Review: Avant Chamber Ballet, Alice in Wonderland

Photo: Sharon Bradford/The Dancing Image

Photo: Sharon Bradford/The Dancing Image

Ambitious Alice

Avant Chamber Ballet closes its season with a simple yet sophisticated rendition of Alice in Wonderland.

Richardson — A bench, four dancers, a projection of a small yet intricate painting of a cottage and a nine-piece orchestra situated to the right of the audience set the scene Saturday evening for Avant Chamber Ballet’s first full-length ballet, Alice in Wonderland, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson. At first the show’s minimal use of scenery and props was surprising, but ultimately it opened the door (or rabbit hole) for ACB to showcase its effortless classical technique and solid pointe work.

The first half of the show is very character-driven; a feat that comes naturally to most of the dancers. Artistic Director Katie Puder enhances these roles with innovative individualized movements and subtle gestures. Madelaine Boyce was the obvious choice to play Alice due to her physical resemblance, but her ethereal facial expressions and youthful energy also proved her deserving of the lead role. Her solos were punctuated with elongated lines, sturdy pique arabesque holds and soaring grande jetes. As the White Rabbit Juliann Hyde was only on stage long enough to capture Alice’s attention before checking her pocket watch then executing a double knee jump into the wings.

Once Alice falls down the rabbit hole she encounters a quirky group of characters, including Tweedle Dee and Dum, the Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, March Hare, Dormouse and finally the Queen of Hearts. Meanwhile the projection image has changed to depict a vibrant garden. As the background color changes, signaling a new character’s arrival, the eye is drawn back to the projection where the color change highlights a different floral color, creating the illusion that the picture has changed.

This part of the show is reminiscent of the scene in The Nutcracker in which representatives from each country come forward to perform a cultural dance. While their timing was a little off, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (Kayla Giard and Emily Igoe) catered to the younger audience members with their combative antics and over-the-top acting skills. Long and lean, Dallas Blagg had the right look for the Caterpillar. His solo was the most technically challenging with multiple turning double tours into consecutive grande jetes. Bryan Cunningham was a commanding presence in his role as the Mad Hatter and Brittany Bollinger’s over exaggerated gestures and expressions as the March Hare made up for some of the timidness displayed by other company members. In one instance the music, which was composed by artist-in-residence Chase Dobson, seemed to overpower Rachel Meador’s (Cheshire Cat) movements.

The second half contained what was missing in the first—group dance sequences and dancer Yulia Ilina. As the Queen of Hearts Ilina stole the show with her impeccable pointe work, regal pose and authentic character embodiment. Audiences were riveted to her long legs, supple feet and strong upper body frame. When she gets angry with Alice during the croquet match she visibly tenses; her movement slow and deliberate as she runs her finger across her neck and points at Alice. I don’t know if it was Ilina’s energy or the dancers overcoming their jitters, but the whole cast transformed during the second half. Meador grew more confident and started playing with the audience as she sneaked around the stage. Jumps appeared higher, arms reaching farther as the music swelled and peaked.

Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Puder’s penchant for uniformed body angles, visually pleasing shapes and clean pointe work was present throughout the program, but especially in the flowers and deck of cards numbers. This also applied to the younger cast members. Dressed up as mushrooms, these little ones earn bonus points for straightening behind the knees and pointing their toes. The whole company comes together for the cleverly-crafted trial scene where each character describes their encounters with Alice before the Queen of Hearts. Chaos quickly ensues and Alice is able to slip away and follow the White Rabbit home.

The live orchestration, exceptional technique and crisp choreography showcased in Alice in Wonderland  is what viewers have come to expect from Avant Chamber Ballet and what we hope to see more of in the future.

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Review: Ballet Frontier of Texas, An Evening of Ballet

Texas Ballet Theater's Robin Bangert and Paul Adams in BFT's verision of The Firebird.

Texas Ballet Theater’s Robin Bangert and Paul Adams in BFT’s verision of The Firebird


Ballet Frontier of Texas enthralls with its rendition of The Firebird and gives homage to Tchaikovsky during An Evening of Ballet.

