Women Choreographers On Texas Stages

IMAGE ABOVE: MET Dance in their new Houston Studios. Photo by Ben Doyle.

MET Dance in Laura Edson's After the Rain Photo by Ben Doyle.

MET Dance in Laura Edson’s After the Rain.
Photo by Ben Doyle.

In Texas, women dominate contemporary dance both as dance makers and leaders. This Spring is no exception, as there’s an extraordinary amount of choreography created by women happening on Texas stages, including MET Dance, Hope Stone Dance Company, Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Austin Dance Fest, Forklift Danceworks with Body Shift, the Fusebox Festival, DiverseWorks and Dance Salad. But if you look closer at these women, you can also see a thread of community building, mentorship and fostering opportunities for all to dance.

MET Dance in #womenfordance

“I’m going back to my old school jazz roots,” says MET Dance’s resident choreographer Kiki Lucas, while the company women are in mid-swirl during rehearsal of her lively new piece, The Essence, as part of #womenfordance, April 11 & 12 at Wortham Center.  A rising presence on the Houston dance scene, Lucas is lucky to have her talent nurtured by the MET Dance leadership. “Oh, the men come in later,” she smiles. And indeed they do, in a sexy tribute to Ginger Rogers and Mae West.

Lucas draws her inspiration from a diverse group of heroines encompassing literature and pop culture, including the Bronte sisters, Eve Ensler, Ginger Rogers, Mae West and Lucille Ball. “I want the audience to take a peek into what makes women tick, and to leave more curious,” says Lucas.

MET Dance. Photo by Ben Doyle.

MET Dance.
Photo by Ben Doyle.

The evening also includes The Broken Column, a premiere by Andrea Dawn Shelley, based on the turbulent life of the acclaimed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. “I have been a fan of her artwork as well as her perseverance to live a life that most could not have endured,” says Shelley. “I also wanted to create a work that would be challenging both for the dancers and the audience, much like Kahlo’s artwork. I admire MET Dance’s work ethic, and willingness to dive into any new style given them.”

MET Dance is also known for bringing in nationally known names in the dance world, such as Larry Keigwin and Peter Chu. This show highlights two female heavy hitters: New York-based Sidra Bell and Laura Edson, a rising choreographer and former dancer with Trey McIntyre Project. With Bell’s complex post-modern movement problems in Under Your Skin and Edson’s nuanced emotional tonality in her poetic, After the Rain, each work pushes the troupe in a different way.

Edson created a work from scratch in just a few days. “It turned out to be a great, cathartic experience,” she told Dance Source Houston. “The dancers were so eager, and they dance so beautifully together as a corps. I hate to use counts, and only use them when I have to. In this case, we were able to move along at a faster pace because these dancers are so good at working together.”

Bell constructed her work from a variety of movement experiments, such as asking them to dance full blast for five minutes to see what’s inside. “My intention is to collaborate, and to create something with the whole group that will identify with their culture.” said Bell.

VIDEO: Excerpt of MET Dance in Laura Edson’s After the Rain >>

With Marlana Doyle in the artistic director spot, Michelle Smith as executive director and Lucas as resident choreographer, MET Dance is a sustainable women-run organization. “Women choreographers never get enough attention, so I wanted to do a show like this for some time,” says Doyle, who marks her true comeback after motherhood in this concert. “Now seemed like the perfect time since I’m back dancing a full load in this show.”

Also on the program is Kate Skarpetowska’s Stand Back, an aggressively charged romp full of thunderous attitude. Skarpetowska, a longtime Lar Lubovich dancer, has created five works for the MET. “It’s a signature work for us, and a great way for me to get back into shape,” adds Doyle. The evening will also include guest artists Island Moving Company from Rhode Island. MET Dance continues the momentum from the big move to their new studio with a growing enrollment for their school and plans for a summer tour, which includes a stop at Jacob’s Pillow’s Inside/Out stage, their second engagement at the storied festival.

Hope Stone Dance Company at Houston Ballet’s Dance Lab
Hope Stone Dance Company. Photo by Simon Gentry.

Hope Stone Dance Company.
Photo by Simon Gentry.

Jane Weiner may not have named her well-regarded Houston company after herself, but with few exceptions, she presents her own work. Weiner, known locally as a force of nature, has assumed leadership positions in her work with Pink Ribbons Project and her relentless efforts to expose children to the arts. In addition, she has served as a mentor to young dance makers, as Hope Stone’s Hope Werks is one of the few incubator programs for choreographers in Houston. Like MET Dance, Hope Stone also boasts an all-women staff, and runs a family-friendly operation.

Hope Stone Dance returns to the Houston Ballet Lab on April 10-12 with I was told there would be cake, an evening of two repertory works in situ and called back, and two new works, fandango, created for the male dancers of Hope Stone Dance, and Boat, Boat, Helicopter, a new work for the entire company. Weiner makes dances that chronicle community building, something women are particularly good at doing. She’s also not above getting preachy when it comes to art.

“People need to get off their tuckuses and get out to see live art,” insists Weiner. “I keep thinking of the breakdown and loss of community, and how theater provides it, especially the awesomeness of a small, lovely, intimate black box theater.”  An article about six reasons we need community inspired her thinking for this show. “I’m hoping our audience will show up for these six reasons:  collective wisdom, pushing our limits, support and belief, new ideas, borrowed motivation and accountability.” Weiner is also featuring a rare intermission for this show. “The audience can in fact have their cake and eat it too,” quips Weiner. “I haven’t had an intermission in probably a decade. So guess I’m asking folks to come to my intermission.”

Dance Salad Festival
Contemporary Dragon FungFu Company performs Gateway at the Dance Salad Festival.

Contemporary Dragon FungFu Company performs Gateway at the Dance Salad Festival.

Dance Salad Festival was founded by dance producer and entrepreneur Nancy Henderek, who has a long history of featuring female choreographers and performers, and even helping them get their careers off the ground. Now celebrating the 19th anniversary season in Houston and the 22nd season since its inception in Brussels, Belgium, Dance Salad festival offers a chance to see a gathering of outstanding dance, including works by two leading Asian female choreographers, Ma Bo and Liu Lu. Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo’s Sorrowful Song will be performed by Beijing Dance/LDTX, while Contemporary Dragon KungFuDance Company from Beijing, China, makes its US debut with Gateway, choreographed by Liu Lu, who trained kungfu artists in contemporary dance for a year in order to create the work.

Henderek has made a difference in many artists’ careers. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, now internationally known, launched her freelance career at Dance Salad and is going strong. Other women choreographers featured through the years include Carolyn Carson, Karole Armitage, Crystal Pite, Jasmin Vardimon, Azure Barton, Susanna Leinonen, Eva Duda, Masa Kolar (with Zoran Marcovic), Sol Leon (with Paul Lightfoot), Nai Ni Chen and Liu Qi.

Kathy Dunn Hamrick Company and the Austin Dance Fest
Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company.
Photo by Lynn Lane.

Austin dance pioneer Kathy Dunn Hamrick is also dedicated to the next generation of choreographers. As host of the Austin Dance Fest, she provides a much needed opportunity for artists to experiment in a safe and welcoming environment. Complete works, dances in progress and structured improvisations are all part of the mix in this non-curated festival, which runs at her studio’s cozy theater called Cafe Dance on April 12 at 3pm and 6pm. It just so happens that 15 out of the 16 choreographer are women. “It’s a win-win,” says Hamrick. “I know this because we have expanded from one to two shows in order to present more choreographers and accommodate growing audiences.”

The atmosphere is friendly, providing a chance for the artists to mingle with the the audience. “It’s a lot like enjoying an impromptu dance concert in your living room with a group of your best friends.” Hamrick admits that it takes a village to run a dance festival, and acknowledges the role of her board and her company dancers in making it all run smoothly.

Hamrick is also using this time to try out some new work of her own. She will be showing a few excerpts from her work, There, the Magnificent, which will premiere as an evening-length dance in June at AustinVentures Studio Theater. “I’ve tried other approaches, but all I can do is make dances about me,” quips Hamrick. “When I am in the studio working with my dancers, it feels like I am transmitting all my thoughts and feelings to them without saying a single word. I have no doubt that the piece will reflect how shaken I am by the instability of life. Realizing how precarious life is, I find myself moved every single day by the many quirky and sometimes tragic characteristics that define us. I’m reminded, daily, that navigating life on a daily basis can be an act of, well, magnificence.”

ForkLift, Body Shift, Fusebox and PlayBall in Austin

Cripping the Streets will be performed as part of the Fusebox Festival on April 27.

April finds the women of Austin’s Forklift in the streets with two BodyShift Performance Workshops. Julie Nathanielsz’s multi-layered, multi-level work will involve a mixture of directed scores, improvisation, and set work to be performed in April 4th at City Hall Atrium while Olivia O’Hare will remount last year’s Fusebox Festival performance, Cripping the Streets on April 26.

O’Hare helps orient us to the ideas behind the project. “BodyShift embraces the idea that everyone, in every kind of body, can move in interesting and compelling ways. BodyShift’s site-specific mixed-ability performance redefines ‘dancer’ by moving disability out of the shadows and onto the street in an innovative, highly collaborative improvisational dance through downtown Austin.”

Body Shift began when Allison Orr, Forklift’s artistic director, made Sextet, the dance for two men who were blind and their guide dogs, that made a splash in Houston when it was included in A Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance in 2004.

“After that dance I realized there was no place for Sozan and John (the two men who were visually impaired who worked me and performed the dance with me and one other dancer), to take dance class if they wanted to- so I started teaching,” remembers Orr. “I began connecting with other people in town who were interested in mixed-ability work and I discovered that there actually were a number of people in Austin who had experience with the work. We did a fall weekend intensive and then about three years ago starting bringing guest artists to town to work with us.”

Orr, known for her large scape projects Trash Dance and PowerUp, is all about inclusiveness. Whether it’s sanitation workers or linemen, Orr breaks the mold when it comes to who gets to do the dancing. Her next project,Play Ball, featuring the Huston-Tillotson Rams baseball team, goes down on May 9-11 as part of District Day at Downs Field.

“Baseball is just so rich in terms of a choreographic palette. There is so much ritual, gesture, meaning in really small movements and history. It’s ‘America’s pastime,’” says Orr. “Like my other dances, this dance will showcase people who have a real love and passion for what they do and feature highly practiced virtuosic movement. I also love playing with the field as the stage. For Play Ball, the audience will be sitting in the outfield looking at the infield as the stage.”

Like Hope Stone and MET Dance, Forklift runs on women power, and they have just added Ann Starr as their managing director, to keep the forward momentum.

Karen Sherman at Fusebox in Austin and DiverseWorks in Houston
Karen Sherman, Jeffrey Wells and Joanna Furnans in Sherman's One with Others. Photo by Carrie Wood.

Karen Sherman, Jeffrey Wells and Joanna Furnans in Sherman’s One with Others. Photo by Carrie Wood.

“Bessie” Award winner Karen Sherman makes a Fusebox stop April 25-27 at Salvage Vanguard Theater to perform One with Others, and a DiverseWorks stop on May 2-3 at The Barn. One with Others has been described as “a group/dance performance project that considers biography, choice, and communication. It uses choreography, handyman arts, and text to explore legacy, what we hand down to one another or lure each other into.” The Minneapolis-based artist is known for her adventurous approach to performance and bucking of the dance orthodoxy.

“Karen’s work not only crosses the boundaries between disciplines, but also engages creative individuals from various backgrounds,” says Elizabeth Dunbar, DiverseWorks executive director. “Her work transcends a single definition of what dance can be, by using objects as well as movement to communicate ideas, which has been a central topic for DiverseWorks of late. Combining choreography, sculpture, and installation, her work is able to speak to multiple audiences simultaneously, from those with a deep knowledge of dance to those who come at it from a visual arts perspective.”