A Surprising Global Dance Showcase, in the Heart of Texas
Harold George, a young dancer from Sierra Leone, was studying in Belgium in 1992 when a friendly expat from Texas named Nancy Henderek invited him to perform in a showcase at the international school her children attended. She called the concert Dance Salad because of its small cross section of styles and artists, including some of the best professional companies in town.
“It was his little thing on the side,” George recalled in an interview from Brussels, where he is now director and choreographer of the Dunia Dance Theater. Two other Belgian dance salads followed, and it could have ended there, a good memory of an adventure abroad. Henderek, however, returned to the United States, not with a new language or an expanded gastronomic palate, but with a dance festival.
“Born in Brussels, raised in Houston” is how Henderek, 76, likes to describe the festival. She decided to replant it in Texas, she said in a Zoom interview, because “international dance needed to be represented here too.”
The festival, which has become Henderek’s full-time focus, is now a mainstay in the city’s cultural calendar. From April 14-16, Dance Salad celebrates the 25th anniversary of its American incarnation – not counting the two years lost due to Covid – with a line-up of top international artists (all originally earmarked for the 2020 festival), which includes the Royal Ballet of Flanders from Belgium, the Hofesh Shechter Company from England and Dunia Dance Theater, as well as companies from Denmark, Germany and France.
How did these artists come to share a mixed program for three nights in a city not known as a world center for dance?
One answer is Henderek’s distinctive vision. It presents many dances – or parts thereof – in a single night (similar to New York’s eclectic annual Fall for Dance programs), rather than, as in a traditional festival model, giving each company an evening , or more, to itself. “It brings the world together in my own way,” she said.
Each work appears on at least two of the three programs so that viewers who attend multiple shows, which many do, watch certain dances twice. “I’m a big fan of seeing a play twice,” Henderek said. During the first viewing, “we have an idea of a piece. And then you want to watch it again to see what resonates and what really blossoms.
But what sets Dance Salad even more apart is Henderek’s direct involvement in editing some of these dances to fit the program. This year, three works will be shown in what she calls a “curated version” so that audiences “see work they’ll never see anywhere else in this particular way,” Henderek said. This may not be the focus of other dance presenters, but it has become part of Dance Salad’s distinct identity.
As soon as she saw Shechter’s “Grand Finale” a few years ago, Henderek started imagining a snippet that would work for this year’s salad. “I immediately felt it had the resonance of something I could contribute,” she said. If she started with the pas de deux in the middle of the first act and continued until the end of that act, she says, “that would be a performance unit that would work for Dance Salad.” She approached Shechter with this idea.
“It took me a while,” he said in an interview of the airing of a snippet. He had always thought of “Grand Finale” as a stand-alone piece, but Henderek’s proposal to present it with other short works finally seemed to him “like a good idea”. He also found that removing certain design elements – such as a wall that is prohibitively expensive to move – revealed the human side of the dance. “I love how the boundaries make you look at work in a different way,” he said. His main concern was “that the heart of the piece be preserved”.
This is also Henderek’s priority. She has been dancing since the age of 3, including years with the Houston Grand Opera; taught dance in Texas and abroad; and even choreographed, notably for the first Dance Salads. Her experience informs a deep respect for the art of making dance. When she asks choreographers to consider revisions, she says, she invites them to reinvent a work rather than simply cut it.
“It’s not a statue, and you cut off the arm,” she said. “I’m just a little bird saying, ‘What if it was this way?’ It’s a small challenge. Acclaimed choreographers such as Jiri Kylian and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui have collaborated with Henderek on edited versions of their works. Others refused – but “less than you think”, she said.
Ultimately, a ‘curated’ work is always entirely the creation of the choreographer and must have its own artistic integrity, which is why George agreed to edit his dance ‘Making Men’, a critical examination of masculinity, for this year’s festival. (An accompanying film, directed by Antoine Panier, will also be screened.)
“I trust him,” George said of Henderek. “She has a good eye. She has good taste. Of course, there are moments of frustration, he said, and as an African artist, he noted, “there is a cultural distance between us. The stories I try to tell, she may not see. But she will engage in this conversation.
Henderek is also very aware of her audience. The feature film “Making Men” involves depictions of sexuality and violence as a means of probing male conditioning. “She said, ‘No, I don’t think that will work in Houston,'” George said. “She has her sensitivity.” Henderek said his intention was to keep the emphasis in the right place and that if a choreographer dwells on something provocative, the audience will “miss something else”. But, she added, “I want to expose the audience to things that make them reach.”
This balance of comfort and challenge, stylistically and thematically, is one of the reasons audiences keep coming back. “She has gathered an audience that trusts her,” said Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose work was first presented in the United States at Dance Salad in 2006. “They buy a ticket without knowing what they are going to see but ready to experience different aesthetics in dance.They are ready for the ride.
Along with his curatorial eye, it was Henderek’s organizational willpower that allowed the immense logistical feat that is Dance Salad to endure for a quarter of a century. She remains the artistic director and sole curator of the festival, leading a lean operation of part-time and seasonal administrative and production teams. Since most Dance Salad performers aren’t US citizens, she’s also become an expert on visa applications. (“You’ve got them before Christmas if you want them by April.”) Funding is made up of local sources, in-kind services and corporate sponsors, including modest contributions from Exxon-Mobil, where its husband was working, so she first ended up in Brussels.
“She’s an extraordinary impresario and a shrewd operator,” said Nancy Wozny, a Houston-based arts journalist who attended the first Texas Dance Salad and most since.
This effort has made Houston perhaps the most exciting dance town in America one weekend a year. Maggie Foyer, a dance writer in London, said: “I travel a lot, but there’s no other date on my calendar when I can see so much beautiful dance in one place.” Foyer, which has been a regular attender of Dance Salad since 2008, will host the festival’s annual Choreographers’ Forum on April 13. In Houston, she said, “I see dance that I wouldn’t see in London.
Wozny sees local qualities in the voracious appetites of Henderek and the festival, which can lead to marathon programs that approach three hours. “There’s breadth in everything Texas, and there’s breadth in Dance Salad,” Wozny said, which then reminded him of another Texas show that inspires similar devotion: “It’s our rodeo.”