Two Steps Back

It's a noble goal. The Houston Dance Initiative, under the direction of Houston Ballet resident lighting designer Christina Giannelli, wants to "foster a fertile environment for contemporary dance in Houston" by providing choreographers with a professional venue for the production of their works. Perhaps one day the organization will succeed, but for now the process is a painful one. This year's Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance at Miller Outdoor Theatre was more likely to repel Houston audiences from modern dance than to attract them to it.

The most impressive offerings at this sixth annual event were created by out-of-towners. Jane Weiner of Hope Stone Inc. started the evening off nicely with a piece set to Nina Simone songs and choreographed by New York postmodernist Mark Dendy in collaboration with Larry Keigway. Night Moves was full of Dendy's signature vocabulary: Martha Graham basics made twisted and frenzied by her protégé. The only true soloist of the program, Weiner dwarfed the ensembles with her presence, her fevered and frustrated emotion reaching even the spectators on the hill.

Likewise, José Luis Bustamante of Austin's Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks choreographed a clever piece to excerpts from author Donald Barthelme's Henrietta and Alexandra, with abstract movement enacting the story of two friends who grow up to deal with life and mortality in opposite ways. Henrietta, realizing that she will not live forever, learns to take advantage of worldly pleasures "beyond the pale." The more solemn Alexandra turns to a life of religion so that she might live after she dies.

But there were seven other choreographers and companies on this long bill -- all the usual suspects: Isadora's Dish, Weave, Sandra Organ, Chrysalis, Suchu Dance, Dominic Walsh and Fly. Some created pieces in line with what the complacent dance community expects of them; some failed to live up to their names.

Link, by Isadora's Dish, initially showed potential, the dancers running across the stage to the Grand Prix-esque sounds of composer Eve Beglarian's Wolfchaser. But for all the gunning of both the choreographers' and the composer's engines, the piece never left the starting line.

Megan Lyle's S Butterfly for Weave Dance Company was a silly riff on self-help tapes and cocktail party etiquette, and the lovely Bonnie Boykin Busker showed off an impeccable sense of comic timing. But its unfortunate placement after the similarly text-based Henrietta and Alexandra made S Butterfly look gimmicky and amateurish by comparison.

Sandra Organ ran her always technically strong dancers through the hoops of a boring circus-inspired piece titled Bolt. Chrysalis's mystical Nothing Lives Long Except the Rocks by Victoria Loftin lived too long on the Miller stage. And Suchu Dance's Apart, excerpted from Jennifer Wood's Doko Ek Pondu, which created a bit of a buzz when it was performed at DiverseWorks in June, proved it could not stand alone. Usually Suchu manages to shake up group shows with performances that are both ingenious and ironic, but this segment could have come from any local modern company.

As a dancer, Dominic Walsh is one of the Houston Ballet's greatest assets, but as a choreographer, he hasn't yet hit his stride. His Once de Septiembre was a heavy-handed take on the Chilean military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende -- complete with Cameron Smith dressed all in white, hovering about the scene as a symbol of elusive peace.

It's been more than six years since Fly hit the Houston dance scene, and not much has changed except the lineup. But Fly is not Menudo, and the old members are sorely missed. In Blue Air, Fly's trademark acrobatic breakdancing moves weren't explosive, and its slapstick comedy didn't have much personality.

And then their was John Axelrod, taking the stage in black leather pants. He didn't dance, thank God. Instead, he stood before his OrchestraX and tried to be Gen-X by demonstrating chords to the few who accepted his "interactive challenge" and brought their guitars for a play-along. But the premiere of Beglarian's The Continuous Life, commissioned by DiverseWorks as part of the NEA-funded millennial "Continental Harmony" project, showed no life at all. A lengthy delay due to technical difficulties gave Axelrod a chance to plug OrchestraX's upcoming season and prompted the crowd on the lawn to shout that very Gen-X command, "Just do it!" Finally OrchestraX muddled through a self-serious collage of whining violins, "Houston" images like shopping carts and Radio Shack signs, and a melodramatic "voice of authority" uttering words of wisdom.

Here's hoping for a better Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance next year.