by Annie Arnoult
Open Dance Project is an ensemble-driven dance theater company dedicated to developing and presenting world-class dance theater experiences in Houston and serving as a cultural resource through engaging and enriching education and community programming. The 501c3 encompasses both our professional performance series and our community based programming (residencies, workshops, and touring performances for young audiences.)
Open Dance Project was started in 2015 when founding artistic director Annie Arnoult moved back to her native Houston after a 15 year tenure in dance theater performance and community based education work in Chicago. Arnoult was excited by the energy and potential for growth of the Houston dance community and inspired by the commitment to arts education affirmed by the city's newly initiated Cultural Arts Plan and the Houston Arts Access Initiative - a partnership between Houston ISD, The Kennedy Center, and Young Audiences of Houston dedicated to bringing arts equity to Houston public school children. Arnoult recognized that her expertise and experience as an integrated arts specialist and long time arts partner of Chicago Public Schools was needed in her hometown.
Our three word charge,
summarizes our core values and programming strategies. Open Dance Project’s innovative creative process experiments with movement, text, music and media to create immersive, multi-sensory performance experiences that have been recognized for their excellence and social relevance on the local and national level. Open Dance Project partners with K-12 schools, universities, and youth and family service organizations to connect people through the collaborative process of interdisciplinary performance development. Open Dance Project performance and educational experiences dig deep into real-world subject matter - looking inward at the personal, