DESTINATION DANCE

The second annual Dallas DanceFest promises more variety and exceptional dancing from individuals and groups throughout the region.

Dark Circles Contemporary Dance (USA) founder Joshua L. Peugh and company dancer Alex Karigan Farrior in Critics of the Morning Song. Photo Robert Hart

Dark Circles Contemporary Dance (USA) founder Joshua L. Peugh and company dancer Alex Karigan Farrior in Critics of the Morning Song. Photo Robert Hart

Dallas – The perception of dance in Dallas has changed dramatically over the last five years largely due to the development of the Dallas Arts District; the rise in the number of professional dance companies based in the city; the restructuring of veteran dance groups like Texas Ballet Theater and Dallas Black Dance Theatre; and the creation of local dance festivals, including Rhythm In Fusion Festival (RIFF) and Dallas DanceFest (DDF). All of these factors are helping to transform Dallas into a grand destination for dance. Keeping this in mind the Dance Council of North Texas (DCNT), in partnership with the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, is planning to deliver more vitality, diversity and excellence in dance with the second annual DDF which takes place September 4-6, 2015 at Dallas City Performance Hall. This prestigious event features performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 p.m. and concludes Sunday afternoon with the Dance Council Honors.

The impact of the festival isn’t just felt around the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex but across the region as well. Houston-based METdance (formerly Houston Metropolitan Dance Company), an original participant in the Dallas Morning News Festival, was disappointed when that festival disbanded in 2004 as it had looked forward to performing for Dallas audiences. But artistic director Marlana Doyle says, “We were grateful to be a part of DDF last year and had the thrill of enjoying the Dallas audiences and arts community in such an amazing venue once again. METdance appreciates the efforts of the Dallas Dance Council and looks forward to celebrating the arts in Texas.”

Kimi Nikaidoh, artistic director of Bruce Wood Dance Project here in Dallas, adds, Given the all-consuming nature of running an arts organization, it’s impossible to see what all of the many other groups in the area are accomplishing. Dallas DanceFest brings us all out of our respective “workshops” and gives us the chance to be inspired and challenged by each other.”

Curated by top dance professionals Lauren Anderson, Fred Darsow, Bridget L. Moore and Catherine Turocy, DDF 2015 will feature 19 exceptional artists and companies from all across the region including – Houston, Austin, Oklahoma, Alabama, and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Audiences can expect each performance to be a unique and thrilling display of dance styles including – classical ballet, modern, tap, hip-hop, traditional Indian dance and Ballet Folklorico. The programs will also feature performances by well-known and beloved Dallas institutions such as Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Bruce Wood Dance Project along with some new names including the Dallas Cowboys Rhythm & Blues Dancers.

“It was incredible to see such a tremendous response to DDF 2014,” says DCNT President Kirt Hathaway. “The Dance Council made the decision to re-implement this wonderful dance event after it had sat idle for so many years. With the inclusion of the Dance Council Honors, DDF has immediately become one of DCNT’s marquis events. Producing such a wonderful weekend of dance would not have been possible if the organization had not experienced such growth over the past several years. It truly shows that there is a great commitment by the board and staff to support dance in North Texas and beyond. This year promises to be even more exciting.”

This year’s participants include:

Ballet Ensemble of Texas (Coppell, TX) – Formed in May 2001 under the leadership of Lisa Slagle, the company’s goal is to present quality ballet performances for the local communities and to provide advanced ballet students with the opportunity to prepare for a career in dance. It is the official company of the Ballet Academy of Texas.

Bell House Arts, Inc. (Owasso, OK) – Founded by Rachel Bruce Johnson, The Bell House is a collaborative dance and art cooperative dedicated to creating opportunity for artistic exchange. At The Bell House, we are interested in the collaboration of ideas, people and movement language that challenge the status quo and conventional ways of making art by elevating art as a process. Its fosters meeting points for artistic connection between people rather than elevating the art as product in order to activate the transformative nature of movement that can be experienced both in the practice, performance and witness of dance.

Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts (BTWHSPVA) Repertory Dance Company I & II (Dallas, TX) – BTWHSPVA is “the cradle of the Dallas Arts District.” In 2015, the school was awarded the Texas Commission of the Arts Medal of Honor for exemplary training in Arts Education. The department’s philosophy is to provide a broad dance education that challenges the students artistically, intellectually and physically and to prepare qualified students for collegiate and professional careers in dance and related professions.

Bruce Wood Dance Project. Photo: Brian Guilliaux

Bruce Wood Dance Project. Photo: Brian Guilliaux

Bruce Wood Dance Project (Dallas, TX) – BWDP was launched in 2011 to champion the vision, leadership and artistry of nationally acclaimed Texan dance-maker Bruce Wood. BWDP picked up where the successful Fort Worth-based Bruce Wood Dance Company left off. Under Wood’s direction the company produced six word premieres and a TITAS Presents Commission for Command Performance Gala. Currently in its fifth season the company is now under the direction of Kimi Nikaidoh after Wood’s passing in May 2014.

Chamberlain Performing Arts (Plano, TX) – Established in 1984 by Artistic Director Kathy Chamberlain as a student ensemble dedicated to providing students a stepping stone to professional dance careers. Chamberlain is dedicated to serving North Texas and the surrounding community by providing professional quality performances and outstanding outreach programs. The company takes great pride in the ongoing efforts to expand its cultural diversity through performance collaborations.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre (Dallas, TX) – Founded in 1976 by Ann Williams, DBDT consists of 12 full-time dancers performing a mixed repertory of modern, jazz, ethnic and spiritual works by nationally and internationally recognized choreographers. Over the years the company has grown from a community-based, semi-professional organization to a fully-professional dance company that is renowned in the U.S. and is noted for its rich cultural diversity, history of inclusion and high-level of artistic excellence in contemporary modern dance and educational programs

Dallas Black Dance Theatre II (Dallas, TX) – This semi-professional company created by Dallas Black Dance Theatre Founder Ann Williams in 2000 consists of eight aspiring artists from around the nation. Under the guidance of Nycole Ray, DBDT II provides an opportunity for young artists to develop their dance skills while serving the Dallas/Fort Worth community and touring across the nation. Going into its 16th season performing works by recognized and emerging artists, DBDT II performs a diversified repertoire of modern, jazz, African, lyrical and spiritual works.

Dallas Cowboys Rhythm & Blues Dancers (Irving, TX) – Founded in 2009, DCRB is a high-energy co-ed hip hop dance team and drum corps. Lead by Jenny Durbin Smith DCRB brings an innovative, unique and exciting element to the Cowboys legendary game-day entertainment line-up. The dance teams dynamic routines feature breakdancing and hip hop-based movement requiring both strong musicality and level of dance ability. Presented by Miller Lite, DCRB was conceptualized under the direction of Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President of Brand Management Charlotte Anderson and is the first and only entertainment concept of its kind in the National Football League.

Dark Circles Contemporary Dance (Dallas, TX) – Originally formed in Seoul, South Korea by Joshua L. Peugh and Cho Hyun Sang, Peugh started the USA branch of the company in 2013 bridging the gap between East and West. DCCD is dedicated to bringing the progressive work of international choreographers and dancers to a worldwide audience. It strives to educate the public on the power of movement in communicating ideas.

