The rain held all weekend, but at the last moment decided to fall. Over the previous few days, clouds had hovered over the Houston skies, releasing fat drops at arbitrary intervals, hinting at approaching storms, but never quite delivering.
I was saying goodbye to the dancers at their hotel, a mere seven blocks from my own, when the sky opened up. Sheets of rain blanketed the empty downtown streets as I ran through them at top speed. Despite the powerful gusts and blinding downpour, I couldn’t help but smile as I negotiated rain puddles and red lights. After all, this had turned into one of the most unexpectedly satisfying weekends of my life.
I hadn’t planned to attend the Dance Salad festival this year. In fact, I had never heard of it before stumbling upon a short blurb in Dance Magazine a few weeks prior. I was intrigued enough to visit the website and then a bit taken aback when I saw the extraordinary line-up of some of Europe’s best dance companies and most celebrated choreographers. All in one weekend? In Houston? Really?
But alas, I was already scheduled to fly to San Francisco that very weekend. A long-term relationship had recently ended by mutual agreement and my partner and I had decided to meet there to tie up loose ends. A day before my scheduled departure, however, I was told that maybe it wasn’t a good idea, maybe I shouldn’t go up, maybe we shouldn’t talk for a while.
Stung by the emotional slap in the face, I followed the advise of a good friend and decided to reclaim the weekend for myself and do what in the back of my mind I had been contemplating for two weeks: I went to Houston. Within 24 hours of my great disappointment, I had booked a flight (using a free plane voucher), booked a hotel (from a discount website), and bought my Dance Salad festival tickets (shockingly affordable for the scale and quality of these performances), and landed in a city I had never been to and where I knew not a soul.
But when I arrived at the Wortham Center, a large performing arts venue in the center of Houston’s impressive theater district, I actually felt a sense of familiarity; a sense of comfort as I entered the theater and took my seat. As the house lights faded, I was overcome with awe that I was actually where I was and not a small amount of pride for the chance I took to make it happen.
It’s easy to forget the power that dance is capable of. Dancers talk about the need to keep things fresh night after night of performing the same repertory and I realized that as audience members, we too can fall into the same trap. Seeing the same local companies, practicing our same pre-performance rituals; we can become complacent as viewers if we’re not careful. So in stepping out of my comfort zone, rearranging my reference points, and going out of my way to see something new, I was able to watch with a new awareness and an emotional connection that made everything seem that much more vibrant and personal.
I had come to Houston, I started to understand, to be healed by dance. I needed to fall in love with it here to replace the hurt I had just experienced. So Mats Ek’s “Apartment,” which opened the program on Friday night, wasn’t a mere playful and nostalgic look at two lovers – it felt instead like a meditation on all relationships, the momentary pleasures they offer and the risks people are willing to take for them. Also from Mr. Ek, Ana Laguna’s comical solo made me laugh for the first time in days. She brought grace and humor to the stage and I was reminded of the importance of exercising grace and humor in life as well.
Excerpts from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Origines” & “Myth” brought forth an honesty that was unexpected and refreshing. One sequence in which an Asian man physically becomes the material accessories on which Western culture has come to depend offered a strikingly visual commentary on exploitation with such clarity that not a word was needed to enhance or explain it. And Alexandra Gilbert’s grotesque solo left me near tears on both viewings. When dance reminds you how big the world is, how full of pain and how full of beauty, as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui did, it is easy to put your own worries aside and find yourself embraced by the larger human experience.
Following the show on Friday night, I stumbled into the post-performance reception (at the invitation of my seat neighbors, who happened to be sponsors of the festival) and had the pleasure of meeting many of the dancers who moments before had taken by breath away in the theater. And quite quickly, we became friends. Just two hours later, I was enjoying drinks with Israelis, Norwegians, Spaniards, etc. and reminded of how close a family the dance community can be, even on an international scale.
The next day, as I was enjoying breakfast with one of the dancers I had met the night prior, I realized that Houston didn’t feel quite as foreign anymore. When I walked into the theater on Saturday night for the closing performance of the festival, I had the sense that I was no longer watching strangers. Once again I was treated to the work of master choreographers like William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Carolyn Carlson, Jorma Elo, to name just a few, and interpreted with confidence and sophistication by, among others, the Dresden Semper Oper Ballet, English National Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet.
It was perhaps the closing work of both evenings, however, that affected me the most. If I had come all the way to Texas only to see Hofesh Schecter’s “Uprising,” as performed by Carte Blanche, the national contemporary dance company of Norway, I would have called the trip a success The power and intensity of the work, fueled by the driving bass of the music, the stark, blinding lights, and the raw energy of the seven male dancers, was like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. The juxtaposition of masculine intimacy with animal physicality blurred the line between man and beast. Tender moments suddenly dissolved into confrontation and aggression and I understood how quickly something so seemingly harmless can morph into conflict. Hadn’t I experienced something very similar only two days before?
Just when Schecter’s revolution felt on the verge of explosion, a little red flag was raised and the constant drone of electronic instruments gave way to the souring sounds of an orchestral crescendo. It’s a humorous moment, where these tough, brutal men suddenly look like little boys ready to play a game. Still, the red flag, that symbol of strength and defiance, emerges triumphant.
I came to Houston with no expectations, no particular agenda, just in pursuit of some inspiring dance and maybe a little escape. In a sense, I felt the trip was my little red flag – my attempt to take back my situation. To anyone who has the opportunity, I highly recommend the experience of embarking on a spontaneous trip to see something new, something you suspect may change your life but aren’t entirely sure. Because even if it doesn’t live up to your expectations, the experience will have value. After all, the lesson is in the journey.
At Dance Salad, my expectations were more than exceeded. Artistically, I was fulfilled. Emotionally, I was rejuvenated. And my faith in dance as a living, breathing, healing art form was undeniably confirmed.