The Arthropologist

Leap of faith: Society for the Performing Arts emphasizes power of dance in new season

Leap of faith: SPA emphasizes power of dance in new season

Nancy, SPA Goes Dance Crazy, Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan
An artist with Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan Photo by Yo Hui-Hung
Nancy, SPA goes dance crazy, Eran Bugge, Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Tayor's Esplanade
Eran Bugge and Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Tayor's Esplanade Photo by Paul B. Goode
Nancy, SPA goes dance crazy, Joftrey Ballet dancers April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs
Joftrey Ballet dancers April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs Photo is by Herbert Migdoll
Nancy, SPA Goes Dance Crazy, Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan
Nancy, SPA goes dance crazy, Eran Bugge, Robert Kleinendorst in Paul Tayor's Esplanade
Nancy, SPA goes dance crazy, Joftrey Ballet dancers April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs

Running, skipping, sliding across the stage with a whoosh, and finally leaping into a set of arms may be the most iconic combination of everyday movements in all of modern dance. This sequence  from Esplanade is one of the most famous dance signatures of the 20th century, and it belongs to Paul Taylor, largely considered the greatest American living choreographer of our time.

"I make dances because I can't help it. Working on dance has become a way of life, an addiction that at times resembles a fatal disease. Even so, I've no intention of quitting. I make dances because I believe in the power of contemporary dance, it's immediacy, its potency, it's universality," writes Taylor in Facts and Fancies: Essays Written Mostly for Fun

June Christensen stands with Taylor in her belief in the power of dance, so much so that Taylor's storied leaps can all be seen in Houston, thanks to an unprecedented focus on American dance as part of Society for the Performing Arts (SPA) 2013/2014 season.

 There is so much motion going next season you would think the city's leading presenting organization had changed its name to "Society for the Performing arts, Mostly Dance." Fine by me. 

And it gets better, Antoine Plante and Mercury-The Orchestra Redefined will be in the pit for the Paul Taylor Dance Company (PTDC) shows.

A city needs to cultivate its own artists. That we do well. It also needs influences from the outside world. That is harder to do in dance, with Houston being so far from New York City, the national dance hub. I have complained that not enough dance is coming through Houston, and my annoying whines have been heard. There is so much motion going next season at SPA you would think the city's leading presenting organization had changed its name to "Society for the Performing arts, Mostly Dance."

Fine by me.

Bounty of offerings

"We were tempted to call the season 'dance dance dance,'" jokes Christensen, SPA's executive director. She has been a serious dance watcher since joining the SPA staff in 1989, exactly the same year I started watching dance through SPA. In fact, former SPA director Toby Mattox was a terrific dance pal, and our lively conversations assured me that SPA was dedicated to my art form. The dance gab sessions continued when Christensen took the helm in 2006.

"I've been into dance since the get go," she says. "I enjoy watching how the elements of movement and music blend together. When I sit down for a dance concert, I decompress."

Let's get to the bounty of offerings. "The Great American Dance" series features Jessica Lang Dance on Sept. 20, Paul Taylor Dance Company on Oct. 12, Pilobolus, Jan. 10, 2014,  Mark Morris Dance Group on Jan. 31 & Feb. 1, 2014, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on March 14 and 15, 2014, Joffrey Ballet on March 21, 2014, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet on May 9, 2014, with LINES and Lang making Houston debuts.

International companies include Shanghai Ballet on Nov. 5, performing their signature work The Butterfly Lovers, and Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan makes their Houston debut on April 5, 2014 with Songs of the Wanderers

This is the most dance-focused season SPA has presented in a while, and it's bound to make dance fans swoon.

This is the most dance-focused season SPA has presented in a while, and it's bound to make dance fans swoon. 

The spark for the idea of focusing on seminal American dance companies came from a snafu in last year's season when the Joffrey's tour got re-routed and a Houston stop became impossible.

"Joffrey was foremost in my mind," Christensen says. "They were my lead in, and I knew we had to bring them back. Plus, I knew it was time to bring back these celebrated companies. I wanted to put them all together on one season."

Joffrey's connections with Houston run deep, as artistic director Ashley Wheater and Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch have known each other for decades. Welch set Son of Chamber Symphony on the company this past season.

Christensen began digging through the archives and found a startling fact. It had been ten years since PTDC has been in Houston. After seeing the company last summer at the American Dance Festival, she knew PTDC had to be on the season, with a rep that includes such masterworks as Esplanade, Sunset and Airs.

The series is bookended with the upstart Lang and the elegant San Francisco-based LINES Ballet. Lang, an on the rise choreographer will appear at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival for the second year in a row.

"Lang's name just kept popping up," says Christensen. "I found the company mesmerizing. Her dancers are amazing, they hark from such companies as Ailey, Morris and Merce Cunningham, and she is a former Twyla Tharp dancer." She came upon LINES Ballet in Edinburgh in 2007, and has been trying to get the company here ever since. 

Dance audiences are in growth mode. "We do listen to our patrons, and they have been longing to see these companies," says Christensen. "It's part of our mission to present the work of living choreographers. My hope is that Houston dance audiences will attend because it's a rare chance."

Christensen has a point. During my formative years as a dancer, I had the great luxury of living a train ride away from New York City. We don't have that kind of quick access in Texas.

Now a word to dance teachers, dancers, dance writers, dance hobbyists, dance fans and such, we need your bodies in these seats if we are truly going to call ourselves a dance town. Let's do it!

Watch the Paul Taylor Dance Company and mark your calendars.