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A Houston Fortnight

by Joseph Campana
November 1, 2009
Houston, TX
Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Thursday, October 16, 2009 at the Hobby Center

Richard Alston Dance Company, Friday October 16, 2009 presented by SPA

Morgan Thorson, Heaven, Saturday October 17, 2009 presented by Diverseworks

Hope Stone, Village of Waltz, Saturday October 24, 2009 at the Wortham Theater
You don't need to visit Paris, London, New York, or Rome to figure out that some cities excel at inspiring art and supporting artists. After four performances in Houston—not to mention several others I couldn't make in the same fortnight—it's clear that this city's efforts to cultivate a richly varied dance scene are paying off.

The fortnight began with a Houston favorite, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, which continues to feature solely the choreography of its artistic director, Dominic Walsh. The company's seventh season opener was packed with dances celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes, including three world premieres. Viewers were treated to another staging of Walsh's lighthearted Le Spectre de la Rose as well as adaptations of The Dying Swan, L'Après-midi d'un Faune, and Firebird. It's hard not to admire the ambitious idea behind this program. When considered relative to that legacy, however, Walsh's Spectre and The Dying Swan, the latter of which featured the tortured abandonment of a wannabe-diva at what looked like a cheap nightclub—were more sketches than masterpieces in the making.

The Firebird deployed the considerable talents of DWDT's Domenico Luciano and a distinguished guest star, Paris Ballet Étoile Marie-Agnes Gillot, not to mention Stravinsky's all-encompassing score, all of which were, alas, wasted on a lengthy dying swan-song to the vagaries of banal suburban alienation and heterosexual infidelity. The jewel of the night was an extraordinary Faune, which began with Walsh himself, clad in all-black and playing the part of the "Creator." He works not as well with the hypothetical postures of desire—the woman abandoned in a nightclub or the married couple bored with their own banalities—as he does with movement he can imagine extending from his own body. It was as if he had pried his faunes from the side of an amphora at Houston's renowned Menil Collection and brought them to life. As Faun and Orefaun, Ty Parmenter and Randolph Ward were fiercely animalistic and reminiscent of the tense eroticism in depictions Greco-Roman wrestling. Seeing Walsh on stage as the Creator was a treat, though it seemed inelegant for him to return at the end to steal a little thunder from his wonderful new company members.

The Society for the Performing Arts continued its tradition of importing extraordinary international artists with its presentation of London's Richard Alston Dance Company. Although legendary in the UK and Europe, Alston's ensemble visits the United States infrequently. His dancers were a vision in blue in the opening piece, Martin Lawrence's To Dance and Skylark set to Bach's second and third Brandenburg Concertos. Lawrence is both a company choreographer and the rehearsal director, so he knows how to extract maximum energy and finesse from the company. Most remarkably, as the lighting design and costumes shifted from blue to red to orange, Lawrence knew exactly when, in the midst of the driving virtuosity of the music, to give the dancers and audience a pause. It is contemporary ballet with everything I wish Mark Morris were: lush, coy, cheeky, and mirthful without the self-conscious frivolity or the driving and pounding of dense Baroque and classical scores into humorless melodramas. Alston's own Three Movements from Petrushka was a remarkable study in the pain of individuation. Pierre Tappon danced the role of the broken hero, driven by maddening music in his head, as the other dancers performed trios and larger circles of folk-inspired dance from which they excluded Petrushka. Surprisingly enough, their intricate movements were partly obscured by a piano set at center stage and played with a meticulous passion by Jason Ridgeway, an intriguing arrangement. The program closed with Alston's hypnotic sculptural assemblages in Blow Over. Although set to the hypnotic and perhaps overused Songs from Liquid Days by Philip Glass, the keen eye and impressive musicality of Alston's choreography made this—and all the music we heard—seem utterly new.

Revelation seemed a theme for this fortnight: Alston's exuberance, Walsh's Faune, and the estranged rapture of Morgan Thorson's Heaven, a world premiere hosted by DiverseWorks, which continues to prove itself the most innovative presenter in town. What does heaven look like to a person, or to a whole culture, conditioned to seek ecstasy in forms of dangerous transport all too likely to end in dependency and worse? The striking visualization of this problematic realm came as a result of a collaboration with the very talented Lenore Doxsee and Emmett Ramstad. This Heaven was all-white, with white fabric extended over all the usually black surfaces of the theater. The audience entered to find nine dancers marching in time—some with their eyes closed-united but unregimented, as if sharing the same dream or trip. The costumes, like the décor, were futuristic but impoverished. Ace bandages, coiled perfectly, waited to be deployed, as if the whole evening were to serve as some as-yet-unknown ritual of repair.

What if heaven is not, in fact, the promised end but rather the location of coinciding but ultimately isolated fantasies of wholeness? Viewers were in the presence of bodies detached from one another, not seemingly aware of the other performers even while working together on stage. Were these odd rituals of greeting, or merely the echoes of intention in bodies emptied of mind? Heaven featured fascinating vocals and instrumentals to supply a choir of angelic song: an organ, an electric guitar, and a series of hymns were provided by the slow-core band LOW, the members of which were part of the odd organic totality of the performance. Moments of language—sometimes song, sometimes lists of names—occasionally burst through the haze of Heaven: "Inside your body, you're always inside" or "Listen to the still small voice." Despite its appearance of the randomness of a coma dream, Thorson's structured chaos is deeply rigorous, as if all those onstage could, in spite of being locked into their own mind, be briefly called into unison by unheard voices.

Hope Stone Dance's Village of Waltz closed out the fortnight with an intelligently structured and deftly theatrical performance of Jane Weiner's choreography set to a new score for piano, percussion, harmonica, and vocals written by Peter Jones (For photos, click here). The evocative title made clear that the notion of waltz as social dance would be central to the evening's performance. That's not to say that it was all—or even primarily—waltz. But Weiner wants to explore how communities assemble, cohere, and remember themselves. Here is seems that social dance is what it means for bodies to stand together and repeat the same gestures in isolation, whether awkward or beautiful. After compelling opening section, it was disappointing to see the dance devolve into nostalgia. With outfits flying down on hangers from above, the dancers change and enter another world. With the appearance of large wooden frames, sepia toned photographs, puffy sofas, dusty books, and old-fashioned clothing, "ye-olden-times" appear before us as the solution to modern alienation. A series of solos, duets, trios, and group formations used limited movement: wheeling arms, turns, spins, and jumps, the haste of which suggested a certain lack of rigor. Almost anything can look impressive when it passes before the eyes quickly. While it was heartening to see the waltz appear, finally, at the end, a greater use of the language of actual social dances throughout the evening would have been welcome. If the idea here is "It takes a waltz to make a village and that village has a history worth remembering," then what sentence comes next that won't be more than a cliché?

(See photos of Morgan Thorson's Heaven.)
Richard Alston's 'Blow Over' Dancers: Hannah Kidd, Wayne Parsons

Richard Alston's "Blow Over"
Dancers: Hannah Kidd, Wayne Parsons

Photo © & courtesy of Dee Conway

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