Tag Archives: Jacob’s Pillow Dance

Your Body: Aerobics

Keigwin + Company; photo Christopher Duggan

Update:  I got to see for myself the kind of athletes of God who make up KEIGWIN + COMPANY this summer while a scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Kristina Hanna, shown above in the orange two-piece, is truly a force to be reckoned with.  Larry Keigwin heads to Houston later this month to set Air on The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company and HSPVA will be dancing Caffeinated. I expect both will tucker out the dancers.

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

Kristina Hanna bolts through choreographer Larry Keigwin’s buzzy new dance, Caffeinated, with ease. She thinks she knows why: Her weekly 12-mile runs through New York’s Central Park are a good prep for getting through Keigwin’s kinetic work. “I love running because I get to propel myself through space,” says Hanna. “You don’t get that on a treadmill.”

Whether it’s for conditioning, weight loss, or staying in shape while injured, many dancers use aerobics as a cross-training tool. But should they, or are they adding unneeded stress on joints and muscles, leading to deeper fatigue? Most research indicates that a combination of strength and aerobic training delivers the best cardiovascular health, and that strength training actually contributes more than all that pavement pounding. Does that mean you should cut back on the cardio and focus on weights? Not necessarily, say experts who work with dancers. Instead, many now recommend tailoring your aerobic workout to reflect your dance repertory.

Houston exercise physiologist James Harren makes sure his dancer clients receive conditioning geared to the demands of what they perform. “You get what you train for,” says Harren, who works with Houston Ballet. “I want to make whatever cardiovascular training we do be as similar to dance as possible. Often, we work on the core board so I can add balance training in the mix.”

Many dancers gear their workouts to what they dance without ever seeing an exercise physiologist. Dominic Walsh Dance Theater dancer Felicia McBride swims three mornings a week and hops on the elliptical a few days a week after rehearsal. “Swimming relaxes my mind,” says McBride, who recently danced the role of Juliet in Walsh’s own version of the classic tale. “I feel clearer, fresher, focused, and ready for the day. I also get out of the water ache-free.” McBride says swimming has made a difference in her dancing. “Juliet was a big role for me, and I needed physical and emotional stamina for it. I’m more aware of my breathing and I love the definition I get in my arms and back from swimming.”

Shaw Bronner, a New York physical therapist who works with dancers, isn’t surprised by McBride’s experience. The well-being gained from a new form of exercise, combined with the endorphin release, can be a boon to any dancer. Bronner helps dancers from Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She finds their aerobic needs vary, and it’s best to pay attention to each individual experience. “We have bikes on either side of the stage at Cedar Lake and they get used a lot, but I don’t push any one kind of exercise,” says Bronner. “Some of the dancers came from track and field and they simply love to run. Also, since most dance happens in the vertical plane, running may make more sense than biking. But if you are tired of being on your feet, swimming and biking are better choices.” Bronner finds that aerobic training cuts down on her clients’ performance fatigue, a leading cause of injury. She points out that aerobic conditioning has been included in the Dance/USA task force health screen, now used by 30 companies.

Aerobic training is not for everyone or every season. Harren cautions against too much extra conditioning during peak rehearsal and performance times. “I don’t recommend anything extra during Nutcracker,” says Harren. “When you add more pounding you are upping the risk of an injury.” Any injury that prevents weight bearing or requires dancers to wear a boot, and back or neck injuries, can be aggravated by additional exercise. “Although if they can tolerate the bike, it can be good for a dancer’s head and help ease the depression that often comes with an injury,” he says.

An athlete all her life, Hanna finds that running adds balance to her schedule. It also works well with Keigwin’s hard-hitting style and its running, jumping, and quick lifts. “Dance is so focused. I want a time to be physical and not be analyzing everything,” she says. “Running helps me experience my body in a different way and all I need is a pair of shoes. I get such a sense of liberation from it and I know I use that onstage.”

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KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Runaway; photo Christopher Duggan

Note: This is an excerpt of my pre-show talk before KEIGWIN + COMPANY at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, while I was a scholar-in-residence this summer.

Will nightclubs in the future have a retro spin? Are birds performing for us when we go bird watching? Why is love so complicated and tender all at the same time? What in the world makes runway models so angry?

These are some of the questions swirling around my mind as I watched the program by KEIGWIN + COMPANY, now in their third appearance at the Pillow. The company first performed at the Pillow in 2003, the very year of the company’s founding, and more recently again in 2008.

The son of post-modermism and pop culture, Larry Keigwin picks and chooses the ideas that serve his purpose, switching between aesthetic streams with an ease rare to the dance world. He’s unapologetic about being entertaining, it need not intrude on artfulness. Following the lead of his generation in other art forms, Keigwin seems less concerned with holding true to any one convention of art making. It’s all for the taking, borrowing, invading and exploring on Planet Keigwin.

A native New Yorker, Keigwin seems as influenced by life on the street as life in the studio. He possesses a particular urban sensibility. These are dances made by a lived life, where the familiar outer world not only has a place, but flourishes. In looking at Keigwin’s own dance history, I can’t help but notice he has lived both inside and outside of the traditional dance bubble. His career has enjoyed a remarkable fluidity between dance, theater and pop culture.

