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Coming Home: Annie Arnoult

Coming Home: Annie Arnoult

Annie Arnoult rehearsing for Inside-Out, a collaboration between Arnoult, sound artist Lynn Lane, and visual artist Lillian Warren for DiverseWorks’ 12 Minutes Max! on Nov. 4. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Annie Arnoult teaching at Hunter Dance Center. Photo by Lynn Lane,
Annie Arnoult teaching at Hunter Dance Center.
Photo by Lynn Lane,

Hunter Dance Center’s director Annie Arnoult shows no signs of slowing down as she enters her second season back home. The Houston-native took charge of the 9,000 square foot for-profit Heights based dance center in 2015 after spending over 20 years in Chicago. Along with managing Hunter, Arnoult is dashing head first into her second season as artistic director of Hunter’s professional dance-theater company in residence, Open Dance Project. The company’s first program of the season, In The Gloaming, will be held at the Matchbox 1 studio on Nov. 18-20 at MATCH. Arnoult also performs in Inside-Out, a collaboration with sound artist Lynn Lane and visual artist Lillian Warren for DiverseWorks’ 12 Minutes Max! on Nov. 4. at the MATCH.

In addition to teaching at Northwestern University, Arnoult was the founding artistic director of Chicago’s Striding Lion Performance Group, where she created a partnership-based arts education program that extended from the professional company.

Arnoult received her training from Houston Ballet Academy, Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and the American Dance Festival. She has a BA in dance and comparative literary studies from Northwestern University and an MFA in dance from The Ohio State University.

Arnoult visited with Jessica Maria MacFarlane to chat about Hunter Dance Center, Open Dance Project, and her life back in Houston.

Last year, the company’s first evening-length production Whirl! was inspired by the Great Depression’s dance marathon craze and February’s show, Stories to Tell, had an Americana theme. Is there a specific theme for In the Gloaming?

There will be definitely be a theme. In the Gloaming means in between day and night, the twilight hours. A guest choreographer from Denver, Patrick Mueller, will be setting one half of the evening on the company. He’s a visual arts working in the dance-theater world. That half will take place in the dark, casting aside the lighting effects commonly used in dance.

Stalemate is the title of my new piece, which is the other half of the program. It’s basically another one of my book nerd dreams. I’m digging into Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love. And, more generally, the game of chess. I’ve given the dancers reading assignments, because this is heavy stuff. But the texts are important to the piece, even if I’m not recreating each source directly.

It’s about looking at the stuckness of the political system on one side and then a more broad look at the incessant waiting in human life; restlessness, insomnia, what it means for two people to constantly be rubbing up against one another but reach no compromise. It’s got this relationships vibe too. It’ll be an intimate viewing at Matchbox 1 with three sides of leveled seating and the dancers right in front of your face.”

Davis Stumberg and Brittany Thetford Deveau in rehearsal with guest artist Patrick Mueller for Open Dance Project's upcoming In the Gloaming at MATCH November 18-20. Photo by Annie Arnoult.
Davis Stumberg and Brittany Thetford Deveau in rehearsal with guest artist Patrick Mueller for Open Dance Project’s upcoming In the Gloaming at MATCH November 18-20. Photo by Annie Arnoult.

Describe the connection between Open Dance Project and Hunter Dance Center.

Hunter is a safe space and home for the community. When we go out to work with the schools and non-profit partners, we’re doing it as ODP. But Hunter throws doors open wide and invites everyone that we’ve connected with through our outreach to build, grow and deepen relationships. We put classes next to each other that allow people with no dance experience to see the experienced dancer in the studio environment, not just performing on stage. With the ODP living here at Hunter we’ve formed a community of family that extends past the company and into the surrounding adults taking our classes and family members with their kids here almost every day. They’ve become very responsive and have expectations. Students and parents share the news about our performances and classes. Everyone feels connected to the company, and most importantly they are included.

How was your first year working with Open Dance Project?

I’ve been overwhelmed by the family we’ve built so quickly. Last year it started as an eight person company, three apprentice force, and now nine out of the 11 dancers are back and our family keeps growing. There’s genuine support on the physical and emotional front. We’ve cemented strong bonds during that first year. In just one year we’re already making work faster as an ensemble and easily generating movement, which means we can take bigger creative risks for our second year.

What’s the biggest personal takeaway from working with this collective of young performers?

When I returned, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of training many Texas natives have received here. My auditions have been flooded with young, talented movers, and they are just starting to realize that they don’t have to go outside of the state to be appreciated and get creative. I like gathering dancers from all over, but I love giving local dancers the opportunities they deserve. The talent pool is vast across Texas.

With ODP, each dancer is ready to read, write, speak and sing at a moment’s notice. I pull a lot from nontraditional storytelling methods, and last season they were very receptive to my methods thanks to their dance training in college.

Annie Arnoult rehearsing for Inside-Out, a collaboration between Arnoult, sound artist Lynn Lane, and visual artist Lillian Warren for DiverseWorks' 12 Minutes Max! on Nov. 4. Photo by Lynn Lane.
Annie Arnoult rehearsing for Inside-Out, a collaboration between Arnoult, sound artist Lynn Lane, and visual artist Lillian Warren for DiverseWorks’ 12 Minutes Max! on Nov. 4. Photo by Lynn Lane.

ODP recently performed in the Harvest Chicago Contemporary Dance Festival. How does touring fit into your mission?

The feedback from the Chicago tour has been amazing! The dancers all felt really valued for what they presented to that audience. Getting the dancers to see what’s out there is key. They realize that what we’re doing here has a real value and it’s strong, just as strong as anything from Chicago.

Touring is a big part of our mission. Dance made in Houston being brought out to the world and bringing dance artists from outside into Houston is important. As funding grows, so will our touring. We’ve got to show the nation what Houston and Texas have to offer by getting our work and aesthetics out there to make sure we remain a part of the national and international dance community, not just regionally.

What informs your work here in Houston from your time in Chicago?

In Chicago, the dance and theater communities move in and among each other closely. I came to appreciate organic, intention driven movement that accomplished very specific goals without feeling “set” or “imposed.” When I make work with ODP, we devise our work together from the ground up – much like a physical theater company.

My job is that of a director or editor culling the rich and generative moments that draw us as audience members/human beings more deeply into the material for one reason or another. Moments get chosen because they feel real, because they elicit physical or emotional empathy, because they resonate with or disrupt our understanding of ourselves.

Has the Houston dance community has become more sustainable for dance professionals in the last year with facilities like Hunter and MATCH, local companies like ODP, and annual festivals like Barnstorm Dance Festival?

We are raising expectations in production values and the audience experience. Ongoing community engagement programs have to be available. When I came back and started with Hunter and ODP, I wanted to say to the public, “Did you like what you saw on stage? Great! Come do that with us on Saturday at Hunter.” I want to cross that artists-audience divide. Barriers are hard things to break, but I think Houston is starting to create more audience access by demystifying dance on stage and in the dance center.

Talk about your decision to move back home.

I’m a single mom with two marvelous children, ages six and eight. Making a life as a working artist and raising responsible, well-adjusted kiddos takes a village, and my village is here in Houston. I had my eye on the Houston dance community with a desire to move back for quite a while before I actually made the move. The growing resources and energy here in the city – MATCH, Dance Source Houston, Young Audiences and HISD’s commitment to growing arts integration work in the schools–all of that served as cues for me that now was the time to take the plunge. I haven’t been disappointed for an instant!

—JESSICA MacFARLANE