Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Anna Halprin Breath Made Visible

News_Nancy Wozny_Breath Made Visible_movie poster

A group of people stand still, equidistant from one another. Slowly and deliberately, as if in ritual, they begin to remove their neat black suits and white shirts until they are stark naked.

Petula Clark's upbeat anthem Downtown plays in the background. The contrast is simply stunning. This is a scene from Anna Halprin's seminal 1965 dance, Parades and Changes, quite possibly the most reverent to the body piece ever created in the canon of American modern dance. The iconic dance pioneer turns 90 this weekend. To celebrate and honor her extraordinary life, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is showing Breath Made Visible, a film by Ruedi Gerber and the sole documentary on Halprin, at 7 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 and 5 p.m. Sunday.

"When we performed Parades and Changes in Sweden I got a letter from a farmer. He said that the nudity reminded him of the innocence of a newborn calf. It was sacred," Halprin says, via phone from her California mountaintop headquarters. "Then I brought the dance to New York, and got arrested for indecent exposure."

Escaping to Cali

Controversy often followed in the wake of Halprin's mind and body expanding work. Early on, she left the New York scene for the broad expanse of the west. In California, she was free to create work outside of New York's sometime domineering trends.

"Had I stayed in New York, I am convinced I would not have done anything," insists Halprin. "I thrived in California."

Over the years, Halprin has investigated such subjects as AIDS, the Watts riots, cancer, aging, grief, environmental concerns and other subjects. Her Planetary Dance, originally created to heal a community when the Mount Tamalpais trailside killer had wreaked havoc on Marin County residents, has been performed in 46 places across the globe. In a strange turn of events, the killer was apprehended days after the dance was performed on the mountain.

Today Planetary Dance is performed all over the world as a form of earth healing. "I am floored by what's happened to that dance," Halprin says.

Early in her life, Halprin studied with the legendary Margaret H'Doubler at the University of Wisconsin. H'Doubler was the founder of dance in higher education.

Halprin took H'Doubler's idea that dance could develop us as people, not just artists, into new realms.

"I added the emotional component," Halprin says. "I may be the only person who continued H'Doubler's legacy." Halprin won numerous accolades for her work, including the 1997 Samuel H. Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement in modern dance from the American Dance Festival. In addition, the Dance Heritage Coalition named her one of "America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures."

Over the course of her multi-decade career, just about every dance legend made their way to Halprin's famous dance deck overlooking the breathtaking landscape. The dance world came to her. And now this film brings Halprin's life to the rest of the world.

Breath Made Visible has proved a profound experience for Halprin. "The film helped me clarify my approach to dance, and why it's been so controversial all my life," she says. "Ruedi tried to show how I responded to my life through dance."

Do it already!

When Gerber first suggested the idea of a making a film to Halprin, she responded, "Hurry up, I am 83." It took another several years to complete the film. Gerber, a former student and close friend, was perhaps the ideal and the only person to make the film.

"Ruedi lived in our studio for a while, he was part of our family," Halprin says.

The actor-turned-filmmaker sorted through 150 hours of archival footage and family films to create the intimate atmosphere of Breath Made Visible. "When she says 'Enter your body through your hand,' she's talking directly to the audience. She opens up her soul, which has such a powerful effect on the audience. Anna is a performance animal," Gerber. says. "I did not want to make a PBS-style documentary.

"I want the film to be viewed as a performance and show her incredible kinesthetic sense."

Indeed, Gerber's film places the audience right in Halprin's classroom, which is not an enclosed dance studio, but the world at large. The film also covers Halprin's relationship with her husband, the renowned architect, Lawrence Halprin.

When Gerber's film came across Marian Luntz's desk at the MFAH, she jumped on the chance to highlight Halprin's work on the weekend of her 90th birthday.

"I found the film completely captivating, and so eye-opening on her journey," says Luntz, MFAH's curator of film and video. "It's also within the MFAH's mission to focus on creative process. We want to give films like Breath Made Visible a big screen venue like the Brown Auditorium."

Luntz has featured several dance films recently, including The Red Shoes and Movement (R)evolution Africa. To engage the local audience, the MFAH will partner with the Jewish Community Center and Pink Ribbons Project for a special Nia Master Class with Helen Terry and a Pink Alive dance presentation related to the film.

It's been over a decade since I made the winding drive up the mountains to visit Halprin. Hanging out in Halprin's kitchen talking dance and life is a treasured memory.

Today, she's spunky as ever, full of ideas and reflective on her substantial career. Many of us body-focused dance people owe a debt of gratitude to Halprin for daring to chart a course far from the dance fashion of the day.

Looking back, Halprin may have left the New York hub, yet her influence permeates many aspects of dance we take for granted.

"Halprin's belief that everyone can dance and dance is everywhere is part of her legacy," writes Wendy Perron, Dance Magazine's Editor in Chief.

Watching Breath Made Visible, I am reminded of this extraordinary legacy that I am part of. Gerber captures Halprin's life and work with grace and reverence.

"I wanted to make a film about what dance can be without over intellectualizing," the Swiss filmmaker says. Gerber succeeds in creating an artful portrait of a completely original life in dance. "The movie has had its own life; even now, it still speaks to me."

The film is complete while Halprin's work continues. Spirit of Place, her most recent work, exemplifies her ongoing interest in dance in the natural world. "I am interested in helping dancers understand space as related to the environment. When I work on my outdoor dance deck I see the sky, the mountains. I hear the birds. I work within the sum total of life around me.

"I am not an object in space, I am part of it."

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Keeping the Faith: MotherDogStudios and Neighbors adapt to Houston's ever evolving cultural terrain

John Runnels storms out of MotherDogStudios like the unofficial mayor of the block. As proprietor of one of Houston's most venerable artist-run warehouses, along with his partner in art and life, Charlie Jean Sartwelle, it's a title he has earned. Runnels bolts out the door with the energy of an adolescent ready to sing the praises of the eclectic exterior of MotherDog. A mural of a tank marching towards the city flanks the north wall, while his provocative text-based mural, X-Marks the Spot, covers a good portion of the west wall, along with the scrappy black canine that is the MotherDog. He points out the faded “Dixie Glass Co. Inc.” sign on the building with unbridled pride for the space he has looked after for the past 24 years. Originally built in 1939, the 22,000-square-foot building held the wordy distinction of “the railroad to truck covered cross dock freight terminal.” Runnels lovingly refers to his oasis as his “southern Gothic castle cathedral old warehouse dive.” Sartwelle even received a special “artist warehouse” occupancy permit from the city. “Once you get inside, it's paradise,” boasts Runnels. His now-grown daughter, Sara Katherine Runnels, endearingly described the studio as “almost enchanting” in a college essay illuminating her alternative childhood under the MotherDog roof. It's the “almost” part that most interests Runnels, whose stewardship of MotherDog stands as a shining example of the vital role the artist plays in an urban environment. “We are the early settlers who tamed the area for others,” insists the artist. “We have the vision and take the risks.” He's the first to admit it's not been a journey for the weak, needy or faint of temperature.

Runnels remembers the early years with a touch of nostalgia. “Nobody wanted this neighborhood. It was considered a Mad Max wasteland. The only people here were police, transients and lost people,” Runnels remembers. “It was a no man's land. The police told Charlie Jean not to leave the building without a sawed-off shotgun.” That said the place proved perfect for Runnels and Sartwelle and the first cadre of artists that moved in with them. Artists need a lot of space for little money. At first, the couple heavily scrutinized the tenants for artistic merit. These days they are more interested in artists who obey the rules, which include no pets, no smoking, no moving in and no music. (Headphones are OK.) “We run a tight ship,” Runnels grins. “This isn't grad school.” Turnover in the16 generously-sized studios has been relatively low, with some artists, like Jo Ann Fleischhauer, in her 16th year. “I instantly fell in love with the atmosphere there,” says Fleischhauer, who develops large-scale pieces like the Parasol Project there. “It's been an intellectually positive space and a great physical space. MotherDog is my art home and art family.”