He’s been a backup dancer on Club MTV, he’s worked with a pop band and a comedian . He created the Keigwin Kabaret, merging dance, vaudeville and burlesque at the Public Theater at Joe’s Pub and Symphony Space. He served as an associate choreographer for The Radio City Rockettes and off Broadway’s The Wild Party. He just recently choreographed the new off Broadway version of RENT, opening later this summer and choreographed Tales of the City, which just opened at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Imagine 150 of the Fashion industry’s top models strutting in formation around the fountain and plaza at Lincoln Center. Well, he did that too, when he staged “Fashion’s Night Out: The Show,” which was Fashion Week’s opening event produced by Vogue. We need more choreographers in unlikely places, and the next time we see one, it’s likely to be Keigwin.

On the more traditional side, Keigwin has a dance degree from Hofstra University. He’s had commissions by Works & Process at the Guggenheim, The Juilliard School, The New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, and The Martha Graham Dance Company, among others. Last summer, he set work on four ballet stars as Vail International Dance Festival’s first artist-in-residence.

Keigwn also has an impressive resume as a dancer. He has danced at the Metropolitan Opera in Doug Varone’s Le Sacre Du Printemps and in Julie Taymor’s The Magic FluteHe won a 1998 Bessie award for his performance in Mark Dendy’s Dream Analysis. The list of seminal choreographers he has worked with also includes Jane Comfort, John Jasperse, Doug Elkins, David Rousseve and others. Keigwin managed to glean from his predecessors and still emerge out with an original choreographic voice such that his dances are informed by his history but not limited or defined by it.

Dancing making is a co-creative process at K + C. Dancers workshop phrases, which will eventually be molded by Keigwin. The company culture is one of collaboration. The choreographer adds, “It’s like creating a suit or a dress, the dancers shape and develop material, then I sew it together.” The dancers have an enormous creative investment in the final product, each with their own distinct movement intelligence.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Megalopolis; photo Christopher Duggan

“Mega” is the operative syllable in Megalopolis, the first work on the program, which was commissioned by The Dance Division of The Juilliard School in 2009. The piece exudes a retro futuristic style, imagine Judy Jetson’s night out in outer space. I had the good fortune of being in the audience, or rather the mob, when the piece premiered at Juilliard. I say “mob” because it seemed nearly impossible to stay still or quiet. Juxtaposition is a key element in many of Keigwin’s works; Megalopolis uses music from minimalist Steve Reich along with electronic master MIA.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Love Songs; photo Christopher Duggan

Love is a “many-splendored” thing, until it’s in Keigwin’s hands in Love Songs, and then the plot thickens. Add in Roy Obrison’s gut-wrenching anthems, Blue Bayou and Crying, Aretha Franklin’s bluesy Baby I Love You, and I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, and finally Nina Simone’s haunting songs, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and I Put a Spell on You, and you will see that love can indeed a many splendored and splintered thing.

Keigwin captures the way couples communicate with each other, or fail to do so, the way they can be in the same room, but a million miles away from each other, or saying the same thing over and over and not being heard. Look for the synergy between song, step and emotion. Through Orbison’s soaring tenor, the urgency in Franklin’s commands, and the velvety tone of Simone, we witness three couples navigate through the minefield of love. I’d like to think that every love song started with a story, in Love Songs, we get glimpse of these stories.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Bird Watching; photo Christopher Duggan

I find a formalist lurking just under the surface in his 2010 piece Bird Watching, which pokes playful fun at balletic pantomime, along with gestures of flocking, flapping, fluttering and flying. Keigwin describes the movement as “superficial super retro Sears catalog posing.” Really, our feathered friends do seem rather self obsessed, and at times, outrageously showy. There’s a voyeuristic quality to Keigwin’s avian antics, which are set to Hayden’s Symphony #6 in D Major. I also see a parallel between the exotic nature of birds and dancers, surely there’s no shortage of birds in the ballet canon. It’s formal alright, but at no sacrifice to the fun factor. Even the men wear tiny black tutus. Sparkles are included.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Runaway; photo Christopher Duggan

Fashion has always seemed to straddle the edge of art. Sure, there’s a long history of influence between fashion and dance, from ripped T-shirts, to oversized bags, along with a slew of famous designers creating costumes. Fashion is inherently theatrical. Keigwin gets that. Runaway straddles homage and critique of this insular culture of high end consumerism.Yet again, we find Keigwin boldly invading this hybrid world with his own particular stamp, and it’s a menacing one at that. The pun in the title makes me wonder what models are running from.

Narcissism, the amplification of glamor, the extreme exaggeration of our “look at me” culture, the body as display object, all play out to Jonathan Melville Pratt’s pounding score. Runaway, the penultimate Keigwin piece, is simply a feast of excess.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Runaway; photo Christopher Duggan

I imagine Keigwin to be in love with the stage space His finesse with moving bodies through space, on and off the stage, and complex groupings of dancers forming and dissolving is evidenced in each of these pieces. In Megalopolis, we find train-like diagonal parades that come and go instantly, in Love Songs, it’s the charged space between the dancers and the wildly expressive partnering, which just oozes sensual tension. In Bird Watching, it’s the ruffled edges in the airspace and crisp unison, and finally, in Runaway, it’s a fierce use of the catwalk strut. Never underestimate the power of the straight line, or that frisky way models just turn their backs on us and walk away. Underlying all this attitude though, is the piece’s solid spatial geometry. Keigwin possesses such a rich locomotive vocabulary. Often, I get the feeling that the stage space is just a portal of a larger space. One wonders what’s happening in the backstage space.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Love Songs; photo Christopher Duggan

Much as said about Keigwin’s use of pedestrian movement. I’d like to meet these pedestrians. Certainly, he’s not the first or last to employ everyday movement in his dances, there’s a long tradition of pedestrian movement in modern dance. Yet there’s a twist, a sharp edge between technical flair and human gesture.

