March 9th, 2011
Dance Source Houston and DiverseWorks: 12 Minutes MAX!
Tucked back in a row of warehouses north of downtown, DiverseWorks offers a challenge to the directionally impaired and an oasis to the artistically starved. The performers who frequent the space are appropriately… well, diverse, so it’s hard to offer a prediction of what will be onstage from week to week. In general, expect a rapid departure from the revivalist repertory favored by some of the less adventurous show makers out there. I have never thrown a DiverseWorks calendar down and exclaimed “South Pacific? Again??!!” And that’s a good thing.
I’m here to see 12 Minutes MAX!, a showcase of contemporary works-in-progress, presented by Dance Source Houston. The bad news: by the time you read this, the show’s brief engagement is already over. The good news: many of the excerpts presented will be produced in full later this year.
Snuggled in a seat with my bottle of St. Arnold’s, because yes, DiverseWorks actually allows you to tote your bar purchases into the theatre, I pretend to read over the playbill while eavesdropping on conversations around me. One guy: “I think this’ll be just about the artsiest thing I’ve ever been to.” I bite back the urge to turn, give this stranger a reassuring pat on the knee and tell him, “You’ll survive.”
The evening opens with China Cat’s Dance Theater and Maggie Lasher’s piece “Avian Tendencies.” Set to perky percussion, this piece features five dancers and ten perfect red fans. While instinct tells me to resent props in contemporary dance, the fans win me over the first time they flop open with a delicious popping sound. Each flick of a dancer’s wrist becomes a tiny gift, flinging supplemental percussion at the audience. Thank you, Maggie Lasher, for selecting dancers with a range of body types. While many choreographers seek clones for performers, the cast of “Avian Tendencies” allows us to appreciate how movements vary from person to person. In a piece inspired by nature, the reminder that no two creatures are alike is appropriate and comforting.
Next up, “Seven,” an excerpt from a work-in-progress by choreographer Karen Stokes. Yes, that’s Karen Stokes, as in the Director of the University of Houston dance department and the Artistic Director of Travesty Dance Group Houston. With no music, “Seven” is set to percussion provided by the clapping hands and snapping fingers of the dancers onstage. The internal rhythm of the seven dancers is miraculous, as they slip into extended bouts of silence, only to emerge again in perfect sync. And just as I settle into the hypnotic effect of the stripped down “music,” the performers chime in with a repeated chant. “Put, Ping, Per, Pa, Pim, Poof, Pee, Pshhhh…” Huh? It doesn’t matter. By the end of the piece, even the squeal of dancers’ bare feet on the stage has become a subtle accompaniment, and the audience is blissfully aware of the movements, the sounds, and the fact that one cannot exist without the other.
Slight technical difficulties hinder a smooth start to “Cocoon,” choreographed exclusively for video by 6 Degrees Artistic Director Toni Leago Valle. The audience titters a bit when the sound cues up with no video because it’s just so-ho-ho funny when the technical crew gets something wrong. No, it’s not. Being a techie is a thankless job, so let’s cut them some slack. Remember, without techies, there would be no light. They’re sort of Gods, like that. “Cocoon” chronicles the experience of motherhood, as a very pregnant Jennifer Dodson dances sustained movements edited in the video to replay and overlap with ultrasound images. I’m seized with the sudden impulse to curl up in a fetal position of my own, but in a good way. This piece will premiere in its entirety in May 2011 as part of Psophonia Dance Company’s production at the Barnevelder Theatre.
Another piece by Toni Leago Valle, “Baptism: Drowning,” breaks the collective heart of the audience, as we see a person’s unwillingness to accept help during an anxious descent into disaster. Dancers Teresa Chapman and Kara Ary are sublime, hitting their moments of alignment with perfect precision and making their moments of contrast that much starker, by comparison. Having born witness to many a nervous breakdown in my time (another story for another day), I can say with confidence that “Drowning” gets it right.
Frame Dance Productions offers up an excerpt from “Mortar, Sylphs Wrote” choreographed by company Artistic Director Lydia Hance. Composer Micah Clark, winner of the 2010 Frame Dance Productions Music Composition Competition (wow, that’s a mouthful), provides the haunting music for this ensemble piece. Behind the six dancers onstage, a video directed by the choreographer and Jonathon Hance rolls on, presenting alternating views of a brick wall in close-up and what appears to be a tourist-ridden street somewhere in… France? I’m guessing. It’s a rarity to see an ensemble where no single dancer outshines the rest of the cast, but these pros clearly respect the continuity of the story they’ve been entrusted to tell. Mark the full-length premiere of “Mortar” at Hope Center on April 16th and 17th on your calendar. Mark it, now. I’ll wait…
Back to Karen Stokes and “Purple,” her collaboration with composer Bill Ryan. The train tracks that run behind DiverseWorks decide to announce rush hour with a humming whistle that cuts through the silence meant to dominate the first few moments of this dance. While I can only imagine the cast and crew clenching at the terrible timing, terrible luck, I take it as a warm-and-fuzzy reminder that hey, shit happens. And poof! I am gifted an unintentional Zen Moment at the theatre tonight. “Purple” presents the most unique use of individual bodies and overall staging of the night. Angles, contrast and a firm understanding of the need for simplicity make this piece a must see. The full-length production will be presented October 20-22 at Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center. It’s a long wait, but I’ll be clinging to my Zen moment until then.
Unintentional humor in the world of contemporary dance is common and just plain sad. But intended wit, truly controlled fun onstage, is a rarity that evades most choreographers. Daniel Adame manages to tap into some solid raillery with his piece “Touch Base.” Sculpture, Painter, Choreographer, Dancer and Performance Artist, this guy probably eats plain old triple threats for breakfast. If you can’t get enough Adame, his artwork pops up at galleries all over Houston and he’s a regular with Suchu Dance. Tonight, however, he’s presenting a dance costumed in some truly bitchin’ nylon jogging suits. “Touch Base” is a whimsical glimpse into the world of play and companionship that sums up the evening with smiles, smiles for all. This is the way to end a showcase, with big toothy grins and, yes… bitchin’ jogging suits.
A quick glance as the audience shuffles out reassures me that my nervous stranger has indeed survived, although he is scratching at his stubble as if to say “I… I don’t want to talk about it.” Contemporary dance is an acquired taste. Some people love it, while others feel fortunate to have just lived through it.