Review: A Well-Mixed Dance Salad

The 22nd annual festival brings some of the world's greatest dancers and choreographers to the Wortham Center.

By Theodore Bale April 18, 2014

Paris Opera Ballet in Sylvia by John Neumeier

Dance Salad Festival
April 18 & 19 at 7:30
Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave

Despite all the jokes about its name, the Dance Salad Festival, now in its 22nd year, remains the most vital annual dance event in Houston. Three nights of cutting-edge and classic choreography, performed by accomplished artists from around the globe, might simply be called the Houston International Dance Festival. But that sounds just a little bit dry, doesn’t it?  Dance Salad has always shown a remarkable quirkiness that stems, surely, from the tastes and vision of founder and director Nancy Henderek. That quirkiness gives the festival its disposition and spirit, and those are things that should never disappear.

I’ve been attending the festival for five years. Each year, there are some surprising works, choreographers, or dancers. I always see something I’ve never seen before, and there is almost always something that drives me crazy, either with irritation or delight. I am pleased to say that this year, at least on opening night, there were no duds. (Each night of the festival features a slightly different line-up; the organizers recommend coming to two of the three nights to catch all the pieces.) The program was particularly well balanced, with three duets, one trio, one quartet, and four large ensemble works. Two Beijing companies dominated the program with their impressive, sublime spectacles, although there were also strikingly intimate dances. .

Loops and Lines by Stephan Thoss, performed by Wiesbaden Staatstheater

Image: Lena Obst

Three men from Spanish dance company Elephant in the Black Box started the evening with an odd little trio, an excerpt from Nacho Duato’s Remanso, set to Enrique Granados’s Poetic Waltzes for piano. The Spanish title is hard to translate into English—it could either mean a pool of water or an oasis. The program notes, strangely, said only that, “Choreographer Nacho Duato used the rose as a symbol of passion, love, and sensuality.” Something is lost in translation there, since this trio feels more like a strictly formal exercise.  As the three men emerged from, and later disappeared behind, a large white canvas panel center stage, the choreography moved through unison phrases, oppositions, precise mirroring, inventive symmetries, and fresh asymmetries.  It is playful rather than sensual, and the flowing music suggests naïve cuteness rather than heavy passion. The rose gets passed from hand to mouth to the bend of a knee; each jubilant dancer has a turn with it. It was a delightful way to introduce an evening of mostly contemporary ballet.

Duets, the mainstay of every Dance Salad Festival, figured prominently on the opening night program and covered a wide range of styles and themes. The first was 19th century choreographer August Bournonville’s pas de deux from Kermessen i Brugge. Performed by two young, perfectly poised dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet, Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas, the dance is a stunning example of the Danish master’s petite allégro—quick, small jumps—and consists of a series of plain, traveling variations, the kind of dancing you might see decorating a piece of Wedgwood pottery on somebody’s fireplace mantle. For me, it shouted the arrival of spring.

Beijing Dance LDTX in Treading on Grass by Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo

The two remaining duets were weightier, perhaps even over-intellectualized, but nonetheless fascinating.  Laetitia Pujol and Manuel Legris, both “Etóiles” of the Paris Opera Ballet, performed both. The first was American choreographer John Neumeier’s duet from Sylvia, with its easily recognizable score by Delibes. The set design featured a crescent moon and a single suitcase. The costumes were intentionally banal—man and woman in non-descript modern suits. With its archetypal flavor and pedestrian movement, which included many episodes of vague swooning and straightforward walking around, the dance gained haunting effect as it proceeded. The second duet from these accomplished performers was Angelin Preljocaj’s ice-cold La Parc, set to the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Pujol stood motionless while Legris wound around her; she was often crooked, bent and desperate. He lifted her as if she were an ironing board. They shared a static kiss, she clung to him, and they spun around for so long that it became uncomfortable to watch. It’s a maddening dance, but one not easily forgotten.

Henderek has brought China’s Beijing Dance/LDTX (Lei Dong Tian Xia—literally, Thunder Rumbles Under Heaven) to Dance Salad before, and it is absolutely thrilling to have them return this year with new works. Choreographers Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo offered a unique version of their Firebird, titled Treading on Grass, set to a piano transcription of Stravinsky’s score (uncredited in the program). It is difficult not to look at this work as a kind of companion piece to Shen Wei’s Rite of Spring, seen just last year in Houston, and set to the four-hand piano arrangement of Stravinsky’s masterpiece. The strategies of both dances are so similar: layering of events, sudden bold unison passages, and a constant examination of the individual against the ensemble. Treading on Grass also appears influenced by Japan’s mid-twentieth-century Butoh dance style. The costumes, in shades of gray and white, were nearly a study in wearing rags. This was easily the most complicated work of the evening, and second largest in terms of scale. The company also offered Ma Bo and Li Hanzhong’s Sorrowful Song, an homage to Henryk Gorecki, set to his powerful Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The dance feels political, somehow, like Martha Graham’s classic Steps in the Street. All the dancers wore black skirts, and exuded a perplexing authenticity, as if they were offering their suffering up in order to redeem others. Not martyrs, exactly, but something equally noble.

The largest dance, and the undisputed crowd-pleaser of the evening, was Liu Lu’s Gateway for Beijing’s Contemporary Dragon Kung Fu Dance Company of China. This is the ensemble founded eight years ago by martial artist and movie star Jackie Chan. All eleven dancers were young men, and while composer Zou Hang’s driving score was hilarious in a kind of cinematic way, the dance was irresistibly fun. Each dancer wore a 20-foot-long white sleeve on each arm. They tumbled, they flipped, and they were dazzling in every instance. The dance was technically stunning and refreshingly free of any kind of symbolism.

Next to such exuberant dances, Stephan Thoss’s Loops and Lines, created for four dancers from Germany’s Staatstheater Wiesbaden Ballet seemed overwrought. The set design included approximately twenty white lab coats on hangers looming in the proscenium. The dancers, dripping in sweat by the end of a lengthy excerpt from John Adams’s gorgeous Shaker Loops, certainly gave it their total commitment. This is the sort of dance that wanders from pose to pose. A woman trembles while the others are frozen prone on the floor; there’s a lot of dipping and turning, but without any sense of purpose.

The program finished with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Embrace, for a large ensemble of tango dancers from Sadler’s Wells, London. Having studied tango a bit myself, I find the form a bit of a problem in the theater. The focus in tango is between the two dancers, not out towards any audience. For this reason, tango always seems closed off on a traditional stage. The beauty of Cherkaoui’s dance comes from the performers themselves, rather than his arrangement of them, which at times descends into an unfocused mess. The music by Fernando Marzan and Syymon Brzóska, performed live, is glorious. And there are two moments in the piece—a trio for three men early on and then an intimate man-and-woman duet towards the end—that are so beautifully articulated that it’s easy to forgive the weaker sections.

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