It’s a Wednesday night, just after 10 o’clock, and I and four other dancers are listening to notes from Jennifer Wood. The next evening we will be premiering Suchu Dance’s OCEAN, a project that’s been in development for a year. There’s still a lot to do, and Jennifer looks and sounds distressed, and we know exactly why.
As the artistic director of one of Houston’s longest-running dance companies, she not only is the choreographer, but creates her own costumes and builds her own music. And she’s also worried about ticket sales. Getting people to come to modern dance isn’t an easy thing these days, but there’s also the inconvenient truth that September 21 is less than five weeks removed from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Are people ready to pay $25 to see a rainbow-colored fantasia about the depths of the sea?
Wood has been producing work since the early 1990s. Her Suchu Dance was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1998, she has founded three art spaces (including Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex) and she’s one of only three Houston dance entities to have been invited to present work at the esteemed Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out program. But the struggle for audience numbers is still very real.
“I try and divorce myself from worry about what’s appealing to people, but I’m always thinking about it,” she says. “When I’m in the process of creating things and putting on a show, I think about it less, but there’s definitely a tug-of-war between wanting to do something interesting and doing something that people want to see. I have to think about ticket sales, unfortunately.”
Dance, as Wood and many others in Houston’s arts community know, doesn’t come cheap.
While Wood contemplates the challenges of building a new audience for the rest of her season, two former Suchu Dance company members are busy rising to the occasion, albeit in quite different ways. Ashley Horn, an independent choreographer and costume designer, has been making work for ten years, and has been creating evening-length enchantments of dance wonder and whimsy since 2013. Stepping into a Horn universe is like wandering through a fairy tale; in Wishing Well, she took her audience on a frolic through Smither Park and the Orange Show that evoked the folk-arts movement that spawned Jeff McKissack’s iconic monument.
The homemade and handsome qualities of her production elements, along with the joyfulness of her movement, were the reasons I tipped her to create a work for my own company, the Pilot Dance Project. In March she opened Vesper, which I also had the pleasure of dancing in, at the former Pilot on Navigation. Everyone involved knew the work would be a sumptuous visual confection, but no one quite expected what Ashley was up to going into tech week.
In addition to the hour of rehearsed choreography, she created an onstage maze using black fabric hanging from the rafters for a 15-minute interactive prelude. The audience entered the stage-area maze, and could wander the rooms and observe dancers performing improvised rituals based on the relics in each space. Then the fabric lifted and the more traditional part of the show began. Not the typical start to a dance concert, and one that proved to be a smart choice for an audience looking for a breath of fresh air.
For Horn, the maze was an extension of the show’s thematic content. “I have a long, winding history with religion,” she says. “I grew up in a certain religion, and I went to a strict Christian college, so [the maze] had a religious aspect for me.” As with most Protestant-based faiths, Horn’s religious upbringing included a strong aversion to idols and pageantry, but a brief acquaintance with the Greek Orthodox Church opened her eyes to the beauty of rituals. “As soon as you walk into the church, the worship begins. Vesper was a religious service. The maze was that beginning worship. You see the icons, you kiss them, you see the holy water and you prepare yourself.”
But there is also an element of finding new dance audiences and expanding on the following that she already has, which is no small endeavor. “People are inundated with stimulus now,” says Horn. “To get people to go to the theater and watch dance is challenging. There are so many options for entertainment, so it’s easy to stay home because it’s just convenient.” So does this mean creating work that can rival the endless possibilities of Netflix? Not quite. “I don’t want to feed into the over-stimulus frenzy, but at the same time I want to make work that’s appealing to the audience while also staying true to myself as a choreographer.”
Horn is preparing to explore the interactive element of Vesper in a much bigger way. She’s in the pre-production stages of an immersive evening-length work set to premiere in late February 2018 at a new arts space in town. She’s teaming up with music artist Slow Meadow and photographer Pin Lim to give Houston its own answer to New York City’s Sleep No More, the famous theatrical production by British troupe Punchdrunk that offers its audience an individualized experience that travels through five stories and three hours of Macbeth-style psychological drama.
