Dancing Off the Page with New ISHIDA Program keepsake

ISHIDA Dance Company will present four works in their upcoming program keepsake. Dancers Juliet Doherty and John Wannehag pictured.
ISHIDA Dance Company will present four works in their upcoming program keepsake. Dancers Juliet Doherty and John Wannehag pictured. Photo by by Amitava Sarkar

Choreographer Brett Ishida admits that, as a dancemaker, she has a “funny relationship with words.”

“Everyone asks, ‘How do you start?’ and I don’t go to the studio first,” says Ishida, the founder and artistic director of the Austin/Houston-based ISHIDA Dance Company. “I start with words. That’s my process.”

The results of that process – influenced by degrees in literature and Montessori education, time spent dancing around the world, and a deep appreciation of poetry and Greek philosophy – can be seen this month when she brings her ISHIDA Dance Company to The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts for a program called keepsake.

“It’s very intentional,” says Ishida. “I’m writing these scripts even years before, and I save them depending on my group – who are my artists and what roles do they fit in, but also [what] might challenge them.”

For the upcoming program, for example, Ishida found herself with two very physical dancers – Lorrin Brubaker and Armando Brydson – who she thought would be great for a script she had that referenced Aeschylus’s “Seven Against Thebes.”

Unable to agree on who will ascend to the throne, twin brothers Polyneices and Eteocles agree to take turns ruling Thebes in the Greek tragedy. But, cursed by their father Oedipus, their deal doesn’t last. When Eteocles refuses to yield the throne, the resulting conflict leaves the brothers dead by each other’s hand.

“Seven Against Thebes” may end with the brothers’ deaths, but Ishida’s duet, titled “warm my bones,” will begin there.

“We’re not necessarily going to see the deaths, but I’m going to preface it as that with some horrifying cinematic music and lighting, and then we’re going to go to the strange place where they get to meet each other again,” says Ishida. “I don’t want to say that it’s a purgatory, because I hope we move beyond that toward some kind of reconciliation with the brothers.”

As is her process, “warm my bones” started with a script. But, as Ishida explains, it just isn’t enough for her to keep going on the page.

“I take those ideas and then go into the studio and start playing,” says Ishida. “What does it feel like to have a wound inflicted on me from my sibling, from my blood? What does that bring up for me? How do I start moving thinking about that? Where does it go in my body? There’s a somatic approach that happens intuitively. Something will come out of your body and it won’t necessarily be what you expect or plan.”

click to enlarge
Brett Ishida will premiere two new works during this month's program keepsake.
Photo by by Amitava Sarkar
Because her process requires collaboration with the dancers, Ishida handpicks them, asking questions and exploring their comfort levels before recruiting them. She hopes her process will allow the dancers to have “a genuine experience.”

“Yes, I’m also giving them fixed phrases of movement, but it’s how they interpret that,” says Ishida. “They have the framework of narrative, yes, but what makes it interesting is the interpretation, how they’re going to internalize it and make it their own.”

Ishida acknowledges that her work is demanding, both physically and emotionally for the dancers, and the program’s feature work, “keepsake,” requires a particular sensitivity.

The idea for “keepsake” came from Ishida’s time living on the Greek island of Mykonos. For five years, she taught English and dance, as well as Montessori education to individual families. And one day, the owner of the school where Ishida taught appeared at the door of her class asking if she could step outside for a moment.

“I went out in the hall and there was another teacher. She was outside her door and frozen. Not moving. Her eyes glazed open, not blinking, and she didn’t speak,” recalls Ishida.

Eventually, the young woman’s mother came and took her away. Ishida says she never saw her again after that day, but the moment left her with many questions, the first being around the idea of a fugue. 

“Fugue does mean to flee, flight in Latin, and that’s something that has haunted me. I thought, it’s time to share this, and it’s for her,” says Ishida. “This is for her and for anyone who’s had to shut down their psyche in order to keep living.”

Despite the intensity of the piece’s origin, Ishida believes that the trio (choreographed for two men and one woman) will be familiar to audiences.

“We’ve all been in places where we’ve felt we had to shut down or be in denial. I think it’s a relatable situation, or we know someone that’s had to be in this psychological state,” says Ishida. “People come and approach this from wherever they are in their life, and I just hope that they all take something meaningful away from ‘keepsake.’”

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John Wannehag's "If the world was ending, would you hold me tight?" will be presented during keepsake.
Photo by by Amitava Sarkar

The piece underscores something Ishida is very clear about: You will not find the company presenting an easy narrative.

“They’re not easy situations, oftentimes, because the model of what I’m going for is the type of storytelling that helps us grapple with loss and betrayal and loving and family; all of these things that are inherent to us humans,” says Ishida. “Those things haven’t necessarily changed, and storytelling is what unites us, what brings us together, what helps us understand one another and gain more empathy.”

Keeping to antiquity, Ishida reflects on how, 2,000 years ago, the Greeks had every citizen attend ancient Greek tragedy.

“Why did they require that of their citizens? They clearly thought it was valuable, and it seemed to inform the moral code of society,” says Ishida. “We need, through the arts, we need a way to help process things and it’s not through words. There’s something that happens in the psyche when it’s a sensorial experience.”

Though the narratives might not be easy, Ishida stresses that the program – which includes work from guest choreographers Jeremy Galdeano and John Wannehag – will be relatable.

“We’re presenting works that typically aren’t done, that are outside the box, but also aren’t so outside the box that people are going to be like I don’t get it…because that’s not what we’re about. We’re quite the opposite,” adds Ishida.

Just as with the dancers, Ishida hopes that the program will offers audience members a special opportunity as well.

“I hope that this prompts some kind of questioning, or that they learn something about themselves, or that it’s a feeling, or the images haunt them after,” says Ishida. “I just want them to have an experience.”

keepsake is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday, January 12, and Saturday, January 13, at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For more information, visit $38-$120.50 (VIP tickets, which include an on-stage reception with the dancers and choreographers, are available for Friday’s performance).

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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.