Friday, December 12, 2008

REVIEW: The Catastrophic Theatre's Spirits to Enforce

Photo by George Hixson

It's the last supper over there at The Catastrophic Theatre's production of Mickle Maher's Spirits to Enforce, except instead of 12 apostles, we get 12 superheroes, kind of nutty ones at that. There's even a Jesus lookalike at the center, Walt Zipprian as Ariel, orchestrating the action. Here's the scenario: superheros are holed up in a submarine where they are conducting a telethon to raise money to put on a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Times are tough for this pack of thespian crusaders. All are fearless defenders of the island of Fathom Town, a place they keep safe and tidy with their oddball traits. The Intoxicator gets the bad guys buzzed, Memory Lass remembers the future, and The Pleaser, well you can figure that out. Then there's Snow Heavy Branch guy who can't stop talking about a gondola. Of course, there's an evil doer (gotta have one), Dr. Cannibal (as in Caliban), who has his own sordid history with The Tempest. Turns out they all do, as the gang discovers they are all remnant spirits of Prospero's Isle. Snippets of their literary legacies come through in various phone conversations. They also find that fundraising and putting on a show may be a way harder job than fighting evil. Bard wonks should pay close attention to choice Tempest-isms cleverly tucked into phone chats.

But if you spend too much time connecting the plot dots, you might miss the lush language. Maher's work feels more like a symphony than a play. It's a joyride for choral music lovers, and it's best to just strap yourself in tight and enjoy the prose-bending trip. Maher enlists all kinds of musical structures. Your ear can get lost in the syncopated rhythms, and let it, because that's where the juice is. They talk all at once, in sequence, in canon, and in a few marvelous moments, to each other. It's a delicious cacophony for the ears. For most of the play the actors are glued to the phone looking head on at the audience. At one particularly dramatic crescendo, Zipprian stands up to deliver a satisfying Leonardo da Vinci iconic stage picture.

Maher's work defies conventions. The set, designed Kevin Holden, is one long desk smack parallel to the audience. We only see the actors from the waist up, outside of an occasional trip to the water cooler, in the dark no less, and in Zipprian's big Jesus moments. Once or twice an actor stands up and gets off the phone; it's phenomenally exciting. There's no blocking to speak of, as most of the play takes place in a narrow rectangle. With so much to listen to why mess it up with action. It's a tight container, hey, like an orchestra.

The cast —all superb—each bring their own distinct variety of mania to their bizarre characters. The play makes for one snazzy showcase for the current talent trust at Catastrophic. Memory Lass (Charlesanne Rabensburg) projects wacky tenderness with The Tune (John Deloach). The flamed-haired Tamarie Cooper is over the top as the Ocean (that's a good superhero fit for her). Kyle Sturdivant delivers an endearing performance as The Pleaser, while Mikelle Johnson pushes kooky to new heights as The Intoxicator. Zipprian's Ariel anchors the show, especially when he hands out lollipops during break time.

Catastrophic Theatre's artistic director Jason Nodler directs close to the center, keeping true to Maher's idiosyncratic ways. Bless this stalwart troupe for bringing Maher's breathtakingly original voice to Houston. “Spirits to Enforce” is a quote from the epilogue of The Tempest. The very next line, “art to enchant” aptly describes the show.

The Catastrophic Theatre presents Mickle Maher's Spirits To Enforce through December 20th at Barnevelder, 2201 Preston. Call 713-880-5216 or visit

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ad Deum Dance Company in Malaysia

As the Ad Deum dancers whirl through the spirals of Steve Rooks' choreography in rehearsal, there's no sign of jet lag for this world traveling troupe, who just recently returned from Malaysia, where they premiered Rooks' Prophets: The Tale of Three Messengers, along with several other works. The company trip to Malaysia was sponsored by the ACTS School of Performing Arts and they performances there benefited Malaysian Children's Aid Society.

Rooks' dance focuses on the tales of prophets Deborah and Huldah from the Old Testament and Anna from the New Testament. “We often think of the Bible in patriarchal terms. Here are three strong women prophets that people are not familiar with,” says Rooks, a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and Associate Professor of Dance at Vassar College. The piece was well received by audiences that included both Christians and Muslims. “Islam is an Abrahamic faith and they are familiar with prophets,” adds Rooks.

