Dance Salad Festival
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, Zilkha Hall
March 29-31, 2018
It’s at least an eight-course, three-hour long meal, three days in a row. It’s the satiating Salad served up right before Easter Sunday dinner. It’s Dance Salad Festival. And it’s delicious.
Nancy Henderek, Producer, Director and Founder of Dance Salad Festival, produced its first three years in Brussels, Belgium and the next 23 have taken place in Houston. Maybe she felt the same as the Menils, Houston’s arts giants of The Menil Collection whose lives were chronicled in the recently published Double Vision, The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil. Author William Middleton responded in interviews as to why the Parisians chose to build their life in Houston with simply, “because they felt like they were needed here.”
Living for years in New York City, I knew upon my return to Houston that the city would have a smaller dance menu. Fewer performances, fewer companies, fewer festivals, I reminded myself how lucky I was to have worked at New York City Center as Fall for Dance Festival took shape. I opened the Houston Chronicle in 2010 and saw a review of Dance Salad. I was shocked. “That’s here?”
And so it begins each year, my gluttonous three-day love affair of European dance companies with their stylistic choreography full of elastic and fearless dancers in works that often abandon all things pretty.
The Festival opened with Guillaume Hulot’s dreamy duet for two men Tuning another Being. The stage was washed in deep blue as Marc Borràs Llopis uncoiled and recoiled, spiraling his body like a breakdancing snake in break-ankle Lil Buck fashion. A gentleman to my left one night made an audible gasp. Beautiful pain is a common theme throughout the festival. By the last night, the work was named in the program Tuning another “Bean,” which made me giggle if they were responding to Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Column” installed during the same week at the MFAH, and all the banter between the Chicago Tribune and the Houston Chronicle on who had the better bean.
Hulot’s second work for the festival, BEANS, “tells the story and the journey of a lost soul,” with fitting music – Kurt Cobain’s strange little ditty “BEANS” bookending Saint-Saëns “Danse Macabre.” Dancer Keiko Okawa stood downstage at the height of “Danse Macabre” silently laughing, or was she crying, or both? Two men carried her awkwardly while one formed his hand into the shape of a dog, moving his fingers making it bark at her or was it a gun shooting her? I drifted into their mad world, a disjointed moving Picasso of torment so weird I was lost, but my eyes were locked. Like standing in front of a Basquiat, unable to move from so many unanswerable questions.
Garrett Smith’s work Imitations on the Norwegian National Ballet was slick and intense, danced to a powerful, almost sinister-like score by Michael Gordon, that questioned gender in ballet and how dance is often an art form of imitation, reinforced by Smith’s crisp cannon movement. He asks in the program notes, “…would it be normal for us now if it had been decided to put men in tutus from the very start of ballet?” Which made me wonder would it be normal for us now if it had been decided to put women in knickers and vests and puffy shirts? Which could then have made it normal to now put men in corsets and briefs and women in long tights and be bare-chested. Dance may then have turned into the most well-attended art performances. His intention, though, asks important questions about “normal.”
ODC/Dance out of San Francisco was the only stateside company in this year’s festival bringing its boulders and bones, an ambitious work inspired by an Andy Goldsworthy stonework installation “Culvert Cairn,” and the changing landscape of Northern California. The piece began with a beautiful time-lapse film showing workers with chisels and stone saws forming the culvert, with its finishing touch – an “egg” upright and nestled into the hollow opening, ready to carry the rains that pass through. The screen rose and the film images and music continued with a set imitating the culvert, projections of stones and environmental changes and a live cellist mimicking the egg on a circular, moving platform handled throughout the work by the dancers.
What followed however with ODC’s eleven dancers didn’t match the quiet job of a culvert along with Zoë Keating’s melodic score. I couldn’t figure out if the dancers symbolized the landscape or the people living on this land, or why their emotions strangely vacillated between anger and disinterested. Pounding and slapping the floor or each other’s chests, heavy-footed running and landings created a separation from the earth rather than a connection. Josie Sadan, featured throughout, handled the choreography with a quietness and grace, the subtleness of a changing environment. I wondered had this been site-specific, a real physical marriage of dance to environment, if it would have resonated more. The power of the environment, once transported to stage, often loses its power.