There’s a generosity here, in the subject matter, in the expansive use of space, the mouth watering juiciness of his movement vocabulary and the full throttle commitment of the dancers. We want to lean in, maybe even fall in to these dances. Keigwin’s kinetic curiosity entices us into his world, and in doing so, into our world.

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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.”

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A Day of Dance: 24 at Jacob’s Pillow

Jodi Melnick and David Neumann in July; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

If a tree could take a bow,  it would most likely happen at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.  Perhaps it did.  Read on.

My summer travels began and ended at Jacob’s Pillow, the best place I know to dance binge while enjoying the great outdoors. The day began with the natural high I get from seeing Pillow dance banners lining Route 20. This thrills me every time. Why don’t we do this more?

Trisha Brown Dance Company in Set and Reset; photo Julieta Cervantes

Trisha Brown Dance Company celebrated its 40th anniversary with a program spanning several decades, from the freshly minted les Yeux et l’ame to the 1973 witty classic Spanish Dance. It was Brown’s 1993 Set and Reset, with sets and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg and music by Laurie Anderson, that reminded me how deeply Brown’s vocabulary is engrained in my postmodern generation. Forming and un-forming, taking shape and letting it dissipate, sculpting space with a profound nuance, these are the characteristics of Brown’s wonderfully idiosyncratic style, all of which were in full evidence in this set of works. Yet, embedded in this sea of flow is a compelling palette of exquisite detail. It’s truly extraordinary that such richly textured movement can have such a fleeting feel.  Shape sans permanence, that’s Brown’s gift to us.

Jodi Melnick in Fanfare; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

What a set of dreamy movers in the pairing of David Neumann and Jodi Melnick , who teamed up at the suggestion of Pillow artistic and executive director Ella Baff.  (Neumann was last seen in Houston dancing the bittersweet A Day of It , his collaboration with Jane Weiner.)  I could watch these two move all day long, they’re that interesting.  Neumann possesses a slippery quality, looking as if a prat fall might occur at any minute, while Melnick’s calculated delicacy evokes a quiet authority.  Her breathtakingly subtle Fanfare combined an intricate gestural language with Burt Barr’s visuals of an electric metal fan.

David Neumann in Tough the Tough (redux); photo Cherylynn Tsushima

Neumann plays mankind, or “Steve,” with a droll wit in Tough the Tough (Redux), which featured an oddly upbeat existentialist text by Will Eno. The magnificent bowing tree comes in during Melnick and Neumann’s gorgeous duet July, where their understated grace seemed to stand in perfect balance to the nobility of the pine tree on full splendid view through the open back doors of the Doris Duke Theater.  In an “only at the Pillow” move,  Melnick and Neumann motioned to the tree at the end.

Maura Keefe, Lisa Neidermeyer, Debra Levine, Jennifer Edwards, Nancy Wozny; Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

In between performances,  I hopped on a Pillow Talk  “Dancing Online” panel moderated by Scholar Maura Keefe,  sharing the stage with Virtual Pillow project manager Lisa Niedermeyer, and Huffington Post writers Debra Levine and Jennifer Edwards . The consensus is that people are watching and reading dance online, but we need more evidence of it to make a stronger case that we have a solid audience.  So hit those share buttons people, but don’t forget to actually read the piece first. Be less passive, and comment, should you feel the need. Writers alone can’t up the value of web based dance writing,  or dance writing in general.  We need engaged readers, and lots of them.

zoe | juniper in A Crack in Everything; photo Christopher Duggan

Catching up on most of what I missed in the archives took up the in between hours. I caught Jonah BokaerZoe|Juniper, and Big Dance Theater, all of whom have Houston connections in the upcoming season. Zoe | Juniper will be at DiverseWorks on Jan. 19-21, Bokaer will be an artist-in-residence at University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Big Dance Theater’s Paul Lazar directs Suzanne Bocanegra in When a Priest Marries a Witch on Nov. 1, also at the Mitchell Center.

Artist faculty of The School at Jacob's Pillow created work on the dancers, who then performed for the public duringthe free Inside/Out series every Saturday throughout the Festival.

No Pillow experience is complete without a visit to the Inside/Out stage. Nestled between a cherubic four-year old and my brother, each of us enthralled by the mountain view setting and earnest performances from the Jazz /Musical Theater students from all over the globe, it occurred to me that dance is something you can learn to love at any age. What better place to do it than the Pillow?

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

Trisha Brown Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow

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Face to Face with Jonah Bokaer

David Rafaël Botana, James McGinn in Jonak Bokaer's Filter. Photo by Anna Lee Campbell

In 2006, dance and media artist Jonah Bokaer was one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch”—a title to which he has delivered. In the midst of a whirlwind career, he’s been named one of The New York Times ’Nifty 50,” and Crain’s New York  selected him as a “40 under 40.” He’s become known as a fearless advocate of the arts and his name has become synonymous with technology.

