Monday, August 07, 2006

Christina Giannelli on Dance Source Houston's First Year

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Dance Source Houston's Christina Giannelli

Every city needs at least one person to truly care about dance. For Houston, Christina Giannelli is that person. Ballet fans know her as the resident Lighting Designer for Houston Ballet and for her outstanding work with Texas Ballet Theatre. Modern dancers know her from a decade plus of orchestrating A Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance and all her work with the Houston Dance Coalition. Giannelli has taken her concern for dance to a new level with Dance Source Houston (DSH), an all-purpose dance support organization that serves the entire Houston Dance community, through its many projects such as festivals, the “Dance Card,” a weekly e-newsletter and an up-to- the minute website. Most astonishing is the amount of dance writing DSH has generated in a year. Previews, reviews, interviews are posted weekly on the website helping to spread the news of the sheer vitality of the Houston dance scene. DSH turned one recently and Giannelli caught us up on life in the lighting and dance impresario lane.

AH: If you had to describe DSH in one sentence to a newcomer to Houston what would you say?

CG: The nation’s newest dance service organization, dedicated to supporting and developing Houston into a world class dance city.

AH: Congratulations on DSH’s one year anniversary. Although technically the non-profit is just a year old, its roots go back a decade. Can you fill us in on what brought this organization into its present form?

CG: I started producing the Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance at the Miller outdoor theater twelve years ago as a way to champion local dance and it grew from there.

AH: If you had to name DSH’s single greatest accomplishment over this year what would that be?

CG: Co-hosting Dance USA on Tour in March. It was supposed to happen in the fall but got moved because of Hurricane Rita. It brought the dance community together in a new way.

But my favorite thing that we have done is having started Dance Writings in response to the lack of reviewing and write-ups allotted to contemporary dance. We commission and pay for reviews and commentaries and post them on our website. This year we will be improving the website and adding a blog or some other way for audience members and artists to participate in the discussion.

AH: We see DSH tables all over town. How do you get so many organizations to cooperate?

CG: It’s free! We offer it as a service to all dance organizations, an opportunity to have their materials seen around town by other audiences without them having to drag it around themselves. That’s one of our big aims, reducing the amount of administrative drudgery for the artists as well as increasing the visibility of the art form.

AH: The dance card, DSH’s playbill-sized frequently update calendar, is a stroke of brilliance. Few dancers and dance lovers leave home without it. How did you get that idea?

CG: The local companies have limited resources, few can afford paid advertising of any kind, and they rely on free listings and perhaps a postcard mailing. These tend to come out the week before the show. I wanted audiences to have a way to plan in advance as well as to have a handy reference where they could easily see everything on offer for any given day. Perforce the listings are brief (and the type small) so that we can fit it all on the card, but we have longer, more informative listings on our website. I’ve been really pleased with the reception the Dance Card has received.

AH: This year DSH collaborated with Dance USA as part of their touring workshop. The opening night reception was a literal who’s who in Houston dance. What were some of the highlights of the Dance USA collaboration?

CG: I was really happy with the way it all turned out. The opening night party was a great gathering! And the discussion that we held afterwards, sort of a bull session for the company directors, choreographers and artistic directors was connecting, cathartic and enlightening. The Saturday workshops provided by Dance USA were informative and engaging.

AH: Any plans for another one?

CG: Yes, thanks in part to a grant from the Houston Endowment, Dance USA will return in November for another couple of days of workshops and speakers.

AH: The fall DSH festival just keeps getting bigger is a favorite for dance companies and audiences. What’s exciting about the plans for this year?

CG: This year’s program follows the by now very tried and true format. There are some recurring favorites, Houston Met performing Cadence, a particularly demanding piece by Priscilla Nathan-Murphy (we were to premiere it on last year’s program but as you may remember the entire program was cancelled two days out because of Rita) and Suchu performing a recent piece that exemplifies choreographer Jennifer Wood's current fascination with film and video. What is interesting to me about this year’s program is the number of pieces by independent choreographers who are teaching at colleges around the city, such as Suzanne Oliver, Victoria Loftin, and Becky Valls. It speaks to the developing strength and richness of these programs and bodes well for the future of dance in Houston these programs turn out increasingly skilled, creative dancers and choreographers who will hopefully choose to make their lives here.

AH: You have also been a huge supporter of World Dance here. What’s happening on the World Dance front?

