Last week's UTW cover story explored the burgeoning contemporary dance community in Tulsa, with new companies emerging and running with the momentum that comes when a few people take creative initiative.
Twenty years ago, Kansas City experienced a similar boom, from which came an exciting original dance scene that now includes everything from small modern dance troupes like Kacico to rising superstars like Quixotic Fusion.
The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company (WHCDC), which will make its Oklahoma debut on Oct. 8 at Tulsa Ballet's Studio K, has played a huge role in starting and sustaining that development.
"When I came here, there was the Kansas City Ballet and City in Motion and a few other things, but interest has grown so much," WHCDC founder Mary Pat Henry told the Kansas City Star. "I feel like Wylliams/Henry has helped build an audience which understands and appreciates modern dance."
The company started in 1991 when Henry, an internationally respected dancer and teacher on the faculty of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Conservatory of Music and Dance, met Leni Wylliams, a rising choreographer and instructor, at a dance festival in Canada.
They immediately felt an artistic connection. Soon after, Wylliams came to UMKC as a guest artist, then stayed on to teach. When the university had a dance ensemble cancel a planned performance, Henry and Wylliams decided to put on a program together.
All of a sudden, they were a team.
"Leni and I started the company because there were great choreographers that no one saw anymore," Henry explained. "Instead of having a one-choreographer company, we wanted to show the diversity of the modern dance archive, from what happened before to what's hot and new now."
"I don't think we've changed that much over the years," she continued. "We've just gotten better and better. We've become known as an adventurous dance company in the middle of the country."
WHCDC boasts a huge modern dance repertoire, one of the most varied in the Midwest, which includes pieces by contemporary masters like David Parsons, Dwight Rhoden, and Sean Curran, as well as classic works by pioneers such as Jose Limon and Anna Sokolow.
Next year, WHCDC will become the first company in the region to perform Martha Graham's groundbreaking 1948 work Diversion of Angels. Getting permission to perform a Graham ballet is notoriously difficult, requiring not just the approval of the Graham Center in New York, but also dancers who can excel in the challenging technique.
The company's 11 members have worked and studied all over the world, from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Philadelphia's innovative PHILADANCO.
"All our dancers are trained in classical ballet," Henry said. "I want the lines and the control that training brings. From there they can do anything."
Tulsa is the company's first stop on a five-city tour celebrating its 20th anniversary season. The program features some of the company's hallmark works, including a sensual duet called "Ritual," set to music by Arvo Part; "To Have and to Hold," a dance about love and loss; and Wylliams' spirited "Sha Tah Tee," which blends Middle Eastern influences with the athleticism of modern dance. The Kansas City Star recently called Wylliams' piece "a vibrant celebration of motion."
WHCDC will also bring excerpts from a new work, Cyprus Avenue, a collaboration with legendary Kansas City radio host Bill Shapiro, who chose his favorite popular music for a team of choreographers to play with.
The piece features songs like Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Van Morrison's "Cleaning Windows," Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me," and Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer." Choreographers include Atlanta-based Lonnie Davis, Francie Huber from the Paul Taylor Company in New York, Ray Mercer of Boston Ballet, Gavin Stewart (a WHCDC company member and a Tulsa native), and Henry herself.
Shapiro emcees the piece onstage when the company performs in Kansas City. For this weekend's performance, the role of emcee will be played by Tulsa's own Edward Dumit, the voice of the University of Tulsa's KWGS station.
"We hit on a little bit of every kind of dance in Cyprus Avenue," Henry said. "People who love music, but have never been to a dance concert, come to this show and can't believe what a great time they have. It's some of the most fun I've ever had creating a piece."
Connecting with the community is key in WHCDC's mission. It also helps explain the company's extraordinary longevity in a region not historically known for its support of modern dance. They perform in traditional and non-traditional spaces, often in partnership with local organizations, seeking to introduce contemporary dance to new audiences and speak to the whole community -- not just the elite.
"The company's repertoire is so diverse that if one piece doesn't grab your attention, another piece will," Henry said. "It's not like you're going to see the same thing every time. That catches people's attention. We talk about relationships, social issues, historical issues, covering the whole spectrum of modern dance. And the dancers are so athletic that they really appeal to everyone.
"Dance in general, and modern dance in particular, can be a hard sell," Henry concluded. "But with this quality of dancers and this range of emotions and experiences being expressed, if we get people into the theater one time, they come back."
The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company performs at 7pm on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Studio K at 1212 E. 45th Place, on Brookside. Tickets are $35, with discounts available for Tulsa Ballet subscribers and those who purchase online. If you're a dance student, mention it when you call and get a special student rate of $10.
In addition to the performance, the company will offer a master class/audition workshop for advanced dancers on Saturday, Oct. 8, from 10-11:30am, at Studio K. Registration is limited to 15-20 and is on a first-come, first-served basis.
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