, during and after a show. I know I do. That’s great, it’s a benefit and a handy fact to have in your pocket. If you want to delve deeper, read The Value of Culture: on the relationship between economics and the arts, edited by Arjo Klamer. Diane Ragsdale, ofJumper, understands the dilemma well in her numerous blog posts addressing these issues.

If I hear about another expensive study on the impact of the arts on the economy, you will hear an even higher pitched scream. We have enough of these. And yes, they were crucial in getting arts funding included in the stimulus package, an impressive effort organized by  Washington, DC-savvy  Amy Fitterer, the new executive director of Dance/USA. I understand that making it clear to lawmakers that the arts provide jobs and are good for business is important, but it gets tricky when we leave it there.

John Kay gets it right in his essay A good economist knows the value of the arts

“The surveys on my desk are expensively commissioned because their sponsors perceive a language they detest and do not understand. We need to put out of our minds this widely held notion that there is such a thing as “the economy”, a monster outside the door that needs to be fed and propitiated and whose values conflict with things — such as sports, tourism and the arts — that make our lives agreeable and worthwhile. Activities that are good in themselves are good for the economy, and activities that are bad in themselves are bad for the economy. The only intelligible meaning of “benefit to the economy” is the contribution — direct or indirect — the activity makes to the welfare of ordinary citizens.”

Here’s the rub. If we only talk about art in terms of the other things it can do, help kids learn things and make money, we are essentially devaluing art itself. That’s the message loud and clear. I am by no means suggesting we ignore the fact that the arts contribute to the economy or that children can learn all kinds of ideas through movement, the visual arts, music and theater.

We just need to stop thinking it’s all we got. It’s two fabulous things for our toolbox. But does it come close to the ecstasy, elation, illumination, emotion, soul-enriching mind-expanding mystery we can feel from an art experience? No way, no how.

What if we had a cultural policy in place that stated that we value what the arts contribute to our lives. That simple. We want to live in a world with arts and will do what it takes to ensure that continues. Oh, and by the way, the arts generate money and oftentimes learning. We can count dollars and test kids. But measuring how the arts make our life richer? That’s tough. It can’t be done in a qualitative way.

Who here wants to live in a world without art. Anybody? I didn’t think so.

The arts have value. Say it, believe it, lead with it.

Stepping off the soap box now as I wish you a happy holiday.

Reprinted from Culturemap



Tagged , , ,

In Cuba, even the cabbies know their ballet: Highlights from Havana’s International Dance Festival

News_Nancy_Cuba_Carlos Acosta_in Twoby Russell Maliphant

Carlos Acosta in Two by Russell Maliphant

Photo courtesy of the International Dance Festival

I had good intentions of making it to the 22nd International Dance Festival in Havana, Cuba this year, but alas, I got overwhelmed with the details. Lucky for me, my colleague, Toba Singer, an expert in Cuban dance, did not. Singer contributes to Dance MagazineDance Europe,Dance Source Houston and other publications, is the author of First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists and is currently at work on a new book,Fernando Alonso: The Art and Science of Ballet, due out in September of 2011. As the mother of Houston Ballet demi soloist James Gotesky, Singer visits Houston often. She brings us the highlights of her recent trip.

CultureMap: How best to describe the Cuban ballet style?

Toba Singer: It’s the best of the Italian (Cecchetti), French, English and Russian (Vaganova) schools, with a little tropical heat thrown in for good measure.

CM: Can you give us a flash history of how Cuba became a hotbed for ballet?

TS: Alicia and Fernando Alonso went to New York after studying with a Russian emigré named Yavorksy in Cuba. There they danced with several companies, most importantly, Ballet Theatre, now called American Ballet Theatre (ABT). When BT ran aground financially in 1948, they returned to Cuba with Fernando’s brother, Alberto (who had danced with Ballet Russe-Col. de Basil) and built a company that they toured around the island and all over South America — in spite of Batista making things difficult for them.

When the revolutionary government came to power, Fidel Castro visited Fernando at his home and promised him twice the budget he needed, as long as the company was “a fine one, with members from all of the Americas including the U.S.” This was the case until the trade embargo was imposed nine months later by President Eisenhower, and travel restrictions were added by President Kennedy, and the dancers from the U.S. had to leave. A happy combination of Alicia and Fernando’s training and experience in the U.S. plus the government’s unqualified support have resulted in one of the best companies in the Americas.

CM: Houston audiences fondly remember Carlos Acosta (Houston Ballet principal dancer 1993-1998). In your mind, what makes him an extraordinary dancer?

TS: Carlos Acosta is as genuinely warm, expressive and dynamic as ever. We ran into each other in Alicia Alonso’s front office where he was catching up with Alonso’s aide de camp, Fara Teresa Rodriguez, who once mentioned to me that she had worked side by side with Che Guevara. For me, what makes Carlos an extraordinary dancer are his physical “conditions” as the Cubans would put it, his airborne jumps, burnished turns, and forceful presence. Most important, though, is his authenticity. He is the opposite of the foppish 19th century ballet partner. Instead, he is truly  “Carlos from the block,” which is how I described him in my 2007 book, First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists.

