It's late-evening rehearsal at Café Dance, and the dancers of the Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company are boisterous and quick to laugh. They have a lot to laugh about as they struggle to master the latest versions of their props for an upcoming performance.
At times it seems like the props are winning.
"I think I need a friend," laughs one dancer, trying to rotate a black corset on her waist.
Another prop, a ring of flaring tips that looks like a jester's hat, gets caught halfway, stuck on a dancer's shoulders.
But eventually the costumes are (mostly) in place, and KDH's artistic director, Kathy Hamrick, steps forward.
"How're y'all doin'?" she asks.
"We're tryin'," a dancer calls back.
Hamrick has a certain presence. It's playful, but commands your attention. The dance they are set to rehearse is hers, "Scenes Flamboyant (and Intimate)," which explores the emotional baggage we carry and how our relations to one another help us acquire it or get rid of it.
The props carry the metaphors along. Some dancers wear long, wide ribbons strung from their corseted waists and weighted at the ends. ("Lentils," Hamrick told me earlier. "We tried a lot of things," she said, including a wide cross section of the grocery store's bulk section. "Lentils are perfect.")
When the music comes on, three dancers storm out and launch the weighted ends across the room in interweaving streaks of blue. Then they pull in the ends, or spiral them around their bodies like helicopter blades. Who knew baggage could be so beautiful?
Their run through is dramatic, even as the dancers struggle to rein in the ribbons. They're longer now, and at one point, one of the weighted ends almost clips a track light on the ceiling.
"Sherrie, not so high!" Hamrick chides, "You'll break my lentils!"
There are other sections that feature solo dancers or pairs, and you feel them working through the emotional connections: a subtle brush on the neck, a powerful lift, a supported fall or contortionist holds.
The "jester's hat" skirt, the other interactive prop designed by Kakii Keenan, has an invisible string, and when the dancers pull it, the tips flare out like a porcupine, warning other dancers.
When the lone male dancer, Ryan Parent, enters, it's a change of pace. He wears nothing special, just a slow, weighted adagio to accompany his patient footfalls.
It's all balance and power — grace, really — with an emotional weight, even in rehearsal.
The theme of emotional weight extends to three other dances that will be performed that night.
KDH is hosting the Houston dance company Noblemotion, whose work continues their lauded explorations with lighting techniques. This time it will be a bank of fog against the stark glow of a projector. Their second work will use a camera to project the dancers' images back on their own bodies.
Noblemotion‘s lighting is "not just about tone and color," says Hamrick. "The choreography would not exist without the lighting." The lights are a partner in the dance.
KDH will also perform a work by choreographer and company dancer Roxanne Gage. It employs a 36-foot-long material that acts like a second skin (for better or worse), supporting and resisting the dancers.
After a while, the rehearsal studio becomes much more quiet. Most of the laughter has subsided. The dancers seem focused, and not a little drained from the physical and emotional contortions.
Hamrick looks on steadily, and occasionally drops herself into the dance to fill an empty spot.
For Hamrick, a lot of this work is autobiographical, and later, when we talk about her artists, she exudes trust and gratitude.
As a choreographer, Hamrick says, the dancers are both her tools and her collaborators.
"They are my artwork," she says.