MotherDog provides a serious place to work at affordable rent and few luxuries other than the occasional stimulation of other artists. The words, “sacred, secret, seizure, silence, solitude and sanctuary,” line the stairs leading into the cavernous space. “MotherDog is basically like a library. It's a quiet place where like-minded people come and go,” says Sartwelle as she prepares for an April one-person show at The Cloister Gallery at Christ Church Cathedral. “It's built like an old ship,” Runnels adds, pointing to the elegantly tar-stained rafters. “Plus, we actually have weather inside the building. We call it natural air.”

...Our mere presence was the green flag for gentrification. We followed in a long line of artist citizens who ready the ground for the next inhabitants.

MotherDog arrived at its name through a glib comment by a befuddled reporter. Runnels and Sartwelle collaborated in 1986 on Mantraps: Tales of Fornication, a performance work at Lawndale Art Annex. Runnels trapped himself, sans clothes, inside a constructed black bathroom with tiny peepholes. Eric Gerber of The Houston Post wrote, “Art should try to capture life, but mother dog, nobody ever said anything about holding it prisoner in a big black box afterwards, did they?” On the lookout for a handle, Gerber accidentally gave Runnels a fitting one. The couple promptly quit the performance art biz and began the MotherDog mission of making way for other artists.

The Art Crawl, managed by Runnels and Sartwelle for most of its 16 years, most exemplifies the MotherDog spirit of reaching out to both the public and other artists. Over the years thousands have traipsed through the downtown studios. “The Art Crawl is a gift,” says Runnels with noted pride. “People get to see firsthand where art is made.” In the past, Runnels partnered with Metro, which provided trolleys to easily move the masses from studio to studio. This year the crawl faces some serious transportation challenges. “Metro has since sold the trolleys and the large buses can't make the sharp turns,” says Runnels. “It will be different this year as studios take a larger role in publicizing their own events.”

Over the years the landscape has shifted as artists have come and gone, and the lofts just keep on coming. “Lofts to the right of me, lofts to the left of me,” groans Runnels. “Money talks and artists walk.” There are still plenty of guns around, but they belong to the Metro Police, whose shiny new headquarters sits down the street. Polished sidewalks line the streets complete with pristine starter trees. The character of the area has shifted into gentrification mode with MotherDog's rough-hewn look standing in sharp contrast to the sleek, albeit sterile, residential dwellings.

During his time with DiverseWorks between 1983 and 1995 Michael Peranteau witnessed the entrance of regular people and the exit of artists from downtown. “It was a ghost town then,” says Peranteau, who now serves as the Society for the Performing Arts' Director of Development. “Warren's and La Carafe were about the only places to go, but with that deadness came cheap places for artists to live and work.” Peranteau also observes the upside of residential development. “It's great to have people living here, all of that feels good. On any given night the place is jumping,” says Peranteau. “But I would like to see more affordable downtown housing for artists.”

When DiverseWorks moved from its 214 Travis Street location in 1989 to their present East Freeway address, they were glad to have MotherDog as established neighbors “You can actually walk there, right under the freeway,” says Runnels. “To have such a prestigious alternative arts organization like DiverseWorks move here was a major injection artistically.” Diane Barber, DiverseWorks co-director, remembers the buzz when they started Downtown Stomp Around in 2002. “The dock is our front porch; it's a very social space,” Barber says. “FotoFest and Frank White have always been great neighbors, but frankly we miss that particular energy we had back in the 1990s.” Barber believes a confluence of factors such as better spaces and prices contributed to artist exodus.

Choreographer Sarah Irwin remembers that atmosphere well. “My studio shared a wall with DiverseWorks,” recalls Irwin from her home in the Hill Country of southwest Austin. Irwin created her compelling piece, Rooms, in 1992, a dance that took place in her own studio and DiverseWorks stage simultaneously via a live camera. The piece exposed the potency of shared spaces through humor and Irwin's envelope-pushing movement vocabulary. During her decade as DiverseWorks' next door neighbor, she assumed many roles, from organizing local dancers to perform in visiting shows, to pitching in as ticket taker when necessary. When a visiting artist needed an extra body, Irwin was often that body. “I played death as a boa constrictor for Pauline Oliveros,” recalls the choreographer. “I became the link to the dance community.” Irwin's stature as a downtown artist goes back even farther, with several performances at DiverseWorks' original 214 Travis Street location and Mel Chin and William Steen's Studio One. Irwin and her collaborator Edie Scott worked with the late James Bettison, Don Redman, and Beth Secor. “There were all these amazing visual artists working there at the time like Jack Massing and Michael Galbraith, before they had become The Art Guys, Sharon Kopriva, and Chuck Dugan, and then there was me. I was just so honored to be included.”

Peranteau credits Irwin, DiverseWorks, MotherDog and others as spearheading a golden age of downtown arts activity. Coming and going are part and parcel of any artist's life. His own life has moved full circle as he sees once-emerging artists presented at DiverseWorks on the SPA stage. Sixto Wagan, the present co-director of DiverseWorks, agrees it's a good thing when artists he nurtured go on to larger venues such as Wortham Theater Center and Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. “It's important to remember that artists and arts organizations have cycles,” Wagan states. Today, denizens of the dock seem on the come back trail. Recently, Gabriela Trzebinski and Hanna Hillerova moved in. Currently, DiverseWorks is open for yet another move, possibly to a more accessible area. As for the loft population, Barber holds out hope that they could become DiverseWorks' next audience.

Early on Runnels and Sartwelle considered becoming a non-profit like DiverseWorks. Their motto, “How small can we stay and still accomplish our vision?” guided the MotherDog mission. “We were afraid we would lose control. We always wanted it to be a democratic dictatorship,” jokes Sartwelle. “We didn't want to grow bigger either.” The pair got their chance to try the non-profit route during their ten-year tenure as directors of the Bayou Bend ArtPark from 1993-2003. “That experience prepared us for the work we are doing now in public art,” says Sartwelle. After a decade they were ready to move on and allow others to take the helm.

Being adaptable ranks high on any artists' survival list and Hurricane Ike provided yet another chance to be tested. Runnels inspects the damage with a mixture of amazement and regret. A leak wreaked havoc on the computers while a horizontal torrent of rain crashed in on his plans for WATER.WALL, a public art project slated for 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. “A trickle down theory took place. It's really quite beautiful how the water bled some of these colors,” observes Runnels. Tropical Storm Allison left the couple trapped inside the studio for two days. “The place looked like Venice,” reflects Runnels.

For Runnels, the bayou may just be the link that connects the neighborhoods separated by highways. “The Bayou is geomorphologically a river,” Runnels insists. “On a quiet day I can even hear the bayou from MotherDog.” Water, a frequent subject for the artist, forms the basis of dream.boats, his ongoing collaboration with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. “When you see the sight of silver boats on high your imagination demands the other half,” says Runnels about his gleaming upside down stainless steel vessels. “They trigger a portal entrance to a potential experience. For me it was about bringing the qualities of the water up to the street level.” Anne Olson, director of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, sees dream.boats as a prime example of integrated art and remains dedicated to incorporating public art into all of the organization's projects. Massive pillars created by architects TeamHou and artist Mel Chin gracing Sesquicentennial Park stand as a prime example. Olson is particularly proud of Nights on the Blue Bayou, a collaboration with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts that placed music and visual arts events in direct contact with the pedestrian public. “We have made a commitment to innovative events,” says Olson. “We want to think beyond beer blasts and rock concerts.”

