Tag Archives: Lily Weiss

Q&A: Catherine Ellis Kirk, Abraham.In.Motion

Kyle Abraham dancer Catherine Ellis Kirk. Photo: Breton Tyner-Bryan
Kyle Abraham dancer Catherine Ellis Kirk. Photo: Breton Tyner-Bryan

The Dallas native on finding her stride as a concert dancer and performing with Kyle Abraham’s Abraham.In.Motion which comes to town this weekend on the TITAS season.

Dallas — As the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship as well as a 2010 Princess Grace and Bessie award for performance and choreography, it’s no wonder Kyle Abraham was recently dubbed the darling of the dance world by Dance magazine. Abraham started his training at the Civic Light Opera Academy and the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts School. He holds a BFA in dance from SUNY Purchase and an MFA from the New York University (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts. His performing credits include David Dorfman Dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, The Kevin Wynn Collective, Nathan Trice/Rituals, Dance Alloy and Attack Theatre. For the last nine years his company Abraham.In.Motion has been captivating audiences across the U.S. and abroad with its provocative movement choices and strong social messages reflecting on current issues and attitudes.

Abraham’s raw approach to movement and eclectic dance background, which includes modern and hip-hop was a huge draw for Dallas native Catherine Ellis Kirk who joined his company two years ago. A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Kirk went on to earn her BFA in dance from NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She has also studied with Movement Invention Project, San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, the Gaga intensive in Tel Aviv and Springboard Danse Montreal, and has performed works by Fernando Melo, Ohad Naharin, Peter Chu, Andrea Miller, Robert Battle, Alex Ketley and Helen Simoneau. In addition to Abrham.In.Motion, Kirk also currently dances for Chihiro Shimizu and Artists and UNA Projects.

Kirk and Abraham.In.Motion will both make their Dallas debut Oct. 29-30 at the Dallas City Performance Hall as part of TITAS’ 2015-16 season. The program includes Abraham’s The Quiet Dance (2011), The Gettin’ (2014) and the world premiere of Absent Matter with live music.

Catherine Ellis Kirk talks to TheaterJones about finding her artistic voice, Kyle Abraham’s creative process and her take on his new work Absent Matter.

TheaterJones.com: What initially drew you to concert dance?

Catherine Ellis Kirk: At Booker T. I took a lot of composition and improvisation classes so I knew pretty fresh off the gate that I wanted to join a modern company and be in New York if not Europe.

Why did you chose to attend New York University vs. pursuing a dance career after high school?

I never considered cutting off my education after high school. I have always loved dance, but I have also always craved more of an academic lifestyle. For my community of concert dancers it’s more of a conservation about whether you wanted to go to a university or conservatory. I tried a couple of conservatories, but I knew I needed something else aside from dance so I studied Political Science and Art History at New York University (NYU) as well. And looking back I definitely needed those three years of training at NYU to discover my voice in dance and how I wanted to move.

Can you give me some examples of individuals or classes that have helped you define your artistic voice?

Many of my “ah ha” moments came from being at Booker T. where I took composition classes with Kyle Richards and Lily Weiss as well as modern with Garfield Lemonius. While taking these classes I decided that I could put my life and my work and passion into these forms of dance, and going to NYU really seasoned that for me. I had so many amazing teachers at NYU, including Pamela Pietro, who taught me modern and composition my second and third year there.

What stood out to you the first time you saw Kyle Abraham perform?

The first time I saw Kyle dance was at Dance Space in New York where he performed an excerpt from one of his solos and I was immediately drawn to his unique movement style. He moves so organically and there’s a wide variety of techniques that he is influenced by such as house dancing, hip-hop, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. His movement is also very contemporary and looks very improv based, so it comes out of him very organically. There’s always an openness to his movement with lots of high arches and speed, but also just very human moments and almost a sense of acting that comes across very raw. I see all of this in Pavement, which I saw for the first time in fall 2013 right after superstorm Sandy hit. Pavement has a very direct purpose in that it talks about Kyle’s neighborhood growing up and that urban lifestyle in which race and economic classes play a pivotal role. Watching all these beautiful people dancing onstage together and having the same movement quality that Kyle does was really astonishing and I just fell in love with this work.

What is it like working in the studio with Abraham?

It’s super interesting! It is pretty improv based so he’ll start moving while someone films it and then gives us the tape and we’ll learn it from there. Other times he’ll do a catch what you can thing where he dances in front of us and we pick up what we can. He moves very fast and organically and habitually. It’s also nice to have us in the room because we all interpret the movement differently so we don’t use the same movement vocabulary over and over.

Do you and the other company members have similar dance backgrounds and training?

Our backgrounds are quite varied. I probably have the least technical training. I am much more composition and modern than balletic. There’s Tamisha Guy who went to SUNY Purchase College and is technically stunning with a background in ballet, pointe and modern. Penda N’Diaye went to NYU before I did and she also has a background in ballet and her and Guy both have beautiful lines. Connie Shiau also went to SUNY Purchase but she also trained in Gaga and works with Gallim Dance, which is just very wild, deep and grounded. The boys are also all very different. Jeremy Neal was a classical singer who started dancing in college, but had danced a lot in the club scene and house, which is very similar to Kyle’s journey. Matthew Baker went to the same college as Jeremy in Michigan, but he started out in gymnastics and then went into dance when he was younger to help him get more flexible. And then we have Vinson Fraley who is just stunning and started dancing when he was 16 at a competition studio so he is all legs and turns. Our careers and lives have taken us into different places, which kind of helps the variety, but it’s also nice because you look around the room and see different skin colors, heights and body types so the movement never gets too habitual or boring.

What is your interpretation of Abraham’s new work Absent Matter?

Absent Matter was actually choreographed before Kyle brought in the live music which includes songs by Kendrick Lamar and Kayne West. For the piece Kyle pulled a lot of inspiration from the Black Lives Matter campaign and also his feelings on cultural appropriation. Being in his late 30’s he has seen things that are just completely being lost in their origin. For example, cornrows which are just plaited hair that women in Africa wore to keep their hair out of the way is now being used on the fashion runways which is great, but it’s being renamed a French twist or French braid. That’s a lighter example, but it all goes back to cultural appropriation and Kyle feeling that as African-Americans we are losing our voice. So, there is definitely a nostalgia and a large sense of anger and riot in the work which feels much more present day than The Gettin’ which will come after. The Gettin’ feels more like a pre-riot gathering while Absent Matter feels more current to me with the Black Lives Matter Campaign and any culture aside from African American just getting lost or abused or not being recognized. Kyle’s very angry about that and it shows through this work.

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

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Dream Maker

Ann Williams with DBDT company members. Photo: Robert Hart
Ann Williams with DBDT company members. Photo: Robert Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

Preview: Dallas Black Dance Theatre Spring Celebration

Photo: Robert Hart
Photo: Robert Hart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Robert Hart
Photo: Robert Hart

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

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

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

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

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

Head of Booker T. Washington Dance Department to Retire

Courtesy
Courtesy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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