Bokaer was first noticed at 18, when he joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and danced with them from 2000 to 2007. He’s worked with artists including John Jasperse, David Gordon and Deborah Hay, and he is a frequent choreographer for stage director Robert Wilson. Bokaer helped found two Brooklyn-based nonprofits: Chez Bushwick, a performance and rehearsal space, and the Center for Performance Research, a LEED-certified green building where he develops his work.

Over the course of the 2010–11 school year, he spent five weeks in residence at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he premiered his multimedia piece FILTER. There, in collaboration with grad student Stephen Garrett, he developed Mass Mobile, a mobile app that lets audience members alter FILTER’s lighting design elements before and during performances. At his Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival debut next month, Bokaer will present RECESS and Why Patterns—a collaboration with design firm Snarkitecture and 10,000 ping-pong balls.


Jonah Bokaer's Why Patterns; photo Robert Benschop


Dance Teacher: Can you tell us about the work that will be shown at Jacob’s Pillow? 
Jonah Bokaer: Why Patterns is set up like a ping-pong game, and there are three floods of balls from above, the side—everywhere that interrupts the dance. RECESS  is an event that I made with the artist Daniel Arsham. Like its title, the piece addresses a childhood game of playtime, but the title also refers to negative space: a recess or cavity. Although these works are very abstract, they represent a lighthearted approach to making new choreography.

DT: What are the seeds of  FILTER?
JB: I grew up as one of four brothers, and I decided to portray scenes of fraternal behavior that spoke about coming of age. I cast the production with four performers who look nearly identical to one another, to point toward a theme of visual duplication. This was inspired by the photography of Anthony Goicolea, whose portraiture involves multiple images of the same figure, altered digitally. The title of the piece refers to the parts of my work that are never seen by the public: changing and filtering movements on-screen through digital tools, like live-processing and animation programs.

DT: Can you walk us through Mass Mobile, the app used in FILTER? 
JB: The app functions as a tool for the public to change the look, color, occasion and angle of the lighting. The set had nine trees onstage, and the audience could choose trees 1–9 to light up the space around them, within about two seconds of touching their phones. They could also choose the color of lighting. The results yielded far more participation than we had estimated. In performance, the app was actually so popular that it crashed the server before Scene Three.

The set for "FILTER." (Photos by Anthony Goicolea)

DT: How did it change the piece? 
JB: The mood was impacted: I sensed a great deal more blue in the work, which might have led to a more melancholy or intense viewing experience. There was also a very rapid rhythm of the audience’s responses—which was a surprise.

DT: You have done so much in your career already. What are your goals?
JB: I’m currently working on my 30th work of choreography, which will be complete in the fall of 2012, near the time of my 30th birthday. Longer term, I hope to stabilize the activities of Center for Performance Research and establish the space as a permanent incubator for artists in NYC. Much longer term, I’d be fascinated to conduct more research in astronomy and other gravitational systems. Also, it’s a personal goal to own an apartment.

Reprinted from Dance Teacher Magazine.

An excerpt of Jonah Bokaer’s Why Patterns

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Fessing up on My Fantasy Season

New York Baroque Dance Company; Photo by Louis Forget
Hey there, thanks for visiting and for letting me make things up as part of “The Arthropologist’s fantasy season on Culturemap.” I highly recommend it; it’s way cheaper than therapy too.  And now the truth. Da Camera did bring in Esperanza Spalding a few years back, and happily, Houston knew exactly who she was and the show sold out. This year, The Bad Plus does in fact return as part of Rites of Spring on May 5. I was out of town for The Tiger Lillies the last time SPA brought them in as part of Holy Body Tattoo, so I’m overjoyed that SPA is bringing them in on Nov. 4. I had a case of the Jet Blues (as in stranded in a New York snow storm with a no chance in hell of returning with my Jet Blue ticket)  when the New York Baroque Dance Company was last in Houston, so I’m  thrilled to see them on the Ars Lyrica bill as part of  Heaven and Hell on June 8.
The Seattle-based duo Zoe/Juniper comes to DiverseWorks on Jan. 19-21, but you can catch them at Jacob’s Pillow on July 20-24.
I did have a conversation with Maxine Silberstein, staring at the Dance Magazine cover with Andrea Miller of Gallim Dance on it and mumbled, “Hey, about Gallim Dance?” Silberstein did the groundwork,  finding the company a perfect fit.  It’s going to be one exciting Dance Month. Although Stark Naked Theatre Company has yet to schedule Ed Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, I did have a conversation with Kim Tobin Lehl on such a possibility. One can only hope.

Members of BalletX in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Castrati

OK, so Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s work is not coming to Houston, but it has graced the Dance Salad bill numerous times.  She’s premiering a brand new work for BalletX any minute and was kind enough to send me this lovely photo.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY  in Runaway. Photo by Christopher Duggan

At the moment there are no plans for KEIGWIN + COMPANY to come to Houston, Larry Keigwin, however, is coming to Houston  to set Caffeinated on The Met.  So there!

