Tag Archives: Katie Puder

Texas Ballet Theater to stream Henry VIII ballet this weekend

Since there are currently no dance performance going on around town due to COVID-19 I wanted to draw attention to the local dance organizations who are using online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube channels to connect with new and established audiences by offering free content within a specific time frame. To date I have viewed Bruce Wood Dance in Joy Bollinger’s Carved in Stone, Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) premiere of  Ma Cong’s Firebird, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance in Joshua L. Peugh’s Aladdin and an excerpt of Jennifer Mabus’s Citizens of Loss for Avant Chamber Ballet.

So, ahead of TBT’s streaming of Carl Coomer’s Henry VIII May 8 and 9 at 8pm on the company’s YouTube channel @tbttheater, I wanted to revisit my conversation with Coomer about the making of this balletic work. Below is a copy of my Q&A with Coomer, which was originally posted on TheaterJones.com in February 2018.

Please enjoy!

Dancing Scandal

Texas Ballet Theater brings all the glitz, glam and romantic intrigue of Carl Coomer’s new work Henry VIII to Bass Performance Hall this weekend.

Photo: Steven Visneau
Texas Ballet Theater presents Carl Coomer’s Henry VIII


Fort Worth — From the moment Carl Coomer stepped on stage in George Balanchine’s Apollo at Texas Ballet Theater’s (TBT) Portraits Ballet Festival in Dallas back in 2012, I was immediately drawn to his sculpted body lines and effortless classical technique as well as his chiseled good looks. But he also grabbed me emotionally in Evolving, in his first choreographic work, which was also being showcased that day. Since then I have watched Coomer grow in both artistry and stage leadership with prominent roles in Ben Stevenson’s Swan Lake (2014), Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (2015), Jonathan Watkins’ Crash (2015) and Val Caniparoli’s Without Borders (2016), just to name a few. He premiered his second work the company entitled Clann back in 2014. On a more personal note Coomer is married to former TBT Leticia Oliveira and they have two children, the second of which arrived only two months ago.

For those unfamiliar with Coomer’s background, he hails from Liverpool, England, where he starting dancing at the age of 13. Soon after he was offered a scholarship to attend the Royal Ballet School under the direction of Dame Merle Park and Gailene Stock. After moving to the States, Coomer danced with Houston Ballet for six seasons before joining TBT in 2007. In addition to the works mentioned above Coomer has also performed in lead roles in Ben Stevenson’s The NutcrackerGiselleDraculaFour Last SongsThree PreludesFive PoemsMozart RequiemCoppeliaCleopatraPeer GyntRomeo and JulietThe Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

The last time I interviewed Coomer in 2015 for Petite Mort I asked him if we would be seeing more of his choreography in future and his response was “if Mr. Stevenson offered me another opportunity to choreography I would be more than willing to do it.” Well, here we are, three years later and Coomer is once again testing his choreographic methods in Henry VIII, a 55-minute ballet that focuses on the second Tudor Monarch’s relationships with his six wives as well his transformation from a viral young king to a sickly old man.

Set to Gustav Holst’s famous musical work The Planets, Henry VIII includes a custom-built, Tudor-esque set, dramatic period costumes and three-dimensional mapping and projections. Texas Ballet Theater will present Henry VIII along with Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas, March 2-4, at Bass Performance in Fort Worth.

I caught up with Coomer in between rehearsals this week to ask him how he prepped for creating a ballet around such historical figures, his musical selection and choreographing sections for six very different female characters.

Photo: Texas Ballet Theater
Carl Coomer
TheaterJones: What types of research did you do leading up to rehearsals?

Carl Coomer: I knew a lot about Henry VIII anyway just from growing up in England and learning about him in school. But once a lot of the shows like The Tudors and Wolf Hall came out I just started watching everything I could to get a deeper understanding of his character. I also watched a lot of documentaries and a lot of books as well, with some being fictional and while others were just historical accounts on that time period. So yeah, I just gathered as much information as I possible could so I could build my own perspective on how to tell the story.

What were some of the highlights of this time period that you clearly wanted showcased in the ballet?