Rooks and Ad Deum Artistic Director Randall Flinn have been friends and close colleagues on the Christian dance circuit for the past decade. This is Rooks' sixth piece for the company. “I love coming to Houston, it's a second home for me,” Rooks says. “This is a wonderful company, they understand my work, they get it right away and are a joy to work with.” Currently on sabbatical from his teaching job at Vassar, Rooks recently won a choreography competition for Hubbard Street II. He regularly teaches at the Ailey School and spent time dancing in Ailey II before joining the Graham company. Not all of Rooks' work is Biblical in nature; he prefers to draw from a wide variety of influences, including Alvin Ailey. “Still, I am informed by my faith in whatever I create,” he says.

As a former Graham dancer, Rooks remains interested in sharing his wisdom from his close association with the legendary modern dance icon. Rooks selected John Adams' “Shaker Loops” for his dance, a piece of music he was introduced to by Graham herself. “She taught me to dance in the stillness and to always have a story going on in my own mind,” remembers Rooks, about his time working with Graham from 1981-1991. “I have made an intentional homage to Martha in the piece.” Two of the dancers are relatively new to the Graham technique, but have been getting the most out of Rooks' morning company classes. For Lydia Hance, who trained in Graham at Southern Methodist University and the Graham School, the dance deepened her experience. “It was a chance for me to take classroom work into performance and keep the integrity of the technique,” says Hance.

Although all three dancers are well versed in scripture, they had to return to the exact passages to better portray their respective roles. “It was amazing to dance the role of Anna,” says Bethany Brantley. “Some of the spirals were a challenge and I really had to work towards getting the details down.” Hance had only three verses about Huldah to work with. ”The verses mostly describe what she actually did,” says Hance. “I really had to embody her actions in my dancing.” Shizu Yasuda found dancing the role of Deborah well suited her dynamic range. “Of course I had to re-read the Bible to digest her character,” says Yasuda. “She's a bloody warrior.” The dancers had the added challenge of performing unison movement while keeping each character distinct.

The company also performed works by Freddie Moore, Caleb Mitchel, Bobby Wesner, Maggie Ho Kwan, and Flinn. In addition, they taught numerous classes to ages 4 through adult. In between teaching and performing, the troupe managed to get in a little sightseeing, which included a visit to the rainforest at Forest Research Institute Malaysia. The trip helped the troupe bond as well. “We have never spent that much time together, “ remarked company member Amanda Parsons. Apparently language was not an issue at all, Parsons reports, “Everyone there speaks perfect English. Flinn, who was unable to accompany the company on the trip, is proud of the troupe's accomplishments there. “They really worked as a team and covered for each other,” says Flinn. “They are truly a company.”

The entire show will be repeated this weekend at the Katy Visual and Performing Arts Center.

Ad Deum Dance Company presents, NO MORE DRY BONES – A Homecoming Performance, Sunday, Dec 14th at10am, at Katy Visual and Performing Arts Center, 2501 S. Mason Rd. Addmission is free, Call 713-626-5050 or email

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Portable Karen: Stokes Choreographs a Life Between Company and Class

There’s a virtual whirlwind around Karen Stokes these days as she puts the final touches on her newest batch of work for Travesty Dance Group. Stokes tours her seven-dance rep concert Portables with a welcome stop at Zilkha Hall this month while balancing her job as University of Houston’s Head of the Dance Division.

“It’s a juggling act,” says Stokes, while she grades papers and prepares for a Philadelphia tour. “I am learning to delegate, but I think it’s pretty rare in the academic world to have a company as active as mine.” Stokes appreciates the safety net of a full-time job but also admits it’s important to have a research component, like a professional modern dance company, to stay competitive in academia.

Heralded for her full-evening works such as her nostalgic Hometown and the darker Pronoun Pieces, Stokes takes a diverse approach with Portables. “A rep show offers you a different experience as a company, an audience member, and a choreographer,” she says. “It’s a fun format that we have gotten a little bit away from lately as evening-length works are more the trend. I think of it as sewing seeds and I promise the audience will not be bored.”

Each "Portable" offers a different glimpse into Stokes’ choreographic imagination. She may very well develop some of these seeds into larger works, but for now she just wants to see how they fly as shorter pieces. Balance, a Houston premiere, explores the different regions of the brain, the part that makes you crazy, the joyful parts, and the place in the center, hence balance. “So far, we have just gotten to the dark part,” she adds.