Fort Worth — Vibrant costumes, elaborate scenery, dramatic lighting and dynamic guest artists: Ballet Frontier of Texas (BFT) went all out for its production of The Firebird, part of its An Evening of Ballet program. They were rewarded with a standing ovation Sunday afternoon at the W.E. Scott Theatre in Fort Worth.

The tale depicts Prince Ivan’s encounter with the Firebird in the garden of the evil Tsar Kashchei. Ivan catches the Firebird and agrees to release her in exchange for one of her feathers. In the next scene Ivan meets the beautiful Helen and asks Kashchei for her hand in marriage. He refuses and sends his creatures to kill Ivan. The Prince calls upon the Firebird and together they defeat the creatures and destroy the magical egg that holds Kashchei’s soul. In the final scene order is restored to the kingdom and Ivan and Helen are wed.

BFT Artistic Director Chung-Lin Tseng sticks close to the original libretto written by Alexandre Benois for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, but adds a prologue to enlighten audiences as to how Kashchei becomes evil. He accomplishes this in three short scenes: in the first the villagers are trying to pick the golden apple from the tree, then they bring it to the king and we watch as he transforms into the evil Kashchei. Even though the blackouts between scenes were slightly disorientating the prologue was a welcomed addition, and Guest Artist Michael Clark was the epitome of evil with his searing eyes and puffed up chest.

Texas Ballet Theater’s Robin Bangert gave a fierce yet poised performance as the Firebird. She tested her limits with unending lines and lightning fast bourrees done in perfect time to Igor Stravinsky’s quick, staccato composition. Bangert’s luminous red and orange tutu and matching feather headpiece only accentuated her natural skill and beauty. Texas Ballet Theater’s Paul Adams was a strong match for Bangert. A confidant partner, Adams leads Bangert through a series of rotating arabesque and ponche balances with ease. And his transition from hunter to lover is seamless. Paige Nyman’s willowy frame, soft lines and expressive eyes made her the ideal choice to play Helen.

Tseng smartly crafted the work to highlight his company’s strengths. The younger students completely immersed themselves in their creature roles, hissing and scratching as they roamed around on all fours. Adorned in long white dresses and sparking crowns, the princesses showcased their adequate pointe work and knack for gentle arcing movement. A lovely moment occurred as they stood in two diagonal lines with arms crossed at the wrists, backs arched. And while the four flames (Mickayla Carr, Maria Howard, Carli Petri and Jacey Thompson) lost their facial expressions a couple of times they made it through the rest of their allegro sequences unscathed.

Tseng put the company’s stamina to the test in the first half of the show with three fast paced, movement packed pieces to music composed by P.I. Tchaikovsky. Like watching a sprint February (Carnival) and Piano Concerto No. 1, 3rd Movement were over much too soon. The movement appeared as one lengthy phrase of chaines, doubles turns, leaps and traveling steps. Timing was an issue in both, but the dancers delivered on the entertainment. Tseng’s Serenade Melancolique was the complete opposite of the other two numbers. Three couples (Adams, Nyman, Clark, Bangert, Shane Howell and Carli Perti) took turns executing slow, fluid movement that displaying some of the most beautiful and innovative lifts and body shapes. Tseng must have felt like a kid in a candy store working with these strong and capable individuals. The couple’s came together at the end to strike three ethereal poses while bathed in spotlight. As the only BFT company member in the piece Petri held her own with her limber body and graceful lines.

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Visual Poetry

Photo: Chris Nash

Photo: Chris Nash

For the first time Motionhouse Dance Theatre brings its theatricality and imagery to Dallas with Scattered, part of TITAS season.

Dallas — “It’s like a visual poem about water,” says Motionhouse Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Kevin Finnan about the concept behind his unique visual production Scattered, currently touring the U.S. for the second time. Finnan says the objective is to try to change the way people think about water and he does this using diverse dancers, projection technology and a 15-and-a-half-foot tall curved floor that functions like a half pipe. “Whenever you work with film there’s always the question of what you’re going to project it on. Our designer came up with this idea of creating a set that looked like it almost wasn’t there and then making it so it curved up almost like a beautiful wave. And this wave of floor rising up became this metaphorical image for the show.”