MotherDogStudios, DiverseWorks, and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership join in a mission to find sustainable ways to boost the city's vibrant downtown art scene. Negotiating the territory with careful attention will determine the future cultural ecology. It's no wonder that Runnels' object of choice takes the form of a boat. As Runnels finishes his final dream.boat in the upcoming months, he contemplates the city's evolving landscape. As for the loft dwellers, Runnels remains unconvinced of their contribution and he wishes they would clean up after their dogs more. Runnels and Sartwelle soldier on despite an uncertain future with a gratefulness for the space MotherDog afforded them and the many artists who created under their welcoming umbrella. They accept their tenuous situation like true urban pioneers. “As artists we adjust. You can't fight the future. We are lucky our space was never considered loft worthy,” admits Sartwelle. “Still, we are always sitting on tender hooks. But then again, I never thought we would be here this long.”

DiverseWorks is now considering another move, while Runnels and Sartwelle take the “last man standing” approach, holding out amidst flux. Their stewardship speaks to the artists' unbending resourceful spirit. “Change is inevitable and I embrace it,” Runnels ruminates. “The moment we landed here we knew our fate was determined. Our mere presence was the green flag for gentrification. We followed in a long line of artist citizens who ready the ground for the next inhabitants.” Runnels ends the tour of his homestead with a visit to his favorite end-of-the-day spot, where mama and papa dog often enjoy a late afternoon cocktail. In the distance looms a stunning view of the shining city rising out of a dusky glow they both still proudly call home.

Reprinted from Downtown Magazine.

Small Space Love

Could hotel rooms be good for my health? I just adore those miniature homes away from home. I have an ongoing fantasy where I junk my suburban fake Gothic four-bedroom to live on our Marriott points, write a blog called “Married to the Marriott,” get a book, then movie deal. Meryl Streep will play me in the movie.

Why do I feel so happy and safe in small spaces? Is it because I spent my early years in a tiny apartment above my grandparents’ place? When my parents ditched the urban life for a 1960s style sprawling split level, I asked my mother, “How many families will be moving in?” I remember my first night in our multi-room dwelling. I felt lonely and out of scale with my own body.

“It could be related to the safety and security of the womb,” says Rachel Winer, Ph.D, a psychologist and founder of ArtsEngine. Makes sense, why wouldn’t our first digs have a profound effect on us? Hours after my first son was born, his baby thought bubble read, “Wow, what a big room.” When I told my second son to eat his veggies so he would grow, he promptly quipped. “I don’t want to get bigger, I like being small. I need to fit under the table.”

According to Winer, there’s more to liking tiny spaces. “It could also be related to aesthetic preferences,” she adds. Winer is right. I feel burdened by too much space; it generates too much stuff, which in turn needs to be put away. Winer has similar needs. “I like to see what I need for comfort and survival,” she says. “What brings us security in our dwelling space makes it possible to explore the outside world. Some of us also want to live in close proximity to other people.” She’s got a point there. When I moved to Houston, the master bedroom was downstairs. To me, it was an odd design choice. I wanted to hear my son breathe, but his crib seemed to be in another country upstairs.

I am not the only one that longs for a troll house, the small house movement founded by Sarah Susanka, author of “The Not So Big House,” has garnered the attention of NPR, Time and even “Oprah.” Could it be that people feel happier knowing they are taking a smaller toll on the world’s resources? Winer is not about to claim that your mansion is bad for your health, but living lighter and smaller could generate less stress. There’s certainly a well documented link between stress and auto immune disorders and other diseases.

Winer brings up values and cultural issues. “Preferring a small home may also be a statement of not subscribing to the showiness of flamboyance,” she says. “Space is used differently in less individualistic societies, where there’s a more diffuse boundary.”

Too small spaces don't work either. My former office made me feel trapped. Later on, I learned my office had indeed been a closet. Now, I sound a lot like Goldilocks; the size of my space has to be “just right.”

According to Winer, there’s more to pining for hotel rooms. “I can live with the illusion of being a tidy person,” she says. “There’s also a chance to reinvent yourself and take a vacation from your own house.” And I thought I liked them because they were so small.

As a recovering philosophy major, I turn to Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space.”

“For our house is our corner of the world, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word.” I suppose I just need a modest corner. Sadly, Bachelard has absolutely nothing to say about hotel rooms.

In my childhood neighborhood there was one house we called “the castle.” We rarely saw anyone entering or exiting the place, and we concocted all kinds of nutty fantasies about the place and its inhabitants. Years later, my mother confessed that she had actually been inside the mansion. “They mostly lived in two rooms.” Just trying to turn the castle into a hotel room I guess.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Review: Catastrophic Theatre's Hunter Gatherers

Shelley Calene-Black, Troy Schulze, Greg Dean, Amy Bruce

Photo by George Hixson

Dinner parties with old high school friends are rarely a good idea. Add an animal sacrifice into the mix, and well, things get frisky. The Catastrophic Theatre takes its tagline, “We will destroy you,” to epic levels in their sassy new production of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, now playing at DiverseWorks. Why not end the season with some savory meat and a blood bath? Feels right and, dare I say, yummy to me.

Cat-in-heat Wendy, boring doctor Tom, Neanderthal Richard, and demure Pam gather annually for their collective wedding anniversary. Things go downhill the moment Tom finds a parking place. Wendy can’t control the weather in her underpants, Richard can’t control anything, Pam lives for control and Tom invented control. Therein lies the volatile mix of these four characters stuck in a room for two hours. Nachtrieb turns back-to-nature fools on their heads with his riff on primal urges. Think The Flintstones crashing full speed into Housewives of New Jersey.

Nodler directs with a back-away-from-the-mayhem approach, letting the play’s absurd moments have a glory all of their own. Catastrophic’s artistic director knows his way around a riot, yet this is subtler than last year’s production. Leave to Nodler to find tenderness in the most extraordinary ridiculousness.

The superb cast includes Greg Dean, who puts average cave men to shame with his take on the feral Richard. Amy Bruce imbues Wendy with a manic glee, like Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on steroids. Shelley Calene-Black as the polite Pam singlehandedly proves ladylikeness can kill. Troy Schulze gives Tom an absurdest flare, as if he’s escaped from an Ionesco play and is wondering how he ended up with these insane people.

Kevin Holden’s set and lighting design draw the action closer than his previous version at Stages Repertory Theatre. It’s tighter, sleeker, more in your face, lending a more claustrophobic space for these four to mate and merge. Holden gets us way too close this wayward flock, making the antics feel visceral as all get out. At Catastrophic Theatre it takes just a lamp chop to bring down Western Civilization. As it should be. Trust me, this is full-frontal fun.

The Catastrophic Theatre presents Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers at DiverseWorks Art Space through July 17. Call 713-522-2723 or visit www.catastrophictheatre.com.

Reprinted from Houston ArtsWeek.

Friday, May 21, 2010

A city on the fringe: There's nothing straight up in BooTown's vision

News_Nancy Wozny_Houston Fringe Fesvital_Fashion Briefs

When your Italian teacher sweetie dons a pink tie with the words "Barbie" written on it, that could be a good sign it's time to move on. That particular boyfriend and other romances gone bad inspired Jennifer Doctorovich's Lemon Drops, which premieres Thursday at Boheme as part of BooTown's third annual Houston Fringe Festival. (other Fringe events start tonight).

According to Doctorovich, horrendous breakups make good theater.

"I know bad dates have been done a lot, but I have a different hook, in that I am interested in that moment you know a relationship is over and it's time to leave; the spell is broken and you get that cringing quality," she says. "It's fictional, but somewhat related to my own dating history.

"We are so busy falling in love we don't take the time to know who that person really is because we are lulled into a false sense of security."

Doctorovich is part of a cadre of local and out-of-town artists proud to be presenting their work at the Festival this year.

They say you can judge a city's arts spunk by the health of its fringe festival. OK, maybe I said that. But it's true, there's a delicate ecology in the arts; nurturing the artsy edges feeds the cultural stream. We need places for artists to get their feet wet, try out new ideas, succeed, fail and experiment.

I wrote about the need for incubation of new art a few weeks ago. It's crucial to raise the next generation of writers, actors and choreographers, otherwise I will be writing about bath towels.

