A line of dancers perched on a long bench laughs soundlessly, and then whispers a line of prose that builds until it's a collective shout. Like vertebrae on a liquid spine, they shimmy and sway in their seated position, as if moved by an unseen force. The moment is as much about dramatic tension as it is about dance.
The scene is from choreographer David Rousseve's Dry Each Other's Tears in the Stillness of the Night, a work that tells the story of a black man married to a white woman in Denver during the 1930s. As the piece unfolds, the company moves in time with the tale's undercurrent -- in this case, the pain of racism and the dignity of a family. The dance is pulled together through a voice-over by Rousseve; as the audience hears him recite each bit of narrative, the movement unfolds another, almost secretive, layer of the work. The experience of a Rousseve performance is a gradual one, topped by the delight -- or the horror -- of having all the different elements come together forcefully at the end.
The power of Rousseve's works has made the 38-year-old native Houstonian one of the more sought-after artists on the contemporary dance scene. His seven-member company, Reality, has been invited to create work for the Brooklyn Academy of Music's dance series, he has a blossoming number of dance commissions and invitations to perform and as of last year, the choreographer was snatched up by UCLA's dance and drama department. And this weekend, Rousseve caps a three-week dance residency in his hometown with a Society for the Performing Arts-sponsored performance of six pieces, including part of Dry Each Other's Tears in the Stillness of the Night.
Rousseve doesn't care for literal movement; he prefers dance that underlines the evocative quality of his stories. In his creative process, story and movement are created separately, the stories often springing from his biography and the movement crafted through collaboration with his company. The result is haunting, and often beautiful.
Watching Rousseve teach a master class at the University of Houston yields some clues about the nature of his choreography. His company dancers, even in the simplest warm-up routine, have a regal bearing that includes an unusual looseness: the ability to fold over into a ball and then spring into a jump. He starts class with his students on the floor; a partner grabs the soles of their feet and shakes them, causing a body ripple. If there's a single way to describe how a Rousseve dancer moves, it is found in an elastic connection between the tailbone and the heel -- a connection he underlines in class.
Unlike other contemporary choreographers who make dance out of everyday movement -- walking, bumping into things, even waiting -- Rousseve takes the shape of Martha Graham's sweeping movement and fine-tunes them for the body. "Each action," he tells 11 somewhat nervous students, "has a reaction." Finding that reaction means letting go of any residual ballet training that demands keeping the lower body rigid. This isn't an easy task. After watching a phrase that looks a bit stiff, Rousseve explains his aim. "We want to move away from parroting," he says. "Some of the beautiful dancers in the world are parrots -- they have no idea how their bodies work."
The connection between understanding physiology and making dance has always seemed clear to Rousseve. After graduating from Princeton University, he moved to New York and started taking dance classes all over the city. "All the downtown people didn't understand why I was taking ballet and the ballet people didn't understand why I was doing all that weird stuff downtown," he says of Manhattan's segregated dance scene. "I never got the intense separation between dance forms." What he ended up with instead is a form of dance-theater that matches his easy, flowing movement with stories told in the tradition of novelist Toni Morrison.
Given Houston's lack of resident professional dance other than the Houston Ballet, getting out of town was probably the best career move Rousseve ever made. Not that he didn't get some useful training here: As a child, he studied acting at the Alley's school and sang in Johnston Junior High's production of Bye Bye Birdie. His interest in dance was piqued when the Modern Dance Club at Johnston liked what they saw in Rousseve's minor role as a bartender, and invited him to join. The kind of dance they were doing, Rousseve says, laughing at the memory, "was like tacky jazz -- it was Solid Gold. And then I went to Bellaire High School and it was more of the same." Outside of the offerings in school, Rousseve took a couple of jazz classes with Patsy Swayze and a few ballet classes at the Houston Ballet Academy. He was proficient enough as a teenager to get a job dancing at AstroWorld as the park's oversized ambassador of happiness, Marvel McFay -- an experience that he says left him relatively unscarred.
For a long time, Rousseve says, he thought he wanted to be a Martha Graham dancer, because the structure and the dramatics of the form appealed to him. "It was dated by the time I got to it," he says, "but it was so different than anything I'd ever seen before." It was while at Princeton that Rousseve realized that his fellow students had an amazing sense of pride in their family history. Toting a video camera home on break, Rousseve taped his Creole grandmother's stories to create his own historical record. The impromptu project was the seed for the young choreographer's distinctive style. Many years later, his grandmother's stories resulted in a dance series titled Pull Your Head to the Moon ... Tales of Creole Women. One dance in the series tells of his grandmother's flight from a sharecropper's shack, through a gator-infested bayou, after killing a man who had raped her cousin.
Just how the fusion of theater and movement works in a Rousseve piece depends on the subject matter. In a recent work, Colored Children Flyin' By, Rousseve uses stylized prose to discuss a pet rat who was, in the black vernacular, " 'flicted." The character's love for this deformed rat gives way to a line that repeats throughout one section of the piece: "Everbody's got something in life they loves better than theyself."
In the hands of a less able storyteller, such a phrase might strike an audience as goo. In the case of Colored Children Flyin' By, however, Rousseve is simultaneously making fun of the sentimentality and relishing it. Here, the role of the actual dancing is to capture the subtext of a work. "We don't want to act out the story, because you get that big trite factor," says Rousseve, "and everything is belittled -- it becomes mime." Partnering becomes a matter of subtle timing and shifting balance, and the ensemble work often reflects a piece's emotional center. Much like his Creole grandmother's stories, Rousseve's dances are mysterious and delightful, a rare result in the often unwieldy concoction known as dance-theater.
David Rousseve/Reality performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 5, at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-2787.
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