Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The humble little Dance Source Houston (DSH) table holding the city's news on upcoming dance events made the August issue of Dance Magazine in Wendy Perron's "Curtain Up" letter. Here's an excerpt; read the whole piece here.

Way to go DSH!

Curtain Up

By Wendy Perron

Natalia Alonso, relaxing between takes.
During a recent visit to the Houston Ballet, I saw a wonderful thing at intermission. In the red-carpeted grand foyer of the Wortham Center, alongside the gourmet items and elegant photo display, there was a table laden with brochures and flyers. These materials included information on the many groups that make up Dance Source Houston. A local service organization, DSH has members in modern dance, jazz, tap, and flamenco, as well as in Houston’s Black Dance Festival and the international Dance Salad Festival. Any patron of Houston Ballet could meander over and learn about the other types of dance happening in their city. It’s the same philosophy that Pacific Northwest Ballet showed last year when it invited local modern dance companies (Spectrum Dance Theater and Molly Scott/Powell Performance) to be part of its Celebrate Seattle Festival—plus they had Portland’s Ten Tiny Dances performing during intermission. I hope to be seeing more of this kind of sharing and generosity in the future.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cancelled: Life in the Obsolete Lane

Image Hosted by

I took this photo in Vermont, long before I ever considered dance critics an endangered lot. Never under estimate the predictive abilities of the artistic process. Anyway, after hanging out with dance critics from all over the U.S. at ADF, I report that we are still a lively bunch, even amidst a climate of nothing but dire news. Doug McLennan called us a survivalist camp. He told us to sit tight until the next wave of arts journalism shows itself. I'll go for that. There's a certain freedom to becoming extinct. Reinventing oneself becomes a necessity rather than a whim. Here's his recent rant on Martin Bernheimer's piece Critics in a Hostile World.

The disappearance of dance critics is just the tip of the sinking print ship. To catch up, read Eric Alterman's piece in The New Yorker. To get super current Democracy Now just did a piece this morning on the declining health of American newspapers.

If you really want to get involved visit the Arts Journalism Blog Critical Edge: Critics in a Critical Age- an online debate. Wouldn't you know it, there isn't a dance critic in the mix.

As a sucker for hope, let it be known that Houston still rocks in its own can-do way. Glasstire and Dance Source Houston, two start-up non-profits, have picked up the slack. So let's have art have the last word. Notice the rock is still standing tall.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

10 Years and 20 Gongs: Michele Brangwen on Sanctuary Moon

Michele Brangwen has been crafting dance in Houston and elsewhere for a decade. Her company, the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble (MBDE), performs new and recent work at Barnevelder this weekend, and as always, the show contains live music. Thus far, MBDE has commissioned sixteen new music works for dance, presented the works of two Houston choreographers, and seventeen living American and European composers ranging from classical to jazz to avant-garde jazz. Brangwen discusses her work with DSH below.

Dance Source Houston: 20 Gongs for your tenth, that's 2 per year and quite a ratio. Talk about why you chose the new work mode vs. retrospective path.

Michele Brangwen: We decided to take some of the concepts that we have been exploring and developing over the years and see just how far we could push them. It seems an exciting way to mark one’s anniversary: by looking forward to what may be possible in the future.

DSH: Can you give us a flavor of the artistic climate that motivated your newest work, Sanctuary Moon?

MB: This work is very intimate despite the dynamics of the finale where three large gongs are played continuously. I wanted the work to illustrate both complexities of how we feel when we let go and open up -- maybe show the parts of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with -- as well as the tranquility we feel when we let these sounds take us to a purifying place.

DSH: You have been working with the composer Seth Paynter for some time now. Talk about the collaborative process and don't forget to fill us in on the 20 gongs.

MB: Seth is a musician who has a channel open to some other realm when he plays. KUHF Announcer Eric Ladau recently compared him to Pharoah Sanders, who was the second sax player in Coltrane’s last ensemble (which also included Alice Coltrane, Rasheid Ali, and Jimmy Garrison – check out ‘Live at the Village Vanguard Again”). They were catapulting music forward, but doing it with an intensity of feeling that was sublime. I think Ledau’s comparison of Seth Paynter’s music making is a good one; he is looking for the next level but doing so with an integrity of intention.

There is also Brian Nelson’s A Note From Guantanamo on the program. Nelson is a gifted composer, coming from a classical background but working in electronic music. I feel honored to be able to continue to collaborate with musicians of such a high caliber. They push me forward to new places creatively.