AJ Garcia-Rameau (Austin, TX) -AJ Garcia-Rameau is an independent contemporary ballerina based  in Austin. AJ trained at Houston Academy of Dance and Austin School of Classical Ballet. She received additional training under scholarship with Alvin Ailey School, Joffrey Jazz/Contemporary and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. AJ earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering and Dance minor from the University of Texas. She has performed with Exclamation Dance Company, Austin Classical Ballet and BHumm Dance Company.

Pictured: Houston Repertory Dance Ensemble

Pictured: Houston Repertory Dance Ensemble

Houston Repertory Dance Ensemble (Houston, TX) – The ensemble is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization, and is led by Artistic Director Amy Blake. This ensemble was designed for the dancer seeking collaboration with exemplary worldwide professionals in the industry to help them obtain greater levels of achievement in the arts through classical training in ballet, jazz, modern and contemporary. The ensemble provides dancers with a positive working environment and opportunities for master classes, private coaching, YAGP participation and multiple international showcases and performance venues.

METdance (Houston, TX) – Founded in 1995, Houston Metropolitan Dance Center Inc. strives to educate and revitalize a passion for dance through the finest instruction and performance. Under the direction of Marlana Doyle MET Dance Company has performed throughout the United States in dozens of theaters receiving high acclaim, performing works by some of the most influential and talented choreographers of our time. The company is the sister organization to the MET Dance Center.
Mosaic Dance Project of Dallas (Dallas, TX) – Created in 2014 by Giovanna Godinez Prado, Mosaic Dance Project’s mission is to create, educate and inspire individuals that desire to grow not only as dancers, but as artists as well, along with our cultural and ethical awareness and values.

Natyananda: Joy of Dance (Birmingham, AL) – Founded in 1978 by Sheila Rubin, Natyananda performs both traditional and original choreographic works in the classical Bharatanatyam style of Southern India. Through student, professional and guest artist presentations Natyananda promotes understanding of universal artistic and cultural themes while showcasing the rich and unique heritage of Alabama’s Asian Indian-American community.

NobleMotion Dance in Photo Box D. Photo: Lynn Lane

NobleMotion Dance in Photo Box D. Photo: Lynn Lane

NobleMotion Dance (Houston, TX) – NMD was co-founded by Andy Noble and Dionne Sparkman Noble in 2009. Over the last five years it has distinguished itself as one of Houston’s most important dance companies. NMD brings a fresh perspective to their community with its mission of integrating technology and dance, and is a Resident Incubator at the Houston Arts Alliance and is currently on the Texas Commission on the Arts (TCA) touring roster.

LaQuet Sharnel Pringle DDF 2015 commissioned premiere (Austin, TX) – A Booker T Washington HSPVA alum, Pringle attending the North Carolina School of the Arts before making her Broadway debut in 2005 in Sweet Charity with Christina Applegate and Dennis O’Hare. She has also performed in productions of The Lion King and Memphis. Today, Pringle is an adjunct professor at Texas State University teaching Jazz Dance in the Musical Theater Department. She is also the artistic director and founder of Fearless Young Artists (FYA) and was the headliner of Dance Planet 19.

Rhythmic Souls (Dallas, TX) – This small company if wicked fierce rhythm tapper is captivating local audiences with their unique blend of style, charisma, innovative choreography and rapid-fire footwork. The company is on the cutting-edge of dance choreography with cross-genre repertoire that infuses rhythm tap dance with body percussion, sand dancing, contemporary movement, flamenco, swing dance and anything else that might lend itself to their rhythmic percussion. The company strives to bring the spirit of tap dance back to the stage and continue the legacy of an American art form.

Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts Dance Division (Dallas, TX) – The SMU Division of Dance offers both conservatory dance instruction and a liberal arts education. The dance program develops disciplined, versatile artists through professional training in ballet, modern and jazz techniques as well as theory. Undergraduates can earn a B.F.A. in Dance Performance or a minor in Dance Performance. Students perform masterworks of the great choreographers of the 20th century as well as works by contemporary masters.

Texas Ballet Theater School (Fort Worth, TX) – Training the next generation of dancers and arts patrons is the mission of TBT Schools. Starting with the very young, we nurture aspiring artists to discover their greatest potential and to develop a love of movement, a passion for creativity and an appreciation for the beauty and athleticism of classical dance.

Tickets for DDF 2015 available August 1 through TICKETDFW: online at www.TICKETDFW.com, by phone (214) 871-5000, or in person at the box office 2353 Flora St, Dallas, TX 75201.

More information about the festival is available at www.DallasDanceFest.org.

This feature was originally seen in the Aug.-Oct. 2015 issue of DANCE! North Texas which is published by The Dance Council of North Texas.

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Gayle Halperin: Nurturing Dance

Gayle Halperin’s latest endeavor opens new doors for the Dallas dance community. Literally.

BWDP rehearsing in the company's new space in the Dallas Design District. Photo: Sharon Bradford - The Dancing Image

BWDP rehearsing in its new space in the Dallas Design District. Photo: Sharon Bradford – The Dancing Image

Dallas – Bruce Wood Dance Project. TITAS. Dallas DanceFest. Dance Planet. These are just a few of the high profile dance organizations and events that Dallas arts patron Gayle Halperin has helped cultivate. Last year alone, Halperin steered the committee for the inaugural Dallas DanceFest while also continuing on with the Bruce Wood Dance Project’s (BWDP) fourth season after the loss of its founder a few weeks prior to the company’s June performance. Halperin’s drive and intuition when it comes to the needs of the local dance community led to her being featured in TheaterJones’ first Forward Thinker Series in December 2014. Halperin’s most recent contribution to the dance community not only gives BWDP a stable home, but also provides dance groups in the area with a more affordable option when looking for rehearsal and performance space.

“My dream has always been to have a rehearsal space that transforms into a minimal black box theater that can be used for small studio performances,” Halperin says. “I like a space that can only fit about 80 to 100 people and has minimal lighting and good sound, but without all the fancy trimmings.”

Halperin is turning this dream into a reality with the Bruce Wood Dance Gallery. Located at the corner of Howell St. and Levee St. in the Design District, the Bruce Wood Dance Gallery occupies approximately 6,000 square feet of the 12,000-square-foot white brick building. Right now BWDP is only using half of the space while the other half is being finished. The second space only became available for lease this past winter. Halperin says she hopes to have the company rehearsing in the second space, which is 400 feet bigger, by the end of the summer. BWDP’s current space features sprung flooring, high ceilings, a break area and plenty of natural light. “We ended up going with this location because it had high ceilings, no poles and didn’t need a lot of finishing up. We saw a lot of spaces, and it was quite difficult to find a space that only needed minimal repair. We were fortunate to find this corner property in the Design District.”

