Nancy Wozny is editor in chief of Arts + Culture Texas, the only print Texas arts magazine in the state. She is also frequent contributor to Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher and Dance Magazine, where she is also a contributing editor. Her byline has appeared in The Houston Chronicle, Dance USA's The Green Room, Culturemap, and numerous other publications. She is the winner of the Gary Parks Award from the DCA, an NEA Fellow at ADF, and the recipient of numerous grants for her work in dance, somatics and creativity. She has taught and written about Feldenkrais and somatics in dance for two decades and is currently teaching at Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. She also has served as a Scholar in Residence at Jacob's Pillow since 2010.
With her curly red tresses, Houston Ballet soloist Alyssa Springer may look like she stepped out of a Botticelli painting, making her a natural fit in classic story ballets. But watch her in contemporary work, and you see the great bones of her versatile technique. A favorite of visiting choreographers, Springer was promoted to demi-soloist in 2017 and soloist earlier this year. She continually stands out for her acting skills and ability to morph her style to whatever the choreographer in the room needs.
If you forget about that lasagna you just reheated for even 10 minutes, it may get too cold for your liking. Your body isn't much different. After class, we lose most of our warmth within 15 minutes. So we need to warm up again if we have a longer break before rehearsal or performance. But do we have to repeat an entire class? Not necessarily.
The definition of "warm" in dance goes beyond heat. According to the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, it's not only an increase in body temperature, but also an increase in the flow of synovial fluid (which helps joints move freely), faster breathing and focused concentration. All these changes get us ready to dance.
"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?
Mónica Gómez became Houston Ballet's newest It girl overnight after her sensational April performance of Kitri. All fire, but with ample doses of flash, Gómez brought her natural star power to the role's nuances. "I am a very shy person," says the soloist, "so I had to work on my sass." Her richly textured dancing, combined with her incredibly expressive eyes and virtuosity, created magic onstage.
Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic 1943 musical Oklahoma!, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, brought a bounty of firsts: Rodgers and Hammerstein's first collaboration, Agnes de Mille's first dream ballet, the first time that a Broadway choreographer got a credit as a choreographer.
Houston Ballet principal Karina González stunned audiences last fall with her emotionally charged Mary Vetsera in Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling—while 16 weeks pregnant. "I had to be careful because the pas de deux are crazy," says González, who carefully planned her pregnancy so that she could dance in this ballet. "Thankfully, I had the best partner in Connor Walsh."
Love them or not, reviews are part of the ecology of being a dancemaker. Critical writing can validate, illuminate or sometimes get in the way of an artist's creative process. We spoke with five choreographers about their relationship to reviews.
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Austin renegade Allison Orr doesn't use traditional performers. With her Forklift Danceworks, she has created dances featuring everyone from sanitation workers (The Trash Project) to power linemen (PowerUP), urban forestry department members (The Trees of Govalle) and food service employees (Served).
Orr has a BA in anthropology and calls her process "ethnographic choreography." Using the movements of everyday workers, she crafts large-scale extravaganzas that have included more than 75 performers (and sometimes trucks), audiences of 2,000, and a deep research process that may involve her learning how to scale a power-line distribution pole or riding with a sanitation worker at 4 am.
When Hurricane Harvey unleashed its rainy path of destruction on the downtown Theater District in Houston in August, Houston Ballet staff, dancers and fans knew it would not be business as usual this season. Over 40 inches of rain drenched Houston, damaging nearly one hundred thousand homes. In all, it caused an estimated $200 billion of damage in Texas. Some of that damage hit Houston Ballet's Center for Dance when the waters jumped the building's four-foot floodgates, leaving two to three inches of water in the lobby and first-floor studios.
Overnight success doesn't happen often in the dance world. Mistakes, regrets and on-the-job realizations are simply part of the process. Four accomplished choreographers share what they had to figure out along the way.
Pam Tanowitz: It's all about the editing.
Photo by Brad Paris, Courtesy Tanowitz
Houston Ballet demi-soloist Mackenzie Richter is fond of saying "Adagio is not my thing," but after her performance int he third "Kingdom of the Shades" solo in Stanton Welch's La Bayadère, she needs to reconsider that statement. Control, suspension and floating grace to carry off the most difficult adagio work are most certainly her thing now, along with her allégro, jumping and turning abilities.
Long and leggy, the powerhouse ballerina got plucked out of HBII early to apprentice, and was then promoted to the corps mid-season in 2016 and to demi-soloist in September 2017. "I am working on being a little less academic," says Richter. "Being perfect doesn't mean that you are interesting to watch."
Annie Arnoult and her Open Dance Project invited audiences inside Woody Guthrie's world in 'Bout a Stranger, evoking the Dust Bowl era through movement, song, theater and set design for a visceral experience of the great American songwriter's life. Arnoult's opus unfolded through vignettes occurring in makeshift kitchens, corridors and tiny stages that enveloped the viewer.