DSH: If live music is your first love, is film your second? What does Yunuen Perez Vertti's video work add to the piece?

MB: Dance and music are equal loves of mine. If you look at the history of modern dance in America, the two were inseparable. Martha Graham received more commissions from symphony orchestras than anywhere else. She worked with almost every known composer for her time. Molissa Fenley just opened at the Joyce with the Phillip Glass Ensemble. And the boundaries of presentation have been crumbling for decades along with the separation of art forms. Classification exists merely for people who need it; it has no bearing on art or its impact. It’s just words and art is meaning.

Yunuen Perez Vertti has an amazing eye and she is courageous. I come to her with my crazy ideas and she says cool, and frames them beautifully. She also has a magnificent eye for editing dance.

DSH: Sanctuary Moon involves some improvisation from both the dancers and the musicians. Can you describe the rehearsal process that built that level of trust?

MB: We work with each other all year round on developing our improvisational skills. Many of our musicians have dedicated themselves to jazz and avant-garde music that requires them to be master improvisers. They have been thinking about the process of learning to do it well for their entire careers. They have been a tremendous help in rehearsals. And the dancers too are great with feedback. We come together and work and then talk and evaluate what we have done.

DSH: You are also reprising A Note From Guantanamo which was inspired from a photograph. How did a photograph make its way to be a dance?

MB: NOTE FROM GUANTÁNAMO is inspired by a photograph from the FOTOFEST exhibition: GUANTÁNAMO. PICTURES FROM HOME. QUESTIONS OF JUSTICE curated by Margo Herster. The image depicts a hand written note and a pair of earrings sent by proxy from a detainee at Guantánamo to his family in Yemen. Although the image is specific, the work’s broader theme is the idea that a gift, like an object, can carry a current of human emotion across impossible boundaries.

DSH: After ten years of dancing in Houston do you have any words of wisdom for someone thinking of starting a dance company?

MB: I think the hardest thing to accept is that it takes so much longer than you think to get to where you want to go, but the journey is a happening one. And if it is meant to be your journey in life, then you should not let people take you away from it. Like Martha Graham said, it is your job to keep your channel open because if you silence your voice, then the world will not have it. People talk about how hard this profession is, but all professions it seems to me have their difficulties. People struggle with bosses and jobs and all kinds of life situations that create stress.

DSH: I understand Sweden and more film is in your future.

MB: Yes, after these upcoming performances we will be begin a two-part collaboration with the Norrtbotten Big Band, an avant-garde jazz orchestra in Sweden. We will travel to Sweden this December to work on a film project with them, and then return again in December 2009 for live performances that will incorporate the film.

The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble presents the premiere of Michele Brangwen's SANCTUARY MOON on July 26th at 8pm and July 27 at 7pm at Barnevelder and August 9th at 8pm at the Performing Arts Center at HCC NW. Advance tickets available on line at

REVIEW: The Black Dance Festival

Presented by Second Generation Dance Company

Friday, July 17, 2008

Heinen Theater

The bi-annual Black Dance Festival (BDF) presented by Second Generation Dance Company provides a welcome opportunity for community-based groups and more traditional dance companies to perform on the same bill. The mix makes it harder for the less polished in the line-up, but the generous crowd in attendance last Friday night enjoyed each offering. In addition to two professional showcases, the BDF also included a youth showcase, an evening of Praise dance, and even a midnight African dance class. With a theme of “Building the Bridges of Diversity,” the spirit of inclusion pervaded the evening's festivities.

The noble slam poetess La' Crystal 7 bellows her own riveting text from“wake up is good” from a chair to launch jhon r. stronks Catch and Release Chapter IV: Do I Move You? She so galvanizes our attention that it's hard not to watch all that follows in stronks' puzzling, but always captivating, work. The program notes state “Catch and Release is a meditation on growth and the power of letting go viewed through the lens of the African American oral tradition.” OK, but there's little tradition in stronk's choreographic methods. His unruly piece unfolds according to its own logic, and it's best to let the actual work teach you how to watch it. If you can successfully let go of the usual glue that holds a dance work together Catch and Release's charms become apparent. Utilizing a confluence of movement styles including hip-hop, post-modern, and improvisatory techniques, stronks dares to play with alternative structures for making dances that are more intuitive and considerably less predictable. He creates a broad field for dancing where the eye has choices. Additional text by Nina Simone, Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Essex Hamphill provided a striking counterpoint to stronks' loosely organized style. The top-notch dancers included Alex Abarca, Corian Ellisor, Jonnesha Hawkins-Minter, Jocelyn Thomas, Brittany Wallis, La’Crystal 7, and stronks.

The youngest company on the dance block, Urban Souls Dance Company, also made a strong showing in Walther Hull and Harrison Guy's Scarlett Situation, a moving thought piece on HIV/AIDS. Hull and his troupe of sinewy dancers showed off some of the best dancing of the evening. Blending pointed dynamics and razor-sharp execution, the piece riffed on pain, resolve, and healing without being too literal. Watch out for more from this new troupe, which included Rachel Eckroth, Jadie Gill, Hull, Tiffani Hall, Michael Baerga, and Quincy Tollivier.

Kenneth Epting of Exclamation Dance Company demonstrated he is on the comeback trail with Frosted Haze and another unnamed work. Novel partnering characterized the duet tentatively performed by Gina Lewis and and Casey Boyle. Ashley Garcia-Rameau's precise dancing stood out in both pieces. Unfortunately, under rehearsed ensemble work got in the way of fully realizing Epting's intentions.

The evening also included crowd pleasing performances by Soul Time Line, Second Generation Dance Company, Kuumba House Dance Theatre, and Beckles Dancing Company. But it was two youngsters in Koumanke'le Dance & Drum Ensemble that melted our hearts in their spirited performance of Triba/Sorsonet. Sound and lighting technical glitches along with the incessant sound of snapping cameras interrupted the considerably too-long program.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Report from ADF: Maguy Marin

This is a snippet of Maguy Marin's Umvelt, by far the most stunning piece I have seen here at ADF. I am practicing watching and not writing so I will let others speak for me. Here you can read Andres Zambrano's poetic response on Claudia LaRocco's blog. Zambrano the cultural editor of El Tiempo, Colombia's largest newspaper.

You can get the inside as in backstage and technical scoop at Dance Machine, a blog that was created by Claire Croft, Jessica Lockhart, Maria Cristina Pignaloso, and Margaret Fuhrer in a workshop with Doug McClennan of ArtsJournal.

I also found Tobi Tobias' Voice of Dance review telling.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Shaw Festival 08

Every year one play emerges as the smash hit of the Shaw Festival and sometimes the author is not the notorious George Bernard Shaw. This season, J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls surfaces as the “it” play in the pack of five plays I was able to crash through in two and half days at the famed Niagara-on-the-Lake festival. Imagine a hybrid whodunit ghost story meets twilight zone and you are in the strange neighborhood of this remarkable play.

Written in 1945, but set in 1912, Priestley's play feels remarkably timely. When the so-called Inspector bellows, “We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other,” his rhetoric recalls the populist beliefs of Senators John Edwards and Barack Obama. This advice doesn't come kindly to the self-serving Berling clan, headed up by blowhard Arthur Birling, who believes that it's a look out for yourself and perhaps a family member or two world. He wants no part of social responsibility. When the Inspector calls armed with a tale of a young woman's suicide that had dealings with every single member of the Birling family, their secrets pour out like bitter syrup, one after the other. The Inspector as confessor drives the engine of this play. They reveal more than they are asked to due to the Inspector's unorthodox methods.

As for the ghost story part, pay strict attention to everything that moves, but don't expect any secrets to be revealed here. Let me just say that if you think you are seeing things, you are. Peter Hutt plays the bully patriarch, Arthur Berling, who does his utmost best to try to hold on to the belief he got away with something. Mary Haney's Sybil Birling echoes her husband's thinking, perhaps with a softer edge. Moya O' Connell bestows Sheila Birling with one ounce of family regret, while Andrew Bunker's Eric Birling is a walking guilty verdict. Portraying Sheila's finance, Gerald Croft, Graeme Somerville is cool and aloof. Benedict Campbell's Inspector Goole is unnervingly smooth and unflappable. He goes about his mission with the skill of a polished inquisitor, bringing a measure of constraint while the family's precious bubble of safety bursts around him.

Jim Mezon's direction aims at maximum suspense and anxiety at every turn. Expect to be more than a little riled and at times, puzzled, and even frightened. (The audience did their fair share of gasping the night I attended.) Nothing is spelled out here, the mystery is left wide open, unsolved, and hanging in mid-air. Peter Hartwell's set design is nothing short of brilliant. Hartwell sets this family virtually exposed in a dungeon-like setting, sounding by dark arched doorways that lead to the unknown. The semi-circular container gives this guilty clan no way out. Hanging directly above their unsettling dwelling is a set of austere chains that move when the clanky elevator rides up to the Birling flat. Although the direction is up, it feels more like down, as the family deteriorates under the strain of the Inspector's relentless questioning. Kevin Lamotte's Gothic lighting lends a reverence to the proceedings and Paul Sportelli's original music sets an eerie tone throughout. All in all, The Inspector Calls is one riveting edge of your seat evening of theater.

One of the Shawfest's mission statements includes mining hidden gems. Githa Sowerby's The Stepmother falls squarely into this category. Found in a basement, this play has not seen a stage in 84 years. It's set in the 1920s, but again, the issues of womens' rights at home and in the workplace, feel sharply relevant to the discussion on today's political table. The details may differ, but the fact that woman are not treated equally has recently resurfaced during the democratic primaries in the U.S. As with Priestley's play, Sowerby cuts her characters as clearly good or evil with little in between. Claire Jullien plays Lois Relph, the noble stepmother, who sacrifices her happiness, cares for her two stepdaughters, and supports the family with her dress designing business. Jullien's performance plays up the saintlike qualities while keeping an undercurrent of despair bubbling beneath the surface. Blair Williams plays the devilish husb, Eustace Gaydon, with gleeful delight. Williams succeeds completely turning his villain into a victim, so much so, the audience grew increasingly hostile towards him as the play went on. Gaydon swindles his wife out of her inheritance, and attempts to do the same for her business, and her tender relationship with his two daughters. In the end, sisterhood wins out, as the two stepdaughters rally around their stepmother, forgiving her affair, and finding peace in solidarity. It's a regular frock paradise with William Schmuck at the costume design helm and Camellia Koo's cleverly flexible set provides a minimalist, but smart setting.

Continuing on the greed train is Lillian Hellman's beast of a play, The Little Foxes, and you will never meet such a tribe of beastly people as the Hubbards. This nouveau riche family will take anyone, including a family member, for all that they can, and live to drink over it. Or at least some do. Laurie Paton plays the iconic Regina Giddens role with a stoic and stern demeanor. This woman means business. She's positively wicked as she watches her sick husband crawl up the stairs while she withholds her help and his life-saving heart medicine. It's melodrama on steroids. Sharry Flett plays Birdie Hubbard, the one god egg in the rotten barrel, with a fragile quality, fitting of a true southern aristocratic belle. Peter Krantz and Ric Reid endow Oscar and Benjamin Hubbard with a crude redneck bravado. Alas, this is the birthplace of the good ol' boys network of scoundrels.

For relief from dysfunctional money hungry families, head straight to A Little Night Music. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, a cast of strong singer/actors, not a microphone in sight, what's not to like? Director Morris Panych takes the intimate road, scaling back the piece into a tight and twinkling container, fitting Night Music's ethereal core. It feels like a boutique musical and works so stunningly well that it's hard to imagine this same show on a big Broadway stage. And what heaven it is to hear voices in their natural state. Goldie Semple is simply luminous as the aging actress, Desiree Armfeldt. Bring a hankie for some potential post Send in the Clowns weeping. Other standouts include Donna Belleville as Madame Armfeldt, Michaela Bekenn as the enchanted Fredrika Armfeldt, and George Masswohl as the endearing Fredrik Egerman. Ken MacDonald's set of movable magical green trees is spare and uncluttered. The nine-piece orchestra, under the direction of Paul Sportelli, allows the full detail of Sondheim's dreamy score to come through.

Last but least, and just as timely, is GBS's Getting Married. Here Shaw examines marriage law with his usual leave nothing safe manner. As marriage laws continue to be discussed and disputed we see Shaw is his usual way ahead of his time self. Married is a chuckle a second that is rich with eccentric characters, zippy dialogue, and Shaw's biting subversive mind deep at work on one potent cultural institution. In fact, capping of a visit to the Shaw Fest with some actual Shaw may be the perfect ending to three days of fine theater.

Images: Benedict Campbell as Inspector Goole in An Inspector Calls. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Blair Williams as Eustace Gaydon, Claire Jullien as Lois Relph and Marla McLean as Monica Gaydon in The Stepmother. Photo by David Cooper.
Goldie Semple as Desirée Armfeldt and George Masswohl as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music. Photo by David Cooper.
Laurie Paton as Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes. Photo by David Cooper.
Members of the cast of Getting Married. Photo by David Cooper.