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

The process of finding a rehearsal space started more than a year ago, Halperin says, when Wood decided he wanted the company to start rehearsing during the day, Monday through Friday. “We always knew that if the company was going to go anywhere that it needed its own space. So, last year when Bruce announced that the company wasn’t going to rehearse in the evenings anymore I made that commitment to him to find a place for the company to rehearse.” She adds, “Bruce always said that’s how he worked when he had the Bruce Wood Dance Company. You have to work every day in order for the company to develop a cohesive style and to be challenged to become stronger.”

The company didn’t move into the Bruce Wood Dance Gallery till July 2014; one month after Wood’s passing. And even through Halperin’s name is on the lease she says the whole project has been a huge team effort. She credits BWDP’s Administrative Assistant Rebecca Butler for finding the space and board treasurer Danny Curry for masterminding the construction of the sprung flooring. “This was leap of faith, but Bruce made a huge impact on me so it’s all worth it.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug.-Oct. 2015 issue of DANCE! North Texas which is published by The Dance Council of North Texas.

Also check out the feature I did on BWDP Company Member Albert Drake who made his choreographic debut with Whispers in the company’s 5 Years performance in June.

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Review: 8&1 Dance Company, Exchange Street

Sarah Beal Photography.

Khalid Beard, head trainer at Title Boxing Club in Uptown in Exchange Street. Sarah Beal Photography.


8&1 Dance Company enthralls audiences with its full-length dance drama Exchange Street, which highlights the parallels between dance and boxing.

Plano — Outside of boxing the term heavyweight refers to a person of great influence or importance. Watching 8&1 Dance Company receive a standing ovation after the presentation of the company’s full-length dance dramaExchange Street Saturday evening at the Courtyard Theatre in Plano, it’s safe to say that 8&1’s Artistic Director Jill S. Rucci has earned her title of a dance heavyweight in Dallas. Drawing inspiration from personal experiences, all Rucci’s work over the past five years has radiated an authenticity that appeals to audiences on a primitive level. Add in her vast knowledge of producing and directing and an eclectic group of dancers and artists well-versed in all forms of dance and performance art and you have the makings for a dance company unlike any other in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Staying true to form 8&1 Dance Company’s latest production, Exchange Street, was inspired by Rucci’s grandfather and pays homage to the sport of boxing in the 1960s. Written and choreographed by Rucci,Exchange Street follows boxer Barry “The Bull” Leonard (Khalid Beard) on his rise to the top as well as his struggles to find a balance between boxing and his home life with his girlfriend (Hannah Fozkos). Rucci’s genius music choices, which include James Brown, Dean Martin, Simon & Garfunkel, Kenny Rogers and Dorothy Moore, not only reflected the time period, but also contained lyrics that directly tied into the characters’ narratives. Rucci’s movement choices seamlessly blended popular social dances such as the mashed potato, shimmy and twist into the mainly jazz-driven choreography. Costume Designer Sherri Fozkos and hair and make-up’s Kendra Hibbs and Jessica Scharff completed the image with beehive hairdos, floral dresses, form-fitted capris, suspenders, bright scarves and newsboy caps.

Sarah Beal Photography

Sarah Beal Photography

Company members Lauren Daniels, Kendra Hibbs, McKenzie Rollinson, Shelby Stanley, Pat White and Tesla Wolfe opened the show with a vivacious Fosse-inspired jazz number to Louis Armstrong’s Cabaret. Dressed all in black with black fishnets and character shoes, the six performers executed Fosse’s signature hips swivels, shoulder isolations and wrist flicks with rigor and poise. Rucci layered these moves with subtle head tilts, stop and go action and explosive leaps which matched the varying rhythms of Armstrong’s trumpet playing. While the dance was exciting and inviting, there was another scene that would have packed a stronger punch as the show’s opener.

Sitting on a bench on a dimly lit stage, the audience was glued to The Bull (Beard) as he methodically taped up his hands and slid on his boxing gloves before standing up and shadowboxing. As the head trainer at Title Boxing Club in Uptown and a trained fighter, there was nothing artificial about the way Beard moved. Every little detail from the number of times he wrapped the tape around his wrists to the unconscious way he scratched his head and thumbed his nose came across natural and uncensored. Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” added complexity and intensity to the scene without detracting from the simplistic beauty of watching Beard navigate through his routine.

After his workout at the gym The Bull headed to a local bar where he would meet his soon-to-be girlfriend Fozkos. While they were getting to know each other, Rucci used this time to highlight the company’s proficiency in other dance styles outside of modern, including jazz, musical theater and swing dance. While not always together, the ladies showcased unwavering control and playful musicality in a sultry group number to “Man’s World” by James Brown. The whole cast let loose during Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got That Swing” with dancers Trent Hyman and Stanley stealing the show with a swing duet full of continuous twists, spins, lifts and flips garnering generous applause from the audience. As the night came to an end narrator Avery D. Wilson walked out to give us a status update on the couple and teased us with some foreshadowing on the second half. Wilson’s charming smile and suave aire immediately put the audience at ease while his silky, yet punctuated manner of speaking had us hanging on his every word.

Sarah Beal Photography

Sarah Beal Photography

The men dominated the second half, which also included the highly anticipated fight between The Bull and Terrell “Lights Out” Lopez (trained boxer Brian Lacy). Leading up to the fight The Bull struggled to find a balance between boxing and spending time with Fozkos, which the couple acted out to Kenny Rogers’ “Don’t Fall in Lovewith a Dreamer.” Fozkos vented her frustration with the situation by writing a letter as a recording of her voice transcribed it aloud. The letter writing then led her to perform a technically clean and passionate contemporary solo to Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue.” While slightly over conceptualized, the scene was still one of the most touching moments in the show. Before the fight dancers Ruben Benitez, Chad Geiger, Trent Hyman and Nick Leos let it rip with a series of barrel turns, leg jumps and traveling grapevines in what can only be called an exuberant display of stamina and swag.

Rucci did an admirable transforming the theater into a real life boxing match with the help of dim lighting, a pseudo boxing ring prop and boxing official Johnny Carrasco who played the role of referee. Beard and Lacy didn’t hold anything back in the ring. Like dance, the pair’s boxing moves had a pulse that changed tempo when the two moved toward and away from one another. There was also a graceful quality to the way their feet shifted back and forth. The two art forms finally came together when five of the dancers whose faces were obscured by white hoodies, started punching, ducking and drop and rolling to Gnarls Barkley’s aptly chosen song, Run. Perhaps this dance would have been taken to the next level if Beard and Lacy had joined in the mayhem instead of freezing when the dancers came out. Or if the fighters were boxing to music instead of in silence. But as it was, the audience ate it up, shouting out encouragements like “Let’s go Bull” and “Hit him with a left!”

Talk about a knockout.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Loud Whispers

Albert Drake rehearsing Whispers with the BWDP. Photo: Sharen Bradford The Dancing Image..

Albert Drake rehearsing Whispers with the BWDP. Photo: Sharen Bradford The Dancing Image.

Albert Drake makes his choreographic debut with his work Whispers, part of the Bruce Wood Dance Project’s upcoming performance marking the company’s fifth anniversary.

