2014 was a major year for dance as far as visiting companies go. Houston audiences got to experience the excellence of the Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and Dance Theatre of Harlem, not to mention the world-class offerings of our very own Houston Ballet. However, I found the most memorable dance works this year were of a more intimate variety. My favorites came from an independent choreographer, a visiting contemporary dance company from across the border, a spunky postmodern troupe, a choreographer who scaled back operations in 2014, and, of course, a familiar ballet featuring a swan or two. In a season that saw the world come to Houston, local choreographers and presenting organizations held their own. 

5. Swan Lake, Houston Ballet

Connor Walsh and Sara Webb in Swan Lake. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Swan Lake is about as traditional as you can get in the ballet repertoire, but Stanton Welch’s version of Tchaikovsky’s seminal Russian fairy tale is anything but tired. Welch took his aesthetic inspiration from John William Waterhouse’s painting "The Lady of Shallot," which gave the production a painterly, pre-Raphaelite quality that was much more pleasing than the imposing, imperial nature of earlier Eastern European–inspired designs. Sara Webb gave a stunning performance as Odette/Odile, and Connor Walsh turned in another fine interpretation of a fairy tale prince (though his true triumph of 2014 was his mischievous realization of Puck in John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Welch is marvelous at pushing a story along through dance, and there was an abundance of fine ensemble work to enjoy when the principals weren’t on stage. Swan Lake may have been three hours long, but it was a gleeful escape into fantasy from the first minute to the last.

4. say please and thank you, Hope Stone Dance Company

2014 was the final year of Hope Stone Dance Company as a full-scale performing arts organization, but this past fall Jane Weiner’s much-loved troupe regrouped on a project-by-project basis. The closing of the company’s Montrose studio was a sad moment for the Houston dance community, but the company’s penultimate concert, say please and thank you, was anything but a somber occasion. Inspired by the pantheon of cherished children’s book authors, Weiner choreographed a celebration of childhood and art in conjunction with an original story by Houston spoken-word poet Outspoken Bean.

The Hope Stone dancers began by evoking a dull, monochromatic world void of art and independent thinking, a uniform society of bland personalities. But then the central character discovers the transformative power of art, and the stage fills with color and gorgeous, big-hearted movement. A highlight was Weiner’s rousing finale, choreographed to Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over,” a rush of a dance filled with joy and bountiful love for a life filled with art. 

say please and thank you also gave Houston audiences the opportunity to see Weiner’s squared dancer, quite possibility the most beautiful 25 minutes of movement to have come out of the Houston dance community in recent years. In a world filled with bigotry and prejudice, squared dancer imagined a time when a communal hoedown can jubilantly begin with a boy kissing a boy. 

3. Steel Puffs Have Left the Building, Suchu Dance

Steel Puffs Have Left the Building

If there were an award for hardest-working dance company, Suchu would win hands-down. With no fewer than four full-length shows in 2014, founder and artistic director Jennifer Wood churned out fun, hijinks-filled dances in her new Garden Oaks space on Ella Boulevard. By far the most memorable and thematically resonant of the four was Steel Puffs Have Left the Building, in which Wood and longtime Suchu dancers Shanon Adams, Sarah Leung, Tina Shariffskul, and Prudence Sun explored the complexities and contradictions of contemporary femininity.

Dressed as steel puffs, the dancers preened, pranced, and prattled before the audience in long, sherbet-hued prom dresses—caricatures of a charming, benign, genteel (and ultimately false) womanhood. Once the fluffy adornments came off, they could actually move, zipping through space in lithe, agile movements, the feminine fully unleashed. But by the time they appear in bold red dresses to make their flashy exit by jumping through the space’s back door (literally), it was clear that these pretty-faced steel puffs were anything but trivial. 

2. Dans La Lune, Ashley Horn

No other Houston choreographer evokes a sense of whimsy and childlike wonder quite like Ashley Horn. Her dances don't replicate an exact place or time so much as conjure a sense of mood and way of seeing. Her latest full-length work, inspired by the early visual effects work of pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, is a love letter to a simpler time when a humble trompe l’oeil could inspire the imagination. In Dans La Lune, Horn created a charming alternate universe populated by runway-ready fashions and large, circular movement that’s filled with comedic asides and dramatic digressions. Her sextet of dancers channeled Old Hollywood glamour before progressing into ethereal, otherworldly forms. Horn’s make-believe world was not only convincingly real, but completely satisfying.

1. Mors Celare, 8 Proyecto GATO

Mors Celare

The year’s most fascinating dance show was unfortunately the one that almost nobody saw. In April, Talento Bilingue de Houston presented Mexican contemporary dance company 8 Proyecto GATO and their chillingly sumptuous meditation on death, Mors Celare. In Mexico, death is not so much a final state of being as a constant reality that marks everyday life. The afterlife is always present, a parallel universe of sorts in which spirits are not to be feared, but acknowledged as neighbors.

It would be easy to say that the dancers of 8 Proyecto GATO combined traditional folks steps with contemporary technique, but the reverse is more accurate. The choreography used contemporary technique to bring to life the traditional tropes of a culture more in tune with the spirit world than our own. A skirt dance was a major highlight, with the billowing, layered fabric of six skirts filling the mid-sized Talento Bilingue stage, as was a haunting sequence danced to the folk song “La Llorona.” And the most powerful image was the first, in which a line of skulls seemed to sprout legs and come to life, the dead entering the world of the living and dancing for their eternal souls. Death never looked so beautiful. 

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