Karen Stokes Dance Shines at 19th Annual Theater District Open House

The Hobby Center teemed with people and activity on Sunday afternoon. Lines packed the lobby as anxious Les Misérables fans vied for tickets. A trio of food trucks stood outside the front doors, motors grumbling, doling out cake balls and burritos. Trolleys unloaded dozens of theater-goers only to pack in dozens more, and theater employees passed out handbags and samples of lemonade and iced tea to passers-by. It was 12:30 p.m., and the 19th Annual Theater District Open House was in full swing.

Meanwhile, samples of a more artistic variety were being distributed inside Zilkha and Sarofim Halls. Every year, Open House features brief performances by some of Houston's finest arts groups, taking place not only at the Hobby Center, but also at the Alley Theatre, Jones Hall, and the Wortham Theater Center. All performances are free to the public, which makes Open House a wonderful opportunity for those unfamiliar with certain aspects of Houston performance art to taste it themselves.

This is a unique opportunity for the arts groups as well, since Open House can serve as a venue to introduce work to uninitiated audiences. That said, the event poses its own set of challenges to some of these groups. Audience members move in and out of the performance spaces constantly. Transitions must happen quickly, so sets and props must be kept to a minimum. Not to mention, the entire audience may be brand new to your work.

That's not to say that these constraints cannot be handled gracefully - they certainly were by Karen Stokes Dance.

KSD previewed a piece entitled "Just Us" from its upcoming November show, Vine Leaf Stories. This piece, originally set on UH's Dance Ensemble by Stokes in 2006, focuses on pedestrian movement, striking a balance between abstraction and accessibility that was perfectly appropriate for the setting.

The performance began with all eight dancers in a line facing downstage, walking briskly in place. They then moved forward as group, scanning the audience with their collective gaze as though to make sure we were there before beginning their dance.

There were moments of full energy, with dancers traversing the stage as though bounding through a meadow, complemented by moments of stillness. One moment in particular stayed with me -- a male dancer lay on his side while a second paused in an arabesque over him, creating a parallel line with his extended leg. Audible gestures, such as coughing, brushing teeth, or cleaning ears, provided comic relief.

I found the end of the piece remarkably tender. After reforming the initial line and performing a fast series of individual gestures, the dancers turned to one another and embraced slowly, as though exploring something new and profound. Pairs turned to walk slowly upstage, while one dancer remained, holding himself in his arms and gazing up while the lights slowly faded around him.

Aside from being well-executed by skilled dancers, this piece seemed to be an apt choice for the occasion. Its focus on gestures made it easy to relate to quickly, which was important considering its 12-minute length. It maintained a natural feel by not relying heavily on the size of the stage or the costumes, both of which were different on Sunday in Zilkha Hall than what they will be in November at Barnevelder. Finally, its quirkiness allowed for satisfying interpretations at a variety of levels.

In an event as buzzing as Open House, it's difficult to find a moment of reprieve; on Sunday, KSD's performance was a breath of fresh air. If this was any indication of KSD's audience awareness and ability to adapt, I very much look forward to seeing them in November in a setting that's more their own.

See Karen Stokes Dance's Vine Story Dances at 8 p.m. November 15-17 at Barnevelder Theater, 2201 Preston.

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Alex Randall
Contact: Alex Randall