Dallas — After watching Albert Drake rehearse his first piece for the Bruce Wood Dance Project (BWDP) Monday afternoon at the company’s studio in the Design District it struck me that Dallas is now not only a breeding ground for uniquely qualified dancers, but also choreographers. Drake has made a name for himself in the North Texas dance community as a founding member of the Bruce Wood Dance Project as well as for his work outside the company, including teaching at Park Cities Dance and Southern Methodist University where he received his BFA in dance performance from the Meadows School of the Arts.

As a dancer, Drake is known for his explosive movement quality and innate lyricism and it was nice to see these traits represented in his first chorographic endeavor, Whispers, part of BWDP’s 5 Years performance June 19-20 at the Dallas City Performance Hall. The work follows eight dancers, including Drake and BWDP’s Artistic Director Kimi Nikaidoh, as they search for the meaning of happiness. Starting with an R&B vibe and then shifting into a fast-paced piano phrase, the 20-minute piece is broken up into various duets, trios and group sections depicting the various relationships among the dancers.

“I wanted to play with relationships that weren’t necessarily just about love,” Drake says. “There is a duet toward the end of the third section that has more of a protective quality to it and has this feeling of you and me against the world. And there are other duets and trios that more about trust and support.”

The blind support Drake talks about allows the couple to transfer their weight back and forth without qualm as they glide across the floor. Their momentum never stops even as the female slides into a split and is pulled through her partner’s legs into a steadfast fourth position relevé. The trios are dotted with dynamic leaps, wicked fast turns and buoyant floor work. A composed backward walking phrase is used multiple times, but the dancers’ changing directions keep viewers on their toes.

“I don’t like predictability,” Drake says, as he explains his penchant for the unexpected. This also makes for some exciting transition changes, such as when the dancers sprint out of the wings or get picked up one by one as a dancer runs by. And in one exuberant section all the dancers dash across the stage leaving a lone dancer to execute a controlled headstand into a series of one-footed balances performed in silence. “Creating transitions is difficult because they have to flow and take the audience on a journey without taking them in and out. As a choreographer you have to find a way to keep the audience involved and keep the whole thing circular.”

Kimi in Whispers, part of the BWDP's Five Years performance. Photo: Sharen Bradford The Dancing Image.

Kimi Nikaidoh in Whispers, part of the BWDP’s Five Years performance. Photo: Sharen Bradford The Dancing Image.

The cast is a mix of company veterans including Harry Feril and Nikaidoh and newcomers such as Eric Coudron and David Escoto. While the group danced seamlessly together Drake says it did take some time for everyone to adjust to the creative process. “The first week it was just about making sure everyone was present because, for some of the newer dancers, they haven’t gotten a lot of chances to work in the creative process. A lot of dancers get drawn into a repertory company where you learn old works over and over. In the creation process you have to be patient, moldable and willing to let go.” Drake admits that was a struggle, but once everyone got into it he says they were able to absorb the movement without prejudice and some good stuff came out of it.

It’s easy to spot Wood’s influences in Drake’s choreography. After all, Drake spent more than half his career training with the notable North Texas choreographer who passed away suddenly last year. “I adopted him early on as the mentor I wanted to be around and learn from. His previous dancers adored the man and followed him religiously and I see why. So, he invested in me and I invested in him and it was a great relationship.”

Wood’s quirky foot work, deliberate gesturing and emotional pull are seen throughout Drake’s piece, but most poignantly in the opening section where the four females each perform a gestural phrase of movement that slowly builds in intensity.

“His principles are a part of me so it wasn’t challenging to stay within his realm of movement. The hard part was moving away from it and standing out and not necessary being a replica of him. Now, I didn’t try to stray away from them, but I did want to take his principles and use them in a different context.” Wood also had the unique ability of connecting with audiences on a deeply emotional level, something Drake hopes to accomplish with Whispers. “I don’t want the physicality or the prettiness of the piece to determine how people feel. My main purpose of this piece is to keep people emotionally involved.”

The concert will also feature the Dallas premieres of Wood’s Requiem and Polyester Dreams.

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Q&A: Adam Sklute, Ballet West

Balanchine's Divertimento No. 15, performed by Ballet West. Photo: Luke Isley

Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15, performed by Ballet West. Photo: Luke Isley

Ballet West’s Artistic Director on participating in the reality series Breaking Pointe and what the company has in store for its first Dallas performance.

Dallas — As in any other industry, rising competition and the ever-changing economy have forced ballet companies across the nation to step outside the box when it comes to broadening their audience base and exposing more people to the art form. So when Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Sklute heard that BBC Worldwide Productions was looking for a ballet company to be the focus for a new reality series he jumped at the opportunity. After several interviews and screen tests Ballet West was chosen to star in the CW’s reality series Breaking Pointe, which premiered in 2012. Even though the show only lasted for two seasons, Ballet West is still feeling the impact with sold out shows and an expansive touring schedule.

The Salt Lake City-based company was formed in 1963 by Willam Christensen and is currently run by former Joffrey dancer Adam Sklute. At age 17 Sklute began training with the Oakland Ballet and San Francisco Ballet schools. He was one of the last two artists hand-picked by Robert Joffrey and spent 23 years with the Joffrey Ballet before joining Ballet West in 2007. During his time as a dancer Sklute got to perform leading roles in works by Gerald Arpino, Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, John Cranko, Agnes DeMille and Robert Joffrey, to name a few. In addition to Breaking Pointe, Sklute’s other TV credits include The Joffrey Ballet’s Dance in America filmings of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Arpino’s production of Billboards as well as Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table. In 2003 he assisted with and appeared in Robert Altman’s The Company and in 2012 appeared in The Joffrey Ballet: Mavericks of Dance, a documentary chronicling the history of The Joffrey Ballet.

Since joining Ballet West Sklute has expanded the company repertoire and visibility through numerous world premieres, increased touring and greater focus on the Ballet West Academy. Over the last eight years Ballet West has presented more than 55 world/Utah premieres. The company has performed works by historical choreographers, including Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine and Michel Fokine as well as contemporary masters such as Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp. Sklute also oversees Ballet West’s Academy and is a guest teacher and coach for dance programs and workshops around the world.

Dallas audiences will get to see Ballet West in all its classical glory when they come to the Winspear Opera House May 29-30, closing TITAS’ 2014-15 season. The company’s diverse program will include George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 (1956), In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987) by William Forsythe and Jodie Gates’ Mercurial Landscapes (2013).

TheaterJones asks Adam Sklute about the changes he has made to Ballet West, bringing dance to larger audiences through reality T.V. and some of his fond memories working with Robert Joffrey.

TheaterJones: You have such a long rich history with the Joffrey Ballet. What convinced you to move to Salt Lake City and join Ballet West?

Adam Sklute: I had been with the Joffrey Ballet for 23 years starting as a dancer and eventually moving to the position of associate director. The company was going through a transition in 2006-07 where one of the founders, Gerald Arpino, was moving to the position of emeritus and they were going to do an international search for a new artistic director. I was told I would be in the running and I was very interested in the position, but I was also curious to see my market value would be outside of Joffrey. So, when I received a request to apply for Ballet West I thought this was the perfect opportunity to find out my market value. I went through the interview process and was asked to fly out to meet and work with the dancers and the staff, and while I was there I feel in love with the city and the company. I just thought that this was a place where I could really make a difference and I could be really happy living. In that moment my whole perspective changed and I knew it was time for a change and I have never regretted it.

Looking back over the last eight years are you satisfied with what you have been able to accomplish with the company?

Going in I knew I was joining a company that had a great legacy and history itself. I mean it was founded by one of the pioneers of American dance, Willam Christensen, and following him as artistic director was Bruce Marks, Sir John Hart from the Royal Ballet and Swedish dancer Jonas Kåge. And all of them had brought a unique and individual stamp to the company. I am a perpetual student so I enjoyed learning and understanding the company that I was going to be a part of and was going to lead artistically.

I set some very strong goals about what I wanted to do in terms of repertoire and expansion and I worked very hard to get them moved forward. On the other hand, you have to kind of move with the tide. I mean things would happen. Opportunities would come up and changes would occur. My goodness the economy fell out from beneath us just as I was hired. The best laid plans are always there to be modified and changed. What I would like to attempt to be is very much a forward thinker and an intense planner for the future, but then be able to move with the tide and go where its obvious things are happening. With that said I have been very proud of the accomplishments of Ballet West over the last eight years and yes, not a little surprised about some of it, and then also quite gratified.

How does Ballet West’s classical style differ from other ballet companies in the U.S.?

I like to use a poetic phrase to explain our dancers, which is they are as tall and dramatic as the Rocky Mountain region that we represent. What I mean by that is first of all I love long-limbed dancers and very linear kind of looks. What people are going to see is that very lengthy and expansive type of movement that comes from these long-limbed dancers. And even the shorter dancers have that same sort of length and expansion because that’s how we move and it’s how we dance. But on top of that we have a great deal of intensity and theatricality and the dancers understand who they are on the stage. They have a stage presence and the knowledge of how to captivate an audience. So, I think what’s special about us is that we are once a very linear company, but we are also a theatrical company and all that mixed together I think creates a very beautiful and unique look and style.

Do the three pieces on the program, Divertimento No. 15 (1956), In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987) and Mercurial Landscapes (2013), clearly capture the company’s versatility and unique style?

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated performed by Ballet West. Photo: Erik Ostling

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated performed by Ballet West. Photo: Erik Ostling

Absolutely, and I have to say Charles Santos was a big part of the decision making process for the programming because he really knows his Dallas audience and he also wanted to represent us in our best light. And I appreciated that tremendously. So yes, the program does show off so many of the facets of what we have done and in a number of ways what I have done since I have been here with Ballet West.

How did you get involved with the reality series Breaking Pointe?

How it came together was BBC Worldwide Productions had been experimenting and shopping around this idea for a reality Television show all about ballet for several years. They had gone to a lot of companies that were bigger than ours who either said no they didn’t want to do it or said yes, but in the end they couldn’t work it out with all their company members and union rules. We were on a long list of companies that they were interviewing and they also wanted us to do a screen test where they would come and spend a week with us filming as many classes, rehearsals, meetings and social gatherings as possible. And also interview all of the dancers interested in being part of the show. We did that and they put together a promo for our company and shopped it around to the networks and the CW picked it up. Now, we were very specific about contracts and time such as when they could film us and when they couldn’t. Each individual had control over what they were allowing people to film and what not to. For instance, I said I was not going to have any cameras in my home. With that said, yes, what you are seeing is the real us and yes, every single situation that happened was real. What you have to remember is that how it is presented on the screen had a lot to do with how pieces were edited together.

When it came to the dance scenes in the show did you have a hand in the editing process?

So, what I was able to do was say “you can film this, but you can’t film that.” I wasn’t there in the editing room so I had to trust BBC a great deal. BBC told me they had two members of the Royal Ballet who would be viewing all of dance scenes in the editing process and would not let any less than desirable dancing go onto the screen. The thing that I can say is for a myriad of reasons we never had as much dancing in there as I wanted. A lot of that had to do with the various trusts and foundations for the choreography that we worked with who either did not want that much of it shown or who were charging a lot of money for that shot. And that also went for the music that we used in the show.

Are you happy with the way you and the company were portrayed on the show?

All of the drama and everything else aside, what I know is that every clip of the dancing came out good. Ultimately, the company showed itself well as a group of dancers and we showed the world the highest caliber of dancing. So, even if the show was based more on the drama stuff what was always there was the quality of the dancing. And I know it sounds cliché, but we also had loftier aspirations than just what the show could do for Ballet West. We felt like we were doing something for the world of dance and for ballet in general. We did not do this show for the thousands of people that know and love ballet. We did this show for the millions of people who know nothing about ballet.

Can you talk about some of your favorite moments working with Robert Joffrey?

By the age of 19 I was a professional dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. I was in class one day when Robert Joffrey showed up and invited me to one of his personal workshops in San Antonio, Texas. He said I needed to go to this and work with him personally. He would give these three hour technique classes and they were the most amazing things I have ever experienced in my life. I had never met anyone who was so meticulous, so detailed orientated and yet so inspiring. I never felt like the details were bogging me down. He hired me after very little study.

Robert Joffrey also had a quirky sense of humor. When he hired me he said to me “Adam, I am going to hire you for my company against my better judgment.” And I said OK what does that mean and he said that “you are smart so I know you are going to succeed. Now you just have to learn how to dance.” He knew that’s how I needed to be spoken too. I am not one for a lot of ego stroking. I respond better to a challenge. And he was right. I had the right proportions for ballet and could do the movements, but it didn’t look like anything because I had no sense of technique. And I spent my entire dance career learning and understanding technique. Like how to stand in fifth position and how to create lines. But Robert Joffrey saw that in me and that was a huge inspiration for me.

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

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Colliding Worlds, Texas Ballet Theater

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones

Texas Ballet Theater is revving up for Jonathan Watkins’ new work Crash, part of this year’s Artistic Director’s  Choice performance in Fort Worth.

Fort Worth — For most people the word “crash” brings up images of cars, buses, planes and trains. But for British choreographer Jonathan Watkins the word has a broader subtext and is the focus of his new work Crash, part ofTexas Ballet Theater’s Artistic Director’s Choice performance in Fort Worth this weekend. In this piece Watkins takes on various personal, technological and political crashes which are represented through solo, duet and large group numbers in this 25-minute circular tale that features original music by Dallas-based composer Ryan Cockerham and costumes by Austin-based Kari Perkins, who also did the costuming for Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film Boyhood.

In addition to these elements, Watkins uses abstract and neo-classical movements to shape the different situations and mindsets that he has laid out for us. “What I did is set up these different scenarios throughout the work that follow a similar pattern,” Watkins says. “There is a buildup of energy, a crash, and then the dancers have to collect the pieces and hopefully build a better foundation.

“And after the crash we need space to analyze and build the strength to help us deal with the crash going forward,” he explains further. “For this part I wanted the dancers to have a more pensive quality of movement.”