CM: What do you mean by “Carlos from the Block?”

TS: Jennifer Lopez once made a music video called “Jenny from the Block.” In it, she presented herself as a Bronx girl to counter the music diva image that the spin artists had sold the public on. Lopez is from a Puerto Rican family. Puerto Rico is regarded by some as the sister island to Cuba, so when I think of Carlos and his struggle with the identity that was foisted upon him when he left Cuba and became a ballet star as opposed to a ballet dancer, I feel quite certain that he prefers to think of himself as “Carlos from the block.”

CM: Tell us about his dancing now.

TS: Today, Carlos looks as stunning as you remember him, but he recently had surgery on his foot. The solo he performed at the closing gala required no jumps or pyrotechnics, but nonetheless showcased the sculptural movement for which he is so admired. He is one of those dancers who can stand perfectly still and yet exude tremendous energy.

CM: I hear Acosta’s nephew Yonah Acosta has promise. Can you fill us in?

TS: Yonah Acosta has grown into a tall, well-proportioned, slim adult male dancer. In spite of the promise he showed early on, he has been promoted very slowly and is now the equivalent of a demi-soloist. He is given the most challenging of men’s roles, and he acquits himself in them with the same “wow” factor that runs in his family. At the festival, the audience cheered his having taken flight in Sleeping Beauty‘s “Bluebird” variation. His elevation and turns are breathtaking.

CM: How did ABT go over in Cuba?

TS: ABT’s Theme and Variations, while “pretty,” lacked verve and the crescendo quality that most educated audiences have come to expect (and the Cuban audience is nothing if not well-versed). However, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, performed by Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg, met with a rousing ovation, and the audience went bonkers when soloists of New York City Ballet danced Who Cares?, especially the segments danced by Tyler Peck, who is in every corpuscle a Balanchine babe.

CM: What kind of reception did ABT’s José Manuel Carreño get?

TS: Carreño was welcomed warmly by everyone. The word on the street is that he is at the point of retiring, and that readiness is in evidence in the lower pitch of his dancing. I think it may have been harder on him to return to the demanding audiences in Cuba than it was for the Cubans to receive him, but he looked happy to be there, and the Cubans cheered and clearly claimed him as one of their own. I have since learned that he accepted an invitation to remain in Cuba for several weeks after the festival to work on a program that one of the other ballet companies will be performing.

CM: Tell us about the kind of hardships that the Cuban dancers have to deal with.

TS: They could use more pointe shoes, and ABT generously donated them to the Ballet Nacional as well as to Pro-Danza, Laura Alonso’s company. They complain of small dressing rooms, (but don’t dancers in other countries have that complaint?) and limited rep, but they don’t complain about the beautiful ballet building in which they trained and the constant care they receive from an army of physical therapists, nutritionists and teachers who follow them from the beginning of their training through to the apex of their careers — both personally and professionally.

CM:  Is it true that even the cab drivers know about ballet?

TS: Yes, the cab drivers can name all the dancers and what roles they have danced. It’s similar to how here in the U.S. ours can tell you about baseball players and their batting averages. Drivers also point to a relative who has studied ballet. Everyone seems to have one.

CM: You have forged this relationship with Alicia Alonso and her former husband, Fernando. How did that come about?

TS: I knew of Fernando and Alicia through a friend who made a film about Alicia in the 1980s. Knowing that I was interested in the Cuban pedagogy, several years ago Lorena Feijoo, a principal with San Francisco Ballet, suggested that I write a book about Fernando Alonso, the architect of that pedagogy. He was 91 at the time, and there was only one book (in Spanish) about him.

CM: What one event/performance proved the highlight of your recent visit?

TS: This is truly a Sophie’s Choice question because there were several. The most unforgettable was Mozart á 2 by Thierry Malandain (Paris Opera) danced by the astounding Silvia Magalhaes (of Portugal) and Giuseppe Chiavaro (of Italy), members of the Thierry Malandain Company of Biarritz. It was a contemporary piece in which Chiavaro especially demonstrated complete virtuosity and concentration, while never for one second losing touch with his partner or the audience. It was a pleasure and privilege to interview him and several other dancers in the festival.

CM: Do you foresee a time when we can easily go back and forth to Cuba?

TS: Many presidential administrations contributed to the embargo. President Eisenhower imposed a trade embargo in October 1960. President Kennedy’s Foreign Assistance Act added travel restrictions. President Carter relaxed the travel restrictions for one year. Then under President Clinton, the Helms-Burton bill added sanctions for third-party countries that traded with Cuba. Bush tightened the restrictions with the Trading with the Enemies Act, and under President Obama, those restrictions have been enforced to the letter of the law.