It’s not too early to get excited by Gallim Dance headlining JCC’s Dance Month 2012

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Essay: Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob’s Pillow

Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

Note:  This is an excerpt of a pre-show talk delivered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival before Jane Comfort and Company’s performance of Beauty and Underground River while I was a scholar-in-residence this summer.

Beauty, female beauty, American female beauty; where do our ideas and ideals come from? Could it possibly have anything to do with a plastic icon of a doll named Barbie?

Multidisciplinary choreographer Jane Comfort thinks so in her new piece, titled Beauty. Who better to tackle this subject than Comfort, one of the foremost socially conscious artists working today? 

Ruth Handler, creator of Barbie and co-founder of Mattel, modeled her un-life like doll with the impossible female proportions of an over-sized bust and minuscule waist, golden long tresses held up in a top knot, wide-open eyes and a turned up tiny nose, after the German sex doll called Bild Lilli, which was, of course, meant for adults. When Handler noticed children playing with an adult proportioned doll, a light bulb went off. 

Barbie was born in March of 1959, the year that Disney’s Sleeping Beauty came out, Hawaii became a state, Explorer 6 sent the first picture of Earth from outer space, Miles Davis recorded Kind of Blue, Castro entered Havana as Batista fled Cuba, Nikita Khrushchev partied hard in Hollywood, and pantyhose hit the market.

The fifties also spawned the cookie-cutter sameness of the suburbs, where each house looked a lot like the one next to it. Conformity was on the march, as was the beginning stirrings of the sexual and political rebellion of the sixties.

It’s over a billion dolls later, and Barbie has now past her 50th birthday. Although she did have comeback role inToy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, Barbie has had her ups and downs. She broke up with Ken and riled women when her talking version uttered, “Math class is tough.”

She’s had numerous professions, from doctor to flight attendant, her most recent one being “Architect Barbie.” Museum Barbie has just entered the scene, with a doll inspired by Gustav Klimt’s muse Adele Bloch-Bauer. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently purchased the original 1959 Barbie Teen Age Fashion Model, known as Barbie No. 1, which will be featured, along with Ken, in an upcoming exhibit, “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.”

Handler envisioned her doll as a role model. But, I bet she would be surprised that Barbie is making her Pillow debut in 2011 in a dance crafted by Comfort.

Today, Barbie is mostly an ever-present collector’s item on eBay, while her rail thin physique continues to be the reigning ideal of beauty in the media, fashion and pop culture.

I should disclose I am a former Barbie, Ken, Midge and Skipper owner. I remember her fashion house, which contained a tiny book titled “How to lose weight”. When you turned it over it read simply, “Don’t eat.” I was seven years old at the time. A recent study suggests that half of three to six-year old girls worry about being overweight. Good Morning America just did a segment called “Mommy am I fat?” with five to eight-years-old girls. The rigors of female beauty regimes have seeped into the culture of young girls, and are every present for women of all ages.

Forget “Beauty and the Beast,” beauty is the beast, it’s hard to escape the incessant noise from the media on the “right” way to look. Spa menus and plastic surgery options get larger as the list of “so-called” improvements to the human body continues to multiply.

Eating disorders and obesity continue to plague our children. The body is in crisis as the standards for beauty seem to move toward even more unattainable heights. A relentless striving for perfection seems to be the driving myth in fashion magazines. And Photoshop has been no friend to real women either.

Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Christopher Duggan

The myth, culture, and surround of beauty seems a perfect subject for Comfort, who in her over three-decade career has often been on the forefront of controversial subjects. Politics, social and gender issues are fair game for her, as evidenced in such works as An American Rendition,contrasting interrogation with shame-based reality TV, S/Hean investigation in gender behavior that incorporated Comfort’s research into crossdressing and Three Bagatelles for the Righteousa response to the havoc wreaked by the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, which included voice and text from the now GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

In Beauty, Comfort explores cultural norms using the lens of a doll who is sadly missing most of her joints. What an enormous movement playground she has found in that fact. And what makes matters worse, dear Barbie is perpetually in releve. Therein lies the fun, though. Barbie at least tries to dance.

Lucie Baker of Jane Comfort and Company in Beauty; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

The choreographer has a field day playing with Barbie’s disjointed motions, contrasting that with a lush, earthy, and full-bodied vocabulary of real women navigating the demands of unreasonable standards. Comfort pokes playful fun at Barbie’s robotic optimism as seen by her pasted-on smile, pointing to a darker place in this culture of passivity.

Beauty regimes are inherently theatrical. I remember being mesmerized watching my own mother get ready for a party. Comfort explores the theater of “getting ready,”and the rather elaborate procedures of beautification. The ritual decoration of the human body is also an ancient practice harking back to sacred ceremonies.

As women, we can be easily judged by our numbers, weight, age, bust size and salaries. Turn on the television, and it’s a contest on every channel with some budding starlet begging for our votes. If we are going to be beautiful, surely we want to be the most beautiful. Comfort tests conventions by culminating Beauty in a contest. The judged transform into judges.

Comfort holds a unique place in the canon of American contemporary dance.  She’s been considered a pioneer interdisciplinary artist as she enlists text, song, visual elements, commissioned scores, along with an incredibly rich movement vocabulary culling from numerous forms of dance. She claims allegiance to no one style of moving.

