Photo credit: Jon Nalon
Huntsville is a small college town in east Texas, arguably better known for the state penitentiary (and the executions that are carried out there) than for Sam Houston State University. It’s certainly not known as a center for dance. Enter Andy and Dionne Sparkman Noble, both new faculty members at SHSU in their Dance Department. The couple met while dancing in college and have followed both individual and tandem careers. Both have danced and choreographed for Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre, the University of Utah, and Florida State University (among others), and their individual resumes include such names as Paradigm Dance Company, Bellingham Repertory Dance Company, Tallahassee Ballet, American College Dance Festival, Joe Goode, and Stephen Koester.
Settling in Huntsville, the couple started operating under the name NobleMotion Dance and in within a very short time have been invited to participate in festivals in Houston (a little more than an hour’s drive south of Huntsville), Corpus Christi, and a few other spots around Texas.
This week they’re in New York City to participate in the Dance Gallery, a festival at the Ailey Citigroup Theater sponsored by Von Ussar Danceworks. (The festival takes place tomorrow through Saturday; performances each evening at 7:30 p.m.)
Flavorpill spoke with Andy and Dionne after a rehearsal of Barriers with their dancers, Jesus Acosta and Melissa Needler, who are both senior students at SHSU’s dance program. The dance is a sensual duet, tango music setting the mood for a sexy performance that utilizes a wall as a third partner. Acosta and Needler will both be making their New York debut at the festival.
Flavorpill: Is there a steady company or does it change according to the piece you’re making?
AN: Right now what we’re doing is project to project for the company and it’s dependent upon the work, what the funding is looking like. But I think one of our strengths is that we have a very eclectic repertoire. We do everything from very serious and intimate to athletic to [things that reflect] my hip hop background. I also work theater and technology a lot, so for some projects I may want to work with actors, or with some projects I might want to work with an older dancer. Some projects I might want to work with younger, go more hip-hop.
I also think that’s largely due to the fact that we’re new to the area and don’t know a lot of dancers in the area yet. I think as we get to know more dancers we’ll start to work with a more consistent group of people. That’s what we’d like to do. Ideally what I’d like to do is fund raise more and employ dancers on a grander scale. Maybe not make a living but come close to it.
Scene from KinkyKool Fan Blowing Hard
FP: So is there a “dance scene” in Huntsville?
AN: There’s not a lot of game here in town. The choreography that is happening here is coming from the faculty wanting to do things outside the university and as far as a pool of dancers, there are some dancers that have come from the university and chosen to stay in the area but there’s not a huge dance scene. That’s one of the things that kind of excites us a little bit. We can make a difference in this community, potentially.
FP: Dionne, you had a ballet background. Is that still your first love?
DSN: Nope [laughter] I was definitely a ballet undergrad major and had the long hair that went up in a bun everyday. Somehow between my junior year and senior year, I met this yahoo over here [indicating Andy] and decided to cut the hair so it could no longer go into a bun and change my major to modern. Definitely upset the ballet mistresses at that moment. I have an equal love for both and still teach ballet. I think here I’m pegged more as a modern person because they have a lot of ballet faculty and they definitely need the modern or contemporary faculty. But I still teach both.
FP: Is there a particular school of modern you find yourself drawn to?
DSN: I think a lot of my early training was more Limón based. I’m definitely more of the breath and the round but some of my influences have been Steve Koester, Trisha Brown, Joe Goode, but Limón kind of guides me.
FP: And Andy, you came out of hip hop. How was the transition into contemporary dance?
AN: Awkward! [Laughter.] Awkward for a while. I was doing break dancing when it first came out in the early ’80s, as a kid. It was fantastic because it was an outlet, it was cool, it was socially acceptable to dance as a man, or a boy at that point. Michael Jackson was a huge influence. So I learned a lot of my dance stuff form the street through making stuff up or through watching videos. I think one of the great things about street dancing is I was always trying to find my own voice. So there was a real creative element early on. I wasn’t just learning standard steps. There was a creative element and an improvisational element too, because you’d go out into circles and you’d just improvise and you’d go against people and you’d battle. So I did a lot of that, I’d go to clubs and battle.
Then I was in college and thought, well, I’ll take a dance class, and I just really liked it. They thought I had potential and kept asking me to take more classes and they gave me a scholarship. But the first time I took ballet, I was really awkward. [Andy jump up to demonstrate.] I had this whole homeboy posture going on. [He strikes a hip hop pose.] Yo, this is first position. Check it out. [Everyone laughs.] And I felt really uncomfortable being in tights and you know, what’s a dance belt? But without any reservation, I mean it was awkward but without any reservation. I went for it. It just made so much sense to me to do this. Initially, I had so much catching up to do. I wasn’t particularly flexible. Then immediately my choreography started taking off. My teachers said, you’re going to do something with that. Somehow I ended up landing one job then another job as a dancer and it kind of took care of itself, which was fantastic.
Scene from Birds, Mommy!
FP: You’re taking a section of Barriers, a longer dance work, to NYC. Talk a little big about the whole piece and then the section you’re showing at the festival.
AN: I always thought it would be great to do a dance against a wall, have an additional surface to dance off of. I do have a fair amount of contact improve background, and I thought that would be fun. You could invert in different ways and try different ways of partnering. Then I started thinking, well it could double as a screen. Quite often in a ballet, there is a scene change where you’d have another scrim drop down to take you to a different time and place. And I thought, well, what a great idea to have the technology introduce the new concept.
There were six sections and each of them dealt with a barrier. That could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. It could be a social barrier, a sexual barrier, internal. All these different barriers that exist in life. The second section was this one [which Acosta and Needler just rehearsed] and in my mind is an affair, but you don’t know it’s an affair. So you’re start rooting for these two people to get it on a little bit, and at the end you realize he’s taking off a wedding ring. [The work as a whole] is actually a very dark piece. This was the lightest of the six sections. Between each one, we would show anywhere between a 15 second to two minute clip and the dancers also had to act in these scenes. For this one, he was in an alleyway and she pulls up in the rain and gets out and meets him in the alleyway, and it fades out and they come around the corner and there they are, so you have a time and place.
FP: Did you choose to take this section because it was the most audience friendly?
AN: We had gotten so much feedback from people, both dance fans and non-dance fans. That I thought, okay, it’s not super esoteric, you get involved in it and it’s tango music.
FP: There is some familiarity to the partnering.
AN: It hearkens to that a little bit, but then goes far off from it.
FP: Right, it’s not a traditional tango, but there are moments—
FP: This is Andy’s choreography?
DSN: It is. He made it in the fall and I was still teaching at Florida State, so I’ve just come in and given my eye and suggestions. A lot of times, we choreograph together and sometimes we choreograph separately.
AN: Whatever happens, if she’s choreographing, I inevitably come into the process and irritate her at some point and vice versa. I think that’s what we do for each other. In theater, they have a dramaturg, someone who comes in and really focuses the project. I think dance doesn’t have that enough. I feel very fortunate that we have this partnership where I trust her instincts. I don’t always agree, sometimes she’ll make a suggestion and I won’t take her suggestion but I’ll see what she sees and I’ll go in a different direction. Which annoys her slightly but we work really well together and I think we know we have each other’s best interests. She’s made a few suggestions that were really important in developing this work.
DSN: We’re each other’s editors. It’s really nice to have that, have someone see what you’re not seeing.
FP: And now you’ve landed here in Huntsville, Texas where you’re building a company. You obviously want it to have a larger presence than just the city limits. Do you have a plan or goal?
AN: I try to focus on the small level because the larger level is not something you have much control over, but on the small level I want to make work that moves people. I think our work comes from an emotional place. If I can make people feel for a little while, on a simple level, that’s what I want to do. On a larger level, I would love nothing more than for our work to employ dancers, give other artists the opportunity to be seen by a lot of people, and maybe to be remembered after we’re gone. But that’s a tall order. I think some of that’s attainable but we can’t control all that, so that’s why I focus on the smaller level.
And the other thing that is really important to us is that our process is really nice. I really want the dancers or actors or visual artists that we’re working with to bring all their creativity to it, feel like they’re encouraged, that they’re challenged, that it’s a dialogue. That’s something I’m proud of, I feel like our dancers like working for us. Maybe I’m delusional. [Laughter.]
DSN: We’ve been moving around so much and our careers have had us travel to different locations. And each time, we’ve choreographed in that location and grabbed dancers — and I think that’s why we’ve worked so much project-to-project, that’s what we’ve had to do. Probably if we’d stayed in any one of those areas, this company idea or something more permanent might have come up. I think now we do feel financially secure, and we’re in a community that is really being supportive of what we want to do. So we’re like, okay, we’re going to dig in and see what happens. I think we’re ready. We’re so ready.