Delving into Dance

The year in contemporary dance: Festival imports and original works cement the city's place on the scene

The year in contemporary dance: Festival imports and original works cement the city's place on the scene

Events_SPA_Company La Baraka_July 10
Abou Lagraa’s simultaneously stark and densely complicated A World in Itself, performed by France’s Compagnie La Baraka and courageously presented by Society for the Performing Arts in February, could be seen as a kind of omen. Photo by Eric Bourdet Courtesy of Society for the Performing Arts
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A synthesis of musicians and dancers on stage was offered as well by Emily Johnson and Blackfish at Diverseworks in April with The Thank You Bar. Photo by Cameron Wittig
News_Nancy_National Dance Week Blitz_Dance Salad
Dance Salad, one of the greatest contemporary dance festivals on the international scene and without doubt the biggest feather in Houston’s dance cap Photo by Carol Rosegg
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Artists of NobleMotion Dance Photo by Julian Grandberry
News_Karen Stokes_The Secondary Colors
The most adventurous, if not spectacular, work this year from a Houston-based choreographer was the premiere of Karen Stokes and Bill Ryan’s The Secondary Colors in October at The Hobby Center. Photo by Lynn Lane
Events_SPA_Company La Baraka_July 10
News_Emily Johnson_Thank-You Bar
News_Nancy_National Dance Week Blitz_Dance Salad
News_Nancy_year in culture_Noblemotion Dance
News_Karen Stokes_The Secondary Colors

This year, a profusion of new choreography in Houston confirmed that our contemporary dance scene is hardly provincial. In 2011, the city held its rightful place within an ever-changing global context.

While not enough work by local choreographers was exported (a challenge faced by companies everywhere), it certainly held its own beside a number of glorious imports, resulting in a thrilling season.    

Spring

Abou Lagraa’s simultaneously stark and densely complicated A World in Itself, performed by France’s Compagnie La Baraka and courageously presented by Society for the Performing Arts in February, could be seen as a kind of omen.

It helped establish the evening-length, self-contained work (often with music, performed live) as the norm. It was a high-budget and artistically difficult act to follow, to be sure. With the members of Lyon’s Debussy String Quartet interspersed on stage among talented dancers from Peru, Cameroon, France, Morocco, and Senegal, it used nothing less than the theme of the Big Bang as its starting point.

The music might not have been newly composed, but Bach, Webern, and Cage were sophisticated choices. Lagraa worked in choreographic variation, showing the body free of ornamentation and the stage absent of sets or props.

 The most adventurous, if not spectacular, work this year from a Houston-based choreographer was the premiere of Karen Stokes and Bill Ryan’s The Secondary Colors in October at The Hobby Center. 

 A synthesis of musicians and dancers on stage was offered, as well, by Emily Johnson and Blackfish at Diverseworks in April with The Thank You Bar, a striking rumination on home, identity, and Native American mythology.

What a strange coincidence that Johnson’s intimate piece was also a “world within itself.” But where Compagnie La Baraka asserted a refined spectacle, Johnson made you feel like her younger sibling.

The relationship of the performers to the audience was unstable at the least (we had to shift our seats to follow the action around the room) and weirdly intimate at best (Johnson made sure to mention every audience member’s name in each performance). Will we ever forget huddling around her at the conclusion as she buried herself in a kiddie-pool filled with dried leaves? 

Also in April was Dance Salad, one of the greatest contemporary dance festivals on the international scene, and without doubt the biggest feather in Houston’s dance cap. Festival director Nancy Henderek emphasized new dance from China in 2011, bringing huge ensembles of talented young artists such as Beijing’s Lei Dong Tian Xia (a name which means “Thunder Rumbles Under Heaven”).

Sang Jijia’s Standing Before Darkness, in particular, was an unforgettable highlight, not to mention Cui Tao’s manifestation of the Tibetan diaspora (Pilgrimage) or Li Han-Zhong and Ma Bo’s rousing re-interpretation of Stravinsky’s le Sacre du printemps, titled All River Red.

Summer

Jijia’s work is greatly influenced by one of his mentors, the legendary American choreographer William Forsythe. But Houston dancers were lucky enough to work with another of Forsythe’s protégés when Infinite Movement Ever Evolving premiered Maurice Causey’s Grim Eye at The Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex in August.

Set to a recording of Gabriel Prokofiev’s (grand-son of the legendary Sergei) Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, the dance not only asserted current trends in classical ballet, but even hurled the dancers and their audience far into the future.

Certain pieces have a way of getting under your skin, and this one is still tickling my nerve-endings. It’s the kind of dance that when you exit the theater and get into the car with your companion, you both shake your head and ask, “what just happened in there?” Let’s hope that iMEE revives it, and soon, so that we can have a second look.

An acquaintance who rarely attends dance events told me that he had never seen anything quite as exciting as NobleMotion Dance’s Splitting Night, which premiered at The Barnevelder in August.

 Dance Salad, one of the greatest contemporary dance festivals on the international scene, is without doubt the biggest feather in Houston’s dance cap. 

An extraordinary evening-length collaboration with light artist Jeremy Choate, this was a sensual and powerful work in which each dancer emerged as a striking soloist and then came together in the strongest of ensembles.

It’s difficult to say what it was about rather than what it simply was: visceral, emphatic, somehow always reaching towards a more heartbreaking climax than the one which preceded it. Choreographers Andy Noble and Dionne Sparkman Noble describe it as an opportunity to “enter a world where light and dance bend reality,” which doesn’t quite capture the emotional intensity. And like Lagraa and Johnson, it was without doubt “a world in itself.”

Fall

The most adventurous, if not spectacular, work this year from a Houston-based choreographer was the premiere of Karen Stokes and Bill Ryan’s The Secondary Colors in October at The Hobby Center.

Collaborative in the truest sense, composer Ryan and choreographer Stokes showed three distinct strategies in each movement of their wide-ranging work. There was no narrative, but in another sense, every interior narrative of everyone involved (included an ensemble of highly accomplished musicians) unfolded in some kind of multi-voiced fugue.

Was it just a coincidence that the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts premiered red, black & Green: a blues a week later at University of Houston, with music, dramaturgy and original music created by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and the Living Word Project?

Entirely different in its pursuits, it’s nonetheless intriguing that two established choreographers started with abstract color in order to say something profound about their dancers, musicians, and audience. The charismatic Joseph’s dance focused on what he described as “the greening of the ghetto” and managed to characterize the history of a community with startling clarity, honesty, and compassion.  

Sometimes a lone voice, however, could be just as compelling as that of an entire community. The world premiere of Jack Ferver’s Two Alike at Diverseworks in September, with mystifying sculptural sets by Marc Swanson and a shadowy soundscape by Roarke Menzies (Joshua Lubin-Levy provided dramaturgy) displayed a remarkable sort of inner beauty.

The experience was not unlike leaving a sunny Houston street for the cool interior of a darkened movie theater — you had to wait a bit for your senses to adjust. It should be noted, however, that esteemed choreographers such as Ferver, Joseph, and Causey came to Houston this year to premiere their latest work, making the city much more than just a stop on the touring circuit.