When the time comes for arts organizations to shake down the coffers, the risky stuff almost always goes first. Such was the case in 1994, when the Houston Ballet, facing a less-than-healthy financial future, canceled the Cullen Contemporary Series, their fledgling biannual concerts of contemporary ballet. During the two years it had been held, the series had offered Houston audiences the opportunity to see ambitious new work by resident choreographer Christopher Bruce, as well as works by Paul Taylor and James Kudelka. Now, with revenues looking better, the Ballet has revived the Cullen series, though in a truncated form; there will be only one concert this season, and it will feature dances more stripped down than Bruce's Cruel Garden or Taylor's Company B, a pair of works now in the Ballet's repertoire that received their first Houston performance courtesy of the Cullen. Looking for works to premiere this time around, the Ballet has responded in part to the talent under its own roof, choosing to showcase choreographic associate Trey McIntyre's Second Before the Ground and principal dancer Sean Kelly's Sinuosity, along with Ingredients, a work by American Ballet Theatre dancer John Seyla.
For Seyla and Kelly, who discussed their works on a recent morning at an outdoor cafe, choreographing is an opportunity to see an artistic vision come together and a chance to express their own sensibilities in a beloved art form. "Ballet is the best form," Seyla says, "and it's so ethereal that it can transport an audience." Because audiences overwhelmingly prefer the classics, the two under-30 choreographers attempted to appeal to a younger audience by using nontraditional music in their compositions and by making dances that have everyday themes or no theme at all.
Seyla, who has worked with modern giants such as Twyla Tharp, is considered more a contemporary than classical dancer at ABT, though he does dance the classical repertory. He's set his work on dancers at ABT and Oregon Ballet, and likes narrative ballets, though he declined to outline the story of Ingredients, saying he preferred to let the audience discover that for themselves. Kelly, meanwhile, describes his choreographic work as being in its infancy, though he's created two dances for Kentucky's Lexington Ballet and two dances for Diablo Ballet, a small California company. This, however, is the first time one of Kelly's pieces will be seen by Houston audiences. McIntyre, of course, has premiered several pieces in Houston, as well as Mantis at Pacific Northwest Ballet and Steel and Rain at New York City Ballet.
The three pieces in the Cullen Series take ballet as their idiom, distorting the form as it suits the individual choreographer's purpose. McIntyre's work, said to be celebratory in tone in reaction against the often glum and existential nature of concert dance, is set to the Kronos Quartet's "Pieces of Africa," while Kelly, who has impressed audiences with his clean dance technique and cheery stage presence, has set his Sinuosity, a piece based on waxy, languid movement, to Enya's Irish folk-cum-New Age-music. Seyla's Ingredients is a ballet about family, set to a selection of Paul Simon songs.
This year's Cullen Contemporary Series may lack some of the courage of the first two seasons, but at least it offers a chance to see new work. That's something not to be slighted at a time when ballet companies across the country are struggling to present contemporary pieces for audiences who seem to want only Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, without so much as an Anthony Tudor in between.
Struggling for audiences is what the Houston Dance Coalition, founded seven years ago by local lighting designer Jeffrey Salzberg, is all about. Created to fill the void of local contemporary dance concerts, HDC has for the last six years offered a sampler of local works under the umbrella title of Dance Houston; this year, the performance has pulled together eight pieces from area choreographers.
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The works in Dance Houston -- selected by an adjudication of 31 dances -- vary in style and form, from Lisa Alfieri's neoclassical ballet Corelli's Cutie to Cindy Gratz's Prelude -- A Gathering of Misfits, a dark, circuslike work. The other six pieces include Megan Lyle's Bring Down the Moon, Sue Schroeder's The Body Remembers, Lori Amare's Flesh of My Flesh, Kathy Wood's Snicker Snak, Becky Vall's Daisy and Lily and Jennifer Bairamgalin's Doppler Shift.
During the adjudication session, the last of that bunch, Doppler Shift, proved a bright and lively work, with a group of dancers moving in unison as if drawn by an unseen force and then turning on one another with a surprising viciousness. Like many new works I've seen in university dance departments, Doppler Shift plays with a rather pat idea (science is bad! it makes us mean!) and siphons it down to a core of parallel movement, suggested by the group and rippled out to the individual dancers.
Salzberg admits that the level of contemporary choreography in Houston isn't particularly high, due in part to the lack of an established contemporary dance company, and thus the lack of sustained studio work -- which is as necessary in contemporary dance as it is in classical ballet. Part of HDC's aim is to let audiences hungry for something besides the Ballet see what's going on in dance in their own back yard, and in that aim, Dance Houston promises to succeed.
The Cullen Contemporary Series will be performed through October 20 at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-ARTS; Dance Houston will be performed October 19 at the University of Houston's Cullen Performance Hall (entrance no. 1 off Calhoun), 227-