Dancers & Companies

Top 5 Highlights of Dance Salad Festival

How do you create a "salad" of dance? By tossing together tastes of choreography from around the world. For the past 19 years, producer Nancy Henderek has traveled the globe to handpick artists to bring to Houston each Easter weekend for the annual Dance Salad Festival. The lineup is typically an eclectic mix of today's most exciting names in dance as well as up-and-comers the US has never seen before—and this year's performances didn't disappoint. Here were my favorite highlights:

 

1. Royal Danish Ballet's Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kass in Bournonville's Kermessen in Brugge. This sweet duet may have been out of character with the rest of the festival's contemporary fare, but it was delightful. Praetorius is a complete charmer onstage—and can knock out some fantastically sprightly Bournonville jumps. 

 

2. Elephant in the Black Box in Jean-Phillippe Dury's CEL Black Days. This new Madrid company, led by former Paris Opera Ballet and Compania Nacional de Danza dancer Jean-Phillippe Dury, made its US debut here—and I hope we see more. Most entrancing in CEL was soloist Emma Tilson, a former University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Pacific Northwest Ballet School student. I'm not quite sure of the meaning behind her nude sports bra coming on and off throughout the piece. But, whether topless or not, in close-up projections or live, her full-bodied movement gave the piece a gorgeous gravity. 

 

3. Norwegian National Ballet's Samantha Lynch in Daniel Proietto's Cygne. The crowd went wild for the homecoming of Lynch, a former Houston Ballet girl. The solo (well, duet, if you count the tiny boy child who comes out at the end to run around) is kooky and weird and incredibly compelling. The choreography deftly shifts from traditional ballet vocabulary to street dance shoulder distortions. It's what you might imagine Bjork would choreograph if she did a version of The Dying Swan. And apparently, this company has recently become obsessed with swans: This weekend, NNB premieres Alexander Ekman's A Swan Lake (which features an actual 16 square meter lake) and then does Petipa's version next month.

 

4. The Houston audiences. I love how much passion and excitement for dance there was in the house! Each night was practically full, and I even met a few die-hards who came back night after night to see multiple shows (the programs rotate a few pieces each night). The performances may have ran three hours long, but the energy never lagged.

 

5. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Embrace (a "curated" version of M¡longa). Although we only got to see part of this work, the selection we were treated to was fascinating. Cherkaoui used 10 traditional tango dancers and two contemporary dancers to offer a fresh take on 100-year-old tango steps. Most intriguing were the sections where he retooled duets into trios—still maintaining tango's signature precision and lightning fast footwork, but taking it to a completely new place by adding in the unexpected element of a third party. I could have watched this all night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bonus: Karina González and Houston Ballet rehearsing Swan Lake. Okay, this wasn't part of Dance Salad. But right across the street at the Houston Ballet studios, I got to watch the corps work on their spacing, port de bras and line. Even though she wasn't the focus of the rehearsal, González was listening intently to the ballet master's corrections and practicing them herself. She was standing off to the side, working on the tilt of her head and pathway of her arms. It was incredible, and helped me understand how she's become such a beautiful dancer.

 

CEL Black Days photo by Ignacio de Urrutia. m¡longa photo by Diego Franssens. All images courtesy of Dance Salad Festival.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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