The performance season for ballet and modern has been a hit so far, with Texas Ballet Theatre moving into the Winspear Opera House and TITAS bringing in Parsons Dance, who rocked out at SMU’s McFarlin Auditorium. Complexions Contemporary Ballet also gave a soul-wrenching performance at the Winspear. Smaller companies and individual dancers have also been having an outstanding beginning of the year.
Michele Hanlon, co-director of Elledanceworks, presented her new piece The Guitarist/Outside-In at the Dallas Museum of Art as a part of the exhibit “All the World’s a Stage: Celebrating Performance in the Visual Arts.” Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth also premiered a new work, A Muse Was Here, as part of the DMA’s “All the World’s a Stage” exhibition. And I personally had the opportunity through the University of Texas at Dallas to work with guest artist Renana Raz and the UTD dancers.
Raz, an Israeli-based choreographer, came to UTD as part of the Artist in Residency program offered through Centraltrack, and with the support of the Schusterman Family Foundation. Much of her work deals with Israeli subject matter, but she frames it in a contemporary concert dance format. And even though her works feature Israeli characters, situations and symbols, they are not explicitly just about the Israeli experience. You can related to the subject whether you are from Israel, have been to Israel or are Jewish.
I was extremely excited to work with Raz, first because I immediately connected with her work, and secondly, because, as a Greek South African who grew up in America, I can relate to the Diaspora ideas she presents. My family lived through a similar situation during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, my father’s abrupt move to Cyprus from South Africa as my grandfather worked to bring about the end of Apartheid with many other South Africans, and my family’s own movement to America. Much of my cultural experiences influence my work, and it was fascinating and inspiring to work with a choreographer who is not afraid to address cultural phenomena, historical elements and gender issues.
The cabaret gender bending “Mustache” – in which I performed alongside two UTD dancers – was part of a new piece of work Raz set on the UTD dancers entitled Bach, Britney, Bigger, Banjo that was influenced by her brief time in Texas. “Mustache” pushed me and the other two dancers to embrace our femininity and love our facial hair! Playing a transgendered cabaret dancer was a role I never thought I would fulfill, but give me that mustache again and I’ll be set! It was so liberating to play a role that was so absolutely foreign yet comfortable. Every woman has that part of her that is just a little bit manly. Rough, seductive, real. But we tend to hide it, especially in American culture. But why? Why not love the curves and love the fact that a woman has a lot more power than a man – a bigger set if you will. Especially in Texas, where bigger is better.
Aside from creating new work, Raz also set established pieces from her repertoire such as Motel (set on Southern Methodist University graduate dance students) and a section, “Hands,” from Kazuaria, which was inspired by and incorporated elements from the Druze debka dance. In this piece, Raz blurred the line between the masculine and feminine binary that exists in many cultures, specifically when it comes to folk dances. Many folk dances are performed exclusively by men or women, and are specifically designed that way. A man would never dance the “Tsifteteli” – a Greek belly dance; and women would never dance the debka. But Raz says why not? Why can’t a woman dance the debka? And she allows them to in Kazuaria, allowing the UTD dancers to experience that cultural element and emotion.
Ultimately, the best part about this experience was getting to know the person behind the choreographer. Renana has a beautiful and welcoming spirit that’s not a façade. Working in the arts and critiquing, I have gotten to meet many dancers and choreographers who are just looking for a good review or a contact, but Renana wasn’t. She was here to work, to teach and to dance. To experience a new life in a new city, and all she really cared about was getting to know each of us. I really appreciate that. She took the time to work with each of us individually as dancers and to help make us better dancers.
In other residencies I have taken part in, or master class or intensives, the choreographers generally do not spend one-on-one time with each dancer, mainly due to the time crunch they are in. But we were lucky to have an entire semester with Renana. We were able to spend three days a week with her, learning her aesthetic; not just learning it, living it. She walked us through her choreographic process and, at times, let us choreograph with her. We were able to infuse our style and movement quality into her technique. It was truly a unique and unforgettable experience.