Yet there’s never a bombardment of the senses. In looking over the body of her work, Comfort uses an “as needed” approach to mix mastering the arts. There’s such a spaciousness in the way she combines and layers art forms. She creates porous stage environments with text and movement held in equal esteem. It’s not heavy-handed. If the dancers suddenly begin singing, it’s because that’s what was called for at that moment.

Naming her a “Cultural Warrior,” scholar Suzanne Carbonneau writes in her poignant essay Jane Comfort’s America, “That is, in using every means of communication at her disposal—movement, language, visual elements, and music—Comfort brings authenticity and commitment to her voice of resistance.”

She has held a steady presence for the past several decades with over 50 dance theater works to her credit. A versatile artist, Comfort has re-purposed Tennessee Williams’ classic play, The Glass Menagerie in Faith Healing, choreographed the Broadway musicals Passion, by Stephen Sondheim, Amour, by Michel Legrand, Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing and the Off Broadway musical Wilder at Playwrights Horizons. Her career spans opera, with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Salome, and a commission from Ballet Memphis.

Jane Comfort and Company in Underground River; photo Christopher Duggan

Comfort has paired Beauty with her 1998 Bessie Award-winning piece Underground River, developed in 1997 at the Pillow Works series. There’s a potent chemistry in the juxtaposition of these two works.

From an investigation of surface beauty we move to inner beauty. From the body as decorative object, we move to the life beyond, above and beside the body. From a biting commentary, we shift into subtle textures of perception, and from a lifeless stiff human- shaped doll to a delicately animated cloth puppet, capable of everything, from tap dancing to the backstroke.

Jane Comfort and Company in Underground River; photo Cherylynn Tsushima

Underground River takes us to a place we can only imagine, the life force of a girl in a coma. Science has yet to tell us what is really happening. Comfort takes us across the river of consciousness into uncharted territory.

She creates a place of wonder, there’s a floating quality, as if we are inside of an aquarium. Performers burst into song, grounding us into tactile experience of the body, then taking us back into the life of what lies beyond the scrim. Gentle sections of voice-over narration tether us to the known world.

The viewer watches from the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious world. Comfort proves that art is the domain of the unknowable. It’s a deeply meditative work, yet revealing in its joy and humor.

In the experience of immersing myself in Comfort’s work, I have come to the conclusion that her artistic sensibility functions much like that of a poet, a person called to show us the unseen, what’s right in front of us that we have yet to notice, a crack in the world that we might have missed.

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Dancing in the Twittersphere

Gary Schaufeld, Jennifer Jones and Kristen Arnold in Sydney Skybetter's Temporary Matters; Photo by Christopher Duggan

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

Alex Wong got his cast off, New York City Ballet’s Kathryn Morgan is heading to Prada, Houston Ballet’s Melissa Hough feels narcoleptic after the fall rep, and Miami City Ballet’s Rebecca King is taking five before a Bugaku rehearsal. How do I know all this? Simple, I follow them on Twitter.

I was born to chirp random thoughts over a noisy bed of chatter. I grew up in a loud, Italian-American family, where you had to fight to be heard. Twitter works for me as a way to keep informed, inform others, and just stay connected to my field. Dancers hopped on the micro-blogging network faster than they did Facebook. You can find high-profile ballet dancers intermission tweeting, choreographers broadcasting details about their next show or the So You Think You Can Dance clan updating their gaggles of followers. Twitter is a cross section of life as it dances by.

Founded in 2006 by Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, and Evan Williams, Twitter was originally designed as a way for people to broadcast their whereabouts or status to friends. Users had other ideas. In fact, no other social media platform has been more shaped by its participants than Twitter. The popular “RT” (Retweet) is a perfect example of something first started by users, then adapted by Twitter.

Once individual ballet dancers like San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova and ABT’s Daniil Simkin joined the tweetstream, dance companies like Ballet Austin and Houston Ballet followed. The Twitter voice of any dance company determines the effectiveness of its communication.Just broadcasting your show details rarely works here, while pithy inside comments or insights engage and tease your followers. Curiously, independent choreographers are less active on Twitter than individual dancers and companies.

For Drew Jacoby, of Jacoby & Pronk, Twitter mixes business and entertainment. “I am a freelancer, so it’s a necessity for me,” says Pronk. I hear her pain. Freelancing means seeking out more gigs, assignments, and a lively net presence. “I am sillier on my personal account,” says Jacoby. “The networking possibilities are great. I always mention where I am performing. I try to follow interesting organizations and people.”

Jacoby built her network by searching “ballet” and “dance.” I did the same thing to get started. I followed every name that popped up. I have since trimmed my twitter tree down from 1,400 to 700.

Jacoby, a dancelebrity herself, has broader interests in her follow choices. “I like that slice-of-life quality coming directly from that person. I get a glimpse of what’s inside their mind, what their personality is like,” she says. “I also like that we are in control. We have a voice. I love it when non-dance people follow me.”

Jacoby has since become a more discerning tweeter. “I unfollow people who hog the feed.” She has a point: Overtweet at your own risk. I have days when I manically tweet and retweet. Other days I’m missing in action. Don’t get too paranoid about it, advises choreographer and Design Brooklyn co-founder Sydney Skybetter. “Twitter is pure syntax. It’s 140 characters, do with it what you will,” says Skybetter, New York’s reigning dance social media geek. There are no guiding principles. It’s the wild west out there.”