Finnan and Louise Richards formed Motionhouse in 1988 and over the past 25 years have grown it into one of the leading dance-theatre companies in the U.K. Motionhouse strives to produce works that challenge as well as delight audiences with its fusion of images, action and dynamism. “Dance-theatre is kind of a catch all for any type of dance that is trying to say something—that there is a concept and a theme the piece is working with.” Finnan adds that dance companies in the U.K. have been exploring interactive media for the last seven years, but says Motionhouse sets itself apart because it is not there to show off technology.

Finnan earned his M.A. in Contemporary Performing Arts from University College Bretton Hall and a PhD in Theatre from Warwick University. He has collaborated with many artists from other disciplines, including writer A.L. Kennedy, installation artist Rosa Sanchez, filmmakers Logela Multimedia and set visionary Simon Dormon. In 2012 he was choreographer and movement director for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Finnan refers to the company’s work as “art spectacle” because their aim is to reach as many people as possible and really engage them in the work. “We are a very audience-centered company. We try to make work that is accessible and enjoyable for all types of viewers.” Dallas audiences will get to experience this for themselves when Motionhouse makes its Dallas debut April 12-13, 2014 at the Dallas City Performance Hall, presented by TITAS. “We had such a wonderful response to our first tour in Houston that we knew if we came back we had to stop in Dallas.”

Scattered took 13 weeks to complete and involved several creative sessions with the dancers. “When the set first arrived we went in and the dancers just played and explored with the environment for a week. And before that we went into an old warehouse with bits of wood to see what we could slide down, what we couldn’t and how high we could get. Then we built a prototype and had the dancers play on that.” The company’s movement language is mainly contemporary, but Finnan says they also draw from theatre, circus and acrobatics. “We want dancers who at their core are fundamentally good, but then are willing to take on the physical challenges that come with what we do.”

Motionhouse Rehearsal Director Junior Cunningham has been with the company for 11 years and knows just how physical the work is. “The show can be really tough on the body and it’s about being sensible really in terms of fitness and what you eat.”

Cunningham was encouraged to study contemporary dance by his sister when he was 17 years old. He joined the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (Leeds) in 1999 and graduated in 2002 with a BPA (Hons) Degree in Contemporary Dance. He joined Motionhouse as an apprentice in 2002 and became part of the company full-time in 2003. When asked what has encourage him to stay so long with one company Cunningham says it’s the continually changing work and his relationship with Finnan. “Over the years I think we have become good friends as well as good work colleagues.”

Cunningham has been with the Scattered production from the beginning and says that over time he has forgotten what most of the counts are and that he relies mainly on the musical and visual boundaries of the piece. “You don’t even really have time to breathe. You just do it.”

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Total Madness

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Dancer Bryan Cunningham on his role as the Mad Hatter in Avant Chamber Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland and the pros and cons of being a freelance dancer.

Richardson — With the competition better than ever and the number of jobs dwindling, a lot of ballet dancers are taking the freelancing route in order to survive. “To be a successful freelancer you’ve got to have a good personality and be able to adapt to new situations pretty quick,” says freelance dancer Bryan Cunningham.

Originally from West Virginia, Cunningham trained at North Carolina School of the Arts, School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet Academy. After high school he joined Cleveland/San Jose Ballet. When Cleveland Ballet closed its doors in 2000 Cunningham called around to other dance companies to see if they had any openings. His take-charge attitude has guided him throughout his career which has also included Kansas City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Madison Ballet and Florida Ballet. “My career path has been my own doing.” In some cases instead of waiting to be let go Cunningham went ahead and made his own plans. “You have to be smart and watch for the signs.”

After six years working in the ballet world, Cunningham took a break and headed to Las Vegas. He gave his notice without lining up another job first, something he says he would never do today. “In the early 2000’s the economy was better and there were more dance jobs readily available especially for men. Today, dance jobs are harder to get so I would never leave a job unless I had something else lined up.”