I really wanted to make it about how different each one of the wives is and how differently Henry VIII was with each one of them. Like he was together with Catherine of Aragon for so long (1509-1533) and they were in love, but it was definitely more of a political marriage. And then when Anne Boleyn (1533-1536) came along and that all happened their relationship was a lot more sensual and sexual and he was really seduced by her. And then with Jane Seymour (1536-1537) he was madly and deeply in love with her so, I just wanted to show how different each one of the wives is and how Henry VIII is with them.

In terms of the ballet’s structure is it set up like a story ballet or broken into specific vignettes?

I think it’s a bit of both because it is a story ballet so there is narrative happening throughout it. But at the same time having to tell somebody’s life story of 50 to 60 years in a about 50 minutes there is just no way you can include every little bit of information. So, I had to pick and choose what’s important and what to include so I decided to focus on the wives and each one of them has their own piece of music, which is the seven pieces of music from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Each wife has her own piece of music and then the seventh piece is saved for the battle scene. So, the ballet does contain these little vignettes in a way because of each wife, but then the passing of time can’t really be explained to the audience without the entire cast carrying on with the larger narrative. So, it’s a little bit of both. It’s a story ballet, but spilt up into seven sections.

Having yourself performed in so many story ballets, what was it like to create your own?

For me, and I think I have probably told you this before, the music always comes first. What I had to do was to decide which piece of music would go with which wife and how does all of their personalities match with each piece of music. And once I had that figured out I literally sat down and scoured through every second of the music while thinking how I could tell the story minute by minute through this music. And then I used the music to kind of create a script if you like in order to break everything down to tell the story. I don’t know how others do it, but this was the best way for me to do it.

What led you to Gustav Holst’s The Planets for the ballet’s score?

It was one of the first pieces of classical music that I had ever heard when I was really young and it’s a pretty epic piece. I went to an all-boys school and they made us sit down in the assembly hall and made us listen to some classical music and when they put The Planets on I was just wowed by it, especially the war and Mars battle scene. It was a lot of drums, and horns and violins and I just loved it so much that even after I started dancing it has remained one of my favorite pieces of music as a whole. Each section has something different to offer and I think with this story it just blends so perfectly.

I noticed that a couple of the wives are being danced by new-to-mid-seasoned company members such as Samantha Pille (second season) and Alexandra Farber (sixth season), while others will be danced by more seasoned pros like Carolyn Judson (15th season), Katelyn Clenaghan (14th season) and Michelle Taylor (12th). How did you go about selecting the dancers to play each one of Henry VIII’s wives?

Well, the number of years the dancers have been with the company never really crossed my mind. I picked who was going to do what based on what I thought would suit all the dancers movement-wise and personality-wise. I mean I know all these dancers really well, but I have known Carrie and Katelyn and Michelle for a lot longer than the others so I know what they’re capable of and what suits them. I mean Michelle, is a really good actress and she likes to be dramatic so I picked her for Catherine of Aragon. Now with Carrie you know she has done so many romantic leads like Romeo and Juliet and so Jane Seymour suited her really well. And Katelyn just dances with a whole lot of abandon and with Anne Boleyn I wanted a lot of running and jumping on pointe and I knew she would be down for that.



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.

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.

Forward Thinkers: Katie Puder, Avant Chamber Ballet

Photo: Robert Hart
Photo: Robert Hart

With numerous successes in its short history, including its first full-length ballet and performance at Dallas DanceFest, Puder’s Avant Chamber Ballet is one step closer to its goal of reconnecting live music and dance.

Over the past three years Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) has accomplished what takes most small ballet companies years to do. Along with bringing together a cohesive group of talented professional dancers and building a solid audience base, ACB is also filling a void in the Dallas dance scene with the use of live chamber music at its performances. This feat can be attributed to Artistic Director Katie Puder’s tenacity and resourcefulness both artistically and enterprisingly speaking.

Puder began her ballet training with Wichita Falls Ballet Theater before moving to Fort Worth at age 13. She continued training with Paul Mejia and Maria Terezia Balogh and at 17 she joined the Metropolitan Classical Ballet. The idea for starting ACB came to Puder while attending multiple Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) concerts. “I was inspired to start doing more choreography just from hearing so much fantastic live music. Our first choice for the musicians for our performances are always DSO musicians, and I think very few ballet companies in the world can say they have musicians of that quality performing with them.”

