Saturday, December 09, 2006

Amahl Returns to the Hobby: Sandra Organ Solis tells us why

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Sandra Organ Solis is the founding artistic director of Sandra Organ Dance Company (SODC), and a former soloist with Houston Ballet. SODC is a contemporary ballet ensemble established in 1998 to promote contemporary dance, educate the public, and diversify audiences for concert dance. She’s choreographed over 75 ballets, teaches Dance Ensembles at St John's School, pointe class at HSPVA, adult ballet at HBA, and serves on the national board of Dance/USA. She gives us the inside scoop on SODC’s production of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

What attracted you to this work?
SO: Amahl and the Night Visitors is a poignant tale of little boy's dream coming true. James Sewell's treatment of the libretto that incorporates American Sign Language is a brilliant and lovely way to make this story accessible to many. The storyline embraces a discussion of classicism and spirituality that transcends the everyday.

Why is it such a holiday favorite?
SO: Everyone wants their dreams to come true. Exciting new things come into our lives, centered on hospitality. It is a charming story that reminds us that people, who we consider living without, are sometimes happier than those who have it all.

What's relevant in the piece for today's audiences?
SO: With all the emphasis on materialism that this holiday promotes, it's a sweet reminder that so many in our society have don't even have their basic needs, while we live in excess. It is also an opportunity to learn basic ASL alphabet and create access for those challenged by physical limitation.

Houston audiences may not be familiar with James Sewell. Can you fill us in?
SO: James Sewell danced with Eliot Feld Ballet in NYC and started his company a dozen years ago there. He moved back to Minneapolis near his family and took this company with him.

How did you meet Sewell?
SO: I met James thru Dance USA, where we served on the board together. He was a few years ahead of me with his own chamber ensemble ballet so he's been a mentor to me. He had just choreographed Amahl and I was immediately captivated with the ASL component, as well as its brevity, and its suitability to a small ensemble. SODC has been trying for 8 years to do this work. Next year we hope to add the live musical component to coincide with our Tenth Anniversary Season.

If Sewell did the choreography what is SODC's contribution?
SO: SODC hired local artists to paint the backdrop (our first, with the help of Tom Boyd and the Houston Ballet warehouse space), bought the set and Pat Covington, DIVA II, and I arranged for the costumes and props. I hired the dancers and brought in the choreologist to set the work. I added a few bits of choreography for talented extras in the story when the villagers come to visit.

Tell us about the use of sign language in the piece.
SO: The ASL complements the telling of the tale with broad strokes and particular words. It communicates the general idea of a conversation by picking up some of the language or context. Sometimes awkward facial expressions are part of the sign, for example with the word for 'covet" or "lust" one distends the neck and has a grotesque manifestation in the mouth as well. The audience will learn a few of the common signs they will see throughout the production when they are introduced to the alphabet at the beginning of the concert. It heartens me greatly, that for the hard of hearing, this enhances their understanding when the music cannot be heard.

You are dancing one of the three kings. What does that mean for you?
SO: That there are not enough good male dancers available at Nutcracker time! I am dancing Caspar, the king that is hard of hearing; it is a comedic role and it's ironic alongside the ASL. That king has a special bond with the little boy, Amahl, and was originally choreographed on a woman as well. James has the same problem finding a few good men; he occasionally does the role of the Page, as did I, last year, and he too has danced 'Caspar" as well as the village duet.

Have you ever considered how being the daughter of a doctor has influenced you?. I wonder if your connection to Amahl has anything to do with your father and mother both being in the healing professions.
SO:That’s an interesting question. Well, Dance is a healing art!

What's next for SODC?
SO: The Seed Series: the 9th annual Black History Month concert. It will feature the songs of Stevie Wonder, the solo, Creation, new works about George Washington Carver and the migrant farm worker movement. We also are hoping to feature a guest artist from Dallas Black Dance Theatre.

SODC presents AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS with Choreography by James Sewell on December 15, 16, 2006 at 2pm and 7:30pm, Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall, 801 Bagby at Rusk. Tickets available at 713-315-2525 or