Stokes found herself pushing her usual creative habits in Transparent, where she collaborated with composer Rob Smith for a recent premiere with Musiqa. The idea was to build a piece based on Margaret Atwood’s poem “Variations on the Word Sleep” simultaneously, rather than just have Smith hand over his music. “Usually I work closely with a piece of music until it’s embedded into my psyche,” says Stokes. “Neither one of us knew what the finished project would be like until the very end.”

For his part, Smith found the process invigorating. “Both Karen and I have a penchant for creating high-energy works, however in Transparent, we created something that was much more introspective, mysterious and slow moving,” says Smith, Associate Professor of Composition and Director of the AURA Contemporary Ensemble. “Exploring new directions with another artist was a great experience, as we were able to continually bounce ideas off of each other which made the process exponentially more effective.”

Orange takes its energy from the color much the way an earlier work of Stokes’ Green did. “It’s extremely quirky and strange,” she says. “It’s one sassy color.” Set to music by Bill Ryan, Orange conjures a sense of place created by the psychological tone of the color. “Rob introduced me to Bill’s music and I fell in love with every piece I heard,” enthuses Stokes. Raw Silk, a piece she showed an excerpt of at Framing Dance last fall, is set to Ryan’s jazzy contemporary score. “It’s really a reflection of the marriage between my movement ideas and the music,” Stokes says.

Stokes sees her work at UH and Travesty as crucial in her mission to forge a vibrant bridge between the community and the university. Since taking the UH helm eleven years ago, Stokes has continued the mission set up by her predecessor, Joanna Friesen, by opening up UH’s studios to the faculty. “Toni Leago Valle, Sophia Torres, Teresa Chapman, Sarah Draper, and Becky Valls all rehearse here,” says Stokes, about the dance hub she has created. In addition to community outreach, Stokes placed the choreographic process front and center when she launched the Center for Choreography in 2000. “It’s more of an approach to the curriculum that influences everything, from how we teach dance history to the work we do with guest artists,” says Stokes. “The emphasis is on dance making.”

Department Director Steven Wallace was so impressed with Stokes’ deep connections within the dance community that the first thing he did when he arrived at his post at UH was add the word “dance” to the Department of Theatre. “Karen’s approach has become a model for me,” says Wallace. “I knew we needed to create the same kind of connections to the theater world that Karen has been making in the dance community. My philosophy is to open the door of the university and that is precisely what Karen has done.”

Travesty is a tri-city company Stokes started in 1997 with fellow dance academics Kimberly Karpanty and Rebecca Malcolm-Naib. Performances have taken place in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, Seattle, Cleveland and Houston.“I am probably the most active member of the trio,” Stokes admits. The company got its curious name from a car conversation among the three as they were schlepping from show to show discussing the ongoing challenges of running a small dance company. One of them blurted out, “This is a travesty.” Shortly afterwards, the trio realized they had named the company. The Houston Travesty keeps nine dancers under contract and rehearses three days a week, which includes a mandatory company ballet class. Stokes is most proud of the troupe she has brought together, many of whom have graduated from UH.

“I get to know the dancers as people and what they are capable of as performers,” she boasts. “The group is very cohesive. We have bonded together as a community and we truly like each other. We have reached a point of togetherness that is more like a marriage than a fresh romance.”

Travesty dancer and independent choreographer Mechelle Flemming has been working with Stokes for several years now and enjoys the rigorous process. “Karen provides challenges that not only push me physically, but mentally,” says Flemming.“I believe the source of her dance mojo lies within the creative process. Her ability to allow the work to become what it will is by far an amazing thing. Karen will go in the direction the dance takes her.”

Known for including a vocal component, Stokes couldn’t quite imagine a concert without some of her own musical compositions. In the past she has composed scores for several of her works and her dancers have been required to sing complicated harmonies. Admittedly, "Portables" does not contain the big modern dance choirs of her earlier works, still Stokes has written a special for song her solo, Interlude, set to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Yes there will be singing,” she quips, “there has to be singing.” The show ends with Sorbet, a big juicy dance-dense romp set to Mozart. Stokes says, “It’s a closer, all right.”

Travesty Dance Group presents "Portables" at Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on December 11-13 at 7:30 pm. Call (713) 315-2525 or visit