Few cities in the south boast as deep and varied a dance community as Houston. We could easily name our favorite 20 dancemakers, but we've kept the list to the top ten.
Active as a teacher (at both the University of Houston and Houston Community College), Sophia Torres is co-founder and now sole artistic director of Psophonia Dance Company, a troupe she started in 1998 (co-founder Sonia Noriega has left the group). Working in an "athletic, visual, audience-friendly, and approachable" style, Torres laughingly admits that she's not only the choreographer for Psophonia, she's the janitor, costume designer, graphic artist and public relations rep.
Dedicated to creating work that can be described as "off the wall" and "non-traditional," Jane Weiner has led Hope Stone, Inc. since 1997. Hope Stone serves as a dance company, community art outreach program, dance school and general gathering place for dancers, choreographers and fans that aren't afraid of seeing different sized and shaped bodies on stage. The above photo is from Weiner's 2013 production i scream.
Sue Schroeder founded Several Dancers Core in 1980. That company became CORE Performance Company. Schroeder makes our list because of her continued collaborations with other choreographers, dancers, musicians and artists. One notable work is an evening-length dance version of Handel's Messiah featuring Houston conductor Antoine Plante and Mercury (formerly Mercury Baroque Ensemble).
Founder/ choreographer for Rednerrus Feil Dance Company, Llanes recently teamed up with jhon r. stronks's "there...in the sunlight" to present Venturing Out, a series informal performances featuring work from Houston area dancemakers and dancers. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance from Sam Houston State University. Llanes explained her company's name and her artistic philosophy during a 2013 interview with Houston Press writer Adam Castañeda. "Rednerrus is surrender spelled backwards and feil is a word scramble for life. As a choreographer, that is exactly what I try to do. My intention is to be completely open, vulnerable and surrendering of my innermost self for the creative process. Most of the works I create stem from a moment, idea or image from my own personal life or the persons immediately surrounding me."
Checking in the No. 6 spot is Michele Brangwen, who splits her time between Houston and New York. A choreographer/dancer/filmmaker Brangwen often collaborates with other artists including frequent partner composer Thomas Helton. She one of Houston's leaders of dance on film and produces ArtCast, an Internet television series that explores performance and dance.
Partners on and off stage, Andy and Dionne Sparkman Noble make dance and they make dancers. Both are educators with the prestigious Sam Houston State University dance program. With NobleMotion, the two present five to six productions a year. Coming up next for the group is NobleMotion Unplugged, a no-frills evening featuring local music group Musiqa. The program is set for March.
Rebecca French has one handicap as a choreographer: she's mesmerizing onstage. During a recent performance of there is no answer as to why me: A Dance Tribute to David Rakoff, we found ourselves repeatedly staring at French, even though everyone in the troupe was performing well. Her company, FrenetiCore Fearless Dance Theater, is aptly named. French is fearless in her approach to creating dance. In her approach to creating all art, actually. French is the head of Frenetic Theater where she hosts an annual Fringe Festival, an artist-in-residence program, outreach and classes for neighborhood children and provides space to a variety of theater and dance groups.
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3. Ashley Horn
Ashely Horn is one of the most versatile artists on our list. She choreographs for the stage, she choreographs for film. She designs costumes and sets. She co-founded the comedy and arts newspaper Houston Entertainicle. An example of a well-rounded artist making the most of her skills in any and every medium available, Horn has proved to be a talented choreographer/filmmaker/writer/designer and an advocate for the local dance community.
A 2014 MasterMind Award winner, jhon r. stronks is happily on the edge of Houston's dance scene. He acknowledges that his work is not commercial, not mainstream and not meant for a wide audience. He doesn't think about the audience's possible reactions when creating his work; instead, he focuses on expressing his ideas and paying homage to the the truth of his experience, however unconventional that experience might be or uncomfortable that might make his audiences. Bottom line, stronks has built his career by being unafraid to be himself.
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Selecting the No. 1 choreographer for this list was difficult. Would it be 2013 MasterMind Award winner Karen Stokes? Or 2014 MasterMind Award winner jhon r. stronks? In the end, Stokes takes the top spot because of the longevity of her multifaceted career as a choreographer, teacher, dancer and filmmaker. The daughter of Houston dance pioneer Roberta Stokes, Karen Stokes has been choreographing original dance theater since 1988.
In 1997, she co-founded Travesty Dance Group in Ohio with colleagues Kimberly Karpanty & Rebecca Malcolm-Naibher. In June 2011, the Travesty Dance Group became Karen Stokes Dance. Stokes is a professor in the Dance Program.
The image above comes from Stokes' Vine Dance project. It's an excellent example of Stokes' ability to be visually striking, but also to insert a bit of humor and whimsy as well as drama in her work. Stokes is gifted in her ability to push the envelope of what's currently accepted as contemporary dance while remaining accessible to audiences of all interest levels.