Please Pass the Dance Salad

Modern dance, much like 20th-century classical music, is frequently a tough sell. Sometimes the performances click, but just as often they can be irritating, particularly to those arts supporters who may prefer to satiate their dance appetites with a yearly dose of The Nutcracker or Swan Lake.

"Sometimes people who like ballet think they don't understand [modern dance]," says Nancy Henderek, "or don't want to risk that it's a bad dance or untrained dancers." To overcome this skepticism, Henderek created Dance Salad. The recipe is simple: Mix together a variety of tastes and styles until well blended. Avoid one or two full-length works, which can lead to homogeneity. Performed by local, national or international artists, a typical Dance Salad program balances traditional ballet with modern dance works. "Those people who might want to come and see a ballet or the Hong Kong Ballet will also have a chance to see a contemporary work, which may broaden their whole view of dance and what is possible."

So far, Houstonians seem to find Dance Salad satisfying fare, making the show an annual attraction for five years running. This year's event is Dance Salad Asia. Henderek, who resides part-time in Hong Kong, has recruited some of Asia's most innovative companies for this performance, including the Singapore Dance Theatre, the Hong Kong Ballet and City Contemporary Dance Company, all of which will be performing in Houston for the first time. But Henderek warns about reducing an entire continent to a stereotype.

"We tend to look at Asia as one group, one culture," Henderek says. "But each culture is very different and has its own traditional background and folkloric and traditional dances that come from their own culture and their way of looking at life."

While traditional Asian dances have received significant exposure in the United States through parades, movies and television, less is known about the continent's more contemporary forms, which incorporate elements of Western classical ballet and modern dance while still honoring Far East traditions. The result is an organic mix of styles and cultures.

For instance, Hong Kong Ballet, which actually recruits from different countries throughout Asia, trains its dancers in Western ballet. Because each performer has a different background, each approaches the choreography in a different way, from his or her own cultural perspective. The multicultural nature of the Hong Kong Ballet will be most evident in this weekend's excerpts from Wayne Eagling's The Last Emperor -- yes, like the more famous movie, it's inspired by the tragic life of Pu Yi -- which features Chinese movement as interpreted by the Canadian choreographer.

"In terms of their interpretation from The Last Emperor," Henderek says, "they can infuse that with some classical Chinese dance. Yet they've been brought up on Western ballet, so there's a fusion of being able to understand these movements and a way of understanding and interpreting this movie."

More multiculturalism will be on display when the Singapore Dance Theatre performs Choo-San Goh's Birds of Paradise. Goh, who is from Singapore, made his reputation in America with numerous productions by U.S. ballet companies (including Houston Ballet), but since Goh's death, his work has been largely ignored in the States. Goh Soo Khim, Goh's sister who now directs the Singapore Dance Theatre, will reintroduce her brother's works in a rare performance of Goh choreography. "I'm very happy to be able to produce that," Henderek says. "His sister is keeping his works alive."

Dance Salad Asia will also premiere Lento e largo - tranquillissimo, Japanese choreographer Megumi Nakamura's specially commissioned solo work, which will be performed by Jo Kanamori, who danced for many years in the Netherlands. The local component to the program will be Houston Ballet's Yin Le, who hails from Bejing; he'll dance 13/Shi San, choreographed by Houston Ballet principal dancer Dominic Walsh.

Looks like this program will be less of a salad and more of a melting pot.

Performances of Dance Salad Asia will be held Friday, April 28, and Saturday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m., at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue. $10-$30. For tickets, call (713)629-3700.

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