The Arthropologist

Your guide to National Dance Week: From the Salad maker to the Ahn Trio to Japan disaster relief

Your guide to National Dance Week: From the Salad maker to the Ahn Trio to Japan disaster relief

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Artists of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, New York, performing "Temptation of the Muses," choroegraphed by Nai-Ni Chen Photo by Carol Rosegg
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Alisa Mittin in CORE Performance Company's "In the Mood," free on April 29, World Dance Day, at Miller Outdoor Theatre Photo by Mark Teague
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Thang Dao Photo by Eric Livey
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Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina of National Ballet of Canada performing "Impromtu," choroegraphed by Derek Deane. Courtesy of Dance Salad
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Artist of Eastman, Antwerp, Belgium, performing "Faun," choroegraphed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui Photo by Hugo Glendinning
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Ballet Ausin II in Thang Dao's "Quiet Imprint" Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood
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Artists of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, New York, performing "Temptation of the Muses," choroegraphed by Nai-Ni Chen Photo by Carol Rosegg
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"Madame Butterfly" choreographed by Stanton Welch with artists Sara Webb and Ian Casady Photo by Jim Caldwell
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Dance is its own planet. National Dance Week, leading up to World Dance Day on April 29, seems a fitting time to honor some of its prize citizens making a difference in the global community — many who just happen to have shows coming up this week.

Here they are: Thang Dao, with Ballet Austin II and the Vietnamese Culture  & Science Association (VCSA) in Quiet Imprint on Saturday at The Hobby Center; Nancy Henderek of the Dance Salad Festival, Thursday through Saturday, at Cullen Theater Wortham Center; and Nao Kusuzaki and her colleagues at Houston Ballet and the Japan-America Society of Houston in Dancing for Hope, a benefit for Japan, Thursday night at The Hobby Center.

International dance right at your door

Whenever international dance people find out that I live in Houston, their first question is, "Do you know Nancy Henderek?"

The global curator of the Dance Salad Festival has been putting Houston on the world dance map for the past 16 years. She has some delicious delights up her international sleeve with a return of one of my favorite choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, along with an impressive list of rarely-seen-in-Houston troupes.

I appreciate the way Henderek puts her support behind rising choreographers, giving us a chance to see how they are developing. With Cherkaoui's third appearance on the Salad, he's now a force of nature dance maker on the scene.

The same holds true for Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who made her U.S. debut as a choreographer in 2006 with her powerful duet, One, created especially for Jacoby & Pronk, who also made their company debut. Expect a strong Asian contingent too, with Beijing Dance/LDTX  and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company performing with the accomplished Ahn Trio, who were just on the SPA stage earlier this year. 

After a few years of highlighting mostly male choreographers, this year's bill is a boon for women dance makers, and includes Ochoa, Masa Kolar, Jasmin Vardimon, Ma Bo, Nai-Ni Chen and Oksana Titova. Henderek often includes a nod to Houston's dance history, and this year is no different with National Ballet of Canada principals and former Houston Ballet dancers Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina returning to perform Derek Deane's romantic duet, Impromptu. I know the city welcomes these two favorite dancers back.  

A Houston Ballet soloist rallies her troupe

I met with Kusuzaki and Connor Walsh  two weeks ago in the Center for Dance's swanky new dancers' lounge to hear about "Dancing for Hope, A Japan Relief Fund," a fundraising event that came together in record time.

"Growing up in Japan, and having my entire family as well as many close friends on the island, this recent disaster hit me close to my heart," said Kusuzaki, who is from Ehime, Japan. She quickly teamed up with  Shizu Yasuda, of Ad Deum Dance Company, who are also performing in the show.

"Helplessness overwhelmed me initially, which turned into a realization that there is always a way to make a difference," Kusuzaki says.

She joined forces with the Japan-America Society of Houston, with additional help from the Japanese Association of Greater Houston and assumed the role of artistic event coordinator, something she has never done before. She convinced 21 fellow company members, including several principals, to participate.

In no time, Kusuzaki came up with program (with some advice from her HB colleagues), which includes excerpts from Christopher Bruce's Hush, Le Corsaire, La Bayadere and Stanton Welch's Mediaeval Baebes and Madame Butterfly, to name a few. Rehearsals and planning took place on days off and down time. This is one industrious and disciplined tribe.

Welch is completely behind the project, giving the team full access to his ballets and rehearsal space.

“I am very proud to have so many of Houston Ballet’s dancers pull together and take part in a relief benefit for Japan. Houston Ballet feels personally connected, since we have numerous Japanese professional dancers and academy students. Fortunately, all their families were safe and sound after the disaster,” Welch said. “The Japanese culture is so very rich, deep, and has inspired me as a choreographer many times and in many ways.

"I am glad that a part of Madame Butterfly can be included on this important occasion."

Kusuzaki will be dancing Welch's breathtaking pas de deux from Butterfly. The evening also includes Otro Portal, danced and choreographed by Houston contemporary choreographer Paola Georgudis.

Telling the story of the Vietnamese Diaspora through dance
 
Dance can be a way of telling your story. That's one of the things New York choreographer Dao found out when he embarked on creating Quiet Imprint for Ballet Ausin II.
 
"My mother never talked about her history," said Dao, who spent the first six months of his life in a prison in Danang, Vietnam.
 
Trained at The Juilliard School, Boston Conservatory and New York University, Dao made Texas headlines when he was selected for Ballet Austin's New American Talent contest. He went on to win the Audience Award all four nights. When Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills and associate director Michelle Martin invited the rising choreographer to create a work on Ballet Austin II, Dao considered a dance based on his heritage, but then told Martin he wasn't quite ready.
 
"You are ready," Martin replied back. After numerous interviews with several Houston members of the Vietnamese community, Quiet Imprint took shape. 
 
Set to songs by Trinh Cong Son, sung by the legendary Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly, the ballet comes to life through the music Dao grew up hearing. Getting the iconic singer aboard was not easy.
 
"A ballet? I don't know if I'm the right person," she told the young choreographer. "I know you are the right singer," he replied back, with enough passion in his voice to change her mind.
 
Dao played dramaturg with the Ballet Austin II dancers as they immersed themselves in the interviews to better embody these stories.
 
"The more I learn about these individuals, their living history, the more I was able to shape the narrative in each song vignette," Dao said. "Their stories became the framework for how I would craft each dance using distinctive movements particular to the narrative and gave emotional texture that drove the direction of the choreography."
 
Dao heads up the Thang Dao Dance Company in New York. He received a 2008 Princess Grace Award and a 2009 Special Projects Grant to develop Quiet Imprint. The VSCA joined forces with Ballet Austin II to present this show as part of their cultural programing. A strong showing of the community showed up to the Kim Son Ballroom two weeks ago to meet Dao and Martin in person, and hear his moving tale of creating a dance based on the stories of many people in that very room.
 
Dao's ballet has a dual focus: To find out more about his own origins, and to share his art form with his parents. He has succeeded at both. 
 
If your dance card is still not full, can I suggest Houston Ballet Academy Showcase, on April 29 & 30, Core Performance Company's In the Mood... for Dance at Miller Outdoor Theatre, on April 29, or Between the Lines at UH's School of Theatre & Dance, April 29-May 1, or The Thank You Bar at DiverseWorks, April 28-30.
 
There's more, don't you know it, as Houston celebrates National Dance Week Lone Star style all month. 
 
 
Thang Dao and Ballet Austin II in Quiet Imprint

National Ballet of Canada principals Bridgett Zehr and Zdenek Konvalina are simply gorgeous in this pas de deux

An excerpt of Stanton Welch's haunting Mediæval Bæbes is on the Dancing for Hope Program