The Hobby Centre
Zilka Hall, Houston

March 29, 30, 31 2018

Maggie Foyer

This year’s Dance Salad Festival was defined by the sheer quality of performance as some of the world’s top dancers were in evidence in a range of roles. Many were international names and others not yet household names but with a huge reservoir of talent both in extraordinary physical skills and artistry. DSF is so much more than just the evening shows, it is the meeting ground for dancers who join together in a daily class, each adding their unique style to the mix, and it is about the directors who get time to chat to other directors and discover new choreographers.

The programme had a predominance of duets, in a great many styles. A welcome addition, and a premiere for Houston audiences, was the garden duet from Mats Ek’s Julia & Romeo; a performance so potent it flooded the audience with emotion. All our idioms like ‘head over heels’ and ‘falling in love’ are embodied in Ek’s idiosyncratic movements that tell it like it is. Ema Yuasa and Anthony Lomuljo, both veterans in their respective roles, danced together for the first time and the result was electric.

Anthony Lomuljo and Ema Yuasa in Mats Ek's "Julia and Romeo" Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Anthony Lomuljo and Ema Yuasa in Mats Ek’s “Julia and Romeo”
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Lomuljo makes his entrance wandering through the audience, totally besotted with the vision of the woman he has just met. Yuasa confronts him and quite simply opens her heart. Passions take flight as they run full tilt round the stage to plunge into each other’s arms, he hoists her ecstatically into the air and we live the moment with them.

A more classical, but newly choreographed, version came from Ballett Zürich as Katja Wünsche and William Moore gave a sterling performance dancing the balcony pas de deux from Christian Spuck’s Romeo and Juliet to the more familiar Prokofiev music. It was defined by two strong characterisations: an impetuous and self-assured Juliet and a smitten Romeo – I loved his triumphant exit punching the air.

Semperoper Ballett Dresden offered contrasting contemporary ballet duets. David Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight, is a love duet that seems to take flight and Alice Mariani and Christian Bauch with their long slender limbs give perfect expression to the choreography of extreme lines. Emotion is never overt, but in the close physical pairing and soaring lifts the duet finds expression. Like Max Richter’s eponymous music where cool and lonely sounds pierce the heart, Dawson’s duet ending in separation and unfulfilled longings. In Stijn Celis’s Vertigo Maze, the dancers are still in the post-modern world but now full of thrusting, positive energy. The duet is less intimate as the two dancers pace side by side making urgent semaphore gestures in a performance that is fluid, powerful and beautiful to watch.

It was worth travelling halfway across the world to see Friedemann Vogel in Maurice Béjart’s Songs of a Wayfarer. This man is to the ballet world what Roger Federer is to world tennis: the embodiment of effortless perfection. In the role created for Rudolf Nureyev, he sets out on his journey through life to Gustav Mahler’s haunting songs. In a deeply moving performance, he captures the moods and emotions. Accompanied by his mentor, Guillaume Côté, the ambience changes from the brief harmony in ‘under the linden tree’, when they link arm in arm, to uncertainty and his final departure

Guillaume Hulot, a relatively new choreographic voice but a distinctive one, presented two works. Tuning Another Being juxtaposed two dancers of very different energies to find structured dissonance and occasional harmony in a duet of sparring and sharing. Marc Borràs Llopis has a body of magical fluidity: his legs and hip joints seem to obey no natural laws but melt or brace at will while Brian McNeal, made an excellent foil in vigorous energetic moves. BEANS was a quirky trio written in big letters. Keiko Okawa joins the two men, hitching a lift attached to McNeal. With three idiosyncratic dancers the complexities multiplied, each mapping their own path with occasional crossings until they exit, Okawa again taking a ride, to a chorus of ‘beans, beans, beans’.

Garrett Smith’s Imitations danced by the Norwegian National Ballet was a thrilling debut. A US choreographer, Smith is still largely unknown in Europe, but I don’t think this will be for long. He has an innovative way of reshaping ballet technique in a meaningful modern way: powerful and punchy but keeping an eye on the detail. In Imitations, which revolves around the iconic image of the tutu, he plays with very modern ideas of gender and style.

Luca Curreli in Garrett Smith’s "Imitations" Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Luca Curreli in Garrett Smith’s “Imitations”
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Luca Curreli, bare-chested and tattooed, subverts his masculine image to don a tutu. It’s the no-frills, postmodern plate version, but the silhouette speaks volumes. Does the tutu still define the gender or just the style? The ambiguity remains in a work which constantly engages. It was superbly executed notably by Yolanda Correa with her sparkling Cuban technique, well supported by Aarne Ruutu and Shane Urton.

It was men to the fore in The Hesitation Day from Spellbound Contemporary Ballet. Four men in a somewhat fractured male world, opening with a scrum of interwoven bodies, playing, fighting and loving in a tetchy game with undefined rules. The voice over has the laconic tones of 1940’s private eye,Philip Marlowe, world weary and cynical. The work is equivocal and open to interpretation, but the dancers and choreography hold your attention throughout. Spellbound, based in Rome can always be relied upon to bring sharp design and innovation to a programme. Rossini Overtures was a commission for director/ choreographer, Mauro Astolfi to mark the 150 years since the death of the composer. The curated version made a sparkling finale, proving the ‘organised madness’ of Rossini’s music lives on and it was interpreted by the dancers with wit, physical dexterity and vibrant energy.

Boulders and Borders that merges high impact choreography with environmental concerns was the most substantial work on the programme. It is a joint choreographic venture from Brenda Way and KT Nelson, artistic directors of ODC, based in San Francisco. The dance work is preceded by a video art installation from Andy Galsworthy. In a dry, hot landscape, elements of rock and water are shaped by machines and before our eyes the huge blocks are hewn into a culvert for a bright spring of water. The image melds effortlessly into a backdrop for the dancers in a work that imitates the contrasts between natural asymmetry and man-made order. The dance is full-on as dancers traverse the stage with speed and energy. The work moves through a range of dynamics and there is a loose sense of narrative, the group finally coming together in ritual formation.

From the ensemble of eleven strong dancers, Josie G. Sadan stood out, a fragile figure in a simple chiffon shift first a virginal white then changing to revolutionary scarlet and I loved the raw energy of Natasha Johnson, a fiery Amazon who threw herself into breathtaking lifts. The commissioned score from Zoë Keating full of rich, atmospheric sounds and played live by cellist, Patrick Moore, is a huge part of the success of the piece. A curated work for the festival it would, I feel have had greater impact in an even shorter form.

Dance Salad Festival is a very special date on the dance calendar. It delivers great performances but is also an affirmation of the power of dance to unite in a world of difference.