Two to Watch

Two to Watch: Laura Edson and Sidra Bell Create New Works for The Houston Met’s 2|2

By Michael Wade Simpson

Peter Chu - "hidden in plain sight" - Photo by Simon Gentry

Peter Chu – “hidden in plain sight” – Photo by Simon Gentry

Houston Metropolitan Dance Company’s artistic director, Marlana Doyle, clearly has a mission in bringing freelance choreographersfrom all over the US to work with her dancers. “The diversity of dances creates more versatile dancers, and the audiences get to see the work of very different artists. I want to make the dancers strong, and I also want to present work that is fresh and new,” she said.

Houston will have the opportunity to sample the works of five very different choreographers in a repertory concert on November 7 & 8 at the Cullen Theatre, Wortham Center. Doyle said she sometimes struggles finding a theme for concerts like these, with such different pieces in them. “I have two premieres and two pieces from the repertory, two female and two males; I have two emerging choreographers and two who are more established,” says Doyle. “The title of the concert, 2|2 also deliberately includes a vertical line between the numbers. The barre in the middle represents a fifth work, hidden in plain sight, a piece by Peter Chu, which premiered last April.”

Lauren Edson

Lauren Edson

Laura Edison launches her choreographer career

Lauren Edson, who lives in Boise, Idaho and recently left the Trey McIntyre  Company in order to pursue a choreographic career full-time, had already created her piece, After the Rain, with MET Dance. New York-based choreographer Sidra Bell, on the other hand, had just arrived in Houston, and was about to begin an intensive, one week process with the dancers which would culminate in her premiere, Under Your Skin.

Edson, who has studied ballet since she was three, and graduated from Juilliard, said one of her goals as a choreographer was to move beyond the classical vocabulary which is so much a part of her DNA by now. For Bell, who studied at the Ailey School and with the Dance Theater of Harlem before going off to get a history degree at Yale, every opportunity to work with a new group of dancers is a journey into itself. Her work can have a decidedly dance theater bent, she said.

Both artists work with improvisation during the rehearsal process, which can offer an opportunity to get to know the dancers involved in a project, but can also slow down a process that has a necessarily limited window of time in which to come to fruition.  Edson had five days in which to create a work from scratch. “I like to work with the short time period. My first instincts are better,” says Edson. “If not, I sometimes marinate in thought and go off on tangents.”It’s really great for me. It’s fun to work in the moment.”

Edson did, however, say she came into her Houston engagement feeling creatively drained, after completing an intensive period of work with her own company in Boise, and was a little worried about coming up with a new work for MET Dance. “It turned out to be a great, cathartic experience,” she says. “The dancers were so eager, and they dance so beautifully together as a corps. I hate to use counts and only use them when I have to. In this case, we were able to move along at a faster pace because these dancers were so good at working together.”

After the Rain uses several movements from a “cinematic” orchestral work by Max Richter called Memoryhouse. “It feels like Phillip Glass with more variance in theme.” The movement they came up with was ballet-based, but not at all classical,” says Edison. “Ballet vocabulary has been in my body for a long time, and I am informed by it. But I use it more as a departure point. I try not to use ballet terms in the creative process. The word, ‘pirouette’ is a label. I’m searching for new ways of doing things.”

Edson was happy with the final product. “I work instinctually. It felt like they connected to it in a way. The music was a great fit. Roots were growing in a great way.”

Sidra Bell draws on the Met’s raw energy

Sidra Bell

Sidra Bell

Bell began choreographing professionally at 22, and by now, at the age of 34, has accomplished many of the early career goals she set for herself. These include winning 1st prize at the Solo Danz Theater Festival in Stuttgart, Germany in 2011, international engagements for her “boutique” dance company in New York, teaching positions at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia and Barnard College, and choreographic commissions from such organizations as LINES Ballet in San Francisco, the Juilliard School, Dance Theater Workshop, Robert Moses’ KIN, and the Stella Adler School of Acting. Her latest coup was the choreographer’s job on a feature film, Test, the story of a dance company in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis. Still, she says she feels she is, “almost at the beginning.”

Her own education also included an MFA in choreography from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance, a year on scholarship at the Ailey School as an adult, (“I needed to get back into dancing shape after Yale”) and a summer at Jacob’s Pillow. It was through veteran artists she met at this point, as an adult dancemaker, that her own voice as a choreographer began to develop. “At the Ailey School I worked with Helen Pickett, from Frankfurt Ballet. I was an older student and she saw my curiosity. We really connected. She opened up the canvas for me in terms of choices in technique and form.” Susan Marshall, a choreographer who rose to prominence in the 1990’s, was another influence, this time at Jacob’s Pillow. “She opened up the idea of an entry point, how to collaborate with dancers, that it was OK to use them to generate material, to have a dialogue,” explains Bell.

Having set dances since then on children, breakdancers in Denmark, and actors at the famous Stella Adler School in New York (“working with steps and dance technique wasn’t working there, I had to throw out my curriculum and develop a more improvisational, free-form way of working”) she arrived in Houston feeling comfortable with the idea of a ‘tabula rasa.’

She had met the dancers earlier, at a workshop she was leading in New York. “I was excited by their energy,” she said. “I like to be raw and play.” Sometimes, she will start off asking the dancers to get “unfettered.” “I’ll ask them to dance full blast for five minute to see what they have inside of them. I’ll say, ‘Do Your Worst Work.’”

“My intention is to collaborate,” says Bell. “To create something with the whole group that will identify with their culture.”

Other dances on the program will include Eye by Jason McDole, and Ask the Dust, by Ricky Ruiz, both MET Dance commissions, which premiered earlier in the year.

About the Author

Michael Wade Simpson is editor of He writes about the performing arts for the Santa Fe New Mexican. Previously, he reviewed dance for the "San Francisco Chronicle." MFA dance, Smith College. Founder, "Small City Dance Project," Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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