Houston's Theater District anchors a flourishing performing arts landscape that enriches and amplifies the culture of our city. The downtown marvel joins only a handful of cities in the country with resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines including opera, drama, musical theater, symphony and ballet. To help introduce the offerings of our major arts players, the collective hosts one free day of performances and events to show the treasures they have to offer. Known as Theater District Open House, the annual event takes place the last Sunday of August. In a lead up to Open House, the Houston Press is taking a deeper look at the people and programs that make our arts scene vibrant.
While most teenagers are soaking up the last bit of summer before the school year begins, a group of middle and high school-age students have already been hard at work getting a head start in their favorite topic. Approximately 70 students hone their craft in the annual Ballet Hispánico Summer Intensive, presented by Society for the Performing Arts. In it, dancers spend two weeks at the 9,000 square foot Hunter Dance Center located in the Heights for choreography lessons, workshops and lectures that immerse them in both the performing and working worlds of dance.
"We feel like it is rounding out our offerings for Houston dancers. The instructors are world class dancers who are professionals on stage, and we're bringing that success to Houston students," said Shannon Crider, SPA's director of education and community engagement. "It’s a holistic program where they’re working on their skills but also rounding them out as dancers and what it takes to pursue dance."
Based out of New York City, Ballet Hispánico is a 50-year-old organization that reflects the ever-changing diversity of Latino cultures and infuses that flavor into a new expression of American contemporary dance. It is comprised of a professional company, a dance school, and education and outreach programs such as the partnership with SPA and Houston's up-and-coming artists.
All skill levels are welcome to participate, and the performers are divided into two groups based on age and skill level. "They’re placed in the group where they’ll have the best chance to succeed. It’s not about who’s the best, it’s about being in a group that will help them grow," said Crider.
The instructors teach ballet as well as flamenco, Afro Cuban and other dance styles, and they open up the intensive to include topics aspiring performers usually don't learn in a studio.
"Today, we’re talking about career tracks for dancers. We’re talking about different colleges or different tracks you can follow like education, cruise ships, commercial work for music videos or repertory dance where you travel the world performing," she said. Other lessons include "working on professionalism like their resumes and head shots and reels. Another intensive sessions is health and preventing injury."
The summer intensive culminates with a performance at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts' new campus for friends and family to see what the dancers have learned in their two weeks.
"Many of our teaching artists are people of color and fluent in Spanish. They’re bilingual and able to infuse that into the lessons," she said. "We try to make this program really accessible. It’s a very affordable program, and we do offer scholarships. Most students who ask for aid are able to get aid. We pride ourselves on it being extremely accessible."
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"Accessibility" is a common thread that SPA likes to bring to the arts, and for Theater District Open House, SPA will again play up that ease of access for Houstonians.
"[Open House] is a great chance for families to get a sampling of what we do. There are free mini performances and a full performance from the Houston Symphony. It’s a great chance to get a sense of what we do, and it’s not an intimidating way to experience the theater," she said. "Sometimes people are intimidated by coming to these great halls, but as someone who works here, we don’t want it to be intimidating. It’s a place where families make memories they'll have for a lifetime."
Final performances for Ballet Hispánico's summer intensive take place Friday, August 9 at 11:30 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. for the junior high level and 5:45 - 6:30 p.m. for the pre-professional level at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts's studio theater, 790 Austin. Free.
Theatre District Open House takes place noon - 5 p.m. with a concert starting at 4 p.m., August 25. Locations include Alley Theatre, 615 Texas; Hobby Center, 800 Bagby; Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana; Revention Music Center, 520 Texas; and Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit theaterdistrictopenhouse.com. Free.