It seems that there are few people in the U.S. who see any advantage to the embargo. It is cruel for the Cubans because the economic trade sanctions prevent Cubans from receiving critical supplies and equipment. Laura Alonso told me that they could make their own pointe shoes if they could just get the glue. Perhaps our political leaders don’t want us to see what Cuba was able to accomplish, even in the face of hardships imposed by the U.S. and the inevitable errors they made while they were following certain Soviet planning models. When you compare the atmosphere in Cuba to that in Mexico today, you have to wonder why it is we can visit one and not the other.

CM: What keeps you returning to Cuba?

TS: My book. Also, It’s hard to resist their warmth, love of dance and music — not to mention a climate that is very friendly to dance-worn joints — and there are no commercial billboards, shrill pre-election campaign rant ads, hyperventilating TV Christmas shopping commercials or traces of industrial pollution.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Tagged , , ,

Teacher’s Wisdom: Claudio Munoz

Claudio Muñoz doesn’t mind throwing in a little physics lecture during barre if it proves his point. Known for his humor and honesty, Muñoz, ballet master of Houston Ballet II, has been shaping bodies and minds at HB’s Ben Stevenson Academy since 1999. As a dancer with Chile’s Ballet de Santiago, he performed principal roles in works by John Cranko, Balanchine, Ivan Nagy, and Ronald Hynd, partnering Natalia Makarova in Hynd’s Rosalinda. He taught at Ballet Nacional Chileno, Ballet de Santiago, and Ballet Nacional del Perú before coming to Houston. Recently his students have placed in the top ranks at the Prix de Lausanne (including Emanuel Amuchastegui, who won first place as well as the “Audience Favorite” award this year). Nancy Wozny observed Muñoz’s class at BSA in March.

The barre seems like a good place to start. What’s your philosophy? Ballet happens with the entire body; the barre needs to reflect that. Also, whatever I do in the center I prepare at the barre. It’s like being a good cook. You can’t be chopping fish and making filet mignon. You have to make the connection.

Can you talk about the relationship between stamina and technique? Without stamina, no one sees your wonderful technique. When Emanuel was getting ready for the Prix this year, we did the diagonal phrase in La Sylphide every day for three weeks. He could not understand why at first. You need to make the steps look easy, so no one realizes that you are dying.

What’s the biggest technical issue for students today? Port de bras. I work on it all day every day. Dancers are too focused on their legs. Putting the legs before the upper body is like a fly on top of a beautiful cake.

Holding props, like a water bottle, helps students bring awareness to their arms; sometimes they pass the water bottle between hands during turns. With some weight on an arm, they can better sense what they’re doing.

Finding their center is another challenge. Sometimes I have them balance on a stool, so that staying centered actually feels easier once they get back to the floor. They need to understand the physics of dancing—where our energy and force need to go. Once they have a concrete experience with that, they get it.

You are so amusing in class. How is humor a useful teaching tool? When my students relax, they begin to listen and get out of their own way. In this demanding profession, where the brain works so hard, humor helps you to let go of that, to see a problem from outside yourself. I am still the teacher; students respect that. Yet I never want them to feel like they can’t ask a question. A sense of humor reminds them I am approachable.


Who influenced your teaching style? Ben Stevenson had a way of approaching dancers so they would relax. From him, I learned to never scare a student. From Ivan Nagy, I learned the discipline it takes to dance. It is a vocation more than a profession—like being a priest.

HB II dancers look so at ease in artistic director Stanton Welch’s intricate partnering. Do you enjoy teaching pas de deux? I love it. It’s such a central ingredient in ballet, like a conversation—two bodies, one breath. We start teaching partnering in level five, so by the time students get to HB II, which is level eight, they can do complex contemporary lifts as well as classical work.

Do you see more boys interested in ballet these days? Absolutely. It used to be that every mother wanted her child to be a doctor or lawyer. Now we have all these dance TV shows and YouTube. Boys see that being a dancer can be a great profession.

HB II is like the United Nations right now, with students from all over the world. How do you deal with cultural differences? It’s hard sometimes because cultural habits differ vastly. For example, Japanese dancers have a different relationship to authority, so they are less likely to ask a question, while Latino cultures are more open. Everyone brings something from their country into their dancing. To truly cross cultural divides it comes down to coaching. We work so personally with each student here.

Your classes are a final polish for HB II students before they embark on professional careers. What do you hope they’ll accomplish by the time they leave your nest? There’s a thin line between academy student and professional. Yet it’s also a big cliff. We try to make HB II exactly like being in a company, to ease the transition. We give our dancers many performance experiences, and we work on their emotional maturity as performers. They have to know how to create the illusion of a story, or the audience will never buy another ticket. The audience has to have a spiritual break from the busy world. Any HB II dancer should be able to make that happen.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy Houston Ballet

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

Tagged , ,