Her keen attention to detail, the timeliness of the subject (considering today's political climate of social action) and the superb performances by her dancers astonished on every level, making 'Bout a Stranger one of the most fully realized pieces to come out of Houston in decades.
Since George Balanchine first asked her to care for his dancers in the 1980s, Marika Molnar has helped heal icons as varied as Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Natalia Makarova, Judith Jamison, Twyla Tharp, Chita Rivera and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Some patients call her their guardian angel.
"Marika has always answered all my (sometimes ridiculous) questions with the patience and respect that can only come from a deep love of us patients and what we do," says New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder. "Without her help during and after my pregnancy, I would never have been able to come back to the stage at full capacity."
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Starting and sustaining a dance company is not for the faint of heart. It often takes tremendous sacrifice in terms of time, energy and money. But it's not a life sentence. Arts organizations, like everything else, come to an end, and nothing could be more important to an artist's vitality than knowing when to call it quits. Even as the founder of a company, there is a graceful way to move on.
It's been 12 years nearly to the day that I last reported on a hurricane for Dance Magazine during Katrina, which devastated much of New Orleans. Now, as you are well aware, Harvey is approaching that level of catastrophe, with 18 deaths, a record rainfall of 51 inches, more than 10,000 Houstonians in shelters, and with our bayous at capacity. You've seen the photos. It's awful, heartbreaking and still dire for many stranded in their homes or in danger of continued flooding.
For local artistic directors, choreographers and studio directors, the first task was to find out how their dancers and teachers were managing, and the state of their homes and family.
"I've been concerned about the safety of the dancers," says Annie Arnoult, director of Hunter Dance Center and Open Dance Project. "The dancers live all over the city and surrounding areas. Most have been trapped in their homes...a few without power. We've stayed in constant touch through regular 'roll calls,' and everyone's fine so far; but I will feel much better when we can be back together face-to-face doing what we do best."
When it comes to a ballet matching a dancer's special talents, choreographer Justin Peck's Year of the Rabbit fit Houston Ballet demi-soloist Tyler Donatelli to a T. Built for power, flash and precision, Donatelli crashed through Peck's driving rhythms with finesse and clarity in a lead role this past March. She's a speed demon, which worked well for Peck's breakneck pacing. "His movement came so naturally to me," says Donatelli. "I could just be myself."
Former arts lobbyist Amy Fitterer is all about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity—and making Dance/USA relevant for today's climate.
Since assuming leadership in 2011, Fitterer has worked to create programs that genuinely serve the needs of today's dance world. She's established the Institute for Leadership Training for emerging dance leaders, which has been enormously successful in empowering young dance makers and producers. Committed to ending racism, Dance/USA now offers ongoing racial equity training for its board, staff and the attendees at Dance/USA Annual Conferences. She's also responded to the enormous sector of the field that operates on a small budget with a Dance Business Bootcamp. She's retooled Dance/USA's re-granting program, Engaging Dance Audiences, to support a broader population and Dance/USA staff are available for house calls and will come to your community to ecosystem analysis research.
Under her leadership, Dance/USA genuinely serves the needs of today's dance world.
New director Pamela Tatge is making the most of Jacob's Pillow's vast resources. She's reenvisioned the dance mecca as a year-round institution, not only expanding the Creative Development Residencies but giving those residents 24-hour access, a generous stipend and funds to bring in an outside eye. Residency showings are open to students from nearby colleges, part of Tatge's ambitious new Jacob's Pillow Dance College Partnership Program, designed to bring more rigor into dance research, along with deeper artistic inquiry.
Pioneer Liz Lerman has reframed how dance can have meaning in the world. After exploring politics, the defense budget and her Russian Jewish heritage, Lerman became one of the first American choreographers to work directly with scientists and the first invited to CERN. As the founder of the Dance Exchange, Lerman helped lay the groundwork for creating art through community engagement and working with both multigenerational performers as well as non-dance populations.
No one was surprised when she won a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 2002, but this year her list of accolades grew considerably: the American Dance Festival's 2017 Balasaraswati/Joy Anne Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching, the 2017 Jacob's Pillow Dance Award and being named an artist-in-residence at CultureSummit 2017 in Abu Dhabi. Now in her late 60s, she's currently the first institute professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, and is busy creating a new project with the working title Wicked Bodies, inspired by drawings of witches.
Known as dance's tech guru, Sydney Skybetter has changed the way we think about dance at least three or four times. "It's my job to consider how emerging technologies affect dancerly aesthetics and culture, as well as work extensively with all manner of bonkers tech to understand its movement," says the lecturer and public humanities fellow at Brown University. He also consults for media companies on new ways of understanding how movement creates meaning, is the mastermind behind the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces—which gathers choreographers, anthropologists, technologists and musicians to consider the future of humans in motion—and still choreographs intricate dances of his own.