Skybetter sees some central advantages with Twitter. “With Facebook, updating your status more than once a day annoys people. With Twitter, you can share info more quickly,” he says. “Posts tend to get lost on Facebook; on Twitter there’s a different shelf life as a tweet can re-circulate longer.” Skybetter is right, if you follow your mentions, you can watch a sassy tweet travel all over the place.

The choreographer also cleverly—with style and intrigue—enlists Twitter to build a buzz about his upcoming shows. I followed Skybetter’s every tweet leading up to his company’s performance on the Inside/Out series at Jacob’s Pillow last summer. His tweets reflected how honored they felt to perform at the Pillow. For those following him from afar, the emotion of the experience was palpable. “It was frackin awesome,” he remembers about performing at the Pillow, tweeting and all.

The creative possibilities inherent in limitations appeal to dancer and choreographer Lisa Niedermeyer. We connected while live tweeting using the hashtag #DUSA at the Dance/USA conference in Washington, DC. A hashtag designates a topic/idea/event with the # sign, which allows you to use the search function. During the conference, a live feed of tweets scrolled on the screen during some of the sessions and on the Dance/USA website. It’s one handy way of knowing what the guy behind you is thinking. By the time Niedermeyer and I grabbed lunch, we already had an idea of each other’s interests. It’s like starting a friendship in the middle.

“It’s fun composing a tweet. For me it’s more of a collaboration tool, less of a come-see-my-show tool,” says Niedermeyer, who has danced with Jane Comfort and Doug Elkins. “I come from a place of working with narrative and theatrical artists like Jane Comfortwho taught me to look for what story the structure or form of something can tell. The structure of a twitter feed tells a real-time and unedited story of the community that is self organizing. I find it fascinating.”

Once, Niedermeyer de-constructed a review in tweets. “I blew it apart into juicy bits,” she says. “Twitter is more nuanced than Facebook; it’s not just a place to blast information.” Not remotely interested in building her brand, developing hoards of followers, or moving into “twinfluential” (twitter slang for being influential) status we could say “a twitter star”, Neidermeyer’s “handle,” (username) “MsRemixt,” says it all.

It’s not unusual to tweet from a handle different than your name, as it gives you a chance to play with your persona. Your profile can inform followers of your real name, website, or blog. Niedermeyer sets her TweetDeck to search “redefine,” “remix,” “reimagine” and “repurpose” to connect to like-minded folk. Platforms like Tweetdeck and HootSuite help users track their mentions, follow lists of people, and search key words. (The new Twitter is pretty snazzy too.) “Regardless if those people are in dance, I want to know what they are thinking,” she says.

Twitter isn’t just all about you. It took me my first 600 “read my story” tweets to figure that out. These days, I am just as likely to retweet a cool article in, say, Dance Magazine, tell you about a great show I saw, or some random, possibly silly thought that’s floating across my mind.

Editing elevates all that we do. Twitterese pushes us into being succinct in a way that can be downright fun. As Niedermeyer says, “Who better than a choreographer to be creative within a structure?”

Update: Twitter endless tweaks itself, making it easier and easier to use. I continue to follow dance people on twitter because I don’t know a better way to keep up with the flurry of activity happening in my field all at once.  Yet, I also believe that not everyone needs to be on twitter, like my dear mom.  I’m one of the few who doesn’t mind if you tweet your lunch. I follow food writers, they know how tweet lunch with style.  Since this piece was published Martha Graham became a trending topic the day of the Graham Google doodle, I won best “arts tweeter” from Houston Press, Google + emerged as the new shiny social media thing, and I watched Lisa Niedermeyer get ready for 45 minutes as part of Jane Comfort’s Beauty at Jacob’s Pillow.  I often  know what airport Drew Jacoby is in at any given minute thanks to her tweets, while  Sydney Skybetter continues his double life as Artistic Director of Skybetter and Associates and Founding Partner of Edwards & Skybetter | Change Agency, along with Jennifer Edwards.  Skybetter is  still my go-to smart techno arts geek of choice.  Edwards & Skybetter land on Houston shores to consult with Fresh Arts Coalition this fall. I still hold out hopes to get a grant for my work as a hashtag artist #delusionalandlovingit.

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The Great Outdoors of Dance: My time at Jacob’s Pillow

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Photo by Ingmar Jernberg

Erik Johansson and Ellah Nagil of The Goteborg Ballet in “OreloB of 3xBolero”

Every Wednesday during the season at exactly 1:15 pm the bells ring on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts.

It’s not just any bell, but a call to signify that dancers are in the house and a week’s worth of motion is about to begin. Ella Baff, executive director, is there to greet any number of dance legends who happen to be performing that week, introduce the outstanding staff, the fearless interns and the scholars in residence, which for the past two weeks, has included me.

Last week, The Göteborg Ballet along with Australian innovator (and Houston favorite) Lucy Guerin were in attendance, along with Chet Walker and hisJazz/ Musical Theatre Dance students. This week it’s Hubbard Street Dance ChicagoThe Vanaver Caravan and the artists of the Choreographers Lab.  Also included in the mix were CultureMap president Nic Phillips, who designed the lighting for Hubbard Street resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s two world premieres, along with Houston choreographer andUniversity of Houston faculty member Becky Valls , who is joining the Choreographers Lab.

