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Dance Salad Festival's Opening Night Ranges From Lighthearted to Perplexing to Poignant

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For 21 years now Nancy Henderek has curated the renowned Dance Salad Festival, with 18 of those taking place here in Houston. The weekend-long festival is a celebration of domestic and international dance from established companies and emerging choreographers, and this year's collection is not to be missed.

Thursday night's premiere opened with a selection of works from the United States, Italy, the UK and Spain, with the majority of the evening coming from the Polish National Ballet out of Poland. The brilliance of this festival is that no two nights are the same, so audience members who attended the opening night have two more chances to enjoy a different lineup.

The evening opened with a piece out of Minnesota from TU Dance titled "High Heel Blues," which featured a humorous song about the love-hate relationship women have with their pumps; they hurt but we love them so. TU Dance has not created anything particularly original with this piece, but it was a light introduction to an evening of heavier subject matter and more challenging work.

The Polish National Ballet's piece "Persona" was my favorite of the entire evening, and it came in very early in the schedule. Choreographer Robert Bondara, a "rising star" in the Polish National Ballet, has turned the push and pull of role reversals in relationships, and in ourselves, into a stunning piece of contemporary dance.

A woman is torn between two men, but not so much in the traditional sense that we might think. She dominates and is the dominated; she is tenacious but then ultimately needs someone to lean on. In the end, the two men become one and a trio of bodies play off each other's most intimate needs.

HeadSpaceDance from London brought with them a jovial duet called "Light Beings." The title says it all. The piece was all surface-level happiness, a welcomed emotion. If anything stuck out as odd about this piece, it was that the back curtain and side legs were pulled away so that the entire Cullen stage was bare, lights, wires, switch boxes and all. This nakedness was surely a directorial choice, but one that did not seem to fit the tone of the piece.

Le Veronal from Barcelona performed a piece curated for the festival called "Russia/Moscow," which may have been the most perplexing. Backed by the compositions of Russian composers Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, two women physically tear each other down. Broken and scared, one of the dancers cries out in emotional and physical pain as the other dancer bends and reconstructs her. Suddenly the stage is overtaken with others who mock the frightened dancer's pain. But when they too become afraid, everything is turned on its head. The movement in this piece went from complex to simple and then back again, and all of it was incredibly effective.

If there was one piece that stood out from the rest, it was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's work for his company, Eastman, which is located in Belgium. Cherkaoui is a choreographer on the move; his recent credits include choreographing the movie Anna Karenina. While that film's dance scenes may be a bit more traditional, his piece "Petrus (our of PUZ/ZLE) is anything but.

Out of a pile of rubble comes a man (a manly-looking man, I should add) who struggles to smash a large rock against an imaginary wall. While he throws his body, a live musical trio, including stunning vocals, accentuates his movements. During a pause, the rocks wake up to reveal the perfect specimen of the human race -- a dancer whose body moves more freely than playdough.

As the dancer contorts his body in various eye-opening directions, it felt momentarily like you were watching a Cirque Du Soleil or acrobatic performance. I half expected him to get into a small box just to show us that he was able to. But then the two men dance together in an incredibly intimate incorporation. It is rare to see two men dance a duet together without a prima ballerina waiting in the wings. Cherkaoui's work is as attention-grabbing as it is soulful.

I would say that my second favorite piece of the evening was "In Transit" by the Compañía Nacional de Danza. The selection is from a larger piece and features three male dancers who toy with the emotions of their female companion. The snippet presented for Dance Salad was a slow, poignant section of the work performed to the music of electronic multimedia musician Robin Rimbaud, also known as Scanner.

I don't say this often (ever), but for a minute I thought I was going to cry, it was so beautiful. I would call it perfect save for the fact that the dancers were dressed as if they'd just stepped out of a 1990s discotheque, a fashion choice I didn't understand.

The evening closed with another selection from the Polish National Ballet, "Kurt Weill Suite." I love Kurt Weill, and the selection began with a more traditional piece danced to "Speak Low," one of his best songs. But all of this Kurt Weill love did not make me love the selection all that much. As an ending to a rich and diverse evening of dance, it was lackluster.

The collection was quite assorted, with a few "trends"; there were a number of nude costumes that purposefully highlighted the perfect dancer physiques. Additionally, there were quite a few pieces that incorporated similar choreography; several used the illusion of being broken, physically and emotionally.

This was my first Dance Salad experience and it did not disappoint. An amazing showcase of international talent has graced Houston; you have two days left to catch these dancers before they leave for another year.

Dance Salad Festival. March 29 and 30. 7:30 p.m. Wortham Center. Visit dancesalad.org for tickets.

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