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?'"
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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