I fiercely defend and advocate Dance Salad Festival each and every year. It’s a chance to get the vital cross-over international exposure to not only different dancers and choreographers, but different aesthetics and vocabularies in performance. All of these things come together for 3 nights of eclectic dance. It’s suppose to be a long evening event. It’s suppose to be heavy on the contemporary and of the now. It’s suppose to be minimal in design elements(these are “small” touring companies from far off countries after all). Our resident “seasoned” dance critic Molly Glentzer has already turned her back on this year’s “bendy” performances, hailing the only classically structured pas de deux from NBC as the only one work with “emotion.” Additionally, many of the audience members around me each night just “DIDN’T GET IT.” Oh, that dreaded phrase…
So why does it feel like very year the complaining grows louder from the ranks of “seasoned” dance viewers? Here’s my ranting theory, plus my actual look into Friday and Saturday night’s performances.
DSF holds a dear place in my heart, and many other Houstonians. We are always graced with 3-night events at the Wortham from companies across the globe such as Queensland Ballet, Semperoper Ballett, Royal Ballet of Flaunders, Stuttgart Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, everything really European essentially. (And note that ‘ballet’ is almost always included in nearly every DSF company title, though these aren’t strict and traditional classical ballet pieces.)
Nancy Henderek mandates that these events are curated to fit each other, working on a scale of larger festivals seen in NY like Vali as well as a limited-time-only museum exhibit. It’s thrilling to get to be able to say that Houston–let alone Texas–houses a unique festival for dance–let alone contemporary dance. When Houston is brought up, contemporary dance in its purest day-to-day forms seen across the globe aren’t exactly what pops into the general public’s minds; classical ballet, social, and folks dance still dominate the audience initial thoughts–contemporary dance, at best, follows.
Although it’s festival format, I have yet to see a DSF where the 3 nights don’t compliment one another (granted this is the first time I’ve been able to go to the Forum plus 2 full nights!) This intentional element is a rarity. In the music world, there are festivals that seem so disconnected and insanely packed that you often walk away hating the very band you came to see. Likewise with film. Film festivals can be VERY tricky events. Personally, I can only think of short story collections as the most comprehensive collection of creative work. I’ve never known a short story collection to not link all works together in various pleasing ways.
For DSF, you have to recognize that the length of the show is meant to connect various works to one another. Choreographers who’ve never even been in the same building with each other might get a chance to link their movement vocabulary to another work shown before or after their own work. It’s remarkable! Dance, after all, isn’t just about you–the audience member/critic.
It’s also about the wide fields of connections made between the creators, the movers, the support staff, everybody behind-the-scenes. Allowing for those dance opportunities to intermingle in the span of nearly 3 hours is just fine with me. Sitting for so long sucks–yeah, everyone knows that, there’s no need to complain about this well-known fact after each and every pause in the show. But we do a ton of sitting around watching Netflix or films or games or whatever on a weekly basis. Why is devoting nearly 3 hours to contemporary dance such an issue (with most of the elderly audience members, it’s a bit more obvious but equally obnoxious.)
Another thing is the widening of perspective which most people aren’t fully attuned to yet. They may go to DSF for 1 night every year, but they still aren’t zooming in on the contemp performances that are local and available on a near weekly basis or even the events that happen from out-of-town companies! Where’s the take away after the curtain goes down? They say they crave diversity in a performance, but really they mean that they crave more of the same that they say “that one year” at DSF. It’s a yummy salad in the form of a exhibition, people. Not a take-out menu in the form of your usual season program.
I get it–we all have our favorite DSF year (mine just so happens to be this one), but that doesn’t allow you the right to discredit any years previous or following. The choices made for selecting the works presented were made with the utmost care and attention to performance details by dance professions–not just general audience members, or finicky elite donors, who cooed over one performance and want to more of “THAT.” Trust in the length and range of performances, not just “fan favorites.” If you don’t like one or more works personally, don’t take it personally.
That said, we could do with even more inclusion of global dance vocabularies. Some of the companies presented so far have had the necessary “first-world” budget, time, and support to travel here to Houston. Plus, that all essential recognition. But it’s still not exactly as extensive as it could be. Where are the return/first-time performances from Africa, India, China, Columbia, Argentina, Peru, Vietnam? Folk dance is very obviously included in most of the works already, why not expand the choreographic search with a possible scholarship or grant for less able companies?
It’s super fucking European right now, and that’s really okay with me–for now. I’m still absorbing the aesthetics of European contemporary dance-dramas, and I have so much more to learn from just this wide region. (But given the chance, I’d choose the unfamiliar performance in dance over the familiar any day.)
So why do most people complain about DSF? Sadly, it’s all about performance length and over-abundance.
We have a long way to go in educating the general–and even dance, at times–audience members about the ever-evolving dance performances of our time. The dance of the future present is upon us. Stop looking at everything in dance with 20th-century eyes, cause the 21st-century is already a 16-year-old young adult!
forum @ MFAH
Let’s just say that I’ll never again miss the Choreographer’s Forum at MFAH for DSF ever again. This was such a pleasure and such a wonderful experience to behold before 2 nights of full emersion of their work. I’m so sad that I’ve missed the great Forum events of the past, but I’m so grateful for this year’s participants. Here are a few of my favorite quotes and moments:
Marguerite Donlon (Made in Love: Minutemade) from Ballet Staatstheater Gärtnerplatz
Before I learnt to dance, I started to choreograph.
If you’re a contemporary choreographer you should not be confining yourself [on story ballets]. I’m Irish, so storytelling is part of who I am. That’s why I did Schwanensee.
Projects in dance have to have a life and we have to keep them going.