Emily Hynds, BooTown's smart and savvy director, agrees. "Some of our founding members had been to fringe festivals," Hynds says. "It fits so well with our collaborative aesthetic."

She's right, it does. The vibe at BooTown is relaxed and welcoming, with an emphasis on theater as a social and accessible art.

The Festival is open to artists at any stage of development. It's completely noncurated, which means all an artist needs to do is apply.

"Houston lacks outlets to get new work produced. Finding the venue and marketing is often the hardest part of putting on a show. We fill that need," Hynds says. "Our venues welcome the Fringe Festers. They bring a crowd, so it's mutually beneficial."

You are not likely to see a straight up musical in a straight up theater with the BooTown name on it.

"Our focus is to do totally original theater pieces in non-theatrical venues. I know it sounds cheesy, but we want to have fun ourselves," she says. "We like to work in bars where people can hang out before the show, have some entertainment and continue to hang out some more." BooTown may be most known for Grown-Up Story Time, where anyone can submit a story, which will be read by a local actor.

The popular event goes down the third Tuesday of every month at Rudyard's and returns in July.

This year BooTown opened the Festival to dance artists, which entailed finding spaces with suitable floors.

"Why not open it up to dance? " Hynds says. "There's such a strong dance presence in the city. It was a struggle to make those dance connections, but this year we made it a priority."

Luckily, the local community opened their hearts and studios. The Houston Metropolitan Dance Center and Hope Center are participating venues this season. The Met Dance Company, China Cat Productions, the Colombian Orchid Ballet and Code f.a.d. Company make up the dance portion.

Autumn Mist Belk, artistic director of Code f.a.d., stumbled upon the Fringe Festival when looking for a place to perform outside of their home base in Raleigh, N.C.

"This is a great way to test out the show," Belk says. "It helps me know where to go next." Belk describes Fashion Briefs, a premiere based on the lives and work of eight fashion designers, as upbeat and funny.

For a writer like Doctorovich, the festival fills a needed niche. She plans to develop Lemon Drops into a one-woman show for Mildred's Umbrella Museum of Dysfunction series in December. Having a place to try it out in front of an audience is a crucial step in her process.

"Every city needs a fringe fest. We have to continue to embrace creativity and give opportunities to new talent," she says.

Let it be known that Houston is now a two fringe fest town. FrenetiCore's Houston Fringe Festival gets under way in August.

Yep, they're both called the Houston Fringe Festival. We are just a fringe-y city.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Yes Men are anything but: Punking the press one story at a time

News_Nancy Wozny_Yes Men_brushing teeth

This just in, in a remarkable change of heart, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs has just announced that he, along with all his fellow looters in loafers, will give back their bonuses to start a fund for those who have lost their homes due to the hijacking scams of the famed Wall Street barons.

Or how about this:

British Petroleum, deeply concerned about the long-term implications of the recent mega oil spill, has donated profits to clean up the devastation. In addition, BP employees will be taking special bird-washing classes so they can spend their vacations cleaning up the Gulf Coast.

Maybe this is more up my alley:

The American Ballet Society has just released a statement of support for American female ballet choreographers, including special funds to commission major new works. They also acknowledged that has been way too long since a woman (perhaps never?) ran a major American dance company and seek to correct that within the year.

Can you tell I spent some time with The Yes Men?

Andy Bichlbaum specifically, during a How to be a Yes Men workshop as part of Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men, curated by Astria Suparak and organized by Feldman Gallery at Pacific Northwest College of Art and Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University. The show is up now at DiverseWorks and runs through June 5.

The Yes Men, Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno, are prankster/artists/identity correctors who are most famous for duping the BBC when Jude Finisterra (Bichlbaum) posed as a Dow spokesperson to announce that Dow was now taking responsibility for the Bhopal chemical disaster. The caper resulted in over 600 articles, drawing needed attention to the still growing health problems of those injured by the incident.

Other fabulous capers include posing as a spokesperson from the Chamber of Commerce, announcing that the not-so-green group has come out for stricter environmental protections, and a fake edition of The New York Times, hailing "The Iraq War is over." Their movie, The Yes Men Fixed the World, headlined the Cinema Arts Festival last fall.

"Corporations never do the right thing," Bichlbaum said to the attentive DiverseWorks crowd. The best you can do is shame them into admitting that they have no intention of doing the right thing. That's what happens when they send out the press release saying, no, we are not doing this or that, as in the right thing.

Bichlbaum wanted to bring the conversation to a local level, so he took ideas from the crowd. Turns out, there's a certain upscale grocery chain (they make that fabulous cheesy bread) that is interested in purchasing a piece of land near another grocery chain in a low-income area of the city. The land would make a great park.

So why not call a press conference, have a person impersonate a spokesperson from that unnamed grocery store announce they are, in fact, turning that lovely stretch of land into a park and community garden.

Not so fast. Bichlbaum advises to do your homework. Who is the target? Is it the city or the store? The goal is to activate voters, to raise public awareness, support and possibly outrage.

"What about legal issues?" asked a Yes Men wannabe. "We will get to that later," sidestepped Bichlbaum.

The Yes Men outlined a step-by-step action plan, most of which is outlined on their website and in their handy workbook. Everything from how to create a fake website, to the timing of press releases, video tips, the total ins and out of punking the press is yours for the taking. You can even have a fake "real" corporate spokesperson come in to stop the whole thing.

"It's even better when the real people show up. That's what happened at the Chamber of Commerce. The real guy came charging in to stop us," Bichlbaum remembered. "We could not have asked for a better prop."

According to Bichlbaum, the press doesn't mind being misled. "They have fun with it, and usually get a good story out of it," he said. "Most get it pretty quickly."

That's where you hit them with the follow-up interview. When they ask why you would do something stupid like impersonating someone, say, "Speaking of stupid", and launch into your talking points. You can even send a come clean press release that points to action plans and activist organizations that are already working on the problem. Keep in mind, those activist organizations may or may not want to be implicated.

"You might want to call them beforehand. Then, send a fake hand-wringing press release from the corporation, where they admit they have no intention of doing such and such. The corporation might send a real one, too. That's the best situation."

Imagine you wanted to throw some attention on a local school board that has eliminated arts funding. So you set up a nice press conference announcing it has restored arts funding, perhaps even added funding. Don't forget to serve beer and food. Once the press gets wind of the fake story, the real fun starts.

The real school board would then have to send a press release stating it has not restored arts funding, often sounding a bit, well, cold and heartless in the process. This situation ends up being your protection from those pesky "legal" issues. It makes them look really creepy by going after you.

Yes Men-ing is not for the faint of troublemaking. It takes considerable planning, tech savvy and access to one kick-ass press list. Sounds like a ton of work to me. I might just go Yes Men lite and crash a Tea Party with a sign reading, "Thanks FDA for keeping arsenic out of my baby formula, or some other gov-lovin' sentiment. I will make sure to misspell something so I blend in.

Workshop participants less lazy than I left scheming and plotting. Watch out Houston! All the details on how to Yes Man-ize yourself are here.

As for the question on getting into trouble — absolutely. Plan on it.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Kicking and screaming to summer arts program fun: Don't ask your kids, just bring 'em

News_Nancy Wozny_Nancy's Kids_Miranda Shawn

I was a bit of a clunky mom, the one you felt sorry for in the Target parking lot with snugglie/stroller issues. Even my own kids suspected they were with an amateur. From time to time they would offer advice.

Once, I baked cookies. My then 5-year-old son pulled me aside, "Mom, you don't have to do this, they sell them at the store."

The one thing I got right was exposing my two sons to the arts. Maybe you don't want to get lost in the woods with my boys (although they would keep you entertained), but they can talk about art with the best of them.

I took a page from my father's book. He never asked, "Who is in the mood for George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple?" Nah, he just piled us into the station wagon and off we went to the opera, ballet, theater or an exhibit. It works the same way around chez Wozny. Our art road trips are the price of the roof, like church, except they often include a trip to our fave family cheap eats, Tacos A Go Go.

Rule number one: Kids like art better after a tasty meal.

Houston is just jumping with fine children's arts programs. If I listed them all here, your kids would be grown by the time you finished reading this. Instead, I want to highlight a few that have crossed my path during my time as a CultureMap art sleuth.

It's Saturday morning, the kids are rested, in a good mood, and have a belly full of organic Cheerios, what should you do? Pack the tots into the car and head directly over to the Wortham Center at 10:30 am for The Adventure of Baroque Music, presented by Mercury Baroque. The early music troupe has had an in-school outreach program for a while now, but this is the first time they have offered a public concert.

"We wanted to expand the program to everyone," Antoine Plante, Mercury Baroque's artistic director, says.

The very animated Ana Trevino-Godfrey will lead the festivities, which include an adventure across Europe though music and story. Plante even throws some history in there. It's 1704, and England is at war with France, which wreaks havoc when Queen Anne's oboist can't get a hold of any French wood necessary for making reeds. It's no wonder Plante makes children a priority audience; he grew up with two early musician parents in a home with 150 period instruments.

Also on Saturday, you can see what Jane Weiner has been up to with Kid's Play: Skool of Rock at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Barnevelder. Weiner, artistic director of Hope Stone Dance, directs Kid's Play, a program that includes dance, theater, music, photography and yoga.

"The arts offer so many ways for kids to find their voice," Weiner says. "Art strengthens, empowers and heals."

No stranger to working with youth, Weiner directed the Youth Arts Program for at-risk teens at the famed Bates Dance Festival for 15 years. Weiner, who is bit of jokester, suddenly becomes very serious when it comes to young people. "I think children are America's greatest asset," Weiner says. "They are like dolphins in that they are smarter than we are."

Weiner understands. She got hooked on dance watching Pennsylvania Ballet's Nutcracker. " Watching that sea of white tulle, I was zapped then and there," she says.

Kid's Play has been so successful, she's taking it to New Orleans in June.

When pirouettes trump SpongeBob

Getting youngsters to cozy up to modern dance is no piece of cake. Just ask the Wozny boys, who had fully hoped to go to college on major scholarships from the foundation for "Children who have seen too much modern dance."

Karen Stokes thinks we need to leave a few crumbs to better decipher dance, so she created Framing Dance, a snappy intro to dance program for schools. Stokes, artistic director of Travesty Dance Group and head of the Dance Division at University of Houston's School of Theatre & Dance, wants to answer the question "What does it mean?"

"In dance, that often goes unanswered. Dance needs framing because it's the least accessible and most ephemeral art form," Stokes says. Whether it's learning how dance can tell a story or be just about patterns in space, Framing Dance hands children the keys to dance, such that they feel successful in watching it. The response has been huge.

"Laughing, applauding, asking questions, telling us their favorite piece, we just get intoxicated from their reactions," Stokes says.

Anthony Brandt is super proud of Around the World with Musiqa, an interactive program for elementary school children, now in its sixth year. Brandt isn't the only one who's impressed, the program is a three-time National Endowment for the Arts Award winner. "If I have one abiding conviction, it's that music is not elitist," Brandt, Musiqa's artistic director, says. "The people who wrote the music came from every possible background."

Around the World hones in on folk songs, but here's the catch, the children have already learned the songs ahead of time because Karol Bennett traveled to each participating school to teach them. "They count on being part of the show," Brandt says. Today, Musiqa is busy coming up with a middle school program..

InterActive Theater Company's name says it all. If you want kids to love theater, they need to be onstage helping the story get told. "With InterActive you don't just see the story, you are part of it," boasts Angela Foster, InterActive's director. InterActive has adapted everything from Texas history to poetry. Hallmarks of their method include improvisation, original scripts and actors playing multiple roles.

Check out Peter Pan going on right now. InterActive just wrapped up Peter & the Wolf, their first partnership with River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) at the Children's Museum. ROCO deserves kudos for ROCOrooters, where kids get to learn and listen, and the parents get to go out to dinner after the show. Smart move ROCO.

Finally, I can't tell you how much the MFAH has been the Wozny clan's home away from home. The programs for families, students and educators are a lifeline.

No discussion about young people and art would be complete without a shout out to Ray Carrington III and his students at Jack Yates High School. Carrington puts a camera into the hands of high school students, often for the very first time, to document Houston's historic Third Ward. Eye on the Third Ward is now a major archive of this evolving neighborhood. How amazing is that?

So get those kids out of the house and into some art. It worked for me. Plus, I got out of baking cookies. I will never forget the time someone asked, "Who is Jackson Pollock?" within earshot of my then 12-year-old.

He launched into a spontaneous lecture on Jackson's athletic mark making. I thought to myself, "That's my boy."

Reprinted from Culturemap

The Bodycation: Have an In-Body Experience

“Your body is a wonderland,” croons pop star John Mayer. Well, I hope so. Our bodies are the cheapest playgrounds I know of; where else can you have a totally in-depth experience without moving your car? Vacations are about taking in something new, letting go of working hard and refreshing our neural-wiring. They are also about being able to return to your life rejuvenated with a new perspective.

Everyone already knows about yoga, pilates and the numerous dance classes available in Houston. But there are more off of the beaten track ways to take an in-body vacation. Here are some of my favorites.

Yamuna Body Rolling, developed by Yamuna (she goes by one name, like Cher), uses different size balls that you rest and roll on, lengthening those pesky muscle and stubborn fascial tissues. Yamuna means “river,” so there's lots of flow. Joyce Yost Ulrich, a level three Yamuna teacher, a pilates expert and a former Houston Ballet dancer, leads us through a series of stretches for our hips, flexors, hamstrings and tight calve muscles. “Yamuna is great at getting at the front of the spine, which is often neglected,” says Ulrich. “And the work perfectly complements pilates and yoga. Plus, balls are fun and playing is part of the method.” So, not only do you get a little vacation, but you come back with more space. I left feeling dreamy, loose and very three-dimensional. Ulrich teaches at Hope Center and in her Treehouse studio.

The Feldenkrais Movement is all about going to new places in your body and mind. But the way you do that is by lying quietly on your back, on a soft mat performing tiny and delicate movements in a dark room. You gently re-pattern your body into more efficient functioning. That sounds good, but it feels even better. When you re-calibrate your effort, you feel as if someone took an elephant off your back. People mostly float away after class, or at least I do. “There's an old saying that 'a change is as good as a rest,'” says MaryBeth Smith, founder of the Feldenkrais Center of Houston. “People don't realize that the overall pattern of their lives is 'go go go,' and so even activities we usually view as pleasurable can start to feel stale and stressful. We seem to thrive when we have novelty and variation in our patterns.” Movements are unusual enough to be engaging, but comfortable enough that you feel safe and not stressed. Smith teaches at the C. G. Jung Center, Pilates Houston, the Caroline Collective and MD Anderson.

The Alexander Technique, founded by actor F.M. Alexander in the 1890s, concerns the relationship between the head and the rest of the spine. “Move the head up and forward, and the spine will follow,” is the now-famous motto of the technique, practiced widely by actors, musicians and dancers. Alexander was an actor who lost his voice. When he began to pay attention to what he was doing in his own body that was preventing his full use of his self, he learned how to inhibit unnecessary habits. “We are born with this upward instinct. We just need to stop interfering with it,” says Chris Lidvall, one of Houston's leading Alexander teachers. “Gravity is not the enemy; in Alexander, we move up into gravity.” Lidvall works one-on-one and in group settings helping individuals do whatever they do better, whether that is playing the piano or just getting up from a chair. In a private session, you may in fact just stand and sit while Lidvall gently places her hands on your neck, ribs and hips. You keep your clothes on and your eyes open during an Alexander lesson. Some table work is involved, so comfortable pants work best. Lidvall may completely take over the movement of an arm or leg. That's the vacation part. You get to feel, sense, and take a break from doing. “We are always doing,” she says. “In Alexander, we learn to stop, pay attention and find an easier way.” Plan to feel lighter and more at ease.