Watkins is an up-and-coming British choreographer who won the Kenneth MacMillan Choreography Competition at the Royal Ballet School when he was just 16 years old. He danced with the Royal Ballet for 10 years before leaving the company in 2013 to pursue his career as a freelance choreographer and director. Watkins made his international debut at the New York Choreographic Institute in 2008 with his workNow, set on New York City Ballet. His other international commissions include Eventual Progress for Russia’s Ekaterinburg Ballet Theatre in 2013 and Present Process for Ballet Manila, Philippines in 2014. His other choreographic credits include Beyond Prejudice and Free Falling created for The Curve Foundation, Abstract Balance with East London Dance and Together Alone for Ballet Black. Watkins also created his first short dance film called Route 67 in 2011. After Fort Worth, he heads back to Britain to work on a premiere evening-length work based on George Orwell’s 1984.

The pensive section Watkins mentioned earlier is at minute 19 of the dance and is what the company was working on when I sat in rehearsal a few weeks ago. For the next hour and a half the group learned four counts of eight of slow moving, forward progressing arm gestures and leg extensions. A deliberate button push with the right finger initiates the sequence and is followed with a half attitude turn into a side stretch. This leads into another leg whip and arm reach all executed in the same unhurried fashion. He then has the dancers retrograde the phrase so they end up in the same horizontal line they started in. I found out later from Watkins that the only preconceived movement was the button push. Everything else grew organically.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones

“I don’t always work like this, but in this case I wanted to do it with them and experience the choreography together,” he says. “Going in I was confident in the concept of moving slowly. I also knew I wanted to layer and experiment with the movement and that sort of detailing is best to be done then and there.”

These experiments included having two groups of 12 dancers stand in a straight line and begin the phrase on different counts. In some cases it was every four counts and in others it was every two counts. He then had the dancers clump together and move out and around each other creating this illusion of a living organism. Even without knowing the outcome, the dancers quickly adapted to each situation and problem-solved any traffic pattern issues as they moved. As a viewer I got to see the movement morph from a linear kind of tame visual into a cascade of complex shapes and bright pops of movement.

Throughout rehearsal Watkins uses different words, sounds and sometimes melodies to help the dancers align themselves with the pensive quality of the movement. “Shift it, step it, breathe it,” he says during one run through. Another time he mixes together words and sounds such as “Hwa, hwa, melt up, shift down, step to it, emphasize bah.” When I asked Watkins about his use of sounds instead of counts he says he will use whatever means necessary to communicate his intention to the dancers.

“Trust and communication are very important. Energy and being positive is what works for me because I don’t want people to dance through fear,” he says. “And, if I have to shout and sing to get my point across then I have no hang ups about doing it.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Watkins was still performing professionally so he knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end. “You just have to respect the other person and embrace the dancers.” The same rule applies when working with composers, costumers and other members of production team.

When it came to putting together his team for this project Watkins decided to experiment locally with composer Ryan Cockerham and costume designer Kari Perkins, who has costumed seven Linklater films, including his breakout Dazed & Confused. He found Cockerham’s name on the Royal College of Music alumni list and it just so happened he was based in Dallas and had some previous ballet composition experience. “I like serendipity and so when it happens I just go with it. I then started looking for a costumer in the area and I came across Kari who did the costumes for the movie Boyhood.”

For the music Watkins wanted a lot of melodic and rhythmic themes with some soundscape elements mixed in. He describes the costumes as an everyday look, but with lots of fractured layers on top. “And underneath resembles bare bones which represents the clean slate after the crash and before the cycle starts again.”

Artistic Director’s Choice opens with Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, followed by Crash, and closes with Balanchine’s Rubies.

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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New Heights, Dallas Black Dance Theatre

Jamal Story, left, with Cher in the middle. Photo: JamalStory.com.

Jamal Story, left, with Cher in the middle. Photo: JamalStory.com.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre takes to the sky with its first ever aerial work, What to Say? Sketches of Echo and Narcissus, at this year’s Spring Celebration Series, part of the Soluna Festival.

Dallas — Once in a while you see a dance that leaves you so raw and vulnerable you’re still feeling the effects days later. Jamal Story’s aerial work What to Say? Sketches on Echo and Narcissus is one of those pieces. Unlike other aerial and silks works that just go for the WOW factor, Story uses the fabric to accentuate the dancers body lines and enhance the plot which is based off the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Echo has her voice taken away for a crime she didn’t commit by Zeus’ wife Hera. One day she spots Narcissus in the woods and falls madly in love with him, but when she tries to talk to him she can only repeat what he says. Narcissus rebuffs Echo and winds up falling in love with his own reflection and basically starves himself to death. “It’s really tragic and wrong, but then I thought you know, nobody ever deals with the Echo part of the story,” Story says. “Then I thought wouldn’t be interesting if we told the story from Echo’s perspective. How would that work and what kind of nuances would come out of her trying to manipulate his language to say what she wants to say.”

Story started his dance training with Lula Washington and the Lula Washington Dance Theatre before earning degrees in dance performance and TV/radio communications at Southern Methodist University. During his time at SMU he would also guest perform with Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) before continuing on to perform with Donald Byrd/theGroup, Madonna’s 2001 Drowned World Tour, Complexions Contemporary Dance and with Cher as an aerialist and dancer on Cher’s Living Proof: The Farewell Tour. Most recently Story was a dancer on Cher’s Dressed to Kill Tour and has also performed on Broadway in the original casts ofThe Color Purple and Motown: the Musical. He has also written two novels, 12:34 A Slice Novel and Toss In The Ether, a fictitious work for which he used DBDT as a template.

When it came to the music Story says he has been waiting for the right time to use Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” ever since he heard it while watching the movie Shutter Island. “What was amazing and heartbreaking for me was when you get to the end the movie and you understand what is going on that’s when this track gets played. And it was this kind of cathartic and real experience that made me think there had to be a way to set this up in choreography to have the same kind of impact. It was important to me that this piece of music be used in that way

I had the opportunity to see DBDT company members Claude Alexander III and Alyssa Harrington rehearseWhat to Say? late Monday afternoon at the company’s studio in downtown Dallas. (Alexander and Harrington will be performing on Friday and Saturday with a different cast on Sunday.) Watching the piece I definitely felt that emotional release Story described earlier. It was similar to how a person might feel after a good crying jag. The music and movement come at you in waves so one minute it’s building and the next it’s climaxing. The cycle keeps repeating, but each time it grows in intensity, which is demonstrated through the violins. In terms of the movement, once Harrington makes eye contact with Alexander (who is cocooned in the fabric) her body language becomes more agitated as she transitions from forward motion reaches and leg extensions into fragmented gestures and inverted leg positions. Using the fabric for support, Alexander rotates himself upside down just in time to catch Harrington’s upper body in an aerial spin as the music peaks. Harrington then climbs up Alexander’s body so that their positions are reversed as the fabric continues to rotate. Watching this exchange you would have no idea that this was the couple’s first time working with a piece of fabric in this fashion

Story says the most challenging part of the process was helping the dancers find their balance in the air. “It required a lot of focus from them and a lot openness from myself and my partner in terms of how to impart the information. And because the dancers didn’t have any aerial training they weren’t aware of what their bodies felt like in the air.” He adds, “Dancers are used to having the ground as their frame of reference so, in this cases they were trying to find lines that they had mastered over the years in a context where there was no physical grounding reference point.” Even though Story had spent three to four months working on the concept for the piece the actual material was hastily put together for an upcoming gala performance, so this time with DBDT really helped Story to rediscover the work and understand it better.

