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Announcing the 2013 MasterMind Winners

This year's winners danced, sang or delivered their lines in spectaculer fashion. For which we give each entity out thanks, admiration and a check for $2,000.

"I tell the company there is one more level above performing well; we have to transcend to the level of magic-making. When the magic happens onstage, it's transforming for an audience. It is necessary to do it technically very, very well in order to get to the magic. I can't make it happen alone. I have to find people, singers and musicians, who are dedicated and devoted to what we're doing. Then, together, we make magic."

Karen Stokes Dance

Choreographer Karen Stokes, leader of Karen Stokes Dance, knows that as an artist, she has unusual instruments. Along with sound, lights and costumes, Stokes uses people to express her ideas: "My tools are people, not colors on a canvas." The addition of humans to the equation sometimes complicates things. "When I'm dealing with a dancer, I have to deal with that person's bad day. Sometimes I get frustrated with that and I think, 'I don't want to hear about your bad day; we've got work to do!' At the same time, that's the beauty of it because you never know what a person is going to do or say that might completely change what we're doing."

Opera in the Heights Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo is balancing adventurous programming with measured financial management.
Photo by Jeff Myers
Opera in the Heights Artistic Director Enrique Carreón-Robledo is balancing adventurous programming with measured financial management.
The daughter of Roberta Stokes, one of the founders of modern dance in Houston, Karen Stokes is invested in cultivating the next generation of dancers, choreographers and audience members.
Photo by Jeff Myers
The daughter of Roberta Stokes, one of the founders of modern dance in Houston, Karen Stokes is invested in cultivating the next generation of dancers, choreographers and audience members.

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A working choreographer since 1988 and head of the dance division at the School of Theatre & Dance at the University of Houston since 1998, Stokes co-founded Travesty Dance Group in 1997. Travesty became Karen Stokes Dance in 2011. The modern dance company, currently made up of ten dancers, is known for presenting quirky, rhythmic work often with text and original vocals. Lately Stokes has also added cameras to the mix; she launched a dance-for-camera project in 2012. After seeing an exhibit at Peel Gallery, Stokes was so enthused that she approached the gallery management and asked if she could bring in a group of dancers and film them interacting with the exhibit. "It was spontaneous. I asked them, 'Can we just come in real quick and create some movement?' That was Gallery Construction One, and now we've filmed three more."

Filming performances is not new to Stokes, but using film as the primary medium to present a performance is. "We are so media-driven; this is the best way, in some cases, to reach people. We can get dance out in different ways to the public. And it's fun. How fun is that, to get to go into a gallery and look at someone's art and react to it? I'm seeing more and more of that in the future for us."

Stokes has also begun to use cameras while choreographing new works for the company. She videos herself as she creates movement phrases, then posts the video to YouTube. Her dancers learn the material from the video and come into rehearsal already knowing some of the basic movements in new works. Stokes found that using video freed up her creative process. "When I'm in a studio, I'm having to slow down my creative process. I'm worried about this eight-count and what's the timing. The dancers have a lot of questions, and I have to repeat myself. Here I had no stoppers, and I can create in longer phrases and get to movement I may not have gotten to in the studio because I would have been stopping."

With some five evening-length productions and more than 25 repertory works to her credit in just the last few years, Stokes admits that the start of each new project is like going back to square one. "Every time I start a new project, I tell the company, 'I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't have anything left to say.' So I start every project thinking, 'I don't know anything again. How do I make a dance?'" she laughs.

Several themes run throughout Stokes's work, including the idea of geometrical design and community. One of her first efforts at choreography came while she was a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. "I don't know that I set out to do it, but I can look back now and see that I was very interested in the broad brushstrokes of the design of the dancers onstage and how they relate to each other. I had an interest in space and design and how to put people in space. Musically, I've always been very interested in rhythm and percussion and how the dancers are working those rhythms. That has certainly informed my work.

"On top of that, I'm interested in the idea of community. I always seem to end up with a piece that feels like a community. Even if I start out doing a totally abstract piece, at the end it looks like a community. It always ends up with me saying, 'You guys belong together in a village.' It's not a conscious choice on my part, but it's where I always seem to end up."

Karen Stokes Dance has a strong educational component. Besides her work at the University of Houston, where she educates and trains "the next generations of dancers and choreographers and thinkers of dance and art," Stokes has created Framing Dance, a special field-trip program for area schools that provides contemporary dance performances for students at no cost as part of the Hobby Center Discovery series. Stokes's signature athletic and often humorous style especially resonates with kids, many of whom have never seen a live performance in one of the Theater District's professional venues.

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