Stepping into Joy: Performing Arts Houston’s lively 23/24 Season

Performing Arts Houston leans into joy for its recently announced 2023-2024 season. Yet considering the diversity of their dance programming, perhaps stepping, flies or leaps into joy makes for a more apt description.

“One of the things we were unified behind is wanting to celebrate joy, wanting to take advantage of humor and use the season as an opportunity for levity,” explains PAH executive director Meg Booth, on the kinds of performances by renowned national and international artists they looked for when putting the lineup together. Booth says audiences are returning to pre-pandemic levels, but after several years of stress and isolation, they’re still looking for singular moments of happiness and levity.

“There definitely is a theme and focus on curiosity, humor, creativity and joy, the joy of being human together,” she adds of the season.

We certainly see those comic and even whimsical themes from some of the season’s best-known performers. But in keeping with PAH’s tradition of giving us surprises, we’ll see fresh and dynamic turns from even those artists we thought we knew so well.

Take for instance, Isaac Mizrahi, who audiences likely recognize as an iconic fashion designer and television star. But when PAH presents him live on stage at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall, we’ll discover the musician and storyteller Mizrahi in an intimate evening of cabaret, complete with his own jazz band.

Likewise, we know John Waters as the pioneering cult filmmaker, but in October he’ll take the Cullen Theater stage as actor and playwright for End of the World, his one-man show.

Levity arrives in very different mediums and forms from the storytelling of humorist David Sedaris to the classic ballet parodies (with love and respect for the form) danced by the all-male dance company Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The season even comes to a most joyous end as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain hosts a giant BYOU (bring your own ukulele) play-along party.

“I did not realize there’s a kind of underground ukulele community in Houston,” remarks Booth on the possibility of filling the Wortham with covert ukulele players.

Another opportunity for audience participation comes from new-to-Houston artists, Time For Three, the Grammy winning classical musicians (two violinists and a double bassist) who are also vocalists. Blending classical and pop music with their own compositions, Booth believes they’ll also find time to lead the audience in a sing-along.

“That’s a really fun evening that celebrates the best of humanity and the best we can do together,” says Booth.

Kronos Quartet will also blend genres in honor of their 50th anniversary, with A Thousand Thoughts, an evening of live music performed along with a documentary film that highlights the quartet’s life in music. The performance will be directed and narrated on stage by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Green.

That musical mixing of genres and media gets showcased throughout the season, including a special October Day of the Dead performance from Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs. Her Día de Los Muertos performance will feature folklórico dancing, a mariachi band and likely some of the most vibrant costumes of the season.

But for those who want their classical music to stay traditional, the season brings the Vienna Boys Choir, in November 2023, on their 100th anniversary tour, and first prize winner of the 18th International Chopin Competition, Bruce Liu, to the Wortham in April 2024.

The lineup’s dance offerings also bring that same diversity of styles and genres for every dance taste.

“We have a pretty broad set of techniques, forms and vocabulary within the dance offerings this year,” notes Booth.

The entire season begins with contemporary dance company MOMIX’s Alice, a dance, acrobatic and rather adult take on the Wonderland story, complete with high-wire illusions and dance as ethereal body-sculptures.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a season without dance favorite Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the company PAH has presented more than any other artists.

One dance company never presented by PAH will have something of a homecoming, as acclaimed stepping artists Step Afrika! arrive in October bringing their work Drumfolk, inspired by the Stono Rebellion of 1739. Company founder, C. Brian Williams has strong Houston ties as his mother founded The Imani School and his brother, Chef Chris Williams, owns Lucille’s restaurant.

“We’re very excited to bring this piece,” says Booth of the first professional dance company in the world dedicated to the tradition of stepping.

And then there are those returning artists that defy categorization, like Manual Cinema, a company of puppeteers, musicians, actors and cinematographers who meld light and shadow to conjure live cinema before our eyes. Their latest Leonardo! is based on the children’s stories of Mo Willems and suitable for the whole family.

The great unknown and most Houston of the season will be the return of New/Now: Houston Artist Commissioning Project for its third year. This initiative will showcase world premiere works by local artists, and give them a big Theater District stage to explore; the application process just opened this spring. The recipients will be named in the fall and their performances scheduled for early 2024.

“We have no idea what we are going to have next year, but we know that it will represent the extraordinary diversity and many points of view that exist here in Houston,” says Booth.

Doing our talk about the lineup, which is still growing, Booth notes that the joy in this season doesn’t mean we won’t also find the complexity, diversity and perhaps even profundity of life reflected in these performances. Booth adds, “Even when we are laughing together, there are still opportunities to be touched and moved through the arts.”