Horn’s work will include a large-scale set built out of books and book pages and basic animation toys. She’s also planning on using Pin Lim’s photography to create interactive elements that include mystery-solving and narrative-building. The piece is inspired by the neuroscience of memories, and is in many ways, the culmination of all of her previous work. “I’ve been doing all of my research, and I feel like everything I’ve been doing the last few years has been preparation for this,” she says.
Another Suchu alum who is fighting to put modern dance in front of the uninitiated is Lydia Hance, executive and artistic director of Frame Dance Productions. From the company’s inception, Hance’s work has been noted for its fusion of dance and technology, her penchant for collaboration across the disciplines, and the fact that she stages her performances in the unlikeliest of locations. This year marked the second iteration of her METROdances, her public performance work made specifically for dancers and live musicians to travel down the city’s METRORail lines. Transit riders experience the work whether they want to or not.
“I think attending arts performances and understanding how art can impact us is not often instilled or taught at a young age,” says Hance. “A lot of people don’t know that they’re missing it, and so it’s not a priority for them. That’s why I want to put dance in front of them.” She’s done so in the most intriguing of ways. Just take her Tunnel Visions, a series of performances in the fall of 2015 that took her dancers into the downtown tunnel system to be witnessed by hundreds of pedestrians during lunch hour.
The idea for METROdances came about during a time when she was thinking about how dance could travel, not in the sense of moving through space but how dance could possibly move a stage. Hance, a native of San Francisco, recalls that city’s annual Trolley Dances, which sees the public transported from performance area to performance area via the iconic trolley cars. Hance’s project is a different concept, and sees the performers traveling the route along with the audience and actually performing on the vehicles. The first METROdances was a relatively small affair that included three dancers, four percussionists, and one audience group. The latest installation was exponentially larger, with ten professional dancers, a percussion quartet, a brass quintet, a brass trio, two of Hance’s student/community ensembles, and a longer route.
As might be expected, sometimes unwitting audience members are caught off guard. Just imagine you’re on the rail to make a downtown appointment or get back into your office before your break ends, and then a dancer you thought was a fellow commuter in stylized dress begins to move in front of you up close and personal. “I always say that what I do is more of a social experiment rather than a performance,” says Hance. “I had a couple of guys with instruments actually start playing and jamming during a rehearsal. Rehearsing invited that type of engagement a bit more because it didn’t look like a performance.” She also cites instances of people purposefully missing their stops to continue watching, and one man skipping his lunch break to see the full performance. For Hance, it’s all about making dance a priority for Houstonians.
“We go to those things that are going to be fun or fulfilling,” she says. “We all have very limited time. Dance has to be one of those things that we seek.” Hance is making METROdances a part of her company’s regular programming so that she can explore different parts of the rail every couple of years and introduce even more Houstonians to her work.
Like Horn, Hance is in the early stages of an evening-length, immersive work to premiere in May 2018. Blueshift will take place in a high-school gymnasium and will use the text from love letters gathered from the Houston community.
To be clear, reaching the masses is not about making modern dance a commercial venture. It’s about accessibility and putting it into the audience’s path. Also like Horn, Hance wants to increase the visibility of the form, but not at the expense of the artistry. “I’m working to give Houston dance in my authentic voice,” she explains. “I’m not making dance more exciting, but giving it to people in smaller doses or areas where they already go. That’s how I’m trying to counteract the challenge of audience-building — they have the option to stay for a whole hour or just walk away.”
While independent choreographers and small dance organizations are taking dance off the traditional stage in engaging and innovative ways, the more conventional dance concert is alive and well thanks to artists like Andy Noble and Dionne Sparkman Noble, the co-artistic directors of NobleMotion Dance. The company is in its ninth year, and presents annually in the fall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts’ Zilkha Hall. Andy Noble puts it quite simply in terms of their success for filling seats. “You can go at people in three different ways,” he says. “You can speak to them intellectually, emotionally or viscerally in a way that the audience wants to physically respond. I try and capture at least two of the three.”
The Nobles’ Zilkha Hall engagements are large-scale productions with equally large themes. The show titles say it all: Storm Front, Supernova and, most recently, Catapult. At the time of this writing, the Nobles were hard at work rehearsing for the latter, which was rescheduled from August 25 and 26 to September 29 and 30 because of the fury of Hurricane Harvey.
