Footsteps

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

Houlton ended her ABT career after performing the title role in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet with Kevin McKenzie (now ABT's artistic director). During the 1980s the company was rocked by crisis--choreographers Tudor and Tetley had ended their involvement--and at times the venerable institution seemed likely to fold.

"I had fallen in love, turned 30, wanted to have children, and I missed Tudor and Tetley," Houlton says, now the mother of 13-year-old Kaitlyn and 10-year-old Raina with husband Michael Gilleland, an attorney. "ABT had become a lonely place for me. I thrived on the process of working with those men. All the life and experience they brought into their work thrust me onto the stage." She pauses, relishing memories of a heyday when the dance world enjoyed an artistic and organizational explosion. "I was lucky dance was thriving then. It was an extraordinary company," she says. "And there was funding galore."

 

Houlton's life with ABT provides a source of inspiration for Rumblings, this weekend's evening-length premiere, which explores the blues, emotional extremes, and the otherworldly loneliness of the nighttime world after an evening spent onstage. "I remember it would be 11:30 at night after a performance at the [Metropolitan Opera in New York], and I'd be walking uptown. An alternate life began: Were we real in the theater or when we left it behind?"

Houlton smiles at the sacrifices made in pursuit of her career. "Six of us shared an apartment. We physically hurt all the time. I'll never forget when we learned that trick dogs in the circus made more than we did. A lot of sagas went on. It was a wonderful gypsy life, but there was always a flip side, the depressions and fears of life we experienced. That's what Rumblings is about."

Fueled by music performed by pianist Tom Linker along with vocalists Ruth MacKenzie and Bradley Greenwald, Rumblings also provides an opportunity for Houlton to set a work using live music. "My passion is to make dance where movement is the voice [instead of] text or the look on the face or a gasp," she explains. "I want to see something personal in the ballet genre, not ballet tricks."

That said, Houlton is eager to talk about the institutional success of her growing company, an especially poignant subject since MDT folded temporarily in 1987 after an unsuccessful merger with Pacific Northwest Ballet. The company re-emerged during the early 1990s when audiences began to clamor for the return of Loyce Houlton's Nutcracker Fantasy, a Twin Cities holiday staple. Soon MDT had new life, and after her mother's death in 1995, Houlton assumed the role of artistic director. Today the school has nearly 300 students and a steadily expanding schedule of new work.

Still, Houlton admits to some weariness when it comes to running the organization. "I don't know what I'm looking for anymore," she replies when asked about her dancemaking. "I'm teaching, doing administrative work, producing, fundraising. I'm not sure if I should be doing choreography, although I know I should work with dancers, or at least coach them and make sure they're onstage."

Despite her personal hesitancies, Houlton is certain about her commitment to commissioning new and local choreographers, including Cindy Gutierrez-Garner, Matt Jenson, Wynn Fricke, and Cathy Young. "I want the company to jump into a new skin. Taking class every day just doesn't train you for that," she says, reflecting a taste for experimentalism. "I see the choreographer's job as taking a classically trained dancer to the brink. Get rid of the classicism. Mix it up and let the dynamic explode into something new and exciting."

The Starbucks is clearing out and rehearsal time beckons, so Houlton rouses herself, moving around the armchair to stretch out her legs like a cat awakening from a nap. She grumbles a bit about her creaking joints--though her long reddish hair and open face reveal few indications of the aging process. She plans to work with MDT's child dancers this afternoon, a prospect she embraces. Having been raised as one of these children, she now finds herself at the other end of the generational continuum. She refers to The Nutcracker to make her point.

"Some of the most extraordinary moments occur when a little mouse walks up to the Rat Queen and asks how long it took to learn the part. Soon the older dancer is on the floor talking to the child, showing all the blisters on her feet, telling stories. The youngster sees that ballet is all about blood, sweat, and tears."

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