Photo: JamalStory.com

Photo: JamalStory.com

Alexander adds that while his strength is still the same when he is suspended upside down his focus has to remain on Harrington’s core to prevent himself from getting dizzy. Audiences will also see a different side to these dancers as they reach for new emotional depths. Harrington explains, “For me, these feelings come out of nowhere. Whenever I look at him it’s with these feelings of lust and obsession. The dance has a real push and pull quality to it. “

Dallas Black Dance Theatre will present What to Say? Sketches of Echo and Narcissus at its Annual Spring Celebration Series, May 15-17, at the Wyly Theatre in conjunction with the inaugural Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival. The program also includes the world premiere of Daniel Catanach’s Surface, a return of Bridget L. Moore’s Southern Recollections: For Romare Bearden, a duet to the music of Duke Ellington by two principal dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a solo performance from Jamal Story.

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Review: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ballet Frontier of Texas

Dan Westfield and Tessa Moore in BFT's Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Courtesy of BFT

Dan Westfield and Tessa Moore in BFT’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo: Courtesy of BFT

Sweet Dreams

Ballet Frontier of Texas displays artistic growth and a knack for storytelling in the company’s rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Fort Worth — From La Syphide and Pinocchio toFirebird, every year is better than the last in terms of technique, storyline, and costuming when talking about Ballet Frontier of Texas’ (BFT) annual spring concert. The company continued this tradition Saturday evening with a well-conceived and technically enchanting retelling of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the W.E. Scott Theatre at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. The lush forest scenery, detailed costuming and unearthly lighting all had a hand in making the show a success, but it was Artistic Director Chung-Lin Tseng’s astute choreography, especially in the pas de deux, where BFT’s true strength lies.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a tale of changing love triangles between King Oberon and Queen Titania; Lysander and Hermia; and Demetrius and Helena which are only made more confusing by the mischievous elf Puck’s mishandling of a love potion. Chaos ensues when both Lysander and Demetrius find themselves in love with Helena and Hermia is left heartbroken. Meanwhile a group of Mechanicals are rehearsing a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding when they encounter Puck who decides to turn Bottom’s (one of the villagers) head into a donkey. His voice awakens Queen Titania who is under the love potion’s spell and winds up falling in love with Bottom. In the end we discover it was King Oberon who asked Puck to concoct the love potion so he could take the Indian Boy from Titania. After taking the Indian Boy, Oberon has Puck remove the love spell and everyone is reunited with their true loves in time for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding.

With so many plot twists Tseng did the right thing by easing the audience into the story starting with spotlighted freeze frames of each couple and then presenting the couple’s one by one in some exquisite pas de deuxs and full body contact fighting sequences between the male leads. Lysander (Guest artist David Escoto) and Hermia (Mickayla Carr) professed their love for one another in the first scene with a number of tender traveling jete lifts and sustained arabesque holds and body dips as well as classic hand to heart gesturing. Carr’s natural grace and strong technique showed through her breathy arm movements during the petite allegro sections and her meticulous leg line as she passed through passé and extended into ponche arabesque with Escoto’s assistance. Demetrius (BFT Principal Dancer Dan Westfield) commanded attention with his gravity defying traveling tour jetes and double tour jumps to the knee as Helena (former BFT Dancer Tessa Moore) followed him performing a series of wistful bourrees with her head bowed. You see, Helena is head over heels for Demetrious, but unfortunately Demetrious is in love with Hermia who is clearly in love with Lysander. Demetrious’ relentless pursuit leads to some exciting fight sequences between Escoto and Westfield as well as some inventive partnering and hand offs between them and Carr.

David Escoto and Mickayla Carr. Photo: Courtesy of BFT

David Escoto and Mickayla Carr. Photo: Courtesy of BFT

The group dances in the forest scene with the fairies and butterflies were well rehearsed and musically inclined. The butterflies captured the nuances in Felix Mendelsohn’s score in their fluttering pointe work and swooping arm movement which were enhanced by the strips of fabric attached from their backs to their wrists. Maria Howard was naughty yet lovable in her role as Puck. She had the hardest job of being constantly animated in both her acting and dancing. Her over-the-top facial expressions never faltered, not even during a challenging fouette variation where she alternated between front and back attitude. Once the love potion did its job Westfield, Escoto and Moore executed a lovely pas de troisconsisting of over-the-head lifts, traveling jumps and warm embraces. Moore and Carr’s interactions with one another were not as affectionate, but they retained a graceful air even as they clawed at each other, drawing giggles from the audience.

On the other side of the forest Guest Artist Grant Dettling (King Oberon) and Anastacia Snyder (Queen Titania) performed a simply beautiful pas de deux with elongated extensions and shoulder lifts that finished with Snyder cradled in Dettling’s arms. The catch was Snyder was asleep for the duration which came through her downcast eyes and relaxed upper body. A difficult feat to accomplish in this regimented art form, but Snyder pulled it off with ease. Snyder also got to show off her whimsical side in her dance with Bottom (Jake Yarbrough) and later her natural exuberance in a series of fast piques and fouettes turns.

The group dances in the second half lacked some of the finesse of the numbers in the first act, but the delicate pas de deuxs performed by Westfield and Moore; Escoto and Carr; and Kenta Taniguchi (Theseus) and Hyppolita (Carli Petri) more than made up for it. The three couples seamlessly transitioned from the more athletic jumping sequences and press up lifts into the softer, sustained lunges and counter balance poses. Tseng is a master when it comes to sustained couples movement and effortless lifts with opposing momentum such as the ladies running tour jumps into a backward arabesque lunge.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Soluna Review: Avant Chamber Ballet

Avant Chamber Ballet performs for the Soluna Festival. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Avant Chamber Ballet performs for the Soluna Festival. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Avant Chamber Ballet makes a rousing tribute to American Ballet at the Soluna Festival with guests from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Dallas — There’s nothing like hearing live music at a classical ballet performance. It adds some spontaneity to an otherwise technically fixed art form as well as a layer of anticipation for both performers and audience members. It was this anticipation that had audiences on the edge of their seats as Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) broadened their artistic range in a near flawless performance Tuesday evening at Dallas City Performance Hall in conjunction with the Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival. Staying within the margins of the festival’s theme “Destination America” Puder put together an exciting program that included some of her favorite American ballet choreographers, including George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Paul Mejia, and also showcased the company’s ever growing versatility and musical awareness.

Having been brought up on the Balanchine style it came as no surprise that ACB’s restaging of Balanchine’sValse Fantaisie paralleled the technical fortitude of the original. Glinka’s driving composition, arranged by ACB’s composer in residence Chase Dobson, guided the five females and one male through this whirlwind that can only be called pure dancing. As was Balanchine’s custom, leg beats and rises on and off pointe were accentuated with subtle head tilts and arm changes. Natalie Anton, Madelaine Boyce, Kristen Conrad and Kaitlyn McDermitt performed the springy corp steps without hesitation and beautifully captured the musical nuances with their elongated arabesques and breathy arm transitions. Christy Martin was a spitfire in the lead role with fellow dancer Peter Kurta. Martin showcased exquisite control as she stepped into a lengthyarabesque hold after completing a vigorous entrechatvariation.

