The ChinaCats Go Under the Sea with Aquaria

ChinaCat in Aquaria; Photo by Milton Adams

ChinaCat in Aquaria; Photo by Milton Adams

Escape is the chief appeal of fantasy. Whether it’s Narnia, or Middle Earth, or say, the world of My Little Pony, fantasy offers an alternate realm where imagination is the all-powerful prime mover. For Maggie Lasher, artistic director of ChinaCat Dance, fantasy is also the wellspring of creation. In addition to those adorable, starry-eyed equines, she says, “I love Dr. Seuss, anything that takes you to a constructed world, whether that’s an artist, or literature, or dance. Dance lends itself to these worlds, because I can use movement as language.”

Lasher also has a strong connection to nature, which has resulted in several dance works that explore animal movement and creature movement of the non-humanoid variety. For a director with an inclination to the whimsical, it was only a matter of time before she explored the underwater world that is the basis for Aquaria, ChinaCat’s full-length show that will be presented on December 12 and 13 at the Rice Recreation Center Dance Theater

The inhabitants of Aquaria are a fishy, yet, enchanted lot. They include sea urchins and clownfish, shellfish and eels, an octopus and a nudibranch, but the show isn’t a lesson in marine biology. Poseidon makes a grand appearance, as do a pair of mermaids and a school of ethereal water spirits. Starfish and sea horses grace the stage, as do feather-fish, an invention of Lasher’s that combines the real life Christmas tree worm and feather star. That’s one ocean of a menagerie, all of which is brought to life through clever and crafty costume design.

Enough can’t be said about the costumes. A work-in-progress version of Aquaria was shown at the Houston Fringe Festival back in October, and Lasher ended up winning the prize for Best Costume Design. The colorful trash bag tutus used for the sea urchin sequence are among her favorite creations.

She previously created a batch of trash bag costumes for ChinaCat’s appearance in the 2013 Art Car Parade when she realized that the materials would lend themselves perfectly to the underwater world she was creating. The tutus looked smashing in the October run. “It was a lot of trial and error, but I’ve been exploring the trash bag medium for awhile,” she laughs.

Since its inception, ChinaCat Dance has been a fixture on the Texas dance festival circuit, performing in DiverseWorks’ 12 Minute Max, the Houston Fringe Festival, Big Range Austin, the Brazos Contemporary Dance Festival in College Station, and the Barefoot Brigade Dance Festival in Dallas. For Houstonians who have yet to see a full-length ChinaCat show, expect to see contemporary dance with high entertainment value. “Something I’ve always kept in the mission is to stage simple themes that speak to the heart,” she says. “We’re sharing our love and joy through dance. It’s a simple thing, but I want them to take in the beauty of it.”

With costumes that are as fun as they are elaborate, critters that range from the real to the mythical, and a classical score consisting of Vivaldi, Mozart, Satie, and Rachmaninoff, Aquaria is an immersive fantasy that plays well to both dance and ChinaCat in Aquaria; Photo by Steve Patlanfamily-friendly audiences. “I want them to feel like they’re a visitor in this crazy underwater world that we’ve created, a place where they can escape physical reality for an hour or so,” Lasher explains. “It’s like the submarine ride at Disney Land that takes visitors through this controlled environment. You go through this world that Disney has created, and you see all these silly little scenes that float by. It’s pretty, it’s fun, and it’s entertaining.”

Lasher is working with Rice’s lighting designer to not only bring her ocean dreamscape to life, but to create an overall aquatic atmosphere. “You can light the theater in all these different ways, and we’re talking about how we can do an installation piece so that the audience feels like they are walking into this underwater space.”

Aquaria is just as much about its design elements as it is about the dancing, which makes it a big feat for Lasher’s company. ChinaCat Dance had its formation in 2007 at Sam Houston State University. Four members of the current company are ChinaCat originals who found their way back to Lasher after she graduated with her MFA and moved to San Antonio before settling in Houston.

The other five company members were found through the Houston Community College dance program, of which Lasher is a full-time faculty member. To be a ChinaCat, a dancer not only has to be a strong mover, but has to have the right personality to fit with the rest of the pack. With a solid and committed troupe by her side, Aquaria is just the beginning of Lasher’s goal to produce a full-length show every year to year-and-a-half. With the terrain of mermaids and Poseidon covered, I’m curious as to what environments and dreamscapes the Cats will explore next.

ChinaCat Dance presents Aquaria at the Rice Recreation Center Dance Theater in the Gibbs Recreation Center at Rice University on December 12 and 13 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.chinacatdance.com

About the Author

Adam Castaneda is a dancer, writer, and arts administrator. He is the Executive/Artistic Director of FrenetiCore, and performs with Suchu Dance, the Pilot Dance Project, Bones and Memory Dance, and Holding Space Dance Collective.

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