Choreographer Karen Stokes admits putting together the site-specific concert Karen Stokes Dance: Sunset on White Oak Bayou was a bit daunting. “The challenge is to look at the history of Houston and the architecture and meaning of [Allen’s Landing] and translate that into contemporary dance. That’s pretty crazy,” she laughs.
The latest in a series of water-related works Stokes has been working on for more than two years now, Sunset on White Oak Bayou is based on the history of Houston, especially the history of the newly renovated Allen's Landing. "It's about the founders of our city, these entrepreneurs and all these high-level people and then these people who did the actual physical work."
An abstract work, Sunset doesn't have a narrative (Stokes's works very rarely do).
Stokes researched the history of the area for inspiration. She also took ideas from a new score by Brad Sayles that's performed live by the newly formed Heights 5 Brass Band. Stokes found her dancers and the members of the University of Houston dance program, who perform along with the KSD company members, sparked ideas for the work.
And then there was the site, Allen’s Landing on Buffalo Bayou. “It’s a beautiful space and such a historic spot. It has all kinds of stairways and brick walls, right there at the water. Working on this was like having the most amazing set design. Never in a million years could I have a set like that on a stage.
"The [site] is like a center for transportation because you have the pedestrian bridge, the Main Street rail line, I-10 is right on the other side, there are occasionally boats in the water there, so it's this amazing kind of mecca for transportation."
Working with Sayles proved to be different from any previous musical collaborations for Stokes. "He said, 'Give me a timeline.' So I had envisioned six sections and we went section by section. I gave him short descriptions for each section. The opening I wanted to be like a fanfare, like a welcoming with people entering. The second section I wanted to have a call-and-response feeling. So each section has its own very specific feel."
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The site's smaller size required Stokes to make some changes to her original plans, which had included a full orchestra. Considering the area's acoustics also factored into her decision to use a brass quintet. "The music will be played live by this new brass quintet called Heights Brass Quintet. In looking at this, I thought, 'I don't want to do anything that requires electronics. I want everything to be accoustic and yes, I want music, but I don't want for us to wire in some big sound system.' Then I thought, brass! Brass can carry; you hear it along with the sounds of the city."
Stokes, winner of Best Choreographer for the Best of Houston 2015 awards, tells us rehearsing on the waterside site was interesting.
"This site is tucked away a little bit but yes, we do get people on the bike bridge stopping and watching, or people walking by and asking questions. The homeless guys down there know us now. The other day, we had a homeless guy who told us, 'Now, when's the date of your performance?' We told him the 18th and he said, 'Okay, we're going to make sure that we pick up the site for you before hand.' I was really touched by that."
There are two performances of Karen Stokes Dance: Sunset at White Oak Bayou. 5:30 and 6:15 p.m. on Sunday, October 18. Allen’s Landing on Buffalo Bayou, 1001 Commerce Street. For information, visit karenstokesdance.org. Free.