Sunday, April 09, 2006

DANCE SALAD: A Mix that Matters

For Houston dance lovers, April marks Dance Salad month. For 11 years now, Curator and Artistic Director, Nancy Henderek, has been bringing the world to Houston dance audiences with her legendary international dance festival, known as Dance Salad. The festival gets its catchy name from the founder’s intention to show an astounding array of choreography from places far and near. Year 11 boasts a whopping 11 different companies, dancing 15 different pieces of choreography, with 58 dancers from seven different countries. And if those numbers don’t knock your socks off, nine of the dances are US premieres.

Every year Henderek scopes the international dance festivals and comes up with a unique three-day event. Whether she’s hanging out at the Edinburgh International Festival, Holland Dance Festival, or the Singapore Arts Festival, you can bet Henderek is shopping for just the right “salad” ingredients. Several of the dances will be shown more than once, but each program will be distinct. Hard core fans usually attend at least two nights.

Dance Salad has also put Houston on the map as a place to see international dance. It’s not unusual for people to travel from all over the US to see the show. Henderek, a former choreographer herself, hand-picks each piece to make a satisfying whole. She has no set criteria; the longest Dance Salad piece so far has been 30 minutes, the shortest, four minutes. Henderek has no set laundry list of what she looking for in a piece of choreography. “The dance has to strike me emotionally or musically or be so well danced that one is in awe of the movement itself,” say Henderek, “Something has to makes it come together and communicate to me; then I know it will communicate to others.” She’s been doing this long enough that she has developed a sixth sense of knowing how all the pieces will fit together.

Henderek never knows where her next find might be and keeps her world-traveling ears open year-round. She also has developed an international network of friends and acquaintances that keep her informed. The festival has such a national reputation that Henderek’s house is now loaded with DVDs of artists vying for a spot on the festival.

Modern dance may not come to mind when you think about China. Think again. Henderek scouted out the Chinese at the Guangdong Modern Dance Festival, in Guangzhou, China. Henderek’s finds include Beijing Modern Dance LDTX and The Guangdong Modern Dance Company, two of China’s leading modern dance companies. The husband and wife team of Li Han-zhong and Ma Bo of The Beijing Company choreographed All River Red, set to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Flying red scarves, a traditional Chinese symbol of good luck, are transformed into a myriad of shapes and meanings in the dance while Guangdong Modern Dance Company draws on an ancient writing form in Upon Calligraphy.

As in several previous years, the Northern European companies will make a strong showing. Royal Danish Ballet, Danish Dance Theater, The Dutch National Ballet, and Göteborgs Operans Balett (Sweden) are all on the bill, as well as a rare appearance by the Béjart Ballet Lausanne (Switzerland).

Each year Henderek selects a few American dance companies to complete the bill. This year Trey McIntyre, a familiar face to Houston audiences, will be presenting Chasing Squirrel, with his pick up company the Trey McIntyre Project. “I have always been interested in Trey's work, and Trey has been very interested in being a part of Dance Salad for years,” says Henderek. This madcap romp set to Kronos’s saucy Latin tunes follows the male/female chase in a lightening-quick athletic dance. "I couldn't be more excited to be back in Houston. The city has been such a tremendous supporter of my work and it's an honor for me to be returning with my own company,” says McIntyre. “It feels like coming home.” He will also be participating in the Choreographers' Forum April 12, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a panel discussion where the artists share their processes. McIntyre honed his choreography chops at the Houston Ballet under Ben Stevenson and still holds the post of Choreographic Associate. It seems fitting that Stevenson’s new company, Texas Ballet Theater, is also on the program in Stevenson’s vivacious Vivaldi Pas de Deux.

The other American choreographer, Ronald K. Brown, recently impressed Houston audiences with his work on the Alvin Ailey American Dance. Praised by The New York Times as “one of the most profound choreographers of his modern dance generation,” he will present sections of Come Ye, set to music by Nina Simone and Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Every year Henderek comes up with a major find-a choreographer or company that has never been seen before in the US. In Hanover, Germany, she discovered both in Stephen Thoss, at the Ballett der Staatsoper Hannover/Thoss-Tanz. “I was impressed with their wonderful imagination, level of technique, and dedication, says Henderek. “I am happy to introduce them to the US.”

Margaret Mims of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH)appreciates Henderek’s keen curatorial eye. “The concept of Dance Salad is very similar to the way exhibitions here at the MFAH bring together the work of number of artists, often from various countries and cultures around the world,” said Mims. “Similarly, the Festival offers a curated evening of dance—it’s a diverse group of dance companies on one program each of which brings their own signature.”

Dance Salad has expanded its outreach programs to include lectures, demonstrations, master classes, and exhibits. Even though groups travel from distant lands, it’s important to remember that Dance Salad Festival is a locally produced production. “No one will see this mix done this way anywhere else in the world. This is made for the Houston audience,” says Henderek. “Houston's name is traveling the world which raises the knowledge of our city as a place for good dance.”

Dance Salad takes place on April 13, 14, and 15, 2006, at 7:30 pm, Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. Call 713.315.2525 or visit

Reprinted from artshouston