D.C. (dance) power brokers: Pirouetting back to Washington with the HoustonBallet
It's been nine ballet companies, seven modern dance, 47 hours of dance schmoozing and not nearly enough sleep since we last visited. I've just returned from Washington, D.C., where I attended the annual Dance/USA conference and The Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America II.
I had ulterior motives, as I spent 10 years post-grad school dancing in D.C., so it was old home week for me, although I don't recommend returning to a place you lived 20 years ago with a different hair color and name.
Still, it was enormous fun to explain to old friends that I am still the same oddball dancer person that I used to be, I just do it on the page now. I also had a chance to address the future of dance writing, spreading the CultureMap gospel and the nonprofit model of Dance Source Houston (DSH), on a panel with New York Times chief critic Alastair Macaulay and other dance writing dignitaries.
The best thing about Ballet Across America is that there is ballet across America. Who knew that Tulsa had an internationally known ballet company, or that Memphis, a totally hot city right now because of the Tony Awards, has a company run by a woman?
Houston Ballet opened the first evening of Ballet Across America with Stanton Welch's frothy Falling, a ballet that oscillates between zany gestures and delicately shifting relationships between the dancers. Joseph Walsh and Connor Walsh not only share the same last name (no relation), but a robust bravado and technical clarity.
The sultry Ballet Memphis emerged from a smoky fog in Trey McIntyre's atmospheric In Dreams, set to the legendary Roy Orbison's haunting tunes. About that smoky fog, the lighting design was by none other than CultureMap prez Nicholas Phillips (re-created by Jack Mehler). McIntyre mines the essence of loneliness so present in Orbison's velvety tone. Stephanie Mei Hom stood out for her crisp attack and understated musicality.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet knows their way around a Jorma Elo piece with such finesse. At first glance, Elo's work feels like ballet on Tourette's with its unexpected jabs and contorted shapes. With each Elo piece, the work deepens for me, as if the dancers are falling into wormholes in space. The range of qualities is simply extraordinary. In Red Sweet. Elo's highly idiosyncratic work conjures a bizarre yet poetic world that the Aspen Santa Fe dancers inhabit with an uncanny comfort.
Houston Ballet dips their toes into Elo's work next season.
North Carolina Dance Theatre merged clogging with ballet vocabulary with sass in Shindig, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's rousing bluegrass ballet fusion. Think down-home fouettes, I know it's hard, but Bonnefoux proved it can be done to great success. Pacific Northwest Ballet charged the stage in Benjamin Millepied's 3 Movements, set to Steve Reich's pulsing score. The set and costumes may have been monotone, but the dancing was anything but colorless.
Marcello Angelini's international Tulsa Ballet gave the appropriate gravitas to Nacho Duato's earthy shapes in Por Vos Muero. It's been nearly a decade since I had seen what The Joffrey Ballet has been up to. Edwaard Liang's Age of Innocence proved a perfect vehicle to catch up on this evolving troupe.
Balanchine scholars would not be disappointed with The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which performed a pair of neoclassic works, Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra. Tzu-Chia Huang and Russell Clarke of Ballet Arizona mesmerized in Ib Andersen's somewhat bland Diversions.
Now a word to the beyond enthusiastic Ballet Across America audiences. I love your style. Are you busy? Can you move here and bring one of those big ol' monuments with you?
Inside the Beltway of dance
Dance/USA kicked off with a sleek reception at House of Sweden overlooking the Potomac, followed by a stellar evening of ballet and yet another post-show reception at The Kennedy Center. The theme, "Dance Beyond Borders," played out in a number of ways, from becoming a more inclusive community to broadening our reach using social media tools effectively.
As with any conference, the best parts occur between sessions, where relationships are forged, ideas exchanged and synergy abounds. Some of this even happened at the bar while the World Cup was going on.
I checked out the D.C. dance scene in Dance: Yes We Can!, a showcase of local talent. Classical Indian dancer Janaki Rangarajan performed a riveting Bharatanatyam solo, while Dallas native Gesel Mason riffed on women's roles in her hilarious dance, 1 Thing, 1 Thing, and Oh ... I More Thing.
Step Afrika, founded by Houston son C. Brian Williams, stomped the house in a terrifically exciting performance. Can we bring this company here?
Houston hosted the Dance/USA conference last year, so it's no surprise that several esteemed dance citizens made their way to the capital, including June Christensen and Kathryn Lott Neumann of Society for the Performing Arts, Stephanie Wong of Dance Source Houston, C.C. Connor, Jim Nelson and Andrew Edmonson of Houston Ballet and Marlana Walsh-Doyle of The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company.
As with any conference, it's a bit like church, where people who share the same beliefs on this precious, yet fragile, art form come together to strategize, share successes and gather the necessary skills to ensure a strong future. The most memorable moment for me came when Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, the face of the arts in Congress, said, "The arts can do astonishing things for a human being."