Kurta ate up the stage in his traveling jump sequences and maneuvered Martin through a series of assistedpirouettes and rotating body positions without qualm. Musicians Miika Gregg (violin), Lydia Umlauf (viola), Jennifer Humphreys (cello), Kara Kirkendoll Welch (flute), David Cooper (horn) and Saule Garcia (piano) partnered beautifully with the performers on stage with changing tempos, volumes and styles generating the same energies in the dancers.

Paul Mejia’s Serenade in A challenged ACB’s Natalie Anton, Emily Dixon, Yulia Ilina and Rachel Meador with its musical intricacies and scrupulous technique. Choreographed in four parts, each section uses a different part of the body to highlight the nuances in this illustrious Stravinsky composition. The long-sleeved white leotards and matching ballet belts enhanced the dancers’ lines and did not detract from the detailed movements seen in the work. Right away the eye is drawn to the dancers’ upper bodies as they contract and release on different counts.

These constantly changing counts made the simple plies with wrist flicks and back arches appear fresh and exiting. In the third section the fast tempo was accented by the dancers’ hips as they quickly tip-toed on the balls of their feet around one another. Pianist Garcia slowed the tempo down in the final section as the dancers focused on raising and lowering their arms to different counts and rhythms.

Just as the title states, Puder’s new work Endless Arc was a continuous array of wide arcing movements, contracted torsos and explosive leg extensions. By breaking the piece into five parts the audience could fully appreciate Puder’s interweaving formation changes, complex petite allegro sections and push and pulling partnering skills. In the first section, Sarah Grace Austin set the tone when she performed a series of slow side bends and tendue steps with an inverted hip swivel. As Bela Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 picked up tempo Austin and the other five dancers on stage exploded into a number of running jetes which led them off stage.

In the second and fourth sections, Madelaine Boyce, Kirsten Conrad and Christy Martin made easy work of the traveling chaine turns and double pirouettes that came in between their running patterns, which had them circling close to one another before shifting directions. The simple rotating bourrees and slow walks which spread the group across the stage in the third adagio section was one of the most visually arresting moments of the whole piece. The audience was also pleased to see Tagir Galimov handling the classic partnering skills (i.e. rotatingarabesques, pirouettes) with more assertiveness and continuity.

The piece came to a satisfying conclusion as the entire company executed a series of high powered traveling jumps and alternating battements before ending in diagonal spanning the stage. As they pivoted to the front with one arm curved up and the other down the stage went dark. Throughout the piece Charlton Gavitt’s bold color choices and abrupt lighting cues meshed with the sharp changes in the music and helped round out the work.

These more traditional works were separated by two contemporary duets choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. In The American pas de deux Michele Gifford clung to Shea Johnson as he manipulated different parts of her body. Flexed feet, broken arms and a contracted torso made up most of Gifford’s movements as Johnson swept her across the floor in a number of over the head lifts. The counterbalance holds and sustained lifts, which made up a bulk of the work, tested Johnson’s control and consistency with positive results. WhereasThe American was light and buoyant, Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved was grounded and tense with Gifford desperately reaching and arching away from Johnson as he dragged her across the floor on the tops on her feet. Soprano Corrie Donovan’s soul stripping rendition of Kurt Weill’s Je ne t’aime pas as well as her physical presence on the stage gave the couple courage to fully let themselves go which in turn made their performance more dynamic and believable.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Sweet Pairing, Avant Chamber Ballet SOLUNA Preview

Avant Chamber Ballet in Katie Puder's Endless Arc. Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Avant Chamber Ballet in Katie Puder’s Endless Arc. Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

Avant Chamber Ballet plans to wow audiences with its artistic range and technical fortitude at the inaugural Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival in Dallas.

Dallas — It comes as no surprise that Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) is the only local ballet company invited to participate in Dallas’ inaugural SOLUNA: International Music & Arts Festival. After all, the company’s goal of reconnecting dance with live music fits right into the festival’s purpose and it also helps that ACB has strong ties with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the organization in charge of this three-week performing and visual arts extravaganza. ACB Artistic Director Katie Puder adds that DSO is always her first choice when looking for collaborators, and having worked with these musicians already has made this process a little easier. It also can’t hurt to have DSO Principal French Hornist David Cooper as your company’s music director. With that said, ACB’s fresh perspective on the fixed art form of ballet has more than earned them a spot on the festival’s roster.

Staying within the margins of the festival’s theme,Destination (America), Puder has put together an exciting program showcasing choreographers and composers who came to American for inspiration and freedom. The lineup includes George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie, Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux fromThe American and There Where She Loved, Paul Mejia’s Serenade in A and the premiere of Puder’sEndless Arc. “Soluna’s theme of Destination America was a great reason for applying for our first Balanchine ballet and presenting a Paul Mejia ballet,” Puder says. “We are also honored to be the only ballet company partnering with the festival and Dallas City Performance Hall is the ideal home for ACB.”

Watching ACB rehearse for Soluna at Park Cities Dance two weeks ago I saw the dancers being tested both physically and mentally, which in turn added new intensity to their movement choices. This was most apparent in Mejia’s musically brutal work, Serenade in A, which features company members Natalie Anton, Yulia Ilina, Rachel Meador and Emily Dixon. While everyone in the company learned the piece Puder selected these four based on certain factors. “It was a choice of who looked best in it, would look best in the white leotards and had the height too. The four girls shouldn’t match (in terms of appearance), but they need to be able to blend together.”

Right away the two pairs start on different counts as they glide side to side in a series of deep squats with a contracted torso as their arms swoop up and down, resembling bird’s wings. As the dancers move into a box formation their timing matches as they perform a series alternating hand gestures and shouldering before smoothly changing timing again. Another signature section is when the four dancers come together and link hands just as the dancers do in the second half of Swan Lake. As the group deliberately walks forward together they raise their linked arms up and down on alternating counts. One at a time they present a foot and shift their weight forward while repeating the arm movements. The layered movements and musical intricacies are challenging, but these four dancers make it look effortless nonetheless.

An exhilarating display of curvaceous arms, hard-hitting leg extensions and continuous stop and go action,Endless Arc, set to Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4, shows us another side of Puder. “For Soluna I knew I wanted a full company piece that would be different than the other repertoire we were presenting. The music is so driving and energetic. It demands a certain quality and power.” All the elements that audiences have come to appreciate about Puder’s work are still present, including her intrinsic musicality and complex body positioning, but now there is a sense of urgency to the dancers’ movements. This urgency shows through the dancers’ explosive running and leaping passes, the push and pulling quality behind their partnering and Ilina’s head-whacking grande battement derriere.

The Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival runs May 4-24 with Avant Chamber Ballet’s performance taking place at Dallas City Performance Hall on May 5 at 7:30 p.m. Beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the DCPH lobby, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico will perform.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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