State of the Arts 2011

The art of nurturing new choreographers: It's not sexy, but it's the only way to move

The art of nurturing new choreographers: It's not sexy, but it's the only way to move

News_Nancy_new choreographers_Alex Soares
Alex Soares in "Mortar, Sylphs Wrote" by Frame Dance Productions Photo by Lorie Garcia
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Ballet Austin_The Whistling
From Ballet Austin’s biennial choreographic competition, New American Talent/Dance, Dominic Walsh’s "The Whistling" Photo by Tony Spielberg
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Oliver Halkowich
Houston Ballet's Oliver Halkowich tried out being a choreographer earlier this summer. Photo by Zuzana Leckova/Art Institute of Houston North
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Danielle Rowe_Simon Ball_Houston Ballet_Rush
Danielle Rowe and Simon Ball of the Houston Ballet in "Rush," choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon Photo by Amitava Sarkar
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Joanna Kotze_InsideOut_Jacob's Pillow
Joanna Kotze performing as part of the "Inside/Out" series at Jacob’s Pillow Photo by Christopher Duggan
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Alex Soares
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Ballet Austin_The Whistling
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Oliver Halkowich
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Danielle Rowe_Simon Ball_Houston Ballet_Rush
News_Nancy_new choreographers_Joanna Kotze_InsideOut_Jacob's Pillow

What makes a master when it comes to dance? You can find out on Friday night when Houston Ballet presents the work of Jorma Elo, Christopher Wheeldon and Jiri Kylian as part of Contemporary Masters at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

It's a long road to masterhood though. So, how does the dance field grow new choreographers? It's not that different than plants. You have to provide the right soil like a studio, sun like some mentorship and water frequently, like a performance. OK, that last plant analogy was weak, but you get my point. You can't just tell artists to go make new work, they need help.

In a word, and not a particularly sexy one, choreographers need infrastructure.

Let's take a look at the bold folks providing the soil, sun and water to nurture the next generation of choreographers, here in Houston and elsewhere. 

Several Houston Ballet dancers got a chance to dip their toes into the creative process when earlier this summer the company offered a Choreographers Lab in Center for Dance's shiny new Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab. An impressive 11 dancers took a shot at making work, including Connor Walsh, Jim Nowakowski, Simon BallPeter Franc, Ilya Kozadayev, Garrett Smith, Melody Mennite, Melissa Hough, Oliver Halkowich, Joseph Walsh and Kelly Myernick. With the exception of Smith, all were newbies.

Reluctant at first, Halkowich made himself try the choreographer hat on.

"I’ve been pretty committed to never choreographing, telling myself I had nothing new to give to that side of my profession," he says. "I realized that was all fear talking. As I’m getting older, I’m trying to adopt a more go for broke attitude, tackling new things."

Fear transformed into action as Halkowich gained confidence in the process, finding the right dynamic between himself and his peers.

 "I have always wondered why initially choreographers rarely give the dancers much insight into their thoughts and intentions for a piece," Kelly Myernick says. "Those first rehearsals were like letting someone read your journal, you want to just hand it to them and run out of the room." 

"I came into the studio wanting to be the coolest person ever to work with, reminding myself of all the things I didn’t like in the choreographers I had worked with as a dancer," Halkowich says. "I got a little glimpse into the choreographer's psyche when creating a piece. That will be invaluable as I progress as a dancer."

For first soloist Kelly Myernick, communicating her ideas and watching them develop made the process worthwhile. Myernick, who describes her style as "pretty /ugly," also found the experience illuminating on her life as a dancer.

"I have always wondered why initially choreographers rarely give the dancers much insight into their thoughts and intentions for a piece," she says. "Those first rehearsals were like letting someone read your journal, you want to just hand it to them and run out of the room. I've realized that a large part of the process is really about allowing the themes to unfold themselves."

Hope Stone has been in the choreographer farming business with its free studio space plus performance program HopeWerks for years now. This season, Miranda Leonard, Alex Soares and Laura Guiterez received residencies. Rising Houston choreographers Erin Reck and Catalina Molnari traveled through Hope Werks residencies to land on the coveted Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance bill at Miller Outdoor Theatre, produced by Dance Source Houston.

Lydia Hance, founder of Frame Dance Productions, solidified her company mission through her Hope Werks residency.

"I needed time to truly finish something meaty. It takes time for the dancers to fully investigate the roles and the material and the chemistry with other dancers," Hance says. "It made me realize how much I relish and find meaning in my creativity as a practice. Having a set rehearsal schedule, one that I could count on, created the structure  that allowed other variables to live and breathe." (See what I mean about infrastructure?)

Karen Stokes created the Center for Choreography at University of Houston in 2000 to make choreography the cornerstone of the dance program.

"Students are encouraged to find their own voice while understanding the concepts of craft," says Stokes, head of UH's dance division. "Thinking outside of the box is great, but you have to understand what the box is first."

The box includes understanding theory, history, dance writing, technique, and specific craft skills in composition. UH has produced several working choreographers, including Toni Valle, Catalina Molnari and Corian Ellisor.

Stokes is hard at work collaborating with Bill Ryan for the world premiere of The Secondary Colors, Oct. 20-22, a project in partnership with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at UH

I want to give a shout out  to Sam Houston State University too. At last season's Dance Gallery Festival, it was a graduate student, Amy Llanes, who took top honors from me. You can catch her company, Redernus Feil, at the Houston Fringe Festival on Aug. 26 and 27.

Mid-career artists need support too. 

Stephen Mills of Ballet Austin shows his advocacy for new work with the fourth New American Talent/Dance, which goes down Feb. 17-19, 2012. Dominic Walsh and Thang Dao are among the past finalists.

"My belief is that art in the 21st century centers around illuminating the world in which we live. Simply linking existing steps together is not rigorous enough to accomplish that task," Mills says. "In selecting choreographers, our team seeks to identify those people who are working to create new movement vocabularies; we look for artists who challenge dance structure as we understand it today. "

Locally, DiverseWorks is holding up its part of the bargain of nurturing post-emerging Houston dance makers with two residencies this season, Amy Ell's aerial troupe Vault, on Sept. 29-Oct. 1, and Becky Valls' Memoirs of a Sistahood Chapter Three, on Nov. 17-20.

And finally bless those fine people at CORE Performance Company, who have been hosting The Field in Houston, a laboratory for artists for the past 19 years. Field veterans include Misha Penton, Toni Valle, Neil Ellis Orts, Sara Draper, Michele Brangwen and myself, some two decades ago.

On a national scale, kudos to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey Dance Foundation's New Directions Choreography Lab. This summer I watched two of its recipients, Adam Barruch and Joanna Kotze on Jacob's Pillow's Inside/Out stage strut their new stuff. Kotze performs at Dance New Amsterdam in New York on Oct. 13-16.

Each choreographer is paired with a creative advisor. Smart. Know that there are many more such programs, this one caught my eye because I witnessed the Barruch and Kotze's fine work. 

We head into August with a virtual feast of new work at Houston Dance Festival (HDF), featuring works by Jane Weiner, Andy Noble, Dionne Sparkman Noble, Spencer Gavin Hering, Maurice Causey and Andrea Dawn Shelley.  Those wanting to give composition a spin can drop into jhon r. stronks' Movement Structures workshop on Sunday from 9:30-11 a.m., as part of HDF at Houston Ballet's Center for Dance.

September promises yet another showcase with Weekend of  Texas Contemporary Dance, Sept. 23 and 24 at Miller. Let the new moves continue.

Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez charm in Jorma Elo's ONE/end/ONE

Expect to hear more about Adam Barruch. Watch him in The Worst Pies in London.