What fun to have a tiny Texas invasion.

Thanks to Nancy Henderek at  Dance Salad Festival, I had seen The Göteborg Ballet a few years back in Houston. A clever program titled 3xBolero sent three choreographers riffing off Maurice Ravel’s famous one movement orchestral work, Bolero. Johan Inger’s Walking Mad fused narrative, inventive movement and one limber timber folding fence to expand upon Ravel’s notion of crescendo. Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s OreloB(Bolero spelled backwards) echoed Ravel’s intensity and relentless engine.

Alexander Ekman’s Episode 17 played with the composer’s cumulative structure with wit and sass. I am not sure I will ever listen to Bolero the same way again. Somewhere, Ravel is reveling.

Guerin’s Structure and Sadness references the 1970 collapse of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. Enlisting movement based on the forces of push, pull, compression, suspension, torsion and collapse, her dancers double as engineers as they build one incredible structure on stage.

As with all of Guerin’s work, ideas are abstracted, yet fragments of a narrative illuminate her kinetic landscape. In light of recent infrastructure failures such as the BP Gulf Coast oil spill and other disasters, Structure and Sadness feels unusually timely. More importantly, Guerin’s poignant work stands as a testament of the depth by which artists transform tragedy, crafting beauty from the dust of despair.

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Suchu Dance at Jacob’s Pillow

Photo by John Ferguson

Dancing outside is such a profound experience I wonder why it isn’t part of our dance going habits more often. At the Pillow, watching dance against the dramatic backdrop of the Berkshire mountains and lush forests happens at 6:15 every Wednesday through Saturday on the Inside/Out Stage.

Last week, I caught Jennifer Nugent of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in I’d Go Out With You. Nugent moves with same agile fluidly as the breeze moving across the stage. As the week went on, I took in performances by Amy Marshall Dance Company, students from the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program and  Zach Morris and Tom Pearson ofThird Rail Projects. The Pillow has embarked on an ambitious Save the Stage campaign.

By next summer, a new stage will be in place. I can’t fuss enough about the sheer splendor of witnessing great dance in the great outdoors. It’s such a reminder of how deeply dance tethers to the natural world. After Morris and Pearson’s dancers scampered about the rocks in time with the music, I watched a gaggle of wiggly children rush into the space recently blessed by dance.

Leave it to joy seeking little ones to know sacred ground when they see it.

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Photo by Christopher Duggan; Lighting design by Nicholas Phillips

Jessica Tong of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “Blanco

This week I’m immersed in Hubbard Street’s rich offerings, which include Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa, Cerrudo’s Blanco and Deep Down Dos, and Aszure Barton’s Untouched. I had the privilege of watching Phillips in action, as both of Cerrudo’s dances virtually partner with light. On Friday night, I’ll check out the global mix masters of  The Vanaver Caravan.

Not everything is in motion here at the Pillow. An exhibit of Pilates at the Pillow includes images, footage and writings about Joseph Pilates’ time here. A 1956 Dance Magazine story by Doris Hering, caught my eye. As the frequent scribe of Dance Magazine’s Your Body column, it was fun to see the column in its earlier incarnation. Mostly, we think of dance as something that can’t be captured.

True, unless Lois Greenfield happens to be holding the camera. Lois Greenfield: Imagined Moments features an extraordinary collection of her work over the past few decades. Dance, free of choreographic constraints and created specifically for the camera, comes to life on the walls of Blake’s Barn.

It’s hard to walk around on these hallowed dance grounds and not think about all the icons who traveled these very paths. Images of founder Ted Shawn and his men dancers, along with other dance luminaries, grace the grounds. The site is a National Historic Landmark. It was even a stop on the underground railway.

Pillow history surrounds the visitor, yet the Festival is very much about what’s happening right this minute in dance. The programing is a mix of international, national and up and coming troupes, most of which are on my must-see list. I am more than halfway through my goal of watching the entire 2010 season on DVD in the Archives. Wish me luck with that.

I told many of you I would be staying in a rustic cabin with no A/C with furry wildlife about. Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Instead, I stayed in a mountain home with a deck overlooking a meadow and the Berkshires. Oh well.

On Saturday, I will be in the presence of dancing hippos in Mindy Aloff’s Pillow Talk on her recent book, Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation. That may be the sum total of my wildlife experience. But I am proud to announce that I’m completely up on my Massachusetts black bear etiquette.

The Pillow is also about people. Can I help it if I hark from the best arts tribe ever? Houstonian J.R. Glover, Director of Education, filled me on the many diverse programs that happen over the summer and the outreach activities to the Berkshire community. I caught up with Caleb Teicher, a student in the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program, who I had interviewed years ago. It was a great joy to see what a fine dancer he has become.

I understand a tiny bit more about dance video and photography after spending time with Nel Shelby and Christopher Duggan. Veteran scholars Maura Keefe and Debra Cash made delightful colleagues. Archivist Norton Owen is a pillow treasure chest of knowledge. And, of course, it’s been terrific to hang out with the Houston contingent.

With two pre-show talks, an afternoon Pillow Talk with Hubbard Street’s director Glenn Edgerton and a post-show Q & A yet to do, it’s a dance-jammed day.

I have more to tell you, but need to dash now as my Pillow-palooza is still very much in motion.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

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