With the aid of DSO principal horn David Cooper, ACB’s focus is on strengthening the ties between live music and dance in the Dallas area. Since its inception in 2012, ACB has performed eight new works, including Puder’sExactly Woven and Carnival of Animals, which premiered at the Eisemann Center in October 2014. This past year ACB also produced its first full-length ballet, Alice in Wonderland, with a commissioned score by resident composer Chase Dobson to positive reviews. “It seems that dance audiences have really missed live music. We also have a part of our audience who are music fans and we are their first exposure to dance performances. I love hearing from people who are discovering how exciting live ballet and music can be for the first time.”

Not one to idle, Puder is always looking for news way to increase exposure while also enriching the local dance culture. Participation in local dance festivals this year, including the {254} DANCE-FEST in Waco and the reimagined Dallas DanceFest at the Dallas City Performance Hall has helped ACB expand its reach within these communities. Puder’s plans for 2015 include the company’s first Women’s Choreography Project, which happens this weekend at Richardson’s Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts and a collaboration with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s SOLUNA: International Music & Arts Festival in May.

The Women’s Choreography Project, a series she plans to continue, features work by Puder and local choreographers Elizabeth Gillaspy and Emily Hunter, as well as guest choreographer Amy Diane Morrow.

A firm believer in supporting other local artists Puder has invited local dance companies such as Dark Circles Contemporary Dance to come perform with ACB. Puder is beginning to see this supportive stance spread across the whole dance community. “I have this feeling of a real community between different companies and circles. There is more awareness of what other people are doing and people are being supportive.” With Puder’s work ethic ACB will continue to draw in new audiences and raise the bar for other professional dance companies in the area.

This piece was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Classy Menagerie

Photo: Brian Guilliaux
Photo: Brian Guilliaux

Avant Chamber Ballet goes wild with its newest character-driven work, Carnival of Animals, at the Eisemann this weekend.

Richardson — The smell of sweat is pungent in the room where Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) is rehearsing for its fall performance, Carnival of Animals, at Park Cities Dance Studio in Dallas. Staggered around the room are about 12 dancers stretching, chatting and checking their pointe shoes. Everyone is attired in colorful leotards and snug-fitting bottoms with their hair swept up into secure buns. When ACB Artistic Director Katie Puder says, “Ok, guys let’s run through the show,” the dancers rise and take their places. It’s obvious these dancers mean business and it’s not just about having fun. “These are professional dancers,” Puder says. “Everyone has either graduated from a college dance program or danced with a professional company. Some of the girls and I danced together at Metropolitan Classical Ballet.”

Having known many of the dancers for many years’ works to Puder’s advantage especially when it comes to the company’s newest character-driven work, Carnival of Animals, set to the Saint-Saëns suite The Carnival of the Animals. The ballet has two performances this weekend at the Eisemann Center for the Arts in Richardson.

Carnival of Animals is set up like a circus show with the dancers portraying the various animals. Each dancer shares similar traits with her animal adding humor to the otherwise classical number. Sarah Grace Austin is the ferocious lion; her movement a mix of slow, elongated walks and explosive jetes. She and her lion tamer (Tagir Galimov) play a flirty game of cat and mouse before one of them is finally tricked into jumping through a hoop. As the cuckoo Kirsten Conrad bourrées rapidly across the room with her arms fluttering and executes a number of entrechats,soubersauts and royales with boundless energy. Natalie Anton’s elegant zebra is depicted through a series of prancing steps and traveling spins.  And, of course, Yulia Illina is the quintessential peacock with her majestic lines and slow, controlled body movements.

Most of the animals perform solo acts while others, including the fish, elephants and birds, perform in pairs or small groups. Then everyone comes together for the big finale. Here Puder plays with contingent movements and weaving jumping passes. Her George Balanchine roots come through the dancers’ body positions and linear formations, but the tricky point work and constant directional changes are all Puder. “I’ve always had a short attention span. I have to keep changing things up so I don’t get bored watching the piece. I am not a fan of posing. I like it when everyone on stage, including the corps, is always moving.”

Watching Puder’s movement is like watching an expert work a Rubik’s cube. The speed and exactness of the steps keeps viewers in suspense, but if the steps aren’t executed correctly the end product won’t come out right. Puder understands this and its one of the reasons she no longer performs with the company. “I just couldn’t wear all those different hats. With ballet especially it’s hard to check spacing and alignment when you are also dancing. This way I can really focus on the details.” During rehearsal Puder would sometimes call out a correction in the middle of a section, but more often than not she’s waits till the end of said section. The dancers and Puder are so in tune with one another that they usually know what she is going to say before she says it. With the show only days away the corrections are minor such as where the height of an arm should be or if the hips should be more croise. It’s these little details that elevates a ballet from good to great.

This article was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Review: Avant Chamber Ballet, Alice in Wonderland

Photo: Sharon Bradford/The Dancing Image
Photo: Sharon Bradford/The Dancing Image

Ambitious Alice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image
Photo: Sharen Bradford/The Dancing Image

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

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

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Total Madness

Photo: Courtesy
Photo: Courtesy

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

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

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

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

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

Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford
Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Sharen Bradford

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

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

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


Dance Council of North Texas Unveils New Festival

A New Dance Festival is Coming to Dallas!

Dallas, TX – New Name! New Stage! New Vision! was the mantra of the Dance Council of North Texas’ (DCNT) luncheon Friday afternoon as the organization officially announced the new Dallas DanceFest Aug. 29-31, 2014.

According to the fact sheet, the festival will take place Friday and Saturday evening at the new Dallas City Performance Hall with Sunday reserved for the DCNT Honors which is typically held in September. Information about ticketing and the application process will be made available soon.

Friday’s luncheon drew about 75-100 people including choreographers, dance company heads, arts media, city council and arts organization members. I saw my buddy Josh Peugh (AD of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance), my editor Mark Lowry (TheaterJones.com), TITAS Executive Director Charles Santos, dance critic Margaret Putnam (the lady I one day hope to be) and the lovely Ann Williams who be retiring as the AD of Dallas Black Dance Theatre at the end of this season. I also met Anne Bothwell of Art&Seek, Melissa DeGroat (AD Epiphany DanceArts) and Katie Puder (AD Avant Chamber Ballet).

DCNT Executive Director Pam Deslorieux said she was very pleased with the turnout and everyone appears to be very excited about the new festival.

I was just excited to see so many of the up and coming dance companies at the luncheon including Avant Chamber Ballet, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance and Epiphany DanceArts. These companies are the future and we as an arts community must do whatever we can to cultivate their talent. Sorry if that sounds preachy, but it’s true

More information about Dallas DanceFest 2014 is available at www.DallasDanceFest.org.

Q&A: Katie Puder of Avant Chamber Ballet

ACB Dancer Michele Gifford. Photo: Edwin Watson Photography
ACB Dancer Michele Gifford. Photo: Edwin Watson Photography

Katie Puder, artistic director of Avant Chamber Ballet, on reconnecting ballet with live music and the company’s Fall Dance Concert at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts.

In a city growing with dance troupes, it takes guts and vision to enter this competitive marketplace. Luckily, Katie Puder has both. Puder started Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) last year with the help of David Cooper, principal French horn with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Their mission is to bring dance and chamber music back together for audiences throughout the DFW area. ACB opens its sophomore season with its Fall Dance Concert Oct. 12, 2013 at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts.

The program includes the Pas De Deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s The American, Mikhail Fokine’s Dying Swan solo performed by Yulia IIina and Puder’s own Italian Suite. The evening ends with the world premiere of Puder’s work, Exactly Woven, set to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio. And for the first time ACB will host a guest company, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance.

Katie Puder began her ballet training with the Wichita Falls Ballet Theater before moving to Forth Worth at the age of 13. She continued her training through Fort Worth-Dallas Ballet and spent her summers at Boston Ballet or working privately with Paul Mejia and Maria Terezia Balogh. At 17 she joined the Metropolitan Classical Ballet of Fort Worth and Arlington.

As a choreographer Puder has made eight one-act ballets for ACB and has collaborated in three full-length original ballets for Plano Metropolitan Ballet. For the past six years she has been teaching Pilates all over the world as well as at Powerhouse Yoga & Pilates Studio in Colleyville, TX, where she is also studio manager. Since its inception ACB has premiered eight new works, including a piece with a commissioned score by their now resident composer, Chase Dobson.

TheaterJones asks Katie Puder about the benefits of working with live accompaniment, the challenges associated with being a young company in Dallas and what we can expect at Avant Chamber Ballet’s Fall Dance Concert.

