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The stranger the better: A ghost story, theater sculpture & Eno mania mark these new season arts picks

The stranger the better: A ghost story, theater sculpture & Eno mania mark these new season arts picks

Editors Note: We've asked Houston arts leaders and CultureMap contributors to pick the jewels from Houston's upcoming arts season — the events that they don't plan to miss. Here's what's on the list of CultureMap's dance veteran/ performing arts guru (and budding social media force) Nancy Wozny.

Getting those fall season announcements feels a little like Christmas, ripe with excitement about new work from artists I am currently swooning over and riddled with "not that old war horse again" disappointment. Luckily, there's enough performing arts action in this town to keep us all relatively happy.

Here's my top five dance and theater must-sees. If there's a theme to my list, it's "the stranger the better." But don't take my word for it, listen to the artistic directors or in some cases, the artists themselves.

First up in September is The Catastrophic Theatre's production of Lisa D'Amour's Anna Bella Eema at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex. The Obie Award-winning D'Amour is a distinct voice on the national theater scene. Currently, she floats between New York, New Orleans and her theatrical home in Austin.  (UPDATE: Catastrophic Theater has postponed the production of Anna Bella Eema until 2011 to concentrate on its next show, Bluefinger, premiering Nov. 12.)

Her compelling work with Katie Pearl and Kurt Mueller, How to Build a Forest, was featured in the University of Houston's Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts Systems of Sustainability (SOS) conference in 2009. A forest was built and unbuilt in the course of eight hours. Think theatrical sculpture.

Anna Bella Eema, billed as a ghost story for three bodies and three voices, merges song, story and poetry.

"Lisa is a uniquely poetic, uniquely musical and uniquely magical writer," Jason Nodler, Catastrophic's director, says. "And Anna Bella Eema is remarkably unlike anything Catastrophic has done before. Nodler and D'Amour first connected through her play Hide Town a decade ago.

"I really can't wait to see what Jason does with the show," D'Amour says.  "He's such an honest director, humble, rigorous and utterly determined to kick ass, every time."

Thanks to Stages Repertory Theatre I can keep up my Will Eno mania with its production of his play Oh, The Humanity and other exclamations, directed by Alex Harvey in January. Sometimes called the poet laureate of American theater, Eno knows how to twist a phrase, spill an idea and make you listen in a way you have never experienced before. This will be Houston's third dive into Eno-land.

Sean Patrick Judge first placed me under the Eno spell in the Nova Arts Production of Thom Pain (based on nothing). Next, Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company pulled off a graceful rendition of Eno's bizarre love story The Flu Season. Stages artistic director Kenn McLaughlin has his own Eno love fest going on.

"The works are both bold and familiar; seemingly simple but wildly complex. He finds greatest inspirations from the most ordinary symbols, and he develops ideas in such a way as to find universal and timeless connections between the art and his audiences," McLaughlin says. "He's not an easy playwright to produce. Doing an Eno play requires an extraordinary team of artists. The time is perfect for Stages to tackle this great writer."

In February, step over to Dominic Walsh Dance Theater for the United States premiere of Mats Ek's Pas de Dans. Thanks to Nancy Henderek, founder of Dance Salad, dance audiences have become familiar with Ek's poignant approach to movement. This is a major coup for DWDT to acquire work by the Swedish dance icon.

Walsh has his own reasons for going after an Ek ballet.

"For me his work demonstrates the essence of theater in all of its sublime qualities," he says. "The work is technically challenging and specific, heady, intellectual and outrageous, yet with heart and humor around every unexpected corner. His clever and boisterous renditions of the classics such as Swan Lake, Giselle and Sleeping Beauty each explore undiscovered territory of the text and characters and offers an audience to interpret many facets of the work."

April is the cruelest month, so says T.S. Eliot, so it seems an ideal time for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company to premiere the darkster trickster playwright/poet John Harvey's new play Under the Big, Dark Sky, at Barnevelder. Goth boy is at it again, with a cast of richly defined, yet twisted characters, some of whom don't even have bodies. Harvey makes the Brothers Grimm look like lightweights. The master of the macabre has his own take on the new play.

"In a small seaside town, a carnival arrives with a three-headed barking dog that predicts the future, a woman who flays herself alive and a bodiless boy who recites the poetry of John Keats," Harvey says. "Meanwhile, deep in a basement, a man of deeply-felt religious belief grafts corpses onto butterworts, corkscrews and monkey cups.

"Will he be able to re-animate the dead through the sweet nectar of chlorophyll?  And what is in the box, hidden deep in a trunk, in the carny barker’s tent?  Why does it cast a green glow?" There's even a corpse flower in it. Trish Ridgon directs. Good luck with that. 

In May, head over to Houston Ballet, not to gawk at their sleek granite and glass building (although you can do that, too) but to see Jorma Elo's new ballet. It was not love at first weirdo move for me with Elo.

Pay attention to what disturbs you because you may find it's your next favorite thing, which is exactly what happened to me with Elo's highly idiosyncratic work. It's several Elo ballets later and I'm a drooling fangirl.

I love the way the choreographer  turns movement inside out, leading us to dreamy locales that we have never seen before. Houston Ballet's dancers excel at all things odd, so expect a near perfect match between choreographer and company. Houston Ballet chief Stanton Welch has his own reasons.

"There's such a uniqueness to his work; it's so grounded and fluid," Welch says. "Plus I like his heritage, which is based in Jiri Kylian and Mats Ek's work."

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Amy Warren, from left, Jennifer Decker and Walt Zipprian in John Harvey's "Night of the Giant," produced by Mildred's Umbrella Theatre Company. Mildred's premieres Harvey's next play, "Under the Big, Dark Sky," directed by Trish Rigdon, on April 21-30, 2011, at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex. Photo by Anthony Rathbun
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The Catastrophic Theatre's promotional for "Anna Bella Eema" by Lisa D'Amour Drawing by Kelly Switzer
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Dominic Walsh
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Jorma Elo Photo by Eric Antoniou
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DWDT performs the U.S. premiere of Mats Ek's "Pas de Dans" on Winter Mixed Rep, Feb. 10-12, 2011.
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Seth DelGrasso and Samantha Klanac of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performing Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet." The Houston Ballet bites the Elo bullet in May 2011. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor