Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Solo Voice: Priscilla Nathan-Murphy talks about life in the independent lane and her new piece for A Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance

Marlana Walsh and Jocelyn Thomas in Priscilla Nathan-Murphy's Relentless
Photo by Frank White

Priscilla Nathan-Murphy holds a unique place on the Houston Dance scene. She danced with the first tier of contemporary dance companies such as Space Dance Theatre and Chrysalis. As Principal of the Lower School at Houston Ballet's The Ben Stevenson Academy she's one of Houston's most beloved teachers. All the while she has kept one hand in choreography. She stopped by to tell us about her new work for The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company at the upcoming Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance.

Dance Source Houston: Tell us about the motivation for your new piece, Relentless, for The Met?

Priscilla Nathan-Murphy:"Relentless,” as in constant bombardment and demand on the intellect and emotional state resulting in sleeplessness. Be that it is stimulated or provoked from either the personal, professional, and or creative side. It's when you are so tired and your mind does not want to shut off.

DSH: You have a history of using sets, sometimes rather complicated ones. What will be on stage this time around besides the dancers?

PNM: I envision a broken up cyclorama that shows two corridors and a ceiling that has an acoustic ceiling look to it by the use of fabric. It's still in the works at this time. I want to create the idea that this movement is happening within a time space—a bubble of time. I want to create both the ambiance as well as a thoughtful environment. So I envision the piece being performed within a capsule of time.

DSH: Finding music is rarely easy for any choreographer and I understand you had some difficulties nailing the music for this new piece.

PNM: The concept came before the music. After exhausting my search for music, I settled on the first selection and then had to piece meal the other parts of the music to help support the different sections of the choreography. It was okay but it did not completely render the energy and graph that the concept and choreography was suggesting. I felt both the choreography and concept was compromised. So I re-investigated and opened myself to new music. I found some Clint Mansell, John Powell, and other selections and reworked the choreography.

DSH: This is your third piece for The Met. How do you see your work as a match for this company?

PNM:The Met is open to the style of movement that I bring and willing to explore the process with me.

DSH: What part is the most exciting of making a new dance?

PNM: I get stimulated by an idea, word, music, or something I have seen that has provoked a creative tangent. It's always exciting when your choreography starts to flow along side your vision then it comes close to fruition and magically everything falls into place.

DSH: You have had a steady presence on the Houston dance scene for a few decades and seen many a company come and go. Was there ever an ideal time here?

PNM: I am inclined to say the 80's as far as contemporary modern.

DSH: How does your day job at Houston Ballet balance with being a freelance choreographer?

PNM: It's quite the juggling act and can be quite stressful to the creative flow when producing a piece. Because my freelance work happens outside of my Houston Ballet commitment it can be limiting with the rehearsal schedule.

Teaching is my love. I enjoy my students and they become very endearing to me. I work with people of high artistic standards and talents. Perhaps it shares the same intensity as choreographing. It is about movement and reinventing ways to approach and clarify the intent through movement. I am constantly challenged there when teaching the students. I have to create when giving combinations. My teaching helps keep me sharp and moving. Teaching and choreographing supplement each other. I am very fortunate that my teaching abilities cover both classical ballet and modern dance. It allows me to pull from both these styles when choreographing.

DSH: You have chosen the independent choreographer's path. Have you ever longed for a company?

PNM: Yes and no. A company provides one with an identity in that you have a constant pool of talented dancers that will open themselves to experimenting and expressing your choreography. It gives your vision, movement style and work a “face” and makes it legitimate and real. How wonderful it would be to have this talent to draw from, be challenged by, and work with, and to be constantly pushing the elements and your artistic capabilities.

There are other administrative and artistic responsibilities that come with having a company, like acquiring a board that is committed, supportive and believes in your work and vision. Funding is also an issue. It is a high priority for me that dancers be paid well for their work and that the piece is presented as a complete package with good costuming, promotion and technical support. I must say that for me that the door to that desire has not closed yet.

DSH: Do you have any pearls of wisdom on your longevity on the Houston dance scene, which has lasted over two decades?

PNM: I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunities I have had as a teacher, performer, and choreographer. But I still continue to desire for more. Strive for excellence with your craft, be it in teaching, performing or choreographing. I try to be honest and sincere about my work and supportive and open minded of others.

DSH: Do you ever imagine a whole evening of your work?

PNM: Yes, and I answer modestly.

A Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance returns to the Miller Outdoor Theatre stage on Friday, September 12 and Saturday, September 13 at 8 p.m., featuring performances by Ad Deum Dance Company, Hope Stone Dance, Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, Revolve Dance Company, Sandra Organ Dance Company, and Suchu Dance, and individual choreographers Leslie Skates and Becky Valls. Tickets are free. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit or email

Reprinted from DSH.