Karen Stokes is conducting practice for an upcoming production Monday, August 29, 2022 at the University of Houston in Houston. Photo: Jon Shapley/Staff Photographer
Before the great disruption of a global pandemic, before she first considered retiring from a teaching job she had held for years, and before she lost her mother and her mentor, Karen Stokes felt the need to disrupt old patterns.
Stokes says she avoids launching new dance works based on a theme, but rather out of what she describes as “my fundamental interest in movement as a choreographer.”
With the new “Mapping and Glaciers”, Stokes presents a dance that took years to prepare and that took place alongside great moments and decisions in his life and work.
For someone days away from premiering his new work with Karen Stokes Dance and weeks away from retiring from a position at the University of Houston, Stokes projects remarkable calm as he discusses his new work around A coffee. Perhaps the restlessness and rolling find their way into the dance.
“I found myself thinking a lot about things — certain movement things — that I did naturally that at this point were shaped by years of doing them,” Stokes says. “And trying to find ways out of patterns.”
“Cartography and Glaciers”
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17-19, 22-24; 4 p.m. September 25
Where: MATCH, 3400 main
Details: $35 to $100; matchouston.org
Which partly explains the sight of five dancers on their knees, their arms moving with nervous but precise energy as they twist and clap call bells, like those found in hotel lobbies.
“We were hoping to work differently,” she says. “I’m interested in using space as choreography, as a metaphor for many different things: silence and this need for less density in our lives. A more open consciousness.
There is a climatological aspect and a sociopolitical aspect, too, in the work. Several years ago, Stokes had the opportunity to walk inside a glacier in Iceland. She has long had a deep affinity for cards. Their beauty and transience – especially at a time when the Earth is undergoing dramatic changes – have found their way into the dance to the point that they have bestowed upon it the title of “Cartography and Glaciers”.
The dance started with pen and paper. Stokes made some abstract scribbles and wondered “how could I transform this map, to use as a score. How was I able to create this drawing on paper for the body?
She pulled out atlases from the UH library and pored over old maps with ships and snakes, full of boundaries and designations made by acts of aggression. She took into account the unreliable narrators who crafted them, as well as the changes in geological features – with glaciers and shorelines – since the maps were originally drawn.
Stokes presented a short version of the work in 2017 – during a performance celebrating 20 years of Karen Stokes Dance – and knew she wanted to do more. She connected with Samuel Lipman in Austin, to write string quartet music to accompany her work. Stokes provided an old Norse folksong with a melody she wanted to incorporate into the composition. Those bells on the floor were there from the start, so Lipman had to incorporate them into the work. The two have collaborated fully via Zoom and will not meet until the show premieres.
The pandemic has slowed down the process. But it also allowed her life to blend into the story she was telling with movement.
Space, time and the great unknown
In May 2021, Stokes’ mother, Roberta Stokes, died. Roberta was an important modern dance figure in Houston, having moved to the city with her family in 1968 when her husband took a job at Rice University. She founded and directed the choreographers of the Museum of Contemporary Art and has devoted a quarter of a century to choreography, dance and teaching.
Stokes said of her mother last year: ‘Innate, intuitively, she was a mover. She loved to move and perform. Even after her quote-unquote retirement, she enjoyed performing. If she was in a room with music, she would improvise. We had to let him speak.
Parallels are easily drawn between the two dancers. Stokes feels the need to be a mover too. After this semester, she will leave the University of Houston, where she was a teacher and director of its dance program for 25 years. His mother turned to painting after a quarter of a century in dance.
Stokes doesn’t know what his next chapter will be. She plans to focus more on that after two weekends of “Mapping and Glaciers” performances.
She wants to take piano lessons for the first time since she was a teenager. She would like to improve her French.
“I want to give myself space,” she says. “The idea of open time, of space. Space.”
She doesn’t like the term retreat or the way our culture views it as a last stop before the ossuary. Stokes says his recently retired brother called it a “life reset”.
Stokes still loves teaching, but worries she’s settled into a “deep-seated pattern”. She also stresses that her position is desirable. Hanging on could rob a young instructor of the opportunity to make an impact on students.
She clarified that her retirement as a teacher does not mean the end of Karen Stokes Dance. It will remain operational. But what comes next with her business could be shaped or determined by what the next few years bring as she explores new space.
“I’m going to another place,” she says, “which is uncertain and unknowable in some way. I like the idea that there is still something to learn. It is a question of entering into this uncertainty.