What did hold power were the Festival’s duets, partnerships that evoked a simultaneous bursting-love of hope and melancholy. Shakespeare muscled his way into the Festival with the Royal Swedish Ballet performing an excerpt of Mats Ek’s Julia & Romeo and Ballet Zürich performing an excerpt of Christian Spuck’s Romeo and Juliet. Ek’s Romeo walked through the back of the audience, down the aisle and climbed onstage to find his Julia, exquisitely danced by Ema Yuasa. Authentic joy spread through her face, her eyes, her smile, as she danced with the breathlessness of falling in love, making me want to do the same.
I was delighted to see Maurice Béjart’s 1971 Songs of a Wayfarer, a pas de deux for two men – a wanderer and his own destiny – originally created for Paolo Bortoluzzi and Rudolf Nureyev. While it could have felt dated against the other evening’s contemporary offerings, it was performed to the music and lyrics of Mahler so expressively and earnestly by Stuttgart Ballet’s Friedemann Vogel and National Ballet of Canada’s Guillaume Côté. The two men, with flawless and effortless technique, danced this classic with a reverence for the work, for Béjart, and for each other, on the final night embracing after their bows and the audience’s robust applause. It was a touching gesture following the ballet’s unforgettable last image – the wanderer looking for freedom with a longing gaze far beyond the theater’s walls, and destiny gently laying his hand on the wanderer’s shoulder, reminding him of his unending solitude.
Germany’s Semperoper Ballett Dresden brought David Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight and an excerpt from Stijn Celis’ Vertigo Maze, a pair of pas de deux danced by Alice Mariani and Christian Bauch, two gazelles lusciously moving through Richter and Bach. Dawson notes Richter’s music in the program as “balm to the soul,” though I’d say these two works full of love, harmony and beauty were salves I’d pay to see every day. An aesthetic marriage of Kylián, Ek and Forsythe partnering, these two pieces that brought me to my feet were quite possibly the most beautiful pas de deux I’d ever seen.
And yes, Italy’s Spellbound Contemporary Ballet was, well, spellbinding. Pay no mind to the cliché. Hypnotic. Magnetic. Enthralling. Any synonym will do. The very definition of dance-theater. I sat frozen in my seat during The Hesitation Day, Spellbound’s all-male quartet moving like speed-of-light praying mantises. The on-a-dime stops from top speed to stillness as one man formed a ballroom hold with another, and gently, slowly, stiffly they turned then broke apart into a buttery, crawling, disjointed, grotesquely beautiful, nonsensical trippy dream. In unassuming neutral pedestrian clothes, these young men all had stories I wanted to know.
A deep, authoritative male voice-over interrupted my trance – like those in Crystal Pite’s The Statement – and pushed the Surrealism further: “Instinctively, I didn’t care about anything but the moment at hand. In a bookstore, I came across a poem called ‘Homage to Pessoa,’ which reminded me of a passage from The Book of Disquiet. I, along with other people on the fringe, kept a distance from things. A distance commonly called decadence.” The voice drones on about missing the movie, Paul had left, the beautiful night in Soho, anorexics and fashion slaves, and I was sucked deeper into a swirling Dalí vortex, where madness and grace collided. The four men moved at breakneck speed. Fabio Cavallo sat in the deepest lunge I’d ever seen and slowly, menacingly turned his head to the audience. A dripping clock that told no time, I wanted Mauro Astolfi’s surreal choreography to go on forever.
I needed to smoke a cigarette after The Hesitation Day. Works like that get inside me and change me.
Thank you, Nancy Henderek. I’m both satiated and hungrier. You and your festival are needed here in Houston. I’d starve without your Salad.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
For More Table For One from Amy Pearl
To connect with Amy