Silvina Cortés and Damien Fournier in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s 'Embrace'.  Photo © Amitava Sarkar/ PhotographyInsight

Silvina Cortés and Damien Fournier in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ‘Embrace’.
Photo © Amitava Sarkar/PhotographyInsight

Cullen Theater, Wortham Centre, Houston, TX; April 17-19, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Dance festivals and galas can be something of a hit and miss affair: the ingredients may not gel or quite simply there may not be sufficient quality items. However the 2014 DSF avoided these pitfalls and hit the jackpot. Anchored by two show stoppers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Embrace” and Contemporary Dragon KungFu Dance Company’s “Gateway”, each act climaxed on a high. In between were gems of the highest order including Laetitia Pujol and Manuel Legris in two pas de deux from John Neumeier and Angelin Preljocaj, and danceworks from East and West both classical and contemporary. It was a truly vintage year.

Cherkaoui was this year’s guest of honour. While several of his works have been shown in previous years, this was his first visit to Houston. In a pre-festival forum at the Museum of Fine Arts, he delighted the audience with an insight into his creative process.

“Embrace”, the curated version of the full length, “M¡longa”, is a half hour essence of tango. Cherkaoui draws us into a steamy arena where solidly built men move with siren grace and legs in fish net tights and stiletto heels flicker with the venom of a serpent’s tongue.

Standard duo couples dissolve into expectant grouping and edgy trios. The sombreness of a funeral is sharpened by the nearness of death and culminates in a tough talking trio of men. Silvina Cortés and Damien Fournier are the contemporary cuckoos in the tango dancers’ nest. She insinuates herself between a couple before finding a more compatible partner in Fournier who winds her round and round his body to their mutual satisfaction. Each couple adds a unique flavour to the mix but it was Gisela Galaessi partnered by ‘Nikito’ Martin Epherra whose sultry relationship sparking with live electricity reached an explosive climax. Meanwhile, in the pit the five musicians, led by Fernando Marzan, created tango heaven.

Beijing Dance/LDTX in Willy Tsao's 'Sorrowful Song'.  Photo © Amitava Sarkar/ PhotographyInsight

Beijing Dance/LDTX in Willy Tsao’s ‘Sorrowful Song’.
Photo © Amitava Sarkar/PhotographyInsight

Willy Tsao’s Beijing Dance/LTDX returned with two new works choreographed by Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo for the ensemble of 12 dancers. Established in 2004, the company was China’s first independent dance company, indicative of the change that have come about in China’s cultural landscape.

“Treading on Grass” is the sequel to the powerful “All Rivers Red” shown in 2011 and continues the dialogue between tradition and innovation, the baton being passed on to younger dancers and the mood more tranquil. “Sorrowful Song” takes its cue from Henryk Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” and has the inevitability of Greek tragedy in its powerful evocation of despair.

It is interesting to see these dancers on the same stage as contemporary dance from Germany, Spain and Denmark. The Chinese dancers with their lighter build have a style that is more flexible and dynamic, their excellent training offering a perfectly tuned instrument. Their depth of passion often takes westerners by surprise as this is not a characteristic we usually associate with Chinese dancers. Particularly in “Sorrowful Song”, in choreography that drove the dancers relentlessly, the emotional level was akin to bloodletting.

Manuel Legris is now director of the Vienna State Ballet so it was a joy to see him back on stage again. In the final pas de deux from Neumeier’s “Sylvia”, Pujol as the mature woman retains the palimpsest of her youthful devotion matching Legris’ Aminta who still nurtures a passion for her. To the rather trite melody of Delibes pizzicato polka they remember their earlier love in tentative touch and awkward pauses. Life has moved on for both and in Neumeier’s choreography, so perfectly musical, every gesture is redolent of both past and present.

Laetitia Pujol and Manuel Legris in 'Le Parc'.  Photo © Amitava Sarkar/ PhotographyInsight

Laetitia Pujol and Manuel Legris in ‘Le Parc’.
Photo © Amitava Sarkar/PhotographyInsight

Preljocaj’s “Le Parc”, another gem, balances on a knife edge between eroticism and purity. The intimate gestures are heightened by the 18th century dishabille as Pujol bows in submission tucking her shift between her legs then stands erect, brushing her hair back to gaze directly at Legris, as perfect a mate as any heroine could wish for. She hangs round his neck spinning to the point of ecstasy as he raises his arms chiming with the dynamics of the music. At this point, even Mozart finds his match.

