Bona Fide Divas

Pretty as a portrait: Lise Houlton Gilleland, Erin Thompson, and Toni Pierce

Pretty as a portrait: Lise Houlton Gilleland, Erin Thompson, and Toni Pierce

Once upon a time, there were three girls who wanted to be dancers. (Cue flashback music.) They worked hard in ballet class, learned to love bunions, graduated to the role of Sugar Plum Fairy (each in succession), and dreamed of becoming divas.

Fast-forward to 2001, and Lise Houlton Gilleland, Toni Pierce, and Erin Thompson, child stars with Loyce Houlton's Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT) during the 1960s and Seventies, are together again after careers in top modern-dance and ballet companies. And they are bona fide divas, albeit divas with cell phones and Legos in their dance bags, as comfortable helping their own progeny with homework as they are commanding a stage.

In recruiting Houlton, Pierce, and Thompson (ages 46, 45, and 38) for The Portrait Project, Shapiro & Smith Dance never considered the collaborators to embody the Good Housekeeping ideal sweetened by past glory. "It's not a sentimental thing about how old they are," says choreographer Danial Shapiro of the work premiering this weekend at the Southern Theater. "Age is beside the point. They have a frightening virtuosity and have achieved an exceptional existence in performance. They used to tour 30 to 40 weeks a year, perform seven or eight times a week. They have to take a look at that standard, the level they got to, and then ask themselves where they want to be."

Shapiro and collaborator Joanie Smith initially planned to make a piece about midlife dancers when they relocated their 16-year-old troupe from New York City to Minneapolis in 1995 and joined the University of Minnesota's dance program. They discovered that Houlton, once a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater and Stuttgart Ballet, and the daughter of Loyce Houlton, was also on the faculty. Next they encountered Thompson, a Bessie Award-winning postmodern dancer, teaching around town. And finally Pierce, a one-time principal with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, came on the scene. Shapiro and Smith realized the women had grown up in MDT and then returned home, and envisioned a dance celebrating the present rather than mourning the passage of time.

Convincing the women to reunite was easy, even though each has taken a hiatus from the spotlight. (Houlton was out the longest, at 15 years.) According to Shapiro: "The only trepidation had to do with their own reservations about the rigors of performance. And then Erin drew us into a circle...and acknowledged how momentous and ordinary this project was. Momentous because they were together in the studio again, and ordinary because the studio is where they all work."

Despite the familiar surroundings, all were transformed by nostalgia. According to Thompson: "I probably went the furthest away [aesthetically] from what we were doing at MDT, and had really said goodbye to those memories and the past. But this brought all of it back into my life." Houlton refers to her late mother's influence: "We have memories of her words, her shouting at us. We were performing on-the-edge choreography in our high school years. It's amazing that we could go off and do diverse things and make a statement. And now, in this project, we see new sides to ourselves."

Smith likens the experience of choreographing the women to the playing of a Stradivarius, the finest instrument possible--mellowed with experience, perhaps, but utterly resilient. In The Portrait Project, each dancer has a solo emphasizing particular strengths, but the women also perform together, sharing their roots. Thompson laughs as she recalls a recent rehearsal video in which each of the three looked exactly alike. "We had this automatic tendency to coach each other as we went along. We were so carefully watching each other, like we've been dancing together for the last ten years."