Out of the Fishbowl: Contemporary Dance in Houston
Rosemary Ponnekanti, March 2003
“Houston’s a dance city,” said Ben Stevenson recently. As a respected choreographer and outgoing director of Houston Ballet, he should know. But he wasn’t referring to Swan Lake.
Rather, the comment was made at the debut of yet another modern dance company, one of three to start this year, and one of around fifteen in the whole city. Add in four dance presenters, and a ballet company with a
solid modern repertoire. That’s pretty good going, considering the city only supports about six professional theater companies – a far more popular art form. And certainly Houston has dance variety. From the studied
polish of the Ballet to the smooth lines of Weave, Psophonia and Ad Deum, from the live, original music of Michele Brangwen Dance to FLY’s street dance fusion, from the culturally inspired Kuumba House and Samskriti
to the jazz-based Met and multicultural City Dance, there’s an awful lot going on.
But what does it mean, to be a ‘dance city’? Is it easy for contemporary dance to get funding? To get an
audience? Does Houston attract good dancers and choreographers, and is there enough stimulation and competition for them? Is there a good support system of dance instruction, media criticism, venues? These are the
questions that face contemporary dance anywhere, and the answers determine whether Houston is a vibrant dance city, or just an overcrowded fishbowl.
It may seem inelegant to begin an
essay on contemporary dance with the subject of money. Like it or not, though, money to a very large extent determines the nature of any art community. The amount of funding not only affects how many events a
company can mount, but what dancers it attracts, what kind of space it can rent and for how long, publicity levels, costumes, lighting, live musicians, and the possibility of touring. Houston has a better track
record than many cities in this regard, thanks to years of oil money. Pioneer dance companies that began in the late 70s, such as those of Joan Karff, Farrell Dyde and Roberta Stokes, followed the rising financial
tide which also built important dance venues like the Wortham Center, DiverseWorks and Jones Hall. Some companies weathered the oil bust: Several Dancers Core, Chrysalis, the dance program at the Jewish Community
Center (JCC), the Miller Theater Weekend of Contemporary Dance and Society for Performing Arts (SPA). Many didn’t, though, and it wasn’t until the late 90s that dance groups began again to form. Since then, however,
the upsurge has continued, and it’s evident that despite current economic and political circumstances, dancers have enough faith in funding potential to expand programs and form new troupes.
The Dominic Walsh Dance Theater is one such new troupe. Formed last year, the company officially debuted to great acclaim last month, and intends to mount a couple of shows a year. As would be expected from a
Houston Ballet principal with good ties, Walsh hasn’t gone the cheap route: his dancers include several Ballet members, choreographers include Ben Stevenson and Natalie Weir and he’s renting the mid-level Zilkha
Hall at the Hobby center. “I’m very aware of the economy,” Walsh said recently to the Houston Chronicle. “I don’t think it’s naïve, but I do have a certain idealism about the need for artists at times like this.”
Linda Phenix is more cautious. The director of the twenty-year-old Chrysalis Dance Company, Phenix is a veteran Houston choreographer of depth and elegance, and a veteran fund-raiser to boot.
“I admire what Dominic’s doing,” she says earnestly. “But what you need to realize is that maintaining adequate funding takes constant, constant work.”
Building the dance audience is
another crucial factor in the success of companies like these. While box office takings only make up around 15% of a company’s income, performers need audiences, and all agree that it’s a challenge. Society for
Performing Arts was founded in 1967, and since then has expanded enormously in dance presentation. This year alone saw signature companies like Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, while the
fact that director Toby Mattox has the confidence to bring in radical groups like Holy Body Tattoo testifies to the strength of the Houston dance audience. “We get between one and two thousand people to shows on a
regular basis,” says Mattox. “There is still an audience there, though it’s not growing.”
Nancy Henderek would disagree. Since 1992 this one-woman powerhouse has presented Dance Salad, an
annual three-night event presenting stunning and unique contemporary dance from around the world. “Over the years, Dance Salad keeps growing,” she says. “We draw an audience of over 2,500, and it’s very mixed:
experts, novices, students, older people, an international spectrum. Houston audiences are receptive to contemporary dance.” Part of the reason for audience growth in numbers and receptivity, Henderek thinks, is the
commitment of the Houston Ballet to modern dance, educating the traditional audience.
For small companies, though, audience sizes can be disheartening. While writing this article I
attended the opening of a six-night run of Mouthpiece, by Suchu Dance. Reading local media you would think this relatively new company was the darling of the arts crowd, yet the DiverseWorks performance space held
maybe thirty people. Part of the problem is the proliferation of events: on the same night FLY Dance was performing at the Heinen Theater, the next two nights saw the Walsh debut, and competing shows the following
weekend included Sandra Organ Dance Company, Aeros at SPA, the Houston Limon Project and the first run of the Houston-Austin Choreographers Exchange. Dividing an audience will always reduce it, and if more companies
enter the scene, care needs to be taken to better space events.