New to the Festival was Jean-Philippe Dury’s Elephant in the Black Box (EBB) from Barcelona. The quality of their male dancers was revealed in their performance of Nacho Duato’s “Remanso”. The sweetness of the music, Enrique Grandos’ “Poetic Waltzes” contrasts neatly with the virile display of neo-classical dance highlighted by comic instants and inclusion of a single red rose: an ironic hint? But then, maybe not.

Dury’s own choreography in “CEL Black Days” was a mature work that made intelligent use of video projection in conjunction with the onstage dancers. His choreography is strong and interesting and the visuals that constantly crop and frame the movements raise it to a heightened level of perception: thought provoking and impressive.

Representatives from the Royal Danish Ballet, Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas, brought one of the most intriguing pieces of choreography. “Traditional”, (though stylistically far from that concept) choreographed by Alessandro Sousa Periera was in the genre of Scandi Noir that we in the UK have come to love: monochrome minimalism, urban grudge and top quality performance. The understated work was expertly structured in such original dance language that it held the attention throughout.

For a festival that boasts new choreography Bournonville’s 160 year old “Kermessen i Brügge” was an unexpected but not unwelcome inclusion. The pair delivered it with ease and charm – just to prove their Danish pedigree. In particular, Kaas is one to watch, not only does he have all the physical attributes including a wicked pair of feet, but a quiet charisma to match.

Samantha Lynch of Norwegian National Ballet in Daniel Proietto’s 'Cygne'.  Photo © Amitava Sarkar/ PhotographyInsight

Samantha Lynch of Norwegian National Ballet in Daniel Proietto’s ‘Cygne’.
Photo © Amitava Sarkar/PhotographyInsight

From the Staatstheater Wiesbaden, four dancers presented Stephan Thoss’ “Loops and Lines” to John Adams music. It was a good piece of choreography and well performed by the strong team but suffered somewhat in this year’s particularly strong line-up with so many extraordinary numbers.

From the Norwegian National Ballet came “Cygne”, Daniel Proietto’s ode to the Dying Swan danced by Samantha Lynch. Proietto has performed at the Festival in previous years but this was his first choreography. It is a dense work layered, but not overwhelmed, with references. Olga Wojciechowska wrote the music which also accompanies the Tennyson’s poem sung by boy soprano Andreas J Augustinius. He had a natural innocence which played well as he confronts the extreme and sometimes grotesque movements of the dying creature. Lynch was a popular choice: a former dancer with the Houston Ballet the audience were delighted to welcome her back. She balances the reality of the death with the theatricality of the diva, with the diva winning by a short head.

The Contemporary Dragon KungFu Dance Company amazed even those of us who thought we had seen every trick and every permutation of Chinese skill. But these 11 young artists blew away any preconceptions and left a breathless audience every night.

he Contemporary Dragon KungFu Dance Company in 'Gateway'.  Photo © Amitava Sarkar/ PhotographyInsight

The Contemporary Dragon KungFu Dance Company in ‘Gateway’.
Photo © Amitava Sarkar/PhotographyInsight

They seemed almost to breathe as one their timing was so perfect. It had to be, as their aerial leaps and somersaults left no room for error. The sleeves on their simply cut grey robes unfurled like pendants to provide startling visual accent then collected in with such lightning speed you were left doubting the evidence of your eyes. The work opens in a sombre ritualistic manner but builds in skilful climactic steps, each more amazing than the last, to a finale that swept the audience to their feet.

Liu Lu, the creative force behind the group, trained at the Beijing Dance Academy but currently works in television where she spotted the group of martial artists. After a crash course in contemporary dance she forged “Gateway”, their signature piece. This is their first venture outside of China and I am sure it won’t be their last.

This year’s Dance Salad had a quality that will be hard to match in the 2015 Festival – its twentieth anniversary in Houston. However the intrepid Festival director Nancy Henderek has a finely honed skill in choice and curation of choreographies and will no doubt rise to the challenge.

Maggie Foyer talks to now Vienna State Ballet Artistic Director Manual Legris