The Arthropologist

Dancing at the Waterwall: Houston's great outdoors sets the stage for unique dance festival

Dancing at the Waterwall: Houston's great outdoors sets the stage for unique dance festival

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Another photo from Stephan Koplowitz: TaskForce - Natural Acts in Artificial Water Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography
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The Waterwall as a stage Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography
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Artist Stephan Koplowitz Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography
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Natural Acts in Artificial Water, a water-themed, site-specific work Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography
News_Stephan Koplowicz_Water Wall
Stephan Koplowitz: TaskForce - Natural Acts in Artificial Water Courtesy of Lynn Lane Photography
News_Stephan Koplowicz_Water Wall
News_Stephan Koplowicz_Water Wall
News_Stephan Koplowicz_Water Wall
News_Stephan Koplowicz_Water Wall
News_Stephan Koplowicz_Water Wall

A grove of oaks, an open green field, the face of skyscraper and a wall of thundering falling water make for one unforgettable stage for dance this weekend.

Stephan Koplowitz premieres Natural Acts in Artificial Water, a site-specific dance, at the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., presented by DiverseWorks, in partnership with Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Aurora Picture Show, who have combined forces for Insight|Out. Also included in the festival is Scoot-In at Sesquicentennial Park Saturday at 8 p. m., presented by Aurora and Seven in the Third at Project Row Houses, Sunday at noon and 3 p. m. presented by the Mitchell Center.

 The lure of the Waterwall proved overwhelming. The grandeur of the structure just seemed to beg for some dance.

Koplowitz is quick to tell me that he is not the father of site-specific dance, yet, if you see dancers rolling down an impressive public staircase, chances are Koplowitz and his "TaskForce" are behind it. That said, dance has been happening in the great outdoors since its beginnings.

A leading figure in site-specific dance, Koplowitz's Task Force has engaged many a passerby as his dancers have frolicked in swimming pools, across parks and famous staircases. Watching audiences be caught off guard is an added perk to his work.  

I've spent a considerable amount of time in my column whining about why dance is so separate from the general culture, and gushing over anyone who tries to remedy that. One glance at Koplowitz's YouTube Channel and you can see that he has a distinct approach to crafting a dance outdoors. 

An alternative world

Place, site, scale and the dancing body all factor into his work. Sometimes, his dances begin in a way the audience might not even notice. Other times, it's clear that the viewer has entered an alternative world. Either way, prepare to be charmed, enthralled, and be able to start a sentence later that day with, "You're not going to believe what I just saw."

After spending an afternoon watching Koplowitz work, it's clear that he's aware of every detail of a site, from the construction across the street to the birds that sometimes fly into the stage space. Movement is shared within the exact architecture of the surroundings. In this case, the dancers partner with the massive Williams Tower, the great expansive of grass, the elegant arches in front of the fountain, and finally with a wall of falling water. It's larger than placing dancers in an environment; it's really sharing the space, merging and sometimes enlarging what we might not have considered in the landscape.

Placing dance in unusual places brings dance into the fabric of everyday life. "You don't need to buy a ticket," says Koplowitz, who is also the dean of the dance deptartment at Cal Arts. "Connecting dance to daily life is crucial to the vitality of the art form." 

Whether it's the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, the windows of Grand Central Terminal or a coal-processing factory in Essen, Germany, Koplowitz is fluent in the language of choreographing within public spaces. Yet, the choreographer would also like it to be known that he continues to make work for the traditional concert stage. 

An expert at scoping a city for the best outdoor dance sites, Koplowitz considered several  water sites before settling on the dramatic Waterwall. "From the Reflecting Pool at Hermann Park to the water feature at Discovery Green, I was like a kid in a candy shop," offered the Bessie-winning choreographer about the possibilities. "I'm impressed with the level of thought that has gone into making Houston a vital city."

 The piece is not without its challenges. Dancers come to rehearsal toting bug spray, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and plenty of water.  

The lure of the Waterwall proved overwhelming. The grandeur of the structure just seemed to beg for some dance. "It's truly a unique architectural site, and I liked the park as well," Koplowitz adds. The dance will sprawl through the park and end at the waterfall.

"I like the limitation a site imposes on me," says the choreographer. "I have to solve those problems in the choreographic process."

The piece is not without its challenges. Dancers come to rehearsal toting bug spray, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and plenty of water. Limbs need to be covered to protect against concrete and grass. And, then there's the water, lots of it. 

This is Koplowitz's second work in Houston. His first, Open Book, Open House, was created in 2000 especially for the new Humanities Building at Rice University. Karen Stokes, head of the dance division at University of Houston and artistic director of Karen Stokes Dance, worked as Koplowitz's assistant director on several projects, and is an advisor for this on.

"What strikes me about Steve's work is the fact that he is truly vested in the idea of site 'specific' work. He is using the architecture of the space to inspire the work," says Stokes. "In his ideal world, he also incorporates the history, symbolism and meaning that is inherent in the site. Steves' work is not a choreographed work that has been re-worked and transported to an interesting or different space outside."

And it's clear from watching Koplowitz at work that nothing has been plopped and dropped in this setting.

Presented in collaboration with Uptown Houston, Natural Acts in Artificial Water features 16 local professional dancers and music by Aaron Hermes and the Space City Gamelan.  Koplowitz makes no claims to preside over the weather, but do expect a little magic when it comes to the water.

Houston, you have the opportunity to see something amazing, don't miss it. You may have seen the Waterwall before, but not blessed by moving bodies.

Spash with Stephan Koplowitz's Taskforce in  Liquid Landscapes