Sunday, June 03, 2007

Big Range Dance Festival Turns Five

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Leslie Dworkin in Sanctuary
Photo By Amitava Sarkar

Big Range Dance Festival (BRDF) turns five this year and is doing its best to live up to its title. Started in 2003 by Louie Saletan and Karen Stokes, the festival showcases local and visiting artists in a three week long event at Barnevelder Movement Arts Center. The festival has “let's put on a show” origins. Stokes, Suchu Dance, and Rob Davidson just happened to be planning events all at the same time. A light bulb went off and they decided to line them up in a row, market the shows together, and suddenly, it was a festival. “We also wanted to put Barnevelder on the map,” says Saletan. “And June seemed a perfect time because it's usually a dead dance month.”

Stokes christened the festival “Big Range.” “I liked the title because it suggested work that stretched folks, took them out of their comfort zones, and it linked seamlessly with my show of that year, HOMETOWN,” remembers Stokes. “We wanted to give contemporary dance a spotlight event in Houston. From that respect, I think we have succeeded,” admits Stokes. “It represents an on-going mission to make Houston a center for contemporary dance.”

Flash forward to today, and the BRDF has become one of the few venues for emerging choreographers to show new work. The Dance Gathering on June 10th showcases 20 choreographers showing 4-minute dances. “Anyone can show a work,” admits Saletan. “It's a first come first serve, open-to-all event.” Non-curated performance opportunities are far and few between in Houston. This evening is purposely not reviewed so newcomers can experiment without fear of being stopped in their tracks by a grumpy critic. “A wide net is cast to allow fledgling choreographers a place to present ideas,” says Stokes. “It’s a great opportunity for choreographers/dancers and for dance audiences.”

Presenting a handful of out-of-towners is also part of the Big Range mission. “My goal is to have the festival be half Houston artists and half from somewhere else,” says Saletan. “We not there yet, but that's the plan.” Austinite Leslie Dworkin will be dancing in her own work, Sanctuary, which premiered at the Joyce Soho earlier this season. And from either farther out of town, Alicia Sanchez of Mexico city will be presenting three works thanks to a collaborative effort with Several Dancers Core (SDC). SDC's artistic director Sue Schroeder became a fan of Sanchez's work while touring Mexico in search of like-minded folk. “Her work is dramatic, emotional, and intensely visual,”says Schroeder. “We were delighted to collaborate with Barnevelder and hope to continue to be involved.”

Big Range is not just for newbies. Established choreographers need to place to strut their still-in-the- oven stuff. Jane Weiner of Hope Stone calls herself a slow-cook choreographer, who likes to make dances in stages before renting the Cullen for the big show. She will be premiering the first steps towards an evening-length work called See Me. Loosely based on the experience of being blind and the potency of vision, Weiner welcomes this opportunity to try her ideas out in front of a live audience. “Right now it's just movement phrases; eventually I want to add in a blind person, television, and video clips,” says Weiner. “But the Big Range is a perfect place for me to get out the more dancey sections.”

Amy Ell is also stirring the choreographic gray matter with the beginnings of a new work that is also on its way to a full-evening presentation in the 07/08 season. She's continuing her interest in human biology, exploring observation, vision, and perception with Darren Emanuel on sound and video. Barnvelder's resident dance maker, Jennifer Wood of Suchu Dance, will also be experimenting with new material as will local improvisation expert Leslie Scates.

Salatan also wanted the Big Range to present some of the fine work being shown on the stages of local colleges. “Often this work never gets seen by a larger audience,” he says. “And the quality of dancers at local schools is on the upswing.” Stokes is also making use of her down time from University of Houston by showing one of her favorite works, Prelude to Three Temperaments.

Teresa Chapman, also on faculty at University of Houston, is using the Big Range to get a wider audience for her work she's done on her students, called Shift. “I thought the Big Range would be perfect to showcase our three male ensemble members,” says Chapman. “I guess I'd call it robust; it capitalizes on the male energy.”

Highlighting Houston's up-and-coming companies is another Big Range goal and . Revolve Dance Company is just such a troupe. (Co-directors Amy Cain and Dawn Dippel are frequent performers with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater and Ad Deum Dance Company.) “Revolve jumped on the scene in a big way this season,” says Saletan. “Big Range is a perfect venue for them to increase their visibility.” Jhon Stronks takes the lead in the independent rising choreographers category, and will be presenting A View from the Edge, which fuses hip-hop and African dance with a Baroque sensibility.

No dance festival is complete without the dance versions of the Oscars. New York has the “Bessies,” San Francisco has the “Izzies,” and Houston has the “Buffies.” Named after the hardy Buff Orpington breed of chicken, the award is given to various leaders in the dance community to honor sustained service. Past recipients have included Maxine Silberstein of the Jewish Community Center, Chris Lidvall and Linda Phenix, two longtime leaders in modern dance, and Sixto Wagan and Loris Bradly, the experimental connoisseurs of DiverseWorks. “We need awards if Houston going to be taken seriously as a dance city,” says Saletan. This year local artistic directors will be nominating their favorite performers to be voted on by a select group of individuals ”It's not a popularity contest,” says Salatan. “We wanted to try a peer-selected process this time.” This year will mark the first time a performer get the award. At press time the winner is still top secret and will be announced on June 17th, the last night of the festival.

Big Range is jointly curated by Stokes, Wood, and Stokes. They are on the lookout year- round for interesting work. “I want the festival to be an example for choreographers; they don't have to follow traditional paths for doing work,” says Saletan. “We try to pick the cream of the crop. I also look for work that comes from an unselfconscious place. It's hard to define, but I know it when I see it.”

The Big Range Dance Festival take place June 1-17 at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex. Call 713-529-1819 or visit

Reprinted from Artshouston.