In the end his gamble paid off when he was cast in the Las Vegas show New Boy. After four years with the production Cunningham realized he wasn’t going to go any further so he decided to return to ballet. It was during his time at Madison Ballet after this that he met current Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) company member Madelaine Boyce. His connection with Boyce helped him obtain his most recent job playing the Mad Hatter in ACB’s new ballet Alice in Wonderland, April 12-13, at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson. The production features original choreography by artistic director Katie Puder for a cast of 46 dancers and a commissioned score by composer-in-residence Chase Dobson for nine musicians performed live.

Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford

Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford

“I didn’t know Katie personally, but I have seen some of her work and she has a really good reputation, so I was excited to come to Dallas and work with her.” Even though Cunningham has been freelancing for a while, he says it’s still nerve-racking to walk into a room where you are the odd man out. He adds in this case the company was very open and accepting of him. “Not only is the company made up of good dancers, but they are also good people.”

While Puder’s choreography in the show is predominantly classical, Cunningham says she keeps the dancers on their toes by reversing movement and repeating certain phrases starting on the other foot. Puder also has the company practice to a couple of different recordings of the music to prepare them for the live orchestration. “Katie is so clever. She doesn’t tell us which recording she is going to play so, we could be running the tea party scene and I’ll notice that the rhythm is a lot quicker and all I can do is adapt.”

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Review: Ballet Ensemble of Texas Spring Concert

Breanne Granlund and Brett Young in The Firebird. Photo: Cathy Vanover

Breanne Granlund and Brett Young in The Firebird. Photo: Cathy Vanover

Ballet Ensemble of Texas delivers a near-flawless Firebird (and more) at the company’s Spring Concert

Irving — Luscious scenery, elaborate costumes, catchy compositions, authentic storytelling and proficient dancing: Ballet Ensemble of Texas’ restaging of George Skibine’s Firebird had something for everyone Saturday afternoon at the company’s Spring Concert at the Irving Arts Center.

Firebird, danced of course to the music of Igor Stravinsky, tells the tale of Prince Ivan’s encounter with the mystical Firebird. In the first scene he tries to capture the marvelous creature, but fails; the Firebird offers him one of her feathers instead. Next Ivan meets the beautiful Tsarevna and they fall in love. A battle ensues between Ivan and the evil Kostchei, and the Firebird is called upon to help defeat him. In the final scene Ivan and Tsarevna are wed and everyone lives happily ever after.

Firebird is a challenge that calls for dramatic flair and daring dancing—and the dancers responded with commitment and consistency, a tribute to stager Thom Clower’s passion and BET director Lisa Slagle’s training. Breanne Granlund thrived in the role of the Firebird. Her commanding stage presence, innate musicality and clear-cut pointe work were a match for Skibine’s detailed choreography and Stravinsky’s quick staccato composition. Even her smallest movements—fluttering arms, twitching head—seemed to entrance the audience. Texas Ballet Theater’s Brett Young excelled as Prince Ivan. He made the transition from hunter to lover appear effortless, though his solo in the opening scene must have tested his endurance with its multiple grande jetes and tours.

Young proved also to be a solid partner, executing the tricky over the head lifts and counter-balance holds with ease during the pas de deux, but softening his movements when dancing with his love Tsarevna (Abby Granlund). Abby exuded tranquility, creating the illusion that her movement never stops even when she is standing still. The surprise performance of the evening came from Aldrin Vendt, who played Kostchei. Under heavy makeup and layers of clothing, he compensated with exaggerated gestures and a sense of tension that radiated from every part of his body.

Fernando Bujones’ Splendid Gershwin and Marius Petipa’s Paquita, both restaged by American Ballet Theatre’s Susan Jones, rounded out the rest of the show. The company showed off its aptitude for more traditional ballet movement in Paquita. Yuki Takahashi sparkled in this role. Her beautiful breathing technique, inhaling as she elongates and exhaling into balance holds, added texture and anticipation to her performance. Soloists Masumi Yoshimoto, Natalie Tsay, Jimena Flores-Sanchez and Breanne Granlund gave solid performances that highlighted their musicality and poignant pointe work. Guest Artist Shea Johnson ate up the stage with his gravity-defying leaps and turning sequences. While at times his movement appears labored, he can execute a triple pirouette with ease.

