Footsteps

After a storybook career on the stage, dancer and choreographer Lise Houlton helms the troupe her mother founded, Minnesota Dance Theater

General McArthur Hambrick, a sweet-natured dancer with an epic name, is balancing, contorting, and altogether manipulating his partner Sara Kappraff through a series of Twister-ish lifts. Her small body curls around his hips and pours down the length of his legs, landing with a sigh into a neat pile of limbs on the floor.

"Be serpentine, be slimy!" exhorts Lise Houlton, her arms and torso swaying automatically, embodying her vocal correction. "You're an earth creature glomming onto him." Hambrick and Kappraff grapple with the curves of their bodies some more, achieving moments of muscular tension by moving like Rodin sculptures brought to life. "It's beautiful," Houlton says, her already light voice a hair above a whisper. "Thank you."

The sensual mood breaks and the other dancers emerge from the far corners of the room like energetic horses set loose from a barn, shaking their feet, testing out their legs, ready to exercise. Houlton works through a series of arm movements with them. "It's still too la-di-da," she announces. She punches her arm into the air and then cups dancer Philip Amer's cheek tenderly, worried her enthusiastic display came too close to giving him a shiner. Minutes later all the dancers are tossing their limbs with satisfying abandon. A transitional moment has become kinetic poetry.

Metamorphosis is the essence of dance. Arduous rehearsal leads to a memorable performance. Simple gestures assume metaphoric significance. And through days, weeks, and years of this training process, wide-eyed kids go on to become world-class ballerinas--at least in the case of Houlton, a native Minneapolitan with a storybook career. Now artistic director of Minnesota Dance Theatre (MDT), the company her mother, the late Loyce Houlton, first founded in 1962 as the Contemporary Dance Theatre, Houlton has spent nearly all of her 45 years working in dance studios from Dinkytown to Stuttgart and, of course, the dance mecca of Manhattan.

"People always assume dance was forced on me, but it wasn't," Houlton states, settling her seemingly delicate body into an easy chair at a downtown Starbucks, relishing a break from preparation for this weekend's concert at the Southern Theater. "As a kid the most important thing in my life was making theater, working with bodies, emotions. I loved having someone create on me."

Throughout a childhood spent in Prospect Park surrounded by a menagerie of adopted pets, Houlton also enjoyed opportunities to study with the many guest artists her mother enticed to the Midwest, including members of American Ballet Theater (ABT), London's Royal Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Jose Limón Dance Company. She flourished in this setting, but in an old-world twist of fate she was sent away from home when her mother became seriously ill. As an 18-year-old ingénue in New York, the young Houlton ran into one of her mother's favorite contacts--choreographer Glen Tetley--who offered her a contract with the Stuttgart Ballet. After overcoming her fear of joining a world-class company, Houlton found a pivotal mentor in lead dancer Marcia Haydee, renowned for her exceptional artistry. It was under Haydee's tutelage and through Tetley's rigorous repertory that Houlton grew from a gifted upstart to a refined interpreter in dance.

Anxious for a rest from the rigors of touring, Houlton returned home to find her mother fully recovered and MDT expanding fast. More than a thousand students came to the school at the Hinneman Building (now the Horst Education Center in northeast Minneapolis), including children who would grow up to become many of today's best local movers, including Tony Pierce, Christine Maginnis, Robin Stiehm, and Myron Johnson. In addition, football players (Carl Eller), Guthrie actors (Michael Gross, Denny Sprence, and Barbara Byrne), and even a young Prince came here. "My mother was innovating by working with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, having us learn circus stunts from Dudley Riggs," says Houlton. "She had tremendous fearlessness because she had gone through a health crisis. We were all at risk in the studio in a most wonderful way."

Houlton's career took another leap forward, thanks again to Tetley, when Martine Van Hamel, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, injured a hip and could not perform in his trio Sphinx. "It was very specific movement, movement that I lived and breathed," she explains, using her expressive arms and long neck to make her point. "He said, 'You have to come to New York to do this.' I was terrified!" And with good reason: Houlton had just ten days to learn the ballet. Her risk was rewarded with a contract at ABT, her artistic home for the next eight years. There she danced with dance giants including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev. Houlton emerged as a principal dancer, earning key roles in ballet classics such as La Bayadere, Cinderella, and Swan Lake, as well as in works by Tetley and Antony Tudor, one of the leading innovators in American ballet, often mentioned in the same breath as George Balanchine and Lincoln Kerstein.

"When I was young my mother dragged me to New York a lot. I remember her elbowing me at ABT curtain calls saying, 'There's Mr. Tudor,'" Houlton laughs. "Later, critics called me a born Tudor dancer. He would always go up to my mother and, pretending to be serious, say, 'Aren't you glad you went through childbirth so you could give me your daughter?'"

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