Catapult promises to offer some high-flying, daredevil dancing courtesy of nifty industrial design by company member Jared Doster. The initial idea for this particular dance has been sitting with Andy since 2008, when he was thinking about portraying two sides of a single society using a simple, everyday mechanical device: a door. “One side would show the working class, and the other side would show the aristocracy,” says Andy. “The working class would manipulate the doors so that the elites could move across them and do different things.”
When he approached Doster, who holds a degree in industrial design, about his idea, the longtime company member said he could build it. “From there, I thought it would be an interesting idea to build an evening around,” says Andy. “To have a common object like a door, and to change the expectations of what is there, to use it to alter physics and the dancers’ interaction with gravity.” Catapult turned out not to have the social commentary of the original idea, but it still sees dancers hurtling through space.
Bigger is better is the key ingredient in the NobleMotion formula. Before coming to Houston, the Nobles had a small pickup company in Florida. Artistically the work was fulfilling, and it was primarily solos, duets and intimate pieces. Though they had a small following, the creative output didn’t allow for them to build a large audience.
When they relocated to the Houston area and began teaching at Sam Houston State University, they asked themselves how it might be possible to make a splash in an already thriving dance community.
“The answers we’ve been playing with include collaboration with other art forms, which has been a big part of it, and creating an element of spectacle,” says Andy. “Our physicality is big, and we use dancers who are fearless and will take risks. We also make large works with larger casts.” Both of his parents are playwrights, so he makes use of his strong theater background to capture the attention of his audiences. Movement alone is a hard sell.
His wife, Dionne Sparkman Noble, feels that concert dance often lacks context, which is necessary for broad appeal. “It’s really hard to take a stark, rectangular proscenium stage and give it context,” she says. Whereas her husband often employs state-of-the-art lighting for his pieces, Dionne takes a more understated approach. “I used to want to be a visual artist. I think I paint onstage a little bit. I usually have some type of visual element, something onstage that the dancers can push up against. This gives context to the audience.”
The Nobles also spend a lot of time reaching out to people and getting them invested in their dancers and their work. “We grab people by the hand and bring them to our shows,” says Andy. “We work really hard at it.” In addition to putting up Catapult, which was funded in part by a grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance, the company implemented an aggressive outreach program, which saw dancers and engineers go to student dance populations and conduct workshops that allowed participants to create work with an interactive set piece. In effect, the kids were able to simulate the experience of Catapult, but in a much safer environment.
Next year NobleMotion Dance goes into its tenth season, and there’s no loss of momentum as it finishes its first decade. “I’m really proud of us for sticking it out this long,” says Andy. And with an assortment of ideas to play with and a proven formula for success, longevity doesn’t seem to be a problem.
While the Nobles have cornered the larger-than-life presentation of dance in Houston, there are still artists who are aiming for a more intimate appeal. Group Acorde, a new collective directed by Roberta Paixao Cortes that includes choreographer/dancer Lindsey McGill, composer/bassist Thomas Helton and composer/musician Seth Paynter, is focusing on its product.
“When we formed last May, we wanted to do something different in the community here,” says Cortes. Group Acorde has already presented at some high-profile dance showcases, including this year’s Barnstorm Dance Fest and Houston Choreographers X6 as part of the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center’s Dance Month. The collective presents dance to live music, with musicians occupying the same performing space. This is not a new idea, even in Houston, but the process is. “The idea is about collaboration. When people create original music to original dance, usually the musicians go in their corner and the dancers go in their corner, and then they go back and forth from there. We wanted to see what would happen if we collaborated from the initial idea all the way to presentation, and then what would that look like?”
With about a year and a half of work under their belts, they’ve made some pretty daring choices as far as how audiences digest their work. Earlier this summer, the group presented a two-night performance at the Nicole Longnecker Gallery. “We had this idea of getting out of the theater and going to other venues,” says Cortes. “A lot of people go to galleries, visual-arts people who wouldn’t typically go to see dance. We wanted to bring dance up close to them, so we created something for the space.”
Part improvisation, part set choreography, the 40-minute piece moved through both the gallery and the audience. The performers responded not only to each other, but to the work by Japanese artist Harumi Shimazu. “It really became about the art in the space and the audience in that moment,” says Cortes. “Sometimes the relatability of dance is lost if people see us from far away.”