Gyrokinesis (the movement component of Gyrotonic) was founded by former ballet dancer Juliu Horvath while on the Island of St. Thomas in the 1970s, so you know it's gonna give you at thrill. Horvath calls his method “yoga for the dancer,” but you don't have to be a dancer to give it a try. Joseph Modlin, a pilates, Gyrotonic and Gyrokinesis teacher, welcomes all levels of fitness to his Hope Center classes. Using a stool, Modlin leads us through a series of spiral-like moves that flow in and around the spine, which arches and curls continually. Then we hit the mat for more circular fun. The curves add flow, so you don't even notice that it's a bit strenuous. The easy to follow movements keep the class moving, while Modlin gives subtle direction and occasional flashes of his famous wit. The stool makes it accessible for everyone too. “Life, blood and our breath flows in circles, which is why the class is so calming and soothing,” says Modlin, who is also member of Hope Stone Dance Company. “I relate it to waking up in the morning; the class is like a fresh start.” Of all the in-body experiences, this is the most active. Expect to feel energized and very connected afterwards.

Continuum Movement takes the flow concept a step further and deeper, so consider a Continuum class your most exotic body-based excursion. Developed by somatic pioneer Emilie Conrad, Continuum is about restoring the vitality of our fluid systems. “Without water, there is no life,” says Patty Adamik, Houston's sole Continuum teacher. “On a cellular level, all processes within our body occur in a fluid medium. We are basically aquatic beings that carry our ocean within ourselves.” Through a series of breaths and easy to learn movements, elasticity is restored and vitality returns. There's also a strong emphasis on going to new places. You may find yourself hanging off a chair to re-acquaint yourself in gravity. No previous training is required, and Adamik welcomes people of all fitness levels. A Continuum exploration is called a dive that you can go deep into, to discover the depths of your watery birth. “Think of it as a fantastic voyage,” says Adamik, who is trained in several body/mind practices. “It's like shrinking yourself down to notice any tiny shifts and impulses that you are able to pay attention to.” For advanced students, week-long retreats feature silence and sometimes total darkness for a total restoration experience. Adamik introduces students to the premises behind the work at the C. G. Jung Center and Nia Moves Houston.

For a listing of online resources related to this article and links to local training facilities, please visit us online at AbsolutelyInTheLoop.com.

reprinted from Absolutely in the Loop.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Houston Explodes with Motion

News_Nancy Wozny_Dance Week_Houston Metropolitan Dance  Company_Marlana Walsh-Doyle_Joe Celej
Photo by D. Garson
Marlana Walsh-Doyle and Joe Celej of the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company. Walsh-Doyle is managing director of Houston Met, and Celej is also the choreographer.

Dance is one happening art form right now. So You Think You Can Dance?, Dancing With the Stars, and Glee rule the airwaves. Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post just snagged a Pulitzer Prize for dance criticism, only the second in history. Here at home, Houston Ballet erects its new temple, Center for Dance.

For National Dance Week (today through May 2), the city is literally exploding with motion.

Launching the week in Houston tonight is the upstart troupe Aszure Barton & Artists, presented by Society for the Performing Arts at the Wortham Theater Center's Cullen Theater. Barton, a Canadian, is a perfect match for the Lone Star state.

"I'm a cowgirl allright," says Barton. "I have always wanted to perform in Texas."

Her liquid moves, sensuous and athletic, come to life when danced by her top-notch company. Barton's busy year has included major commissions from American Ballet Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada, Juilliard and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Check out her Dance Magazine cover story and my Dance Source Houston interview.

Homegrown concerts are plentiful as well. Core Performance Company, dually based in Atlanta and Houston, opens its hearts to local choreographers Teresa Chapman, Leslie Scates and Becky Valls, in Let's Dance on April 30 at Miller Outdoor Theatre. Chapman is reprising Shift, a work originally made for three University of Houston dancers. This time Erin Reck, Lindsey McGill and Brit Wallis will do the honors.

"This is the dream team," says Chapman. "I love watching them spin, spiral, leap and catch each other."

Next weekend will be a busy time for Reck, Valls and Chapman because all three of them also have works in Propulsion, the University of Houston faculty dance concert on the same night. "We haven't quite figured out how we are going to do this," Chapman says.

Also on April 30 (It must be Dance Day):

  • Core member Blake Dalton shows off a freestyle poling piece with Rice Dance Theatre. He explains the new hybrid dance style this way: "Think aerial dance meets pole vaulting."
  • Students from the Houston Community College Dance Ensemble present their spring show, Eye of the Beholder at Heinen Theater, featuring Cacophony, a new work by director Cynthia Capuch.
  • At the Cullen, Houston Metropolitan Dance Company presents Mixing it Up Again featuring shiny new works by Pattie Obey, Kiki Lucas, Joe Celej, Kate Skarpetowska and Keisha Lalama-White. Just named one of 25 to watch by Dance Magazine, Lalama-White mixes memory, personal experience and photography. A photograph of the eyes of a soldier in Afghanistan slowly develops like a Polaroid during the piece Lalama-White calls Unsung Moment. "I am exploring the soldier's thoughts in that one moment," she says. "The dancers represent fear, denial and panic."
  • With Ascending at Barnevelder, Second Generation Dance features dances about women escaping slavery via the underground railroad from Texas to Mexico.

May is just as busy. East Meets West VIII brings world dance into the fun as Dance of Asian America performs ancient and contemporary dances from China at Miller Outdoor Theatre on May 1. For the west part, artistic director Janie Yao has invited Revolve Dance Company, Ad Deum Dance Company and WyldStyL.

"Last year, 4,500 people showed up to see us at the Miller," boasts Yao. "People enjoy being exposed to different kinds of dance, and all for free. Miller is one great place to educate an audience."

Also in May: The young dancers at Houston Ballet II take their talents on tour to Germany while the main company polishes up Mark Morris' Sandpaper Ballet and Stanton Welch's Pecos Bill.

The month continues its dance blitz with Urban Souls Dance Company, FrenitiCore, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Psophonia Dance Company, 6 Degrees, Vault, The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble, JCC, Hope Stone, Entre Flamenco and India Jazz Suites Katha Master Chitres Das with super star tapper Jason Samuels Smith. The month concludes appropriately with Dance Houston's City Wide Dance Festival.

Whoa! My dance card is full. Even Angelina Ballerina, the spokesmouse for National Dance Week, is on top of the world with a new show.

All things in motion are moving up.

Reprinted from CultureMap.

Opera Moves: Priscilla Nathan-Murphy on HGO

Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades

Photo by Felix Sanchez

Choreographer/Instructor Priscilla Nathan-Murphy is most known as principal of the lower school at Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy. In addition, she also directs the modern program there. Recently, Nathan-Murphy has contributed her movement expertise to the Houston Grand Opera productions of Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and Handel's Xerxes. Nathan-Murphy gives us a glimpse of her opera life.

Dance Source Houston: Give us a little history of your time at HGO.

Priscilla Nathan-Murphy: I started about as a dancer in Turandot several years ago. I served as the Dance captain for Aida and even had a little solo. Other productions include Don Giovanni, Rigoletto , La Traviata and Jenufa. During this time, I also taught movement for the HGO studio members. These were all during the David Gockley years. From time to time, I would be called in to work with principals and chorus members. Over the years, I've worked with Renee Fleming, Patricia Racett, Samuel Ramey and Laura Claycomb.

DSH: How did you get involved this time around? You must be thrilled to be working with Claycomb again in Xerxes.

PNM: Yes, I am. It's so great to see her again after all these years. She was a big star back then and she's an even bigger one now. And she has this amazing voice. She has a particular aria that has very specific hand period gestures. It's more body movement than dance. I was working with the English translation and when I got there I saw that they were working with Italian translation so I had to do some thinking on my feet but it all worked out. As for my participation, Mark Lear, Associate Artistic Administrator at HGO, suggested my name.