Ihsan Rustem (Yidam) from NW Dance Project
There’s always more to go [in contemporary dance]. We have to challenge ourselves in dance and search for the new things, not just limits.
I came from a family of immigrants who had no arts education. I found art. I taught my family about the arts. We need to educate our elders so that they can pass art on to the next generations. We’ll all become more worldly because of it.
Sarah Slipper, NW Dance Project Founder and Artistic Director
You create such excitement about a new work. And to see it developed whether you loved it not is important. We want to creating an atmosphere, some interest, some buzz around that new work because we have to move forward in choreography. It’s either new buzz or no buzz.
Mentoring choreographers is so vital! It’s important for artistic growth to help develop work down the road for them, and for your company. [NW Dance Project] allows the choreographer’s immediate voice to be heard and experienced. International languages [in choreography] give that extra push to express incredible things in dance.”
In the spirit of innovation, DSF helps feed into a larger conversation in art, like a museum exhibit–as the fabulously wise Maggie Foyer and Margaret Mims noted at the Forum. I’m pleased that these choreographers GET IT. They want in on that conversation, not just profit or exposure (though that means a lot for underpaid choreographers in America especially).
And the dancers were all so humbled and excited by this festival (I had the chance to greet many of them at work during their morning class!) I wish I could watch more and more DSF pieces every weekend. And I wish I could talk about each work! But here are my standouts from Friday and Saturday:
25 march – 26 march
NW Dance Project and Rustem’s Yidam was my favorite piece of DSF 2016. (that Michael Gordon score gets me EVERY TIME!)
The supple, staggering sections during this work were all so cohesive and danced expertly by a cast of high-caliber dancers. They worked through a range of emotions while pulsating and swinging across the entire stage! The ENTIRE fucking STAGE! I love when dancers are used so strategically as to enter and exit and stand and lay on various corners of that very limited square shape. We can become very lazy during the creative process–Rustem did not even touch a moment of laziness here. As the floor peeled away, ripped from the ground, the direct attention wasn’t focused on that one element–it was everything. Rustem mentioned at the forum that his practice into meditation wasn’t all that he expected. The stilled mind that we associate with mediation wasn’t exactly achieved. And his previous interest in Shaolin monks also helped connect his choreography to a higher Eastern philosophical plain, viewed with European dance aesthetics. All the dancers executed a perfect blend of flowing energy with athletic phrases. It was the opening work for all nights, and I definitely felt that impactful emotional release at the end of each performance during both nights.
The best performance piece for DSF 2016 went to Marguerite Donlon’s Made in Love: Minutemade by Ballet Staatstheater Gärtnerplatz.
I only wrote a few words down to describe this work: it’s as if Bjork had been born an Irish step-dancer with ballet dreams and a theater degree. It’s a definite curated work, with various sections and elements all playing together with a witty European pride. It’s a bit silly, but why can’t contemporary dance be silly? I enjoyed everything thrown on stage. Even the talking, which I generally cringe over when done poorly. But this work was the most authentic vision of melted dance vocabularies and attitudes. I saw Donlon the beautiful Irish storyteller and Donlon the fierce German dramatic. It was a contemporary dance céilí romp! A wild journey through personalities. That’s what we need more of. Contemporary dance doesn’t have to be a wash of the same puff-ribs or whack-it kicks. It can also include opera costumes and screeching and wobbling.
The enigmatic creator returns again. Cherkaoui presented two works this year: Faun and Fall both with Royal Ballet of Flanders, his newly appointed company.
Fall was the least of my favorite works I’ve seen of his. Which isn’t saying anything bad really, cause his work is already ahead of the game in terms of aesthetics. It was meditative but also somber and lofty. The addition of en pointe leggy ladies was throwing off my sense for his usual work, but I’m open to seeing where he takes contemporary ballet, as he’s already taken contemporary dance by storm. Rightly so, Faun was exceptional! The limber and romantic presence of both dancers swept me away with the woodland backdrop and twinkling lighting. In historical context, this fit in so right with Nijinsky’s Ballets Russes performance in 1912. It harks on that animalistic sexuality full-force with contractions that rearranged the nature of the male body and partnering that mimicked fully exposed Eastern art. There was nothing subtle about the sexual situations of this movement. It 100% wasn’t the familiar pas de deux format, which threw off so many of the elder audience members (LOL). I’m looking forward to my next live Cherkaoui work.
I called this piece “the older person killer.” Oh, the amount of old people who immediately hated this piece… Ballet Staatstheater Gärtnerplatz returned on stage for Act II with Jacopo Godani’s Versus Standard.
This one fucking killed it (the old people were so negatively besides themselves from just the music LOL). The start of the piece was a bit underwhelming compared to the rest, but I think it made ample space to set-up what was about to happen. The fore-play is equally as important as the climax (dance is like sex, duh). The main reason why this piece stood out to me wasn’t exact the “weird” factor of it. It was the gender-fluidity between movements. The dancers weren’t glaringly masculine or feminine. They didn’t have to pick one or the other. They were everything. (Which, btw, is the truest anthem for our current LGBTQ generation!) They were human beings conversing with one another about the most ancient of activities: competition. But not damaging or cliché competition. Pulsating swivels and very hippy, almost tweaky, walks moved one dancer into the realm of another. And everybody was allowed their own individual motivations and impulses and sphere. Unlike classical ballet, contemporary dance allows for this whole heartedly. Yes, sometimes unison is important in works like this, but in general, unison is equal to that of conformity–the killer of authentic artistic expression in contemporary dance. I singled this work out as the most “catchy” piece, as I couldn’t take my mind off of those totally gender-fluid undulations and isolations!