Like the Nobles, Group Acorde was adversely affected by Hurricane Harvey. It had to cancel the August 25 performance of its first full evening concert, Unemojinal, at the Rec Room. Cortes has no qualms about relating to her audience. “The show was about how technology has changed the way we communicate. So many times as a dancer, people will come up to me after a performance and say, ‘I don’t get it.’ Now that I’m a director of a company, I want to really get an idea of what I can do so that something isn’t lacking.” Not only did Unemojinal offer a theme that was palatable, but Groupe Acord also created a photo booth in the lobby. It’s a small detail that goes a long way in making dance ticket holders feel more welcome and a part of the experience.
Cortes and the rest of Group Acorde know that presenting dance in this city will be an uphill battle. Many in the community told them not to move to the nonprofit model, but they’ve done so anyway, hoping that their brand of intimate, thoughtful performances will take them far. According to Cortes, they’re always ready to present at a festival, but the trick will be making this endeavor sustainable for the artists involved.
But they may have been onto something with their photo booth idea. Dance may have to become participatory to get people excited about it. And it seems that in today’s nonprofit climate, projects have to have that broad appeal to have any chance of being funded. It’s no secret that only two choreographers were awarded Independent Artist grants by the Houston Arts Alliance this year. One of those was independent choreographer Laura Harrell. She hasn’t yet taken the plunge of producing her own evening, because of the large financial risks and the difficulty of filling seats. Up until now, she’s presented work through several companies and showcase-style concerts, but now she’ll be able to create something completely her own. And it won’t be a traditional dance piece.
“I got the idea a couple of years ago when I was just out of grad school and living on a tight budget,” says Harrell. “My friend Seth and I went geocaching, just to find something to do. Geocaching is an online treasure hunt. You download an app onto your phone, and through the app you see little dots close to where you are.” The dots are caches, and once you navigate to the cache, you’re given a clue and a riddle of where to find it. If you manage to pinpoint it, you sign a log that contains the names of everyone else who has found the cache, and you’re rewarded with a trinket or two. “It’s really about enjoying the chase and the hunt of it all,” she says.
For her project, she’s teaming up with lighting designer David Deveau to film mini-dance-for-cameras at scouted Houston landmarks. She’ll then submit the films as caches, so that Geocache Hunter will receive a write-up of the project and the YouTube link to the dance-for-camera filmed in each location. The clips will add up to an evening-length dance film, which will be presented at 14 Pews sometime in May 2018.
At first glance, the originality of her proposal is apparent, but so is the possibility for generating new dance audiences. “I think the fact that this connects a new population to dance was something that [Houston Arts Alliance] saw potential in,” says Harrell. “It’s also about recognizing Houston and the beauty of it, the architecture and the landmarks and all of the things we have in our backyard that we don’t make time to see.”
Like Cortes, Harrell plans on building her base the old-fashioned way: through interpersonal relationships. “I don’t know if social media works anymore,” she ponders. “I feel like it’s overused, and it’s easy to lose sight of the individual process. It’s hard to keep them straight. I’ve found more success in collaborating and gaining people’s respect and finding people in a more human way.”
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As I write this, Suchu Dance is going into its third performance of OCEAN. Friday’s performance drew a solid crowd of Jennifer Wood’s supporters, including longtime colleagues of the Houston dance community. Wood admits that she doesn’t know why it’s so hard to sell a modern-dance ticket, or what the solution is for broadening her base. It’s hard to think in that sense when you are busy creating work.
She’ll be presenting at the next Houston Choreographers X6 showcase, in January 2018, and she’s working with the University of Houston’s ensemble through April of next year. She produces Suchu’s annual Comedy Dance Festival, and on that note, she would like to create an evening-length comedic work. But all that pales next to the immediacy of getting through a show run. What she does know is that a rest is in order.
“I need a period of time to regenerate my creative energy,” she says. “I would like to spend some time learning new skills and building new ideas.”
If there is one thing that’s certain, for Wood and everyone else who wants to produce work in Houston, finding people to dance for may be the hardest part of the job.