CG: Last year we inaugurated a new project for the Miller Theatre in collaboration with Central College’s Institute of World Dance. Tapestry of World Dance concentrates on, as the name implies, cultural dance. Our city is rich with marvelous groups, but they are rarely seen outside of their own communities. I wanted to bring them all together in a festive atmosphere at the Miller, where the city could really celebrate itself. Last year was a general tour around the globe, barley scratching the surface. This year we are focusing on the African Diaspora, the program called Following the Rhythm literally follows African dance rhythms and styles to the Americas from the past into the present. I’m having a blast putting this together with Deborah Quanhaim, Cynthia Cupach and Maxine Silberstein.

AH: You are a dance lighting designer by trade. How do you juggle both careers?

CG: It keeps me out of trouble. The rest of my life is pretty pared down, low maintenance, small house, small garden, and small car. My free time is spent traveling to see my family or with a few close friends here in Houston. The challenge is to fit in enough exercise, food and sleep. With the changes and growth at Houston Ballet and the demands of DSH I have had to curtail my outside design work. With the exception working with Ben Stevenson at Texas Ballet Theater for the last two years my full design attention has been focused on Houston Ballet. I have had to turn down a number of projects this past year and I am getting a little itchy. I think of myself first as a lighting designer, and then as a producer. I don’t really think of myself as an arts administrator although I have done a lot of it over the years. My vision and goal for Dance Source Houston is to have a full time paid executive director in place in by the 2008-2009 season. I am looking forward to going back to being a full time designer, perhaps start doing some opera and theater again, and having the time to work closely with artists as they develop new works.

AH: How did you go from Yale to Houston Ballet?
CG: I was an undergraduate at Yale and I was allowed to take the lighting and scenic design courses at the Yale School of Drama. I was heavily involved in the Yale Dramat, an undergraduate organization that shared the University Theater building with the Drama School. I spent most of my waking hours there. I assisted Bill Warfel, the head of the design program, on operas that he lighted for the Graduate School of Music. That’s how I got introduced to opera lighting. One of the graduate lighting design students introduced me to Chenault Spence, then the lighting designer for the Alvin Ailey Company, and I started assisting on their City Center seasons in NY. Chenault introduced me to dance lighting and spun small shows off to me. In this business it is all who you know, one connection leads to another.

AH: So when did Houston show up on your radar?
A talented stage manager that I was working with in NY had done his training at HGO. He knew about an opening at HGO and thought it would be perfect for me. That was in 1985, and I was lighting Maurice Hines and Mercede Ellington’s Tap company at that time and wasn’t interested. The job opened up again at the end of the ’86 season, by then Maurice and Mercedes were on to other things and it seemed like time for a move. I planned to stay 18 months, long enough to get the Opera settled into their new home at the Wortham. With the impending move to the Wortham the Houston Ballet realized that they needed a lighting supervisor to oversee the larger rig and as they say, the rest was history.

AH: Your work on Christopher Bruce’s new work, Hush, was spellbinding. Can you share some of your process?

CG: Working with Chris is always a privilege and a pleasure for me. He is always exploring and refining, never settling. After years of recreating other designer’s work for Chris it was thrilling to finally collaborate with him on a new work. It was actually an unusual process for us. The piece is very intimate and Chris was reluctant to make firm decisions about the design elements early in the choreographic process. He was very much discovering the piece as he was created it, a very organic process. I was very proud of the production team, that as a group we allowed him to continue in this fashion. My lighting crew and I had to remain flexible as well. Having worked with Chris over the years, I knew some of his preferences, I had color chosen for the side light that would work with the red and yellow of the costumes, enrich the skin tones, and play off the white clown makeup.

AH: What are you looking forward to for the upcoming season on both the DSH and lighting design fronts?

CG: I am really looking forward to the DSH fall shows at the Miller, Tapestry of World Dance: Following the Rhythm, and the 12th Annual Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance. Please let there be no hurricanes this year! After they are over we will start working on our next big idea, local touring for dance, getting the downtown companies out to theaters throughout Harris and surrounding counties.

We have three premieres on the first Houston Ballet program, always exciting, and I am thrilled to be lighting Stanton’s new work on that program. In October, I will be the production designer for Musiqa’s first event of the season the Zilkha hall.

Dance Source Houston presents A Weekend of Texas Dance , 8:00pm, Miller Outdoor Theater on September 22 & 23. 713-224-DANC (3262) or visit

Reprinted from Artshouston.