On Friday, Oct. 9, Artistic Director Annie Arnoult will turn Frenetic Theater into a fully immersive dance experience for the world premiere of Whirl!, which highlights the marathon dance craze in the 1920s and 1930s. For Arnoult, an adjunct faculty member of the University of Houston's School of Theatre and Dance, Whirl! is an introduction of sorts. The show marks the inaugural season of her company, Open Dance Project, and brings her signature brand of environmental dance theater to Houston.
What, exactly, is environmental dance theater? "You walk into the theater and you're inside the experience, immediately," Arnoult explains. "For example, when the audience walks into Frenetic, they're not going to have a box-office, but a company member in character to greet them. For the first 15-30 minutes, depending on what time they get there, they'll be walking through the performance much like a haunted house. But it's not scary at all, and no one is forced to participate."
Whirl! is more than a dance concert; it's also an exploration of U.S. history and popular culture of the Roaring ‘20s. Arnoult mines the sociology behind the marathon dance craze of the time period, when couples would vie for top prizes at all-night jazz dance marathons. "It got its flame right here in Houston, at a place called McMillian's Dance Academy," she explains. "[The owner] got wind of these dance marathon records that were being set in England at the time and figured out a way to make some money and get some attention for dance. He was the first guy to see it as a spectacle by selling tickets and cultivating drama within the marathon."
Arnoult's movement base is derived from her first love of ballet and heavy rhythm work from her experience dancing with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project in Chicago. And her work with XSIGHT! Performance Group enabled her to access the viability of using text and speech in dance works.
As the performance progresses chronologically, the fun and fancy free spirit of the ‘20s takes on a more somber tone as it shifts into the Depression era, when many contestants would stay on the marathon to ensure that they had three meals a day and a cot to sleep on. "As a dancer, I'm interested in these people who really relied on their bodies and dancing to keep them alive. There's something really tragic about that, but also something really brilliant."
Arnoult finds parallels to what was happening on the dance floor with the 1930s serial radio show, The Shadow, which followed a body-less crime-fighter who became America's first superhero by being able to cloud men’s minds with his brainpower. An episode of the serial is used in Whirl! “There's a lot of really fun material and fun voices and fun perspectives in the show," she says. "It's also really about bodies and about basic humanity, and what we can do when we have to do, whether it's dance for 500 hours straight or create a hero made out of nothing, to be resilient."
Whirl! Oct. 9 & 10 at 8; Oct. 11 at 2. $15-35. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation Blvd. 832-426-4624. opendanceproject.org