TheaterJones: This will be your first time hosting a guest company. What made you chose Dark Circles Contemporary Ballet?

I have seen Josh Peugh’s work for the Bruce Wood Dance Project and we met earlier this year at Park Cities Dance. We kind of started our companies around the same time so it just felt natural to bounce ideas off we each other and help each other out. I really like what Josh does and I feel like it’s more of a representation of contemporary modern works that you would see in places outside of Texas. I had lived in Europe for a while and his choreography reminded me of some of the stuff I had seen abroad.

What changes did you see in the Dallas dance community after you returned home?

Well, it was sad to see that my company Metropolitan Classical Ballet had shut down. There seemed to be more, smaller contemporary companies and not as much classical ballet. And even through ACB does a lot of neo-classical, slightly contemporary ballet we are still a company made up of ballet dancers. I also noticed that live music was missing at performances. And just walking around the Arts District today I feel that the community is a lot more supportive than it was five years ago.

Did you always want to start your own company?

It came out of the desire of wanting to choreograph more and to do more choreography on professional dancers. I knew a lot of freelance dancers including dancers from Metropolitan Classical Ballet which had closed down and it just all came together very organically.

Did you know David Cooper prior to starting the company?

Yes, I did. I had met David more than two years ago when he was just starting out with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. When I returned home from Europe I was going to a lot of his performances and just got really inspired listening to so much good live music. The first thing we did together was just a piece for three dancers with David and a pianist at the Plano Dance Festival. We had a really great response to the performance so we almost immediately decided to do a June performance. That was our first show as a company.

New dance companies are constantly popping up in Dallas. What was your strategy for making it through your first year?

Well, I am really picky about the dancers I use. I really want dancers that have professional company experience. My dancers have been with companies such as Ballet Austin, Sarasota Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater. And using live music I think has brought a really different audience to our shows that you wouldn’t necessarily get at just a dance performance. To me, you get more of a complete show when you have top solo musicians and also high-level professional dancing. And I think there is always room for more great dancing in DFW, but I don’t really think we need to compete with each other as companies.

How did you put together the program for the company’s Fall Dance Concert?

ACB Dancer Kayla Giard. Photo: Edwin Watson Photography
ACB Dancer Kayla Giard. Photo: Edwin Watson Photography

I knew I really wanted Dark Circles Contemporary Dance to perform a piece. And one of our dancers, Michele Gifford, knows Christopher Wheeldon quite well and it’s kind of a dream to have something of his on our program and I hope that continues. At our last show I was listening to a bunch of music with our pianist and that is when I heard Shostakovich’s Piano Trio. I immediately loved it and had to do choreography to it. And knowing that we were hiring a cello for this performance we wanted our Russian ballerina Yulia IIina to do Mikhail Fokine’s Dying Swan. The company will also be performing my work Italian Suite which we did one year ago and people really seemed to enjoy it.

What challenges do you run into when hiring musicians?

The only issue for us sometimes is finding a performance date that doesn’t conflict with when the Dallas Symphony is performing.

Do you see a change in the dancers’ performance level when using live music?

Yes! Only once have we done something without a musician there and it was at last year’s Dance for the Planet. That was the first time I’ve seen my choreography with the company done without live music and it hit me how much is missing when you don’t have live music. I know for me it’s a whole different feeling when you have a musician on stage. They’re a live person playing something different every single time. So, as a dancer you have to be able to react to the music a little bit more. You can’t just go on autopilot. Live music just creates a more expressive performance and more of an interpretation of the music which is really the focus of my choreography. It’s not so much about bringing out an emotion or telling a story, but just an interpretation of the music that you are hearing. So, for the work that I do the music really is important. Without live music I think you would be missing quite a bit.

What is your three-to-five year plan for Avant Chamber Ballet?

Looking forward I would really like to continue performing more often and be able to produce more than one show at a time at the Eisemann. I want to keep the company kind of small (ACB has 15 dancers currently) and flexible and made up of really strong dancers. I’d like to explore touring locally and maybe expanding into doing a holiday show in the future. I’d also like to collaborate with more musical groups in the future. We are doing some small things with the Dallas Symphony this year including their Halloween program and kids concerts in the spring.

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