I am also working with the wardens in Xerxes who are dotted throughout the opera. Michael Walling, the director, wanted a certain style in the way they present themselves, their timing and posture.

DSH: Is there a lot of give and take in the process?

PNM: Yes, especially when working with a principal; nothing can interfere with their voice. If they don't feel comfortable moving you have to acknowledge that and find a better position of the body.

DSH: Tell us about your work in Queen of Spades. It looks visually stunning from the photos.

PNM: Yes, it will be. There is role for an actor in one scene that I am choreographing. It takes place in a gambling den full of men. It has been done by a dancer in the past, but the director, Roy Rallo, thought it looked too polished and slick. It needs to be more raw, more natural. Matthew Redden is doing the part. He's originally from Houston. He has to dance with a scarf and high heels, so that's been a challenge, but he's getting used to it. It's something between dancing and acting. Matthew was a joy to work with. I really like how it's turned out, he's really making it his own now.

DSH: What do you like about working with opera singers?

PNM: More and more, I find they are so open to movement ideas, it shows how much they care about the whole production. It's also such a growing experience for me. I like working one-on-one with an artist. It's been amazing to work with two new directors as well. I have to open myself up to what they want and make that happen. It's been quite an experience.

DSH: On another subject, you must be excited about the new Center for Dance, which will really expand the work you can do at Houston Ballet.

NPM: For me, it's a realization of a dream. The national and global attention that this new and prestigious building is bringing goes beyond what I had ever imagined. Yes it will expand the work I will be able to do. It is an expression of how far we have have come. The connection to the Wortham is going to be great too.

DSH: It's closer to HGO.

NPM: Exactly!

Houston Grand Opera presents Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades from April 16-May 1 and Handel's Xerxes from April 30-May 2 at Wortham Center. www.houstongrandopera.org

Reprinted from DSH.


Aszure Barton on Busking and her Busy Year

Aszure Barton & Artists
Photo by Donald Lee
Courtesy of The Banff Centre

Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton is on one amazing career ride. Lucky for us, she's stopping in Houston for a Society for the Performing Arts show at Cullen Theater next Friday. With commissions from American Ballet Theatre, The National Ballet of Canada and Juilliard this year, along with a major company tour, it's been one busy year. In addition, her work graces the repertory of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Martha Graham Dance Company, Les Ballets jazz de Montreal and others. She's also an artist-in-residence at The Banff Centre and The Baryshnikov Arts Center. She brings us into the whirlwind of her dance life below.

Dance Source Houston: Tell us about one of your newest dances, Busk. What does it have to do with busking, as in street performing?

Aszure Barton: We had this wonderful opportunity to spend a month creating a new work at the DanceWorks festival in Santa Barbara, California, which was fantastic. I didn't exactly get there and think, “let's do a piece about busking.” After I observed the environment, I started to ask a lot of questions about my place as an artist. Santa Barbara has this incredible dichotomy; there are extremely wealthy people along with many homeless Vietnam veterans. There's also this bizarre street life there. I became intrigued with so many people living on the streets and many of them are in their 60s and 70s. I wasn't trying to make a statement; it was more of an observation. Asking questions of where we fit in. The process brought up a lot of questions on what it means to be an artist.

DSH: How do you balance your time with Aszure & Artists with your commissions?

AB: My company is part-time and project-based, which works very well for me now. Houston is the end of a four month tour for us. We just got back from Moscow, which was so fun. It does work out if you create balance, but I had to learn the hard way. I took on four commissions, which I said I'd never do. I learned that was the limit for me. It was incredibly intense and I was happy with each one. Company and commissions feed each other.

DSH: When I first saw your work at around midnight, after clocking in some 25 hours of dance watching at APAP, my first thought was, “Let's get this girl to Texas.” Perhaps it was because there's such a sense of joy in your work, or that you encouraged the audience to hoot and holler.

AB: I have always wanted to go to Texas. I'm from Alberta so I'm a cowgirl. I am also excited to perform in the Cullen Theater, I've heard great things about the space; everyone who has been there has loved it.

DSH: Your work contains such sensual and complex movements, yet you often have a whole stage full of dancers moving in exact unison.

AB: I have always been fascinated with large groups and large numbers of people. I like seeing the stage from a wide perspective, like an organism. We create a collective language, it's really symbiotic. It's such a blessing to have 10 dancers with me. If I had more money, I would have even more. We are such a family and have such a good time.

DSH: Your career took off so quickly, Broadway, big commissions, a Dance Magazine cover story.

AB: It did. I still pinch myself. If your heart is in the right place things happen. I have been so lucky to be an artist-in-residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Their whole mission is so admirable. Misha is always looking for new artists and supporting upcoming actors, dancers, and musicians. It's such a supportive environment to work in. That's how I ended up choreographing Three Penny Opera. Scott Elliot came to watch a rehearsal and the next thing I knew I was choreographing a Broadway show.

DSH: The second half of the program is Blue Soup. What's in the soup?

AB: It's an assemblage of older and newer works. The thread is the power of sound in the body and music. I did the sound design myself.

DSH: What's next?

AB: A new piece for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

DSH: What's something we don't know about you?

AB: My personality is incredibly unpredictable. I am either shy or outgoing. It's always surprising me.

Society for the Performing Arts presents Aszure Barton & Artists on April 23, 8pm, Wortham Center's Cullen Theater. Call 713-227-4772 or visit www.spahouston.org

Reprinted from DSH.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Review: Our Late Night by Wallace Shawn

Mikelle Johnson and Greg Dean
Photo by Anthony Rathbun

Imagine inviting a bunch of people over to a party, say in New York circa 1975, and on the way something in their brains shift so that they lose the ability to inhibit their innermost thoughts, fantasies and telling of their sexual escapades and desires. Wallace Shawn does exactly that in Our Late Night, now playing on the Catastrophic Theatre stage at DiverseWorks.

And what a dishy lot Shawn as conjured. This tribe knows no barrier between brain and tongue; secrets cannot be contained. Tony (Kyle Sturdivant) tells all about his night in the tropics. When Kristin's (Karina Pal Montano-Bowers) plan of applying burning jelly is rejected by Jim (Troy Schulze), she suggests bondage as a second choice. Grant (Jeff Miller) gets off on his daughter's leg hair and Samantha (Carolyn Houston Boone) vomits up bird feathers. These are the best friends of hosts Annette (Mikelle Johnson) and Lewis (Greg Dean), who just may kill each other later that night.

Our Late Night isn't so much as a play as it is a dreamy dip into full-on voyeurism. Director Jason Nodler sets this up exactly with the facade of a modernistic hi-rise apartment. We literally watch the play thought the stunning windows of their sleek digs. We are not the only ones peeking into this naughty world. The characters all listen to each other with an intensity that amplifies the seedy content. Never has doing nothing on stage been this sexy. Gently miked, it's as if the actors are whispering into our ears. Its marvelously creepy and effective.

The cast—superb all—consists of veteran Catastrophic company members along with seasoned newcomers. Johnson evokes a wistful Annette, girlish and devilish in one swoop. Her velvety voice pulls us right into the space of the play. Dean's stern husband, Lewis, projects a rough authority and commanding presence. Schulze imbues Jim, the only one to keep his thoughts to himself, with an uncomfortable awkwardness. If the play had a second act, I imagine he would be next to explode. Schulze manages the tension well. Miller gives Grant, the smarmy doctor, a delicious edge. Sturdivant carries the arc of Tony's tropical adventure with a manic momentum. Montano-Bowers gives Kristin a dark side of Nancy Sinatra vibe, equal parts funny and scary. Carolyn Houston Boone is understated, elegant, and the best listener in the bunch. She holds the space of this strange play with an uncanny grace. We want to know more about why she coughs up feathers.

Nodler's direction holds true to Shawn's brand of deviant realism, letting the silky prose push forward into the intimate spaces, without neglecting the base humor. It's a difficult play made oddly beautiful, even serene and tender in parts. Nodler mines the material's breathing spaces, keeping it authentic, and always human. Dean's set is impressive and monumental for DiverseWorks, while Kirk Markley's lighting design adds to the seductive ambiance. With Our Late Night, Catastrophic lives up to its tag line, “We will destroy you,” with yet another winning night of theater.

The Catastrophic Theatre presents Wallace Shawn's Our Late Night through April 3 at DiverseWorks.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The American Idol of Opera: Forget the large woman in a horned hat

News_Nancy Wozny_Opera Vista_Anorexia Sacra Competition_Shannon  LangmanOpera Vista founder Viswa Subbaraman holds his third annual opera festival Saturday through March 27 at the Czech Center Museum Houston. New works from national and international composers will be voted on American Idol style. There will also be two chances to see last year's festival winner, Line Tjornhoj's haunting Anorexia Sacra at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House.

Recently named an Arts Mastermind by the Houston Press, Viswa Subbaraman is carving his own particular niche in the opera ecology of Houston. The fledgling troupe's big hits include a stellar performance of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti on the Bayou Bend grounds, performing Amy Beach's landmark opera Cabildo at the actual Cabildo Museum in New Orleans, and numerous outreach programs that make opera seem fun, accessible and unscary.

Next fall, Opera Vista premieres The Silent Prince, a new opera from Thailand, at Hobby Center followed by a Bangkok tour. Subbaraman tells us exactly how he creates an opera-friendly place.

Q: How did you catch the opera bug, and have your parents gotten over the fact that you are not a doctor?

A: I took the conducting route. Almost all great conductors are opera conductors. I did not get interested in opera until I was a sophomore at Duke, where I majored in biology and music. Yes, everyone in my family is a doctor. My mom always says, "You used to be so smart Viswa. What happened?"

Q: Talk about your upcoming festival. New work in any art form is risky, and there seems to be a major drought when it comes to new operas. In Houston, we are lucky if we see a premiere every other year. It's slim pickings out there in the opera factory biz, don't you think?

A: The fear behind new opera on a grand scale is that if it doesn't go well the organization is out a few million. They need to take large risks to produce new work. We are a chamber opera contest with very specific requirements. It's doable. Over the past three years we have looked at over 200 chamber operas, so I have a good idea of what's happening nationally and internationally.

Q: How exactly do you face the opera fear factor?

A: We try to get away from opera's image of a large woman wearing a horned hat singing at the top of her lungs in a foreign language. We have a series called Opera 101, which takes place at Boheme once a month where we do all kinds of activities that engage people. Last month, we wrote an instant opera. We had two ringer singers in the audience, and of course that helped. There was a Vespa in the story, and some guy went and got his Vespa for the performance. I do something different each time. In the festival we give the audience a vote, American Idol style. Audience members can also give comments and feedback along with the jurors. They have some measure of control of their experience.

Q: What's the crowning jewel of the festival?

A: We fully produce the opera that won the previous year. We will be presenting Danish composer and 2009 winner Line Tjornhoj's opera Anorexia Sacra at the Live Oak Quaker Meeting House, which is a perfect space for the opera. It's based on the letters of Clare of Assisi, founder of an extreme ascetic medieval order known as "Poor Clare's." She died of anorexia in 1254. Tjornhoj was also inspired by pro-anorexia sites on the Web and attempts to build a poetic bridge spanning 800 years.

Q: What's your big plan for Opera Vista?

A: My hope is that we are building the next generation of audiences for Houston Grand Opera and Opera in the Heights. We take a more aggressive approach with presenting operas outdoors at Bayou Bend every fall where people can enjoy a glass a wine and walk around, using our American Idol model with the festival, and events that are way less button-down than traditional opera. I hope to make Houston the Cannes or Sundance for new opera.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

Distraction “R” US: The Myth of Multitasking

If this year didn't have enough disappointments, now we find that multitasking is a bust, or more specifically, a myth. Turns out our brains can't do two things at once. All this time, we thought we were accomplishing so much, but really we were just switching back and forth between activities. To make it worse, all the flip flopping comes at a cost, quality. It's a bit like a circuit overload; an overwhelmed noggin just shuts down.

It doesn't take a genius to know that the person driving in front of me, chatting on their cell phone, is not paying attention to the road. And don't get me started on texting and driving. The science on the failure of multitasking is mighty convincing. Stanford University researchers Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagne at the Communications between Humans and Interactive Media Lab (News.Stanford.edu ) found those who like to juggle activities underperform in comparison to one-thing-at-a-timers. Apparently, multitaskers simply cannot ignore distractions and their memories are impaired as well. So do multitaskers excel at switching back and forth between activities? The researchers predicted so, but guess what? They were wrong again, it appears that multitaskers are also unable filter out irrelevant information. But wait; there's more … Arousing our stress hormones, multitasking can actually be detrimental to our health. Walter Kirn chronicles all the bad news in his piece in The Atlantic Monthly (TheAtlantic.com), “The Autumn of Multitasking.”

Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology (Psych.UCLA.edu), discovered that we actually use a different part of our brain when we multitask. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Poldrack discovered that the hippocampus, the brain's power center for memory, is not engaged when we learned with distractions. Instead, the brain's B team for learning, the striatum, is activated. His conclusion is that there is a distinction between learning a simple activity like exercising to music, which enhances brain function, and learning something new in an environment with distraction, which doesn’t.

This isn’t exactly new information. Way back in 1959, Margaret and Lloyd Peterson published “Short Term Retention of Individual Verbal Items” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Their subjects tried to learn something new while counting backwards. As you might predict, it didn't turn out well.

None of these studies mentioned that fact that doing a few things at once is really fun and empowering. I get a sense of wild joy when I try to scramble eggs, make sure the croissants don't burn and brew the coffee, attempting to have everything ready at the exactly the same time. I feel like the conductor of my very own orchestra, or breakfast ensemble anyway. But hasn’t our techno-world has been entirely structured to scramble our attention? In the one minute we check our Facebook feed, we get a sense of thousands of people doing thousands of things. Is that all just useless information that we are wired to soak up? Is there actually a purpose? Or are we just following technology's lead?

In Nicholas Carr's now-epic essay in The Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupider,” he lays out the reasons for the sea change. Carr chronicles our mental shift occurring as we process smaller and more numerous snippets of information. Technology is actually changing the way our brains work.

Chris Welsh, owner of Mastery of Learning (MasteryOfLearning.com) and an expert on neuroscience, urges us to consider a few key facts. “We multitask all the time,” he says, “like walking and talking. We just need to be more selective about what we pay attention to.” Welsh concurs that doing many things at once can be a brain drain. “Cognitive functions take up the same real estate in the brain. We burn through a lot of energy with all that stopping one thing to do another thing.” Welsh urges us to think of having an attention budget and to practice some form of mindfulness. “We need to exercise our ability to stay focused. As habitually distracted culture, we just need to create new habits of focus. Start with something modest like 5-10 minutes of focusing on one thing and gradually increase the time.”

But that doesn't mean we need to stay glued to a one-thing-at-time lifestyle either.

I'd like to think that the human attention span is a fluid thing, darting and drifting as life comes at us. “We are hard-wired to be curious about what's in our environment,” says Welsh. “A distraction can be something interesting you can learn from. But we don't need to be distracted by every shiny thing; we can be selective about what distracts us.”

As to why we humans seem to cherish task juggling, Welsh has an explanation for that as well. “We like our entire bandwidth filled,” he says. “When we focus on just one thing that doesn't happen, so we look for something to fill it.”

So I guess it's not my fault that while writing this piece I checked my email and Facebook numerous times, watched a snippet of a Canadian TV series on YouTube, read Paul Krugman's New York Times column and sipped a delicious St. Arnold Elissa India Pale Ale. What can I say? I'm just a girl trying to fill her bandwidth.

Reprinted from Absolutely in the Loop.