Arts / Performing Arts

This Under-the-Radar Houston Gem is an International Force — Dance Salad Brings the World’s Attention and Arts Stars to the Bayou City

A 25th Anniversary Worth Twirling For

BY // 04.06.22

Every spring the contemporary dance world looks to Houston as the Dance Salad Festival brings the best of international dance to town. Though still perhaps known more across the globe than locally, the festival has become a Texas dance institution as it celebrates its 25 anniversary next weekend —April 14 through 16 at Wortham Center.

For that momentous quarter century event, PaperCity is talking to Dance Salad founder and artistic director Nancy Henderek about how she choses the best dance to bring to Texas every year.

Henderek first created the festival in the 1990s when she lived in Brussels with her husband. She taught dance and choreographed for the International School there. Henderek found living in Europe and connecting with the dance community in Belgium greatly broadened her own dance education.

“I just had the very American thought of let’s put on a show,” she says of her thinking during that time.

That show became a dance festival organized like a salad, throwing a delicious selection of ingredients into a mix to create one amazing meal. A few years later when Henderek and her husband moved back to Houston, she packed up the festival concept with her and brought it along.

“Dance Salad was born in Brussels but grew up in Houston,” she says. “I never thought we’d have a 25th anniversary.”

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Dance Salad Fundamentals

While contemporary dance has certain evolved since Dance Salad’s inception, Henderek says she never programs by chasing the latest trends or dance fads. She still looks for the same three essentials.

“I want it to have great music, great dance and great choreography,” Henderek tells PaperCity.

That simple formula has led her to find the best of dance across the globe and bring it to Texas audiences.

“It’s a very personal understanding on what I want to put on the stage and share with other people,” Henderek says. “I figure if I like something that much and feel the music and choreography are blended well, and that the dancers are interesting in the way they move, then the deeper feelings of the piece come through.

“If it moves me, then I feel other people will be moved by it. I say this piece will be a good piece for Dance Salad.”

The pandemic put the anniversary season on hold for two years, but this 2022 festival will feature six companies from Europe. It will also stick the Dance Salad tradition of offering three evenings of performances from those companies, with no nightly lineup exactly the same.

A prime ingredient in the salad mix is Hofesh Shechter Company from London, featuring Grand Finale choreographed by Hofesh Shechter, who also composed original music for the work.

The Royal Danish Ballet’s Kammerballetten will offer three distinct dances depending on the night, including Oenothera choreographed by Tobias Praetorius set to music by Franz Schubert; In Bright Gloom choreographed by Sebastian Kloborg, set to music by Serge Rachmaninov; and Selvportræt (Self Portrait) choreographed by Paul Lightfoot. All three performances will feature live music.

Dunia Dance Theater of both Belgium and Zimbabwe brings Making Men, a dance performance and film presentation choreographed by Harold George and filmed by Antoine Panier, set to a combination of original African and classical Western music scores.

Royal Ballet of Flanders – Choreography: Drew Jacoby, Dancers: Tieman Bormans, Daniel Domenech, Joseph Kudra, Oscar Ramos
Royal Ballet of Flanders performing Jack. (Photo by Foteini Christofilopoulou)

Semperoper Ballett from Dresden, Germany will perform a Pas de deux from The Four Seasons choreographed by David Dawson, set to music by Max Richter. Laboration Art Company from Paris brings a French influence to the Salad with Anna choreographed by Laura Arend. Rounding out the festival, the Royal Ballet of Flanders presents a solo performance Jack, choreographed by Drew Jacoby with music by George Gershwin.

The Perfect Salad Mix

For this year’s festival, the Hofesh Shechter Company provides a good example of Henderek’s unique curating process. When she first saw the company’s acclaimed Grand Finale, she knew it right for Dance Salad, but also knew the two act length work would never fit in a festival evening.

“As I watched it, I said ‘Hmmm, I just need the first act and then from here to there, that would be a good Dance Salad piece.’ I just saw it. It came to me as I watched it,” Henderek says.

Henderek and choreographer Shechter then had conversations about how to edit the dance for Dance Salad — and they worked together on what he felt comfortable about cutting and changing.

“We talked about and very quickly resolved how to do it,” Henderek tells PaperCity. “It worked in terms of the way he saw I was seeing it.”

She also had to make stipulations about the set of massive moving walls that they could never bring to Houston in these difficult shipping times. Instead, they will get the same effect using lights.

France’s Laboration Art Company will perform Anna at Dance Salad. (Photo by Julien Vallon)

Over the years, Henderek has found great excitement in working with the choreographers ready to take a new look a their creations and sometimes make alterations to fit the dance into Dance Salad’s time frame and the Wortham stage.

“I find the most creative choreographers like going back in to their own work and having fun with it again in a different way,” Henderek says. “When we curate everything single step is still their own work, but just looked at in a different dimension.”

The festival has given Henderek a prime vantage point to see how contemporary dance has diversified, changed and exploded over the years and in turn Henderek has invited Houston into that extraordinary viewing.

“The certainly — the way of doing contemporary dance as defined by the European mode — used to be slower and deliberate, less is more,” she says. “Now it’s a lot a movement and using the body in different ways.

“What the pas de deux can look like when people are enmeshed with each other. There’s much more movement in the full body.”

Henderek notes that these decades have brought dance evolution and some revolutions, but sometimes she’s as happy to bring us some pure classic movement.

“If it’s done well it’s so beautiful,” she says.

The 2022 Dance Salad Festival leaps into the Wortham Center April 14, 15 and 16.

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