by Adam Castaneda
Houston’s dance community has seen many notable shifts in the past two years, with presenting organizations changing the methodologies in which work is programmed and seasons are created. But for artistic director Nancy Henderek, there is continued relevance in the signature format of her Dance Salad Festival, presented by the Houston International Dance Coalition March 24 – 26 at the Wortham Center. For starters, she curates her programs by individual dance works, not by companies or choreographers. Second, she brings to the presenting table a unique perspective, that of a world traveler.
“I’ve lived in Houston for many years, but I’m also a person who’s done a lot of traveling, then come back in,” Henderek explains. “This festival is relevant because I see things that could be of significance to multicultural and multiethnic city of Houston. I want people to see things that I have been able to see.” And Henderek has seen quite a bit.
If it were not for her distinct taste, Houston audiences would probably not be familiar with the work of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Belgian choreographer who was named artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders last year. But thanks to Dance Salad, Houstonians are gifted with regular doses of Cherkaoui, whose work Henderek describes as “fascinating.” This year’s program will feature sections from Fall, the first piece he created on the Royal Ballet of Flanders, as well as Faun, which was included in the 2011 festival from his contemporary company, Eastman.
“I am interested in the world, so I’m very attracted to the way Sidi Larbi uses various elements that bring out universal themes that we all share,” says Henderek. “I really respect his broadness about how he sees the world and his fearlessness in mixing together different elements, and he does it in a very specific, personal way.” For those who saw last year’s Rigor Mortis, the choreographer’s anti-war meditation danced to the live accompaniment by international musicians, people can expect an entirely different Sidi Larbi experience with Fall. “He’s always challenging himself, and that’s why I can feel comfortable for inviting him again and again, knowing he is so creative and well-versed in different traditions,” explains Henderek. “People might expect the same type of work, the same type of aesthetic, but it never is.”
If Dance Salad is a platform to showcase Henderek’s longtime favorites, then it’s also a vehicle for introducing Houston to trending international choreography and newer companies that are making their mark on the dance world. This year the festival will see the American debut of the Gartner Platz Theater from Munich, Germany with work by Marguerite Donlon and Jacopo Godani.
The young troupe resides in a 150-year-old building, an opera guild theater in Munich, and has quickly developed into a celebrated contemporary ballet company with a roster of notable choreographers. And for Henderek, the Gartner Platz Theater is representative of a growing trend among European companies. “It’s filled with dancers from all over the world,” she says. “This is what is happening in Europe. There is a movement of dancers going to different companies to find choreography they are challenged by and comfortable with. National ballets used to be filled with dancers from that country, but in the past five to ten years these same companies are split 50/50. And even American dancers are getting in on it.”
Speaking of Americas, the Houston dance community will be delighted to see hometown favorite Lindsey McGill on stage with Northwest Dance Project. Typically, Henderek makes room for only one American company on the program, but this year sees two, the second being BalletX from Philadelphia. What spurred the Northwest Dance Project invitation was, again, the dance itself. “I was looking for one more piece when I saw their presentation at APAP,” recalls Henderek. “They are pushing an aesthetic that includes a variety of styles and movement that pulls their bodies in many directions. The company has a particular look because the dancers are forced to learn many different techniques. This training makes them more flexible, physically, and in how their minds pick up choreography.”
The piece in question, Ihsan Rustem’s Yidam, is filled with gravity-defying partnering and athletic floor work connected by elegant movement phrases that seem to be a physical incarnation of Michael Gordon’s gorgeous music. Though an American company, the confluence of movement traditions makes it an appropriate entry in an international festival line-up that includes the Stuttgart Ballet (Germany), Spellbound Contemporary Ballet (Italy), and the National Ballet of Canada.
As a former dancer and choreographer herself, Henderek hopes Dance Salad continues to be a source of inspiration for Houston’s dance community. Not only does her festival bring in companies that might not ever make their way to the Bayou City, it also gives audiences the opportunity to see works as they’ll never be seen elsewhere. “For me to choose a dance, it has to stir me, whether it’s the music, the style, the dynamics, the way the people are dancing it, or all of these elements combined together. I have to really know the piece.”
And thanks to Dance Salad, we can know them, too.