The men stole the show in Splendid Gershwin with their Fred Astaire-like grace and personality. Dressed in tuxes and top hats, Samuel Chadick, William Sheriff, Aldrin Vendt and Johnson glided across the stage in a series of turns punctuated with pivots and drag steps in “Embraceable You.” Roman Mejia charmed the audience with his consecutive toe touches and cheeky air as he attempted to impress four female dancers in “Ladies & The Tramp.”

After seeing Ballet Ensemble of Texas deliver on consistency, authenticity and versatility with this Spring Concert one has to wonder, is there anything BET can’t do?

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BET company member Breanne Granlund as the Firebird. Photo: Cathy Vanover

BET company member Breanne Granlund as the Firebird. Photo: Cathy Vanover

Ballet Ensemble of Texas’ production of George Skibine’s The Firebird gets ready to take flight at the Irving Arts Center this weekend.

Coppell, TX — She moves confidently and uninhibited almost to the point of falling off pointe or missing a step, but she doesn’t. Hands twitching, body pulsating with unrestrained energy, Ballet Ensemble of Texas company member Breanne Granlund is the quintessential Firebird. Granuald’s feisty footwork coupled with Igor Stravinsky’s fast staccato composition made for a delightful Tuesday evening at the Ballet Academy of Texas in Coppell.

The Firebird is based on Slavic folklore and tells the story of Prince Ivan’s encounter with the mystical Firebird. In the first scene he tries to capture it, but the firebird offers him one of her feathers instead.  In the next scene Ivan wanders through the forest until he meets the beautiful Tsarevna. They fall in love and a battle ensues between Ivan and the evil Kostchei. Ivan uses the feather to call upon the Firebird and together they dispose of Kostchei. Ivan and Tsarevna get married and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Firebird is a physically demanding role, something Granlund found appealing from the start. “I love the physicality of the role,” Granlund says. “The movement is a lot harder on your body, but I like challenging myself like this. It’s not often that you get to portray a bird and, I think mentally the role really suits me.” Granlund is right. Her penchant for quick footwork, dynamic body positions and overall vigor makes her well-suited for the part.

Coincidently the other female lead in the ballet is being performed by Granlund’s twin sister Abby. She is dancing the role of Tsarenva, a character Granlund says matches her sister’s dancing style really well. “Abby is really great in these types of roles. She’s a very expressive dancer.” Abby’s movement does have a softer quality to it. Her feet hardly make a sound when she bourrees and she’s able to emote feeling from every muscle in her body.

And the man caught in between the Granlund sisters is Texas Ballet Theater Corps dancer Brett Young. His athletic physique and unyielding core strength make him an admirable partner and confident soloist. The pas de deux between Ivan and the Firebird contains multiple lifts in addition to alternating handholds for lengthy balances and turning sequences. With a little more fine tuning this pas de deux will surely be a scene stealer.

What makes Ballet Ensemble of Texas stand out from other pre-professional companies in the area is the consistency you see throughout the company in terms of technique and performance quality. There is no weak link in this production of the Firebird. All seven male company members showcase high jumps, long lines and controlled tours. All the ladies display proficient pointe work and authentic stage presence. “You must act or it’s just going to look like another recital,” says Thom Clower, the person responsible for restaging George Skibine’s Firebird on BET.

All the talk about Clower’s eccentric approach to teaching is completely true. While giving notes it’s common for him to use sounds effects and vivid imagery to describe what he wanted. For example, when telling the princesses how they should be peeking out from behind the apple tree he said, “The movement needs to have more resistance. I don’t want it slower, just thicker.” He is also not opposed to shouting things out during the run through like “I need more!”, “Slow down!” and “Yes, that was lovely!” His knack for blending corrections with compliments has a very positive effect on the students. After a long evening of rehearsing, the students leave laughing with their heads held high. “Thom is really great with the students,” says BET Director Lisa Slagle. “He really inspires them to work harder and give their all every time.”

Ballet Ensemble of Texas’ spring concert takes place April 4-5, 2014 at the Irving Arts Center. In addition to Firebird the company will also be performing the revival of Fernando Bujones’ Splendid Gershwin and the classic ballet Paquita, staged by American Ballet Theatre’s Susan Jones.

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Southern Charm

Photo:  David Harris/ Time Frames Photography

Photo: David Harris/ Time Frames Photography

Hundreds of ballerinas from Texas and neighboring states took part in the 2014 Regional Dance America/Southwest Festival at the Eisemann Center in Richardson.

Richardson — A lone dancer dressed in country western wear (fringe top, black bottoms and cowboy hat) executes a series of slow leg extensions and turns on pointe in front of the silhouette of a gigantic cowboy hat. As the stage lights lift, the 30×15 foot cowboy hat is flown up revealing 20 or so dancers dressed in the same country attire. All together they performed a high energy Texas tribute complete with heel clicks, knee slaps, doe-se-does and hat tilts.

Top Hat, choreographed by Judy Klopfenstein and Cyndi Jones Littlejohn and performed by Dallas Ballet Company (DBC), kicked off the Emerging Choreographers showcase, part of the 2014 Regional Dance America/Southwest (RDA/SW) Festival which took place March 21-23 at the Renaissance Hotel and Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson.

As the evening went on, dancers from companies including Houston Dance Theatre, San Antonio Metropolitan Ballet, Midland Festival Ballet, Corpus Christi Ballet, Twin City Ballet and City Ballet of Houston just to name a few, took to the stage and gave engaging performances that highlighted their strengths which ranged from classical ballet and contemporary to more theatrical and jazz-based numbers.

These talented dancers travelled from Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas just to be able to take class from some of ballet’s best in addition to performing in front of their peers and auditioning for scholarships. “The dancers understand that the festival is not just about performance, but the complete experience,” says Collin County Ballet Theatre Co-Director Kirt Hathaway. “Excellent classes, being among like-minded young artists in an extended period, performing, watching performances, admiring others and wanting to become more than they are and challenging oneself is really what the RDA/SW festival is all about.”

For the faculty roster, event organizers and DBC directors Judy and Brent Klopfenstein used a lot of teachers who are either from or currently working in Dallas, including Jason Fowler (repetiteur for Christopher Wheeldon and former DBC student), Chris Koehl (So You Think You Can Dance Season 8 and former DBC student), Kim Abel (consultant with the dance department at Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts), Thom Clower (former member of Dallas Ballet), Leslie Peck (Associate Professor at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts) and Nycole Ray (member of Dallas Black Dance Theatre).

Ballet royalty Christine Spizzo, Mary Margaret Holt and Jock Soto were also on the schedule as well as Kurt A. Douglas (modern) and Tyler Hanes (theater dance). “I knew these teachers would be great, but in the end they were even better than I could’ve ever imagined,” Judy Klopfenstein says. “I knew I wanted a diverse faculty within the different styles of ballet, but I also wanted to throw in something new and different like African.”

She adds, “We also had between 25 and 35 scholarships to hand out this year. There were scholarships given by American Ballet Theatre, BalletMet, Colorado Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Alonzo King LINES Ballet as well as scholarships given by multiple local companies.”

The local pre-professional ballet companies participating in the festival included Collin County Ballet Theatre (CCBT), Ballet Ensemble of Texas (BET), Dallas Metropolitan Ballet (DMB) and of course DBC. “It was an amazing festival,” Hathaway says. “In speaking with my dancers the classes were so exciting for them and the faculty was awesome. They felt that the instructors could relate to them while at the same time not expecting anything less than their full effort.”

Many other festival participants felt the same way. After learning a vigorous George Balanchine variation from Jason Fowler, BalletForte company member Schuyler Buckler says that even though the variation was tough, Fowler was very encouraging. “He’s the good kind of strict that makes you want to do your best every time.”

Kristen Wright with BET adds, “The way he teaches is just so fun and he is very motivating.”

It also helps when the teachers are just as passionate and excited to work with the students. “I have always wanted to be a teacher,” Spizzo says. “Throughout my career I have honed my teaching skills and I have found a nice balance between verbiage and execution. I have learned that if you throw too much verbiage at younger dancers they won’t be able to process it. To me, teaching is the highest esteem.”

In addition to the variations class students also took partnering, ballet, pointe, modern, Pilates, theater, African and hip-hop. “I really liked Chris Koehl’s hip-hop class,” says BET company member Jimena Flores-Sanchez. “He really helps you break out of your shell.”

Buckler of BalletForte also enjoyed Koehl’s class, but admitted it takes her a little longer to pick up hip-hop movement than ballet choreography. “I just think hip-hop takes a lot more brain power whereas ballet has a lot more to do with muscle memory.”

When asked about the competitiveness of their career choice the students all agreed that the bar has definitely been raised higher in terms of technique and training. “The level of competition out there is really high,” Buckler says. “Today you’re expected to be able to do it all. You really have to be diverse in all styles of dance and the RDA/SW festival helps prepare us for that.”

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Ballet Bonds

Photo: Steven Visneau

Photo: Steven Visneau

Carl Coomer on his choreographic transition and new work Clann, part of Texas Ballet Theater’s upcoming program at Dallas City Performance Hall.

Dallas — “Clann,” the Irish word for family, is the inspiration for Principal Dancer Carl Coomer’s new work of the same name, but it could also describe how he views Texas Ballet Theater and especially Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. “Ben found me when I was really young and took me under his wing,” Coomer says.

Originally from Liverpool, England, Coomer began his training at the age of 13 and in 1998 was offered a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. He performed with both Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet before joining Houston Ballet in 2001. Houston Ballet was on tour in London when Stevenson spotted Coomer during an open company class. Coomer was offered a contract on the spot and shortly after that was on a plane headed to Houston.

“Ben has had to put up with a lot,” Coomer jokes. “I owe him.” So, when Stevenson left Houston Ballet to head up Texas Ballet Theater Coomer would soon follow. During his career Coomer has had the opportunity to perform the lead roles in some of Stevenson’s most memorable works, including GiselleDraculaFour Last Songs,Three PreludesFive PoemSwan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, just to name a few.

Always up for a challenge, Coomer decided a couple of years ago to take the leap into choreography. His first work, Evolving, received high-praise from critics and audiences during TBT’s 2012 Portraits Ballet Festival at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas. His second work, Clann, will be presented at the Dallas City Performance Hall March 28-30 as part of TBT’s spring program, Balanchine and Beyond. His work will be performed alongside George Balanchine’s Serenade and Stevenson’s L, both recently seen in a similar program in Fort Worth, where they were accompanied by Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Gloria (which will not be repeated in Dallas).

Seamus Heaney’s poem Punishment serves as Coomer’s main inspiration for the piece. “He writes about the discovery of a young girl’s body who they think was killed for committing adultery. Heaney tries to imagine what could have happened to her and in a couple of stanzas imagines himself being there. That made me want to take on the role of the observer and kind of figure out what happens to this girl.”

But Coomer is quick to point out that the piece doesn’t necessarily follow a storyline. Instead he uses traditional Celtic music composed by Jordi Savall and Andrew Lawrence-King to create different characters and the different relationships between them. “I used the pieces of music and the images from the poem to help me create different emotions and different ways of moving.”

Coomer adds that this time around he wanted to challenge himself in terms of his choreographic process. “With Evolving I definitely set the steps in the studio, but with this piece I didn’t want to go about it the same way. So, I did each section of music completely by itself and then started linking them together to see how it played out. I wanted to push myself to be more spontaneous and create more movement on the spot.”

He has also discovered that switching from the role of dancer to choreographer is not as easy as it sounds. “Because I am working with people that I know, I want them to look really good, but at the same time I want to push them as well. But I also know what it feels like to be dancing and to come back from a week off and be really sore. So, I think it’s hard to be tough on the dancers because I know what that feels like.” And with his friend and colleague, Lucas Priolo, retiring at the end of this season TBT fans have to wondering what Coomer’s plans are for the future. “I definitely see myself dancing a little longer. This is what I know. And even when my stage career ends I still want to continue in this field.”

