Stepping in the Gap

Amy Morrow/ The Theorists. Photo by Marshall Tidrick

Amy Morrow/ The Theorists. Photo by Marshall Tidrick

Painter Ergon Schiele once said that “to restrict an artist is a crime.  It is to murder germinating life.”  With grants diminishing, artists turning to jobs with better pay, and performance venues closing, it’s a testament to the devotion of dance artists and their enthusiasts that we continue to see innovation on the stage.  But devotion alone only goes so far.  Choreographers need champions, like Dance Gallery Festival.  Dance Gallery Festival steps in the gap by absorbing the costs of producing and marketing work in a state-of-art theater.  This allows the choreographers to focus on the dance.  Artistic Director Astrid von Ussar says she looks for “something special, something that stands out” when selecting emerging and established choreographers to showcase in the Dance Gallery Festival in New York City and Huntsville, Texas.  The Lone Star State can see this year’s festival at Sam Houston State University on November 4 and 5, 2016.

von Ussar established the Dance Gallery Festival ten years ago in New York City; this is the seventh year in Texas, where the festival is housed in the Sam Houston State University dance program.  Hoping to gain insight on how best to cultivate choreographic talent, I asked von Ussar a few questions about this year’s festival.

L: You’ve said that people don’t take a chance on new talent.  Tell me more about that.

A: New talent for me equals quality choreographers who haven’t managed to get their work out there beyond small showcases. With high production costs in terms of theater rental and printing/distributing of press materials, choreographers just starting out have a difficult time producing their work on a large scale. That’s where we come in, we take a chance on new talent and present them in a high quality setting at no cost to them with hopes that it will advance their career.

RudduR Dance. Photo by Alex Bustamante

RudduR Dance. Photo by Alex Bustamante

Rohan Bhargava of Rovaco Dance Company and Chris Rudd of RudduR Dance are new to the Texas festival.  Rudd is certainly one to watch as his varied credits include dancing with Shen Wei, creation and performance for Cirque du Soleil, and collaboration with numerous ballet companies and famous contemporary choreographers.  He also was the first black person to perform the title role of Balanchine’s Nutcracker in the United States.  Returning to the festival this year are Mike Esperanza of BARE Dance, Jennifer Mabus, John Beasant III, Amy Morrow/The Theorists, wild goose chase dance, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, and M/Motions’ Manuel Vignoulle.  We can also expect to see well-known Bruce Wood Dance Project.

In addition, Amy Morrow, known for her sinewy and autobiographical solos, returns in a duet with dancer/photographer Kelsey Oliver.  Jennifer Mabus, a two-time festival veteran as a performer, will present a piece for nine women inspired by interviews with women who have been left behind in Syria.  Mabus tells, “their anger but also their growing power is remarkable.”

Dance Gallery Festival’s mission to launch choreographers has been successful. Their alums have performed at the historic Jacob’s Pillow, Joyce Theater, and even found commercial avenues on television.  

L: The festival began in New York City, what keeps you coming back each year to Texas? 

A: The Dance Gallery Festival Texas is a very rewarding experience for all of the participants. I keep pursuing it because all of the choreographers and dancers who engage in the festival in Texas can’t stop talking about what a fabulous and gratifying time they have there. The students are eager to learn, there is ample opportunity for exchange, and the facilities are wonderful. We love going to Texas every year!

Festivals are a great way for dancers to connect with their community, share ideas, and get a sense of what’s going on in other parts of the country.

L:  In reviewing submissions, what do you look for in an application? 

A: Something that is fresh. I am looking for artists that have a voice of their own. This can come in many forms, which is the interesting thing to me about the art form of dance.

L: What trends in the contemporary/modern dance world do you see on the horizon? 

A: I do not look for trends. Trends, to me, means everyone’s work begins to look the same.  I guess I am wanting to champion the diversity of exploration in the field.

L:  As an audience we see the work on the stage, but what happens off stage at the DGF?

A: Our programming includes some “next steps” for select choreographers that encourage development of their choreographic voice, such as the Level Up showcase in New York that provides funding for the creation of a new work for the festival. Or the SHSU Resident Guest Artist that commissions choreographers to create a new work on upper level BFA dance majors at Sam Houston State University. 

Manuel Vignoulle/M-motions. Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

Manuel Vignoulle/M-motions. Photo by Jaqlin Medlock

Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance’s Manuel Vignoulle is a part of the residency program and is setting a work on the students at SHSU.  Ten artists will teach master classes to students and festival participants.  

L: Anyone we should be on the lookout for?

A: I think all of the artists are outstanding and hope that their involvement in this showcase will be a springboard to more opportunities for all of them. 

Performances are November 4 and 5, 2016 at 8pm. Tickets are $15 and are available by phone at 936.294.2339 and online at

The Gaertner Performing Arts Center Dance Theater is located at 815 17th St.

For more information visit,

About the Author

Lydia Hance is a choreographer, filmmaker, collaborator, and educator. Lydia Hance is the Founder and Artistic Director of Frame Dance Productions, a contemporary dance company making collaborative works for the screen and stage.

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