Houston Ballet Dancers Join Dance Salad for its Platinum Anniversary

Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite of the Houston Ballet in Shadow Lovers.  Choreographer: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo.

Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite of the Houston Ballet in Shadow Lovers. Choreographer: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo.

Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years. Our phones. Airport security. The Internet.

Something that has not changed one bit is Nancy Henderek’s commitment to presenting a feast of outstanding dance in Houston. Houston International Dance Coalition’s Dance Salad Festival, which she produces and curates annually, is celebrating its platinum anniversary this season. Henderek founded the festival as an expatriate in Belgium in the early 90s. Upon her return to the U.S. she brought the festival home to Houston.

“Our earlier Dance Salads were focused more on local, national and international performers. When we evolved to be Houston International Dance Coalition, we decided to focus almost exclusively on pieces, dancers, companies and choreographers that Houston would [otherwise] never be exposed to.”

An exception is this year’s festival, which will feature Houston Ballet principal dancers Connor Walsh and Melody Mennite in Shadow Lovers, a duet choreographed by festival favorite, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

Ochoa is a Colombian-Belgian who has created versatile and critically acclaimed choreography for dance companies throughout the world. Henderek has been a fervent and loyal supporter of Ochoa’s work since 2006.

“I can honestly say that it is thanks to her that I have a career in the States because she was the first person who presented my work here,” says Ochoa. “I’m always grateful when a programmer or artistic director gives me an opportunity but having someone present your work regularly is priceless.”

Ochoa has another fan in Melody Mennite, who first met Ochoa in 2010 in Seattle as a guest artist with Olivier Wevers’ daring, project-based company, Whim W’Him. It was the first time Mennite had had work created on her by a female choreographer.

“It was a different dynamic than other experiences I’d had before,” recalls Mennite. “Ultimately, I fell in love with [Ochoa’s] dedication, creativity, and who she is as a person. She tells you exactly what she’s looking for and makes sure you understand your part of the process the whole time.”

The two women formed a mutual admiration and remained in contact. Cylindrical Shadows, the work on which they had collaborated in Seattle ended in a duet for Mennite and Pacific Northwest Ballet principal, Lucien Postlewaite.

“Its motivation is something extraordinarily personal to her,” explains Mennite of Ochoa’s pas de deux. “When she created the duet, she said that she had imagined it could be taken out of context and performed alone.”

As an autonomous version of the duet simmered, Mennite included Connor Walsh in the conversation and the re-working that would become Shadow Lovers was set in motion.

Members of Norwegian National Ballet, Oslo, in Ibsen's Ghosts Choreographed by Cina Espejord and directed by Marit Moum Aune.  Photo by Eric Berg.

Members of Norwegian National Ballet, Oslo, in Ibsen’s Ghosts Choreographed by Cina Espejord and directed by Marit Moum Aune. Photo by Eric Berg.

Henderek spends the year prior to each Dance Salad Festival viewing and selecting work for the event. Atypically, Shadow Lovers entered the festival sight-unseen after a phone call from Mennite. Henderek, inspired by Ochoa’s previous work and intrigued by Mennite and Walsh’s involvement agreed to include their duet in the lineup.

“A pas de deux can reveal a relationship between two people, their feelings , personal expression, love and anger. It is a very personal and intimate kind of dance,” says Henderek.

Indeed, Mennite observes that in addition to its hauntingly beautiful accompaniment (Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas), it is the intimate humanity of Shadow Lovers that makes it special.

“There are fancy and beautiful steps and difficult partnering but every movement has a clear intention and is meaningful. It is sensitive yet powerful. There is also a vulnerability that I think draws in the audience. The man and woman dancing have a connection that is very lonely and yet very intimate at the same time.”

Walsh and Mennite will join other beautiful dancers from all over the world to perform in Dance Salad Festival 2015.

The hometown connection continues with Queensland Ballet. Artistic Director, Li Cunxin is a former Houston Ballet principal and author of international best-selling autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer. Queensland Ballet will perform Short Dialogues by the highly acclaimed choreographer Nils Christe, set to Philip Glass’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and Through to You by Andrew Simmons.

Members of Introdans (Arhnem, Netherlands) in Trompe L'Oeil. Choreographer: Jiri Kylian. Photo by Hans Gerritsen

Members of Introdans (Arhnem, Netherlands) in Trompe L’Oeil. Choreographer: Jiri Kylian. Photo by Hans Gerritsen

Also on the Easter-weekend programs are Norwegian National Ballet with the U.S. premiere of Ibsen’s Ghost, based on Henrik Ibsen’s drama Ghosts; Introdans with Kylian’s Trompe l’Oeil; Eastman performing specially curated selections from works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; New York’s Armitage Gone! Dance Company with a pas de deux from Ligeti Essays; Semperoper Ballett from Dresden, Germany; and Bereishit Dance Company from Seoul, South Korea in their American debut.

Mennite, who has never performed in Dance Salad before says, “I am honored to be a part of projects that enrich the local culture. I think Nancy [Henderek] works hard to bring a diverse taste of dance in the world as it is now. To be a part of that is a special thing.”

Dance Salad Festival performances will take place at 7:30 PM, April 2, 3 and 4 at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater. For updates, information on related events and to buy and print tickets go to www.dancesalad.org.

Nichelle Suzanne is a frequent contributor to the Dance DiSH, Arts+Culture Texas, and the NYC Rockettes website, Rockettes.com. She writes about dance education and training at her own site, danceadvantage.net.

About the Author

Nichelle Suzanne is a web and social media specialist for Rice University and the founder of DanceAdvantage.net. For 10 years, she has covered dance in Houston and beyond for publications such as the Dance Dish, Arts+Culture Texas, CultureMap, and the NYC Rockettes blog at Rockettes.com.

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