On Friday, ska music and a celebration of vine-ripened, unmodified tomatoes come together in SKAMATO, one of the new works seen in the Big Two-Hearted Festival. “It’s pronounced like tomato, ska-mato,” Michele Brangwen tells us, laughing. “I knew that I wanted to do something about the food industry, and I thought about the people who have never tasted a vine-ripened tomato, who have eaten only food that’s been [genetically] modified. We need to change that.”
Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble and the Houston Composers Salon joined forces for the festival, which is composed of new dance and music. For SKAMATO, Brangwen, the artistic director of the dance group, worked with Tim Hagans, a Grammy Award-nominated trumpeter and composer. Building on the upbeat ska style was Brangwen’s idea. “Ska is so much fun, and while we’re looking at a serious subject, we wanted to keep things light and humorous.”
Light but thoughtful, she says. Translation: no dancing tomatoes. “It’s more symbolic. You’ll see [movement] that might remind you of vines growing or [plants flourishing].”
Other dance works in the program include No Standing Any Time and Rain Girl. Members of the Composers Salon join the dancers onstage during the performance. “They’re very involved with the movement. For one [piece], the musicians shove the dancers across the stage. In another, the dancers respond to the musicians and their positions onstage.” Houston bassist and composer Thomas Helton leads The Core Trio in a premiere of “Toxic,” music inspired by the late Ornette Coleman.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Studio 101 Theatre, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For information, visit brangwendance.org. $10.
The facts of the narco-wars on the Mexican-American border are unbelievable. There are ruthless 11-year-old cartel soldiers, beauty queen drug mules, political corruption that permeates the entire government from tiny villages to the presidential palace and cartel bosses running billion-dollar drug empires from the comfort of their luxury prison cells complete with personal chefs and live-in mistresses. The border area has seen an unprecedented level of violence that has left thousands dead, thousands more missing, dozens of journalists murdered for reporting on the violence and…in an especially gruesome incident, the face of a dead narco sewn onto a soccer ball as a warning to the helpless public.
It’s that insanity that Don Winslow captures in his latest novel, The Cartel. His reading and signing session is another choice for Friday.
Told over the course of several years, the story follows DEA agent Art Keller (a mostly good guy) as he chases drug kingpin Adan Barrera (a mostly bad guy). Keller and Barrera eventually reach a truce when other, even more violent cartels threaten to take over the region.
Winslow crafts complicated characters living in even more complicated times. The reality of the narco wars is that there are no easy answers. Winslow respects his readers enough to reflect that difficult, and often cruel, reality in The Cartel.
Winslow reads from and signs The Cartel at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-524-8597 or visit murderbooks.com. Free.
Another choice for Saturday is the LSL Summer Festival 2015. The program includes a series of short comedic operas featuring local artists. “We started as a chamber opera company that prides itself on casting the singers, performers and musicians from within the Houston area, because it’s such a rich ocean of talent,” said Kelli Estes, artistic director of Lone Star Lyric and also a performer with the group.
The series features Rita, a one-act comic opera by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. It was premiered in 1860, after its composer’s death, and has been reset in the modern era for this production. The title character is a domineering woman whose second husband bends to her will. When her first husband, who was mistakenly assumed dead, comes back into the picture, the three engage in a battle of wits to see who will remain married to Rita and who will take his leave.
“It’s in a style that really showcases vocal talents. It requires a degree of vocal agility and range, as well as the ability to execute ornamentation, whose popularity actually ebbed at the end of the 19th century,” said Rob Hunt, the music director and pianist for Rita. “When this opera was written, bel canto style was already on its way out of style.”
Also on the program is Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s single-act intermezzo Suzanne’s Secret. This brief opera tells the story of Countess Suzanne and Count Gil, whose fashionable, Edwardian-era home is upset when the count suspects Suzanne of concealing a dreadful secret. As it turns out, she does have something to hide, but it’s not exactly what the count suspects.
Each opera will be presented in English. The venues are cozy, which is a refreshing setup for opera. “Our performances are often in intimate spaces that are very audience-involved; both the cabaret and the operas are in smaller venues, which asks the audience to become much more engaged than they would be in a larger venue. It’s a different kind of experience,” Estes says.
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 6 p.m. Sunday. The University of St. Thomas’s Cullen Hall, 4001 Mt. Vernon. For information, visit lonestarlyric.org. $25.
When she was earning an MFA at the Chicago Art Institute, it was a time of transition for interdisciplinary artist Vicki Fowler. It was winter, and the native Houstonian had a one-year-old. She didn’t exactly feel trapped, but she was more housebound than she’d have liked. She coped by putting together a piece called Left the House, a series of vignettes on motherhood, and inviting other artists to share their stories.
“I was able to mentally leave the house by inviting people in.”
Fast-forward a year, and Fowler is still inviting people in — and discovering how her own stories and relationships dovetail with and diverge from others. Her new work, The Things I Need, presented by Freneticore’s Frenetic Theater Artist Board, is an examination of how “stuff can be a vehicle for the spiritual and can transform us.” It's also one of our picks for Saturday.
Fowler’s series of vignettes is an homage to stuff on all its levels: the things we collect, the things we discard, the things we hoard and the things we want surrounding us. Combining spoken word, performance and dance, the show features the works of Ebony Porter, Rebecca Parker and Bob Novotney, among others.
“These are all people I’ve admired and I respected their perspectives,” Fowler says. “I appreciate what they’re doing, and I think the audience will be open to what we have for them.” She says the piece is a self-portrait of sorts, and it made her rethink her relationship with physical things. “I got rid of so much stuff,” she says of her move back to Houston. So, what does Fowler need? “Poetry and community,” she says. “And poetry is all around us. You don’t have to pack it.”
6:30 p.m. Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation. For information, visit freneticore.net. $18.
Our choices for Sunday is the world-premiere ballet TSURU, a popular piece of Japanese folklore has inspired the first ever commissioned work by Asia Society Texas Center. Based on the classic Japanese folktale “The Crane Wife,” TSURU tells the story of a crane who turns into a woman in order to marry the man she loves. Every night, the woman returns to her crane form and weaves lavish silks made from her feathers, earning money for her husband. However, through the taxing process, she becomes ill. Once the man discovers her true identity, she flies away, leaving him forever.
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The cast of TSURU is composed entirely of dancers from the Houston Ballet, making it the first collaboration between Asia Society Texas Center and the dance company. Houston Ballet soloist Nao Kusuzaki is the commission’s co-creator/principal dancer and appears as the crane/woman. “For a long time, I’d had the desire of producing a ballet piece with a team of artists from different fields. My dream was to share [the] unique, beautifully strong cultural values of Japan through artistic expression,” says Kusuzaki.
TSURU combines the choreographic vision of Kenta Kojori (a former Nederlands Dans Theater dancer under Jirí Kylián) with the artistic design of Matthew Ozawa. The ballet’s score includes music by Johann Sebastian Bach played by cellist Lachezar Kostov and koto artist Yumi Kurosawa. “Koto [is] a Japanese national instrument…The interplay between the familiar [cello] and the foreign [koto] creates an unexpected harmony through Bach,” Kusuzaki explains.
7:30 pm Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore. For information, call 713-496-9901 or visit asiasociety.org. $25 to $35.
Ashley Clos, Alexandra Doyle and Holly Beretto contributed to this post.