Karen Stokes Dance Turns Twenty

Hometown. Photo by Buddy Steves

For a working dance artist, every show is a milestone. For a choreographer, every produced piece is a victory. And for or a director of a dance company, each conquered season is a blessing. But what does it mean to notch twenty years of consistent quality production? Few ever get the opportunity to answer this question, but this year Houston’s Karen Stokes gets to ponder the implications. “It’s interesting because it feels a lot longer than twenty years,” she says. “And then it feels like, wait, I just started this thing.”

On November 10 and 11, Karen Stokes Dance performs X20 at the MATCH, a concert that features a retrospective of her work as well as the premier of Mapping & Glaciers. When she realized that this year would be an anniversary season, she knew she didn’t want to create a rep concert that was just about the past. After all, Stokes has built a reputation for consistently producing new choreography. “So I got onto the business of creating a new work,” she says.

The theme of mapping sprang from the idea of line drawing in space.  “Literally less than a week of thinking about that, I started to think about the environment, maps, red lines,” says Stokes. “All of these things are incredibly a part of our natural environment, and so much of the natural boundaries are constantly changing. Humans have imposed our own maps on things, and that’s problematic in many ways.” She’ll be addressing her concerns head-on, but will be doing so through an abstract framework. This investigation, like the best of her work, starts with an exploration of movement, and then builds through the process.

Pronoun Pieces. Photo by Ed McCullough.

As Stokes puts it, mapping is a big topic. “For as long as anyone has looked back at geology, landscapes have changed,” she says. While much of this change, especially in the last century, has been caused by human development, metamorphosis is also the way of Mother Nature. But there’s also the fact that lines, by implication, have the potential to divide. Speaking with Stokes, I get a sense this has been weighing on her, the idea that maps highlight borders, artificial lines that speak to differences rather than commonalities.

“In a way, I’m mapping,” she says. “Choreographers map space, map groups on stage. Even chance dance is mapping.” Stokes observes that as an artist it’s hard not to be impacted by the cultural climate, which is a turbulence all its own. Her premier will reflect on matters that are very real in tactile, but with a focus on her movement banks. This is why I enjoy watching her dances so much; even when Stokes is tackling weighty issues, the work is never heavy-handed or didactic, but all about the movement.

Mapping & Glaciers is Act II of the evening; Act I will look back on the choreographer’s lengthy career in Houston through live performance and film. Cowleader, a solo created for Toni Valle from Stokes’ beloved HOMETOWN, will make an appearance, as will Raw Silk, a quintet set to the music of Bill Ryan. Teresa Chapman and Leslie Scates will perform One Winter One Single Day, a throwback to the first work Stokes presented in Houston.

It’s been a contemplative time, looking at this extensive body of work that now goes back decades. “When I look back at these pieces, I think, I don’t even think I can create that work now,” she says. “And then the works I create now, I couldn’t create then. There’s something a time period and the materials that comes out of it.” There’s also something to say about audiences of a particular era. She admits that her students nowadays know her for the site-specific works she has created in recent years, but she’s at her most comfortable and exploratory making work for the proscenium stage. X20 will allow her new followers to get a glimpse of that world.  

Interlude. Photo by Buddy Steves.

Perhaps the most exciting bit of X20 will be a reprisal of Green, which originally premiered in 2008. Current company members will be joined onstage by past KSDers, including Catalina Alexandra, Yahudi Castaneda, Teresa Chapman, Lauren Cohen, Bonnie Collins, Jessica Cortez, Jenny Dodson, Julie Fox, Thomas Henderson, Joe Modlin, Jessica Nieto, Erica Okoronkwo, Damian Robison, Sophia Torres, Leslie Scates, jhon r. stronks, Mechelle Tunstall, and Misty Wagers. That roster alone is a testament to the impact that Stokes has had in the local dance community, and it will be quite the sensation to see so many iterations of her company together for one big celebration. “I think it will be joyful,” says Stokes, reflecting on the upcoming process to get everyone in sync for this bit of Green. “This is about recognizing the amazing bench of dancers that I’ve been blessed to work with. These are the people that make whatever dance happens in Houston happen. What a gift.”

And it’s a gift for Houston audiences to be able to witness a choreographer celebrate her company’s twenty-year benchmark of dance-making. Here’s to another twenty!

Karen Stokes Dance will present X20 on November 10 & 11 at 8pm at MATCH. Tickets are available at matchouston.org.


About the Author

Adam Castañeda is a dancer and arts administrator in Houston, Texas. He is the Executive and Artistic Director of the Pilot Dance Project, a non-profit arts organization with the mission to empower and transform communities through innovative dance, theater, and visual art. With his company he has performed in evening-length works by Ashley Horn, jhon r. stronks, Jennifer Mabus, Jaime Walne-Fruge, and Heather VonReichbauer. When not with the Pilot Dance Project, he enjoys performing with Suchu Dance/Jennifer Wood.

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