Wednesday, April 23, 2008

IN MOTION: UH's Karen Stokes on Moving Pictures

Karen Stokes, choreographer, dance enthusiast, and Head of the Dance Division at University of Houston, fills DSH in on Moving Pictures, the coming UH faculty concert, and her life in Houston's non-stop dance lane.

Dance Source Houston: Why should Houston dance folks trek out there to see the show?

Karen Stokes: I hope that Houston folks in general will come out to see the show since “dance folks” are in limited supply. Here are some reasons to come:

Some of Houston’s most interesting choreographers are presenting new work including Jennifer Wood, Rebecca Valls, and Toni Valle. The theme of the concert revolves around contemporary classical music and was jointly selected by UH faculty choreographers and the Director of AURA (Moores School of Music Contemporary Ensemble). The show gives dance lovers & music lovers a chance to see how these choreographers interpret the music.

The University of Houston has been providing a “bench” of performers to the contemporary dance scene in the last few years with alums dancing with Hopestone, Suchu Dance, Sandra Organ Dance Company, Uptown Dance Company, Leslie Scates, Psophonia Dance Company, Rebecca Valls, Teresa Chapman, Dancepatheater, Toni Valle, and Travesty Dance Group. This is a chance to see some of the “up & coming” dancers in our scene. Plus, it’s a great show. Perhaps I should have put that first.

DSH: I'm sold. I see that you have some energy going on between the dance faculty and the faculty at Moore's School of Music.

KS: I think the only composer that is also a faculty member is Rob Smith, and I selected his work. In truth, I selected the piece from a CD Rob gave me for another project entirely. Rob had given the faculty choreographers a CD of selected work that he felt would be great for AURA to play. I let the other choreographers select their pieces first, and then I listened to what they had selected. It seemed to me that the work in general was “serious” and I thought the concert could use a more humorous sound. So I asked Rob if I could use this sax piece of his (he was not one of the composers on our “list”) from the other CD. It struck me as a quirky, lively world of sound that would enhance the overall concert.

The collaborative component of this project really had to do with the April 11th production in which student musicians and student dancers performed together. But for those who missed it – we are reprising the choreography with recorded sound on our upcoming dance concert.

DSH: How did this come about?

KS: Rob Smith deserves the credit, along with Karen Farber at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. A couple of years ago Rob suggested that composer Stephen Montague be a guest artist with choreography set to his work. His proposal was accepted as a Mitchell Center project, which helped us to fund the first collaborative production. It was a success, and Rob wanted the collaboration to continue.

DSH: Was it a challenge to use original music? How so?

KS: The piece I used by Rob is titled “Morse Code Pop.” It was challenging in large part because of the mixed meter which meant that “counting” was not possible for the most part. However, we got into the music by listening to all the different “beeps” and rhythms and in the end, the dancers and I were all able to “sing” most of the musical phrases after a fashion. This helped us to get “inside” Rob’s world a little. Also – Rob provided a lovely ABA tempo structure that went from allegro to adagio to allegro (fast/slow/fast), which provided a nice overall structure to work with. All in all, I would not say it was any more challenging than any other work I’ve created. They all seem impossible to me in the beginning. Then somehow, a few answers are found.

DSH: I always think its good to collaborate in the neighborhood. How do you see the relationship between the UH dance community and the larger community? Is it changing?

KS: I think that the UH dance community has been actively engaged in the local (particularly contemporary) dance scene in recent years. We have many links through our faculty and our students/alum. Our adjunct faculty is hired in large part to provide links from UH to the outside dance community. The creation of Big Range Dance Festival was partially conceived as a link between the UH Center for Choreography and Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex. As mentioned before, many local choreographers use our dancers in their work. While we are still “fleshing out” the possibilities exchange – there are many community crossovers that are already occurring. As our program builds in resources (particularly full-time faculty), I hope our ability to become a center for the community will increase.

There are also bridges being built between the arts right now. The Mitchell Center’s emphasis on collaborative performance art is helping all of us move in the direction of cross-disciplinary work. Dance is cross disciplinary by nature (we mix often with music, theater, & art). So I don’t think that this is new in concept in any way. However, it is new to be able to get support specifically for this– that is a great motivator. Desire alone does not make art – in the end – you have to get funding to produce the work.

I am a glass half full person. I think the UH Dance Community is growing and changing in positive directions – and I believe this growth has and will positively enhance our larger dance community and the city of Houston. Community is a “buzz” phrase in my classes. My students know that I feel community is paramount – and I hope that this will translate into more possibilities in the future.

DSH: How competitive is it these days to make into the UH ENSEMBLE?

KS: We often have dancers stay for several years in ENSEMBLE – lingering until they absolutely must graduate, so that’s a nice affirmation of our group. It is a strong community – one in which many of the dancers become very close. It also is a “pre-professional” experience, with the dancers working upward of 18 hours a week in the dance studio. These dancers really get pushed and they still have to finish their academic homework. Some of our best ENSEMBLE dancers started their dance training at the University of Houston – and we are proud of that. We want to create dancers who are technically proficient, who are strong individuals on stage, and who are critical thinkers. I think we have some success – even though I am prejudiced.

It is competitive to get into the ENSEMBLE – but to be frank – often the time commitment alone will weed out many would be ENSEMBLE members. It takes a dancer with good dance skills and even better discipline/commitment to make it through both ENSEMBLE and college at the same time.

DSH: And I must say you are doing a great job with this new crop. Any way to convince some of these dancers to hang around? We are in midst of a serious dancer drought.

KS: Some of our best dancers will stay because they prefer living in their hometown to going off to NYC or Chicago or wherever. So we don’t have to worry about all of them leaving. Meanwhile – I don’t think it is such a bad idea for dancers to get out of Houston and explore the world. I did it myself – and learned a lot. So I’m not going to make the argument to stay here – because I want our students to succeed on their own terms. For some, that means staying. For others, that means going. I want to support whatever their choices are – as long as they are positive life choices.

As a general answer to dancer drought: To keep or attract dancers to Houston, we need to provide exciting, interesting dance jobs with salaries. Dancers will work for free on projects they are passionate about. But – in the end – they deserve to be paid. Of course, this is not just a Houston problem – funding for dance is a long-term national problem that all dance artists deal with in one way or another here and elsewhere.

But as I say – I’m a glass half full person. If a choreographer needs dancers, they should create an environment in which dancers want to work and feel inspired by. It helps if you can respect your dancers by paying them something. But in the end, it is the work itself that will draw the dancers. If there is to be a short answer to this question: To keep dancers, provide exciting opportunities.

DSH: Amen to the dancers getting jobs idea. You have two jobs. What's it like juggling your work with Travesty and your work at UH? How do you see the two as connected?

KS: Juggling UH and TDG is an on-going challenge. I love both jobs, but both are extremely time consuming. There are times when one job must take over – and the other must move to the back burner. These flows happen fairly organically (as deadlines approach), but I try to assist by not putting too many projects onto my plate at the last minute, planning ahead, time management, etc. However, I often do overload (being a “yes sayer” by nature), and then I have the “excitement” of managing the overload.

Teaching & creating are almost inseparably connected at this point. Choreography is my passion. I really think dance making is fun. Not the administrative work (I know of no choreographer that loves this), but the process – the hours I log in with company members, is marvelous. Because I feel this way about dance making, it feeds me as a teacher. I don’t think I would be all that effective as a teacher if I did not truly feel excited about the work I do. So one is necessary for the other in my case. Also – working in the “real world” (outside of academia) gives an extra dimension to what I can teach students.

On the other hand, being in academia provides interesting stimulation that I cannot get in the professional world. Teaching allows me to contextualize what I’m doing as a dance maker. It puts into action my belief that being a “thinking dancer” is crucial. As an active dance maker, I am able to bring to the table relevant information for our dance students who are interested in choreography. Since choreography is a focus of our program (Center for Choreography), this seems important.

I also use alum in my choreography – they know how I work, and I understand and enjoy their skills and personalities from having worked with them first in training.

The Center for Choreography has several “affiliated” choreographers and dance companies, of which Travesty Dance Group is one. We link with programming when possible (such as TDG performing with UH ENSEMBLE and Aura recently), we provide performance opportunities for students, and we receive benefits such as rehearsal space through this affiliation. It’s a win-win for all of us, and makes a strong bridge between the professional dance community and the academic learning environment.

DSH: What’s next? And don't be shy. Let it all out.

Here's what we have on our TDG calendar – and there will be more with University of Houston calendar coming soon.

May 16 TDG & UH ENSEMBLE at Discovery Green 7:00 p.m. via Fresharts

June 5-7 TDG performs a new piece at Big Range Dance Festival in a program curated by Teresa Chapman

October 18 TDG performs new original (ground up) collaborative work with Musiqa at Zilkha Hall (composer Rob Smith)

November 6-9 TDG travels to Philadelphia to perform with TDG national group

December 11-3 TDG performs “Portables” at Zilkha Hall

March 2009 TDG does the Discovery Series at Zilkha Hall

UH presents Moving Pictures on April 25 & 26 at 8pm, and April 27 at 2pm at the L. F. Wortham Theater. Call 713-743-2929.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston