Dallas DanceFest Profile: Ewert & Company

Ewert & Company members Rebekah Caffey and Lela Bell. Photo: Sharen Bradford

Ewert & Company members Rebekah Caffey and Lela Bell. Photo: Sharen Bradford

Artistic Director Anna Marie Ewert-Pittman on building her company, Ewert & Company, and performing at the inaugural Dallas DanceFest.

Dallas — Like many dance companies across North Texas, Ewert & Company was created out of Artistic Director Anna Marie Ewert-Pittman’s need to express herself. “I wanted to do something different than what I was doing,” Ewert-Pittman says. “And I wanted more of a voice in the work.” At the time she was a member of Dancers’ Unlimited Repertory Company in Dallas. When Dancers’ Unlimited disbanded in the early ’90s Ewert-Pittman saw it as an opportunity to start making her own work, and in 2000 Ewert & Company was formed.

Over the last 15 years Ewert & Company has built up an electric repertory that critics have called dramatic, witty and original. But finding her choreographic voice didn’t happen overnight. “I would say my movement choices were more Graham-based in the beginning. I think after I got my MFA I was able to step outside my little box and expand my artistry.”

Ewert-Pittman holds a BFA in Dance Performance from Southern Methodist University and a MFA in Performing Arts-Dance from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She currently teaches for Brookhaven College and Tarrant County College as well as for the Dallas Youth Repertory Project which holds classes at Dallas Black Dance Theatre.

The piece Ewert & Company will be presenting at the Dallas City Performance Hall (PCDH) as part of the inaugural Dallas DanceFest is Ewert-Pittman’s Not So Carefully Kept (2012). The work features music by Henry Purcell and is performed by company members Haylee Barganier, Lela Bell and Rebekah Caffey. “Many of my dancers I know from my days at Dancers’ Unlimited.” The piece also features excerpts from the book The Velveteen Rabbit read by James Mio, rearranged. “Not So Carefully Kept deals a lot with remembrance and loss. It’s a pretty layered piece that I think everyone will be able to relate to in some way.”

Anna Marie Ewert-Pittman. Photo: Sharen Bradford

Anna Marie Ewert-Pittman. Photo: Sharen Bradford

While discussing her creative process Ewert-Pittman admits that she doesn’t follow a particular format each time she starts a new project. “Sometimes I start the process with the music and sometimes I don’t. I really like listening to opera and soulful music, but whether I use it or not really depends on the subject matter.” The one constant she says is the time she spends researching the subject before going into the studio to explore.

Ewert-Pittman considers herself a team player when it comes to supporting other up-and-coming dance companies in the area. “I have had a few emerging companies reach out to me for advice. I try to help as best I can and if not then I direct them to someone I think can help them.”

» Ewert & Company will perform Not So Carefully Kept at the Friday night showcase, 8 p.m. Aug. 29, at Dallas City Performance Hall. The other companies performing Friday are: Dallas Ballet Company, Indique Dance Company, Rhythmic Souls, Dallas Black Dance Theatre II, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, Texas Ballet Theater, Southern Methodist University Meadows Dance Ensemble, Dallas Black Dance Theatre.

» Companies performing Saturday are: Chamberlain Performing Arts, Chado Danse, Houston METdance, Avant Chamber Ballet, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Rep I and II companies, Tarrant County College Movers Unlimited, Mejia Ballet International, Bruce Wood Dance Project

» The Dance Council Honors are Sunday at 2 p.m., honoring Nita Braun, Ann Briggs-Cutaia and Joe Cutaia, Buster Cooper, Dylis Croman, Suzy Jary and Beth Wortley, with performances by Ballet Ensemble of Texas, Bruce Wood Dance Project and 2014 Dance Council Scholarship Recipients.

This profile was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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Breeding Ground

Alice Alyse teaching ballet in TWU studios. Photo: Annabelle Chen

Alice Alyse teaching ballet in TWU studios. Photo: Annabelle Chen

The Joffrey Ballet School’s second annual Dallas summer intensive at Texas Woman’s University in Denton continues the JBS tradition of modling young dancers.

Denton — While many ballet schools across the country are seeing a drop in their summer program numbers, the New York-based Joffrey Ballet School (JBS) has seen its enrollment rise and its programs expand over the last decade. And while founder Robert Joffrey’s teaching philosophy remains at the forefront of the school’s mission statement, its recent success would not be possible without some critical changes over the past decade.

The JBS was founded in 1953 by Joffrey and Gerald Arpino and has been known for the past 50 years as one of the premiere training institution for dancers in America. “Joffrey was always an innovator,” says Alice Alyse, a master teacher and artistic director of JBS’s summer programs in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Dallas. “He loved doing contemporary movement on pointe shoes long before it was the norm. He was also a strong believer in creating well-rounded dancers. The JBS is truly a breeding ground for well-trained dancers.”

But the school hit a devastating bump in 2007 with the passing of its long reigning Executive Director Edith D’Addario. By the time of D’Addario’s death the school’s enrollment was way down and its financials were a mess. The JBS was close to shutting its doors when Chris D’Addario (Edith’s grandson) and Lee Merwin stepped in. Together they cleaned house and JBS is thriving once again. For more background, read “The Fall and Rise of the Joffrey Ballet School” in Dance Teacher magazine June 2014 issue.

The JBS also brought on Alyse who, over the last 5 years, has expanded the school’s summer programs to other parts of the U.S. including Los Angeles and Dallas. “I never pictured myself as a director. JBS came to me and was very patient with me as I learned the ropes.” To date JBS holds summer programs in seven cities and two international programs in Florence and Moscow.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Alyse began studying ballet at the age of 5. Her family moved to Miami when she was 11. She joined Miami City Ballet at 16 before graduating from New World School of the Arts. Alyse went on to dance with Sarasota Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. In addition to her role as Artistic Director of Joffrey West, South and Southwest, Alyse also executes many auditions for the JBS nationwide and internationally. She conducted the first Hong Kong and Singapore auditions in 2012.

Photo: Annabelle Chen

Photo: Annabelle Chen

The JBS’s Dallas summer program is already in progress (July 28 – August 15) at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton, TX. “We used TWU’s facilities last year and had a great experience. The studios and theater are wonderful and the dance department and administration have been very supportive.”

Students will spend three weeks immersing themselves in a variety of dance styles, including classical, contemporary ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, Bollywood and even tradition Chinese dance. In addition to Alyse, the faculty also include Chris Coates, master hip-hop and jazz teacher, and Mecca Vazie Andrews, the artistic director of Los Angeles-based The MOVEMENT movement. Classes are capped at approximately 15-25 students so, there is plenty of individualized attention. In terms of the dancers, Alyse says she is surprised at the number of students who are actually from the Dallas area. “There’s not as many international dancers here as we usually see in other cities. And the dancers here are really in love with the contemporary style.”

Through her experiences as a dancer, teacher and artistic director Alyse has seen firsthand how the ballet culture in the U.S. is changing. “Today’s ballet dancers have to be way more versatile and open-minded. When I started out you were labeled either a ballet, modern or commercial dancer. Today those styles are all mixing together.” Alyse attributes the blurring of these lines to today’s heavy competition, market demands and a dancer’s need to prolong her career. “A ballet dancer typically retires between the ages of 32-36, but if they are trained in other styles such as modern they could join another company and extend their dance life a few more years or even decades.”

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.


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Q&A: Maksim Chmerkovskiy, Dancing With The Stars

Maksim and Karina. Photo: Courtesy

Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff in Ballroom With A Twist. Photo: Courtesy

The professional Ballroom dancer on winning Season 18 of Dancing With The Stars and his upcoming performance in Ballroom With A Twist at the Music Hall at Fair Park.

Dallas — Widely known as the Bad Boy of the Ballroom, Maksim Chmerkovskiy waltzed his way into America’s heart during Season 2 of ABC’s Dancing With The Stars. Since then he has come close to winning the mirror ball trophy four times before finally accomplishing the fete this year (Season 18) with 2014 Sochi Olympic Gold Medalist Meryl Davis. But Chmerkovskiy’s love of dance started long before the formation of DWTS.

Born in 1980 in Odessa, Ukraine, Chmerkovskiy began dance classes at the age of 4. During his teenage years his family immigrated to the U.S. and Chmerkovskiy got serious about his dance career. He is the founder of Rising Stars Academy, a studio focused on the youth and their pursuit of Ballroom dance, and is also the co-founder of Dance With Me Dance Studios. He choreographed the Wynn Las Vegas water-based show Le Reveand has also performed in the Broadway show Burn the Floor. He joined the cast of DWTS in 2006.

Dallas audiences can see Chmerkovskiy in addition to dance celebrities Cheryl Burke, Karina Smirnoff and Tony Dovolani when Ballroom With a Twist comes to the Music Hall at Fair Park July 19 for two showings. Also performing is So You Think You Can Dance finalists Jenna Johnson (Season 11), Legacy (Season 6), Randi Lynn Strong (Season 5) and Johnathan Platero (Season 5) along with American Idol finalists Von Smith (Season 8) and Haley Scarnato (Season 6).

TheaterJones asks Maksim Chmerkovskiy about choreographing for television, winning the mirror ball trophy and what audiences can expect to see during Ballroom With A Twist.

TheaterJones: Besides receiving the mirror ball trophy, what does winning Season of DWTS mean to you?

Maksim Chmerkovskiy: It means everything to me! I have been with the show for about 8 years and every season has been a wonderful experience in different ways. This season with Meryl was a completely different experience from the rest. Meryl is such a hard-working and dedicated woman who pushed me to do my very best and I did not want to let her or my fans down.

How did you get involved with Ballroom With A Twist?

I agreed to a few shows to be able to meet the people who have supported and voted for Meryl and I throughout this past season of DWTS, as well as my fans that have been there for me throughout the years. It is a way for me to give back to my fans and let them know how much I appreciate them.

How would you describe the production? Is it DWTS on tour?

Ballroom With A Twist is filled with amazing performances, fun music and an outstanding cast that is perfect for the entire family.

What dance styles can audiences expect to see?

People can expect to see classic Ballroom along with Ballroom mixed with Contemporary and Hip-Hop like styles.

Do you have a favorite Ballroom or Latin dance?

Dancing is my passion and each and every dance I perform has something different to it, whether it’s emotional or physical. A lot depends on whom I am dancing with as well.

What sort of impact has DWTS had on Ballroom dance in the U.S.?

I think DWTS has allowed America to appreciate and fall in love with the act of dance beyond just Ballroom.

What advice do you have for young dancers who want to dance on television one day?

The best advice I can give is to follow your heart. Work hard and love what you do, that’s what is most important.

Outside of DWTS, what do you enjoy doing?

Outside of DWTS I spent a lot time working on my dance studios, Dance With Me, which now has five locations throughout New York/New York City, New Jersey and Connecticut. I also love giving back and helping others. I work with a charity called Childhelp which helps victims of child abuse and neglect. I also love spending time with my family. They’re everything to me!

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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Q&A: Choreographer Shen Wei

Shen Wei's Near the Terrace. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Shen Wei’s Near the Terrace. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Choreographer Shen Wei on his creative process, honesty in movement and his company’s upcoming performance at the Winspear.

Dallas — Painter. Visual Artist. Dancer. Choreographer. But the title Shen Wei cherishes the most is that of “human being.” “I am a human being who loves art,” he says. His humility and honesty is embedded in all his work which has been mesmerizing audiences around the world since starting Shen Wei Dance Arts (SWDA) in 2000. Wei will be bringing his vibrant imagination and exquisite movement quality to Dallas on June 19 at the Winspear Opera House, ending TITAS’ season on a very high note.

The evening will feature two of Wei’s earlier works: Map (2005) and Near the Terrace (2001). With music by Steve Reich, Map explores a range of movement principles, including rotation, bouncing, internal isolation, internal circular movement and internal individual movement. On the other end of the spectrum is Near the Terrace with its slow controlled movements inspired by a series of paintings by Belgian artist Paul Delvaux. An exhibition of Wei’s own paintings is also on display at the Crow Collection of Asian Art from through Sept. 29.

Born to a couple of Chinese Opera professionals in China’s Hunan province, Wei was trained from youth in Chinese Opera performance, traditional ink painting and calligraphy. He was a performer with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company from 1984 to 1989. He also studied Western visual art which lead him to modern dance. In 1991 he co-founded the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, the first of its kind in China. Wei moved to New York City in 1995 to study with the Nikolais/Louis Dance Lab and founded Shen Wei Dance Arts 5 years later. To date SWDA has performed in 138 cities in 28 countries and on four continents.

Wei has commissioned works for American Dance Festival, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, Lincoln Center Festival, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Hong Kong’s New Vision Arts Festival, to name a few. He has also earned numerous accolades, including a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship (2007), the U.S. Artists Fellow award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. He also choreographed the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. In 2010, he was a named a winner of the Meadows Prize at Southern Methodist University, where he worked with the dance students.

TheaterJones caught up with Shen Wei to talk about his creative process, blending Eastern and Western dance styles and what audiences can expect at his Dallas performance.

TheaterJones: You have many titles: choreographer, dancer, painter, director. What do you see yourself as?

Shen Wei: I think it’s a human being who loves art. That’s it.

Is painting your first passion?

I have loved painting since I was a little boy. I remember being at home by myself painting at 5 or 6 years old. No one really taught me how to paint. And that has been non-stop up till now. I feel that painting is one of those things I will do no matter where my life takes me.

What inspired you to start dancing?

Like painting I started dancing as a young boy. It fits my personality. In China I was born in the year of monkey which means one who likes to be really active and physical. I do have that monkey side in me. I like to express myself through physical movement. I am naturally coordinated and can learn things fast physically. I never thought many years later I would still be doing the two things that I love.

What motivated you to move to the U.S. in 1995?

There comes a point in your life when you hunger for more learning and more exposure. As an artist and human being I wanted to grow more and I knew I could do that in New York City. I wanted to discover everything I didn’t know and to grow more.

How was it adapting to New York City and the Western dance culture?

Before I came to the U.S. I spent many years studying modern dance and the Western culture through visual and performing arts, but you can only learn so much from books and teachers. It’s so different when you are living it. It took me many years to really understand the roots of Western culture and New York City.

Was it always in the cards to start your own company?

I never planned to start a company or to be a choreographer in the U.S. In some ways you think things just suddenly change. But in other ways it’s because you are concentrating so hard on doing well for yourself and educating yourself that things just happen naturally. Being a freelance artist in the city in not easy. But somehow things changed and my work developed to a certain place where people started welcoming it.

What is it about your work that makes it so relatable to mass audiences?

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Photo: Stephanie Berger

I think it’s my focus, passion and research. I only do one or two projects a year. I do this because I want to be reliving the work I am doing which means I do spend a lot adjusting everything and conducting my research. I never do two projects at one time. This way I have nothing distracting me from my work.  My traveling, education and childhood has also helped me understand the sensitivities of both Eastern and Western cultures. This has made me who I am today. My travels have lead me to communicate with many different people and that helps me to grow and appreciate the different cultures and human beings. So, my work may in some ways relates to people on a spiritual level, but it’s hard to say. I am just trying to touch you by communicating honestly through movement.

Can you tell me about the process you went through when creating Map and Near the Terrace?

Both pieces are earlier works and were built in different periods of my life. So, if you experience the whole evening you will see how modern dance can be so different and unique in its own ways. Map is more active, musical and abstract. It’s about discovering new ways of moving and what happens to our movement when universal elements such as gravity are introduced. Near the Terrace showcases the human form and touches more on the spiritual side of human nature. It’s a slower, more visually appealing number.

This Q&A was originally published on TheaterJones.com.


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Dance Council of North Texas Announces 2014 Honorees

Dylis Croman. Photo courtesy DCNT

Dylis Croman. Photo courtesy DCNT

The Dance Council of North Texas recognizes the accomplishments of Nita Braun, Suzie Jary, Beth Wortley, Joe Cutaia and Ann Briggs-Cutaia, Dylis Croman and Buster Cooper.

Dallas — Every year the Dance Council of North Texas selects five individuals whose excellence in education, performance and community support for dance have greatly impacted the art form in North Texas. While the mission of the Dance Council Honors hasn’t changed, attendees are in for a few surprises at this year’s event. For the first time the Dance Council Honors will take place at Dallas City Performance Hall on Aug. 31, 2014, and will coincide with the inaugural Dallas DanceFest which runs Aug. 29-31. The Dance Council Honors has previously been held at Dallas Black Dance Theatre. The event begins with a reception followed by the presentation of awards and includes performances by 2014 DCNT scholarship recipients and professional companies.

“That Dallas Black Dance Theatre opened its doors to the annual Dance Council Honors was a wonderful gift,” says Honors Chairperson Janice LaPointe-Crump. However, “each year people had to be turned away because of the limited amount of seating. With more capacity and better sight lines the City Performance Hall is truly a contemporary, yet elegant environment. And becoming part of the Dallas DanceFest closes the space between our youthful scholarship recipients, professionals at the height of their careers and the presentation of the Honor awards to those who have preserved and excelled throughout their professional lives.”

Buster Cooper. Photo courtesy DCNT

Buster Cooper. Photo courtesy DCNT

The DCNT will also be honoring Dallas tap icon Buster Cooper, who passed away in March, with the final Texas Tap Legend Award. The award has been renamed the Buster Cooper Tap Legend Award. This year’s Dance Council Honorees are:

Nita Braun – Mary McLarry Bywaters Award for Lifetime Achievement

Nita Braun’s teaching career spanned nearly 35 years, 25 of which were spent running Nita Braun’s Talent Workshop in Farmers Branch. Braun’s passion for dance also extended beyond her studio. For many years she served as a Secretary and a Vice President of the Dallas Dance Council, working to expand the audience for dance in Dallas through education, outreach, and performance. In 1946 she married Philip Henry Braun, a chemical engineer and World War II veteran. Together they raised four children – Cathie, Mary, Lisa, and Griff – and were married for 56 years, until Phil’s death in 2003. Braun passed away in January 2012 at the age of 85.

Suzie Jary – Mary Warner Award for Service to Dance

For more than 20 years Suzie Jary LCSW, TEP has been providing psychotherapy and counseling in the areas of addiction, mental health, grief and loss and career development. She graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work, CUNY, in New York, and trained and worked in New York City before relocating to Fort Worth, TX. Jary is a recognized specialist in the issues faced by performing and creative artists. She has spoken internationally and domestically about artists’ career development and career transition issues. She was profiled in The New York TimesWall Street Journal, and New York Daily News for her work with Career Transition for Dancers, a national not-for-profit organization. As Client Services Consultant for the organization she travels nationwide presenting action-based career development workshops for professional dance companies, college dance major programs and dance conservatories. Jary’s background is as a professional musical theatre dancer having performed in Europe, in national tours and on Broadway.

Beth Wortley – Larry White Dance Educator Award

Growing up in Dallas, Beth Wortley studied classical ballet with Nikita Talin. She also has training in jazz and modern dance. Wortley received a BFA in Theater from University of Texas at Austin and a MFA in dance from Southern Methodist University in 1973. After graduation she served as Artistic Director of Ballet of Dallas for 5 years before moving to Boston where she taught ballet at Tufts University and Boston University. Wortley returned to Dallas in 1989 and was soon hired as Director of the Dance Department for the Hockaday School. In 2008 she was named the Chair of the Performing Arts Department. Outside of her Hockaday responsibilities, Beth has been directing, choreographing and acting in productions for the Rotunda Theater for the last 50 years. She has choreographed countless musicals for other local theaters and high schools throughout the Metroplex. Wortley also was a pioneer for Liturgical dance at First United Methodist Church Dallas.

Buster Cooper – Texas Tap Legend Award

Leonard “Buster” Cooper started dance lessons at the age of 10. At 17 he attended a workshop in Chicago where he was asked to stand in for Gene Kelly’s brother, Fred. His career as a dancer and teacher flourished from there. He was drafted for WWII in 1942 and afterward spent his summers dancing in Chicago and New York. Cooper moved to Dallas in 1951 to head up one of Fred Astaire’s dance locations. A year later he left the company and opened his own studio. For 52 years he owned and operated The Buster Cooper School of Dance and for more than 30 years served as the head of dance at Hockaday School. Scores of his alumni went on to dance in production at the Dallas Summer Musicals and on Broadway in shows, including The Music ManThe Pajama GameWest Side StoryA Chorus Line and Cats. Cooper passed away in March 2013 at the age of 90.

Joe Cutaia and Ann Briggs-Cutaia – Buster Cooper Tap Legend Award

Texas native Joe Cutaia has studied dance in Dallas, New York and Chicago. His professional experiences include the Broadway national touring companies of Little Me with Donald O’Connor, George M with Ken Berry and Hello Dolly with Carol Channing. As an actor, Cutaia studied with Adam Roarke at the Film Labs at Las Colinas, Lou Diamond Phillips and the DSM Musical Theatre School. He also has worked for the Dallas Children’s Theatre and has appeared in various television commercials. Cutaia is an active member of the Dance Council of North Texas and for the past several years has been a committee chairman of the National Tap Dance Day celebration in Dallas. He and his wife Ann are members of three Dallas ballroom dance clubs having presided as presidents for one group and are currently holding the position of President-Elect for another. They are also the owners of The Chaplin Cotillions LLC, and travel around the state of Texas conducting etiquette and ballroom classes for students in grades 2 through 9.

Ann Briggs-Cutaia studied dance in Dallas, TX with Texie Waterman and Buster Cooper. Briggs holds a BFA in dance from Southern Methodist University. She danced professionally as a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and has appeared in various commercials, television shows and movies in the United States and Japan. Briggs also holds a Masters of Science in Counseling and is certified by the Texas State Board for Educator Certification as an instructor of dance and speech as well as a school counselor.

Dylis Croman – Natalie Skelton Award for Artistic Excellence

Dallas native Dylis Croman is best known  for her success on Broadway in shows, including Sweet Charity,FosseA Chorus LineApplauseOklahoma! and presently Chicago. A quintessential ballerina, Croman once danced with the renowned FeldBallets/NY (now Ballet Tech Company) before becoming Ann Reinking’s assistant and eventually a Fosse aficionado and legacy keeper, then launching her triumphant career on Broadway. Croman trained in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with Laura Price, Dana Davis Bailey, Dian Clough West, and TuzerBallet. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA) before moving to New York. This year Croman was the guest star for DCNT’s Dance Planet 18 festival.

Tickets for the 2014 Dance Council Honors will be available beginning August 1. Visit www.thedancecouncil.org for more information.

This piece was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


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Timeless Tale

Carolyn Judson in TBT's Swan Lake. Photo: Steven Visneau

Carolyn Judson in TBT’s Swan Lake. Photo: Steven Visneau

Fort Worth — Many critics would say they have a love/hate relationship with the ballet Swan Lake. Hate because we have seen it re-done and over-done so many times. Love because when executed correctly we can find ourselves at a loss for words. These conflicting views might have something to do with the ballet’s own fractured history. The Swan Lake we know today derives from the production choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s composition and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1895.

What many might not know is that Tchaikovsky actually composed the score in the mid-1870s and that the first production of Swan Lake was performed on stage in Moscow under the title The Lake of the Swans. It also may come as a surprise to some that the original version was a product of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre before it was revived in St. Petersburg. Petipa and Ivanov also had different ideas when it came the ballet’s choreography due to their dissimilar dance backgrounds; Petipa with his Italian and Parisian influences and Ivanov with his Imperial Russian influences. Their contrasting styles helped create one of the most challenging and coveted roles in ballet: Odette/Odile.

Swan Lake tells the story of the beautiful Odette who is turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer and only love can break the spell. The sorcerer plays a trick on the prince so that he falls in love with the imposter black swan thus dooming Odette. Instead of spending an eternity as a swan Odette chooses to kill herself and once the prince realizes what he has done he decides to die with her. Not exactly the happily-ever-after audiences might expect.

It’s definitely a risk for Texas Ballet Theater to close its season with such an infamous ballet, but if dress rehearsal on Thursday was any indication audiences are in for a well-balanced performance. The opening party scene in the woods started off a little rocky, but quickly gained momentum. At first, the dancers’ pantomiming felt a bit forced and Principal Dancer Lucas Priolo’s stage entrance lacked energy. But as the scene progressed the dancers began to lose themselves in the movement and story thanks in part to the live accompaniment provided by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra—the first time TBT has has live orchestra accompaniment since 2008.

The two female soloists in the party scene displayed beautiful control and amazing fortitude as they seamlessly executed multiple entrechat trois and echappe jumps into a slow arabesque hold. Simon Wexler upped the ante with his mind-blowing jumps and technical dexterity. He attacks all his movement with such vigor that viewers are just waiting for him to fall out of a turn or fumble a landing. He does neither of these things.

Priolo’s movement becomes more fluid and texturized when he dances with Carolyn Judson (Odette/Odile) during the lake scene. His quiet charm, stoic lines and breezy partnering skills are only a few of the qualities audiences are going to miss when he retires after this performance season. With her long lines, winged feet and angelic face, Judson is the quintessential swan princess. But don’t let her willowy frame and divine adagio work fool you. As soon as the tempo picks up she begins fluttering her arms frantically as she aggressively bourrees across the floor.

The corps of swans also has the difficult task of executing every head tilt, wrist flick and body angle in complete unison and at a quick-moving pace. If one dancer’s leg is a little higher than the others the whole illusion of the dance is scattered. This part of the ballet is so well-known because of its uniformity. The corps accomplishes this by breathing together as a group, giving off a tranquil vibe even as they are moving quickly in and out of formations while performing tricky foot work.

The return to live music will be talked about just as much as the dancing. The orchestra had to be cut because of financial difficulties at the start of the recession, but appears to slowly be making a comeback. In the 2014-15 season, TBT will have two productions with the FWSOThe Sleeping Beauty and The Merry Widow.

Texas Ballet Theater’s production of Swan Lake runs May 30-June 1, 2014 at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Dream Maker

Ann Williams with DBDT company members. Photo: Robert Hart

Ann Williams with DBDT company members. Photo: Robert Hart

Ann Williams reflects on her time as artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the company’s impact on the Dallas community and her plans for the future.

Dallas — Teacher. Mentor. Dream maker. These are only a few of the titles Ann Williams has acquired over the past 37 years as founder/artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the oldest, continuously operating professional dance company in Dallas. But after the company’s Spring Celebration Performance at the Winspear Opera House this weekend Williams will hand the reigns over and take on a new title: retiree.

“Next year I am looking forward to completely stepping back and enjoying DBDT from afar,” Williams says. “I will travel some, play bridge and enjoy the company of my friends and relatives.”

The two-evening Spring Celebration includes performances by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Texas Ballet Theater and Kirven Douthit-Boyd (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). Dancers from DBDT will also be performing in new works choreographed Lily Weiss (Booker T. Washington HSPVA) and Christopher Vo (dancer on Season 2 of the NBC show SMASH).

And while Williams will no longer be a part of the day-to-day activities of the organization once she retires, she will remain supportive and continue to seek out new funding opportunities. And the company can still expect to see her at rehearsals, programs, master classes and workshops. “But only on a limited basis and only as a guest/friend.”

As for the task of uncovering DBDT’s next artistic director Williams say the search has been going quite well. “We have 11 applicants from several different cities and states including New York. We have a dedicated committee not just from the Dallas community, but people who are interested in getting the best possible person for DBDT. The committee will choose a finalist very soon.”

The outpouring of love and support Williams has received since making her announcement last May proves DBDT is indeed a Dallas institution. “I do feel honored with all the love and attention that has happened this year from the local community, especially the dance community. It has made me feel special.”

Since starting the company in 1976, Williams has established five performing dance troupes and currently employs 12 administrative staff and 12 dancers on an 11-month contract. DBDT has performed in 14 countries with tours in Peru, South Africa, Uganda, Austria, Japan, Italy and many more. Most notable venues include Lincoln Center in New York City, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 2012 London Olympics. DBDT’s repertoire includes works by Alvin Ailey, Ulysses Dove, Talley Beatty, Christopher Huggins, David Parsons and Darryl B. Sneed, to name a few.

Like all dance companies, DBDT has experienced its highs and lows: economic declines, dancers leaving for other cities and housing complications (DBDT’s home is now 2700 Flora St.), but the company has managed to stay afloat thanks to careful planning and realistic goal setting. “DBDT also has a staff and board of directors that are dedicated to keeping the doors of the company open and support our mission of providing artistic excellence. We are supported by many individuals, corporations and foundations. Our audience and patrons have been with us during the highs and lows and we have rewarded them with great choreography and programs.”

When asked if she has any regrets Williams says, “I think I have accomplished the goals that were necessary and achievable. There can always be more, but I am grateful for our home in in the Arts District and the performance space we have with the Wyly Theatre. It would have been super to get that $1 million gift, but I believe that can happen with the next artistic director.”

As for her legacy, Williams would like to be remembered for the services she has provided to many dance students who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. “I believe I have opened doors of opportunity for many dancers, students, parents, organizations in the City of Dallas, the State of Texas and many parts of the nation and around the world. I have given from my heart and soul so that others can fulfill their dreams.”

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Preview: Dallas Black Dance Theatre Spring Celebration

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

Christopher Vo pushes Dallas Black Dance Theatre mentally in his new work touch (listen), part of the company’s Spring Celebration, honoring the legacy of Ann Williams.

Dallas – “Remember guys, calm, easy and mindful,” says choreographer Christopher Vo to the members of Dallas Black Dance Theatre as they prepare to run through his new work, touch (listen), last Friday afternoon. In this piece Vo challenges the dancers to be more impulsive and alert in their movement choices.

“I really wanted to create this sense of community,” Vo says. “The dancers are good at taking movement in and executing it, but they needed some help when it came to running and walking together. This was my gift to them.”

A Dallas native, Vo attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts before being accepted to the Juilliard School in New York. From  2008 to 2011 Vo toured and taught master classes across the country with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. He was also a principal dancer in Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Awaydance musical and was a featured dancer throughout Season 2 of the NBC show SMASH. In 2013 Vo performed in the world premiere of the Bruce Wood Dance Project’s My Brother’s Keeper and also headlined Dance Planet 17, a free dance event the Dance Council of North Texas puts on every year.

Before heading into rehearsals Vo sent an e-mail to the dancers asking them what kind of piece they were interested in doing. “Half of them wanted to dance to an Ella Fitzgerald or Stevie Wonder song while the other half wanted something more instrumental. I decided to challenge them with a more classical piece of music.”

touch (listen) begins with six couples lounging stoically on the ground. At the start of the music they slowly inch backwards across the floor. One by one the dancers stand and begin running. As the violin swells and descends the dancers spontaneously break into pairs, trios and quartets creating visually pleasing lines and rotating formations as they go.

Vo is an impulsive mover. He doesn’t create movement ahead of time. Instead he prefers the dancers to discover what works for them in that moment. “I don’t want the movement to feel forced. I like when it happens organically.”

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

Vo adds that the choreography for touch (listen) was really a collaborative effort between him and the dancers. “I see myself more as the architect and the dancers as the lumber and the screws of the dance.”

While finishing the dance Vo asked the dancers several times to just go with the flow rather than give them specific pathways. “In this section I want you to be less creative here (Vo points to his head) and just go with the momentum.” But he still expects the dancers to be mindful of where everyone is spatially. This is especially crucial when there are two groups on stage rotating clockwise with the purpose of joining together in one straight line at the end. Viewers will certainly notice if one group’s timing is off.

Vo’s teaching style is firm yet encouraging, a combination the dancers respond well to. “I don’t want to discourage them. I want to motivate them to keep pushing for their best each time.” Vo is also a strong believer in repetition. He will run the same few phrases of movement at least five times, tweaking something each time. “I like repetition because I like to exhaust all the options in order to find the correct movement.”

Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration Performance, which honors the legacy of founder Ann Williams, is May 16-17, 2014 at the Winspear Opera House. In addition to Vo, the program also includes DBDT performing works by Bruce Wood and Lily Weiss (Booker T. Washington HSPVA), and features guest performances by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Texas Ballet Theater and guest performer Kirven Douthit-Boyd of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Q&A: Mark Morris

Photo: Sarah Schatz

Photo: Sarah Schatz

The choreographer on his musical influences, Dance for Parkinson”s Disease program and his company’s upcoming performance for TITAS at the Winspear Opera House.

Dallas — For more than 30 years Mark Morris has been wowing audiences with his refined musicality, subtle humor and fearless movement choices. He formed the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) in 1980 and in 2001 the company moved into its permanent headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. Morris’ resume reads like a Who’s who list of modern dance. He began his dance training with Verla Flowers and Perry Brunson in Seattle, Washington in the 1960s. He then went on to perform with Lar Lubovitch, Hannah Kahn, Laura Dean, Eliot Feld and the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble. From 1988 to 1991 Morris was the Director of Dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. And in 1991 he founded the White Oak Dance Project with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

A man of many talents, Morris started conducting performances for MMDG in 2006. He has collaborated with notable musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Zakir Hussain, Ethan Iverson, Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki. In addition to MMDG, Morris has also conducted at The International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Lincoln Center and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). He also works extensively in opera, directing and choreographing productions for the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, English National Opera and The Royal Opera.

Morris has received numerous accolades throughout his career, including the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement (2007), the Leonard Bernstein Lifetime Achievement Award for the Elevation of Music in Society (2010), the Benjamin Franklin Laureate Prize for Creativity (2012) and Cal Performances Award of Distinction in the Performing Arts (2013).

Dallasites will get to discover Morris’ broad appeal for themselves when the MMDG comes to the Winspear Opera House May 10, 2014, part of TITAS’ season. The program includes Morris’ Italian Concerto (2007), A Wooden Tree (2012)The “Tamil Film Songs in Stereo” Pas de Deux (1983) and Festival Dance (2011). TheaterJones asks Mark Morris about his modern dance influences, the company’s longevity and his Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program.

TheaterJones: Mark Morris Dance Group has been around for more than 30 years. To what do you attribute your longevity?

Mark Morris: I suppose that plenty of people are interested in seeing my work more than once. Also, the dancers and musicians I work with are marvelous artists. I am also a very good choreographer.

How has your perception of your work changed throughout the years?

It is and always has been my job and my pleasure to make up dances.

When did your love for movement and music begin?

As a child. My home was very music-friendly and I took to dance at the age of 9.

Who are your modern dance influences?

George Frederic Handel and George Balanchine.

Who or what inspires you today?

Music, my dancers, literature and travel

The program in Dallas includes Italian ConcertoA Wooden TreeThe “Tamil Film Songs in Stereo” Pas de Deux and Festival Dance. Can you tell me a little bit about this line up?

Italian Concerto is composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, involves five dancers and the sections are fast/slow/fast. A Wooden Tree is performed to the recorded songs and poems of Ivor Cutler, involves eight dancers and follows a Scottish theme. The “Tamil Film Songs in Stereo” Pas de Deux is a comedy that follows the structure of a classical Pas de Deux to South Indian film music on tape. And Festival Dance is a big celebratory dance for six male/females couples done in three movements to a piano trio by Johann Nepomuk Hummel.

What qualities do you look for in your dancers?

You’ll see for yourself!

How would you describe modern dance to today’s aspiring professionals?

There is a lot of it and some of it is interesting.

What motivated you to start your Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program? How has the program grown?

We were contacted by the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group a dozen years ago. Dancers from my company devised an approach to teach dancing and singing to their students. It has developed logically and naturally into the wonderful international program of today.

More companies and studies are interested in adding adaptive dance classes in their curriculum and outreach programs. What advice do you have for them?

Fear not! Dancing appeals to most people, even if they don’t know it. Variety, imagination and empathy can help.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Head of Booker T. Washington Dance Department to Retire



Lily Weiss on four decades of educating young dancers and her upcoming retirement.

For almost 40 years Lily Weiss has been cultivating young talent here in Dallas, 14 of which she has spent as the head of the Dance Department at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA) in Downtown Dallas. “I remember when it was just us, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the Dallas Museum of Art,” Weiss says. “A lot has changed since then.”

And the community is about to face another change as Weiss plans to retire at the end of this year, sort of. Per the request of her principal, Weiss will return next school year to help manage the transition to a new department head and new faculty. “Never have we had a head and two faculty leaving at the same time so, I agreed to one more year to help with the transition, but that is it.”

Weiss has spent most of her life preparing young dancers for their professional careers. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in dance from Texas Woman’s University and taught at Southern Methodist University and Houston’s HSPVA before joining the faculty at BTWHSPVA in 1978.

Her accolades include the National Young Arts Foundation Distinguished Teacher Award, Distinguished Teacher by the Commission on Presidential Scholars ten different years by 11 students, SURDNA Arts Teacher Fellowship, the Texas Dance Educator Award, the Bates Dance Festival Teacher Fellowship and Distinguished Teacher from the Rockefeller Foundation. She is currently on the Board of TITAS and the Steering Committee for the Bruce Wood Dance Project since 2011.

“I plan to continue working in the arts in some capacity after I retire, but I am going to take a year to explore new opportunities. I am looking forward to having more time for myself.” As to why she chose now to retire Weiss says that the timing just felt right. “I love teaching, but I have seen too many people stay past their time and in the end it’s really the kids who suffer.”

During her tenure at BTWHSPVA Weiss has seen the school and dance program grow by leaps and bounds. “For the first several years back in the 70s’ and 80s’ and really even into the year 2000 we had an average of 90-100 dance majors. When we moved into the new building we jumped to 140 dance majors in 2010. In the last four years we have seen an exponential jump in enrollment. We are now at 215 dance major.”

That isn’t the only number Weiss has seen grow over the last few years. She adds that since the dance department moved into the new building back in 2008 they have seen a steady climb in the number of dance major applicants. “We usually had under 100 students audition and in those days we had maybe 35 slots for freshman. Now we have almost 200 auditioning for us and 50 slots for freshman.” Weiss attributes the most recent applicant increase to the school’s location which is situated right in the middle of the expanding Dallas Arts District in between Dallas Black Dance Theatre and the AT&T Performing Arts Center. “I think there are more trained dancers now whose parents want them to come to this kind of situation where they have more opportunities to participate in learning labs, internships and performances.”

When asked what she is going to miss the most Weiss says, “The kids without a doubt. They have such a great energy. It’s so nice being around people who are willing to do anything and aren’t jaded. I’m really going to miss that.”

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