Tag Archives: SOLUNA: International Music & Arts Festival

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.


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.