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Molding Bodies

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

Meadows Prize winner Jawole Willa Jo Zollar on collaborating with Southern Methodist University dance students and celebrating 30 years of her company, Urban Bush Women.

Dallas — Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was recently in Dallas at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, immersing its dance students in her movement style and rehearsal process. From Feb. 17-28, Zollar taught classes and worked with a select group of students on the restaging of her workChalabati, which will be performed at the Meadows’ Spring Dance Concert March 26-30.

Zollar originally developed Chalabati for students at Virginia Commonwealth University and it is currently in the repertoire of her company, Urban Bush Women (UBW). “Even though the movement is new for a lot of the dancers they are really hungry,” Zollar says. “In the end they all found what I was looking for.”

Zollar’s two-week residency is part of her reward for winning this year’s Meadows Prize from SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. According to the school, the Meadows Prize is awarded to pioneering artists and scholars who are active in a discipline represented by one of the academic units within the Meadows School. Zollar will return for the second half of her residency Nov. 10-21 to stage Walking with ‘Trane… Chapter 3, a new dance suite inspired by John Coltrane’s formidable legacy and his seminal work A Love Supreme.

Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Zollar trained with Joseph Stevenson, a student of the legendary Katherine Dunham. She earned a B.A. in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and a M.F.A. in Dance from Florida State University before moving to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds In Motion. “I was always a choreographer,” Zollar says, “Growing up I always enjoyed making up dances and scenarios, but I just didn’t really know or understood what it meant at that time.”

The Meadows Prize isn’t Zollar’s only cause for celebration this year. This season also marks UBW’s 30th anniversary which Zollar says she’s still trying to wrap her head around. “I don’t think I would have ever thought this could happen. This is just wonderful.” She adds, “There are so many companies out there that just come and go and I think the more unique you are the better chance you have in the long run.”

Zollar founded Urban Bush Women in 1984 as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. “We are a company that, through our creative work onstage and our work in community, really looks at how we can bring out the ‘physicalization’ of stories that give perspectives that are not  a part of the dominate culture.” In addition to her 34 works for UBW, Zollar has also created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, University of Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked with collaborators including Compagnie Jant-Bi from Senegal and Nora Chipaumire.

Asked to sum up her experience at SMU, Zollar says she was very pleased with the Meadows School and its dancers. “The students are just fantastic. I really enjoyed working with them and watching them grow.” Zollar adds that she has also grown during her time at SMU. “As a teacher you are always striving to be more articulate and this experience has taught to be more articulate in class and in rehearsal.” And if there’s one thing Zollar would like the dancers to remember from their time with her, it’s how they distribute their weight. “It’s that shift of weight in the pelvis that enables dancers to get on and off the floor very quickly.”

The Meadows Spring Dance Concert will also feature Cold Virtues (2003) by Meadows Artist-in-Residence Adam Hougland; and D-Man in the Waters (1989) by Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones. The Saturday evening concert will include a special tribute to Ann Williams, founder and artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Lily Cabatu Weiss, chair of the dance department at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, with performances by DBDT and Booker T. dancers.

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RDA/SW 2014 Festival Happening This Weekend!

RDA Logo 2014_tanIT’S HERE!

Approximately 750 bunheads from Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas will converge at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson, TX, this weekend for the 2014 Regional Dance America/Southwest Festival, hosted by Dallas Ballet Company.

Aptly named Deep in the Heart…There’s Dance!, this year’s RDA/SW Festival features a variety of master classes from ballet, pointe and partnering to theater and hip-hop as well as an emerging choreography concert, showcase performance and a closing gala happening each evening at 7:30pm at the Eisemann.

Tickets for the performances are $30 and are available through the Eisemann Center and Dallas Ballet Company.

Some of our local talent will be in attendance, including Collin County Ballet Theatre, Ballet Ensemble of Texas and Dallas Metropolitan Ballet.

And of course there will also be some amazing guests artists teaching at the festival, including Jason Fowler, Tyler Hanes, Kim Abel, Jock Soto, Kurt A. Douglas, Mary Margaret Holt and Thom Clower, just to name a few.

I will be there all weekend observing classes and watching performances. Come on by and say HI!


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