Houston Contemporary Dance Company Lets Their Hair Down

Photo by Lynn Lane

Houston Contemporary Dance Company (HCDC) is in its third season. Do the math and you’ll likely deduce that this professional dance ensemble has experienced kind of a rocky start. Fortunately, under the artistic and executive direction of Marlana Doyle, a proven leader in the Houston dance community, the company overcame the obstacles of 2020 and 2021 to debut its polished and vibrant production Interplay/Overlay for one night only inside Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall on the final evening of April 2022.

A close friend of Doyle’s, New York-based choreographer Joe Celej is a frequent collaborator. A reprisal of his pre-pandemic work Intersections, which was to debut initially in April 2020 and was presented by HCDC on stage last November, opened the performance. 

Much like the Sol LeWitt artwork from which it draws its inspiration, Celej’s work is deceptively simple and relies on the visual and dramatic strengths of the diagonal. Comprised of four movements — a duet, quartet, trio and sextet — the sections are rearranged by chance for each performance and, on this night, appeared in the order just listed. The score is a four-song EP by English songwriter Matt Maltese which includes the Leonard Cohen croon Paper Thin Hotel, used effectively by Celej during the quietly dazzling trio.

Timely amid the war waged against Ukraine, the fierce and determined — but not aggressive — choreography of Ja’ Malik’s new work, Legions, seemed a tribute to warriors fighting for peace. Striking performances were delivered by four women, Risa D’Souza, Avery Moore, Genene Wallis-McGrath and Shantelle Rush, in white jumpsuits with the legs slit at each side and male dancer Dwain Travis in black. Already bearing some resemblance to the futuristic fashion of Hollywood’s science fiction genre, the braided fabric beginning at the neck and wrapped asymmetrically down one arm of the performers added to this costuming comparison. Like cellist Zoë Keating, whose haunting music accompanies the work, Malik draws from classical training to speak in a voice that is unreservedly contemporary. 

Photo by Lynn Lane

Also on the program, was a performance from guest company Contemporary West Dance Theatre (formerly Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater). A choreographic collaboration between the company’s artistic director Bernard H. Gaddis and dancer Avree Walker, El Corazón de un Hombre’s (A Man’s Heart) showcased the virtuosity of their quartet of male performers. With limbs often stretched taught like the strings of its Spanish guitar and piano accompaniment, the four men commanded the stage with fluidity and confident grace. They were a highlight in an evening of strong performances. 

The Saturday show was not without incident. An HCDC member tested positive for Covid-19 that morning, resulting in a last-minute cast replacement and reblocking that, to the ensemble’s credit, was undetectable by show time.

Given this reminder that we can’t quite relax in response to the virus, there’s some irony in the title and spirit of the production’s closer Let My Hair Down, a world premiere by the company’s resident choreographer and native son Robbie Moore. Nevertheless, the work — featuring infectiously groovy live music by local indie pop duo Say Girl Say — succeeded in providing long-overdue catharsis.

Photo by Lynn Lane

Wearing an array of aubergine pantsuits, the dancers appeared engaged in a post-happy hour night out. The concert hall became an acceptable stand-in for a club with curtains withdrawn, exposing the backstage walls. The lushly layered instrumentation and vixeny vocals of Brigette Yawn and Suad Ihsan supported a cast oozing charisma. 

It’s unclear if the trippy, pedestrian vibe developed by Moore is a reminiscent celebration or a hopeful gaze toward a future featuring uninhibited and palpable human connection and experience. Either way, Let My Hair Down, like HCDC’s unflappable and self-assured performances all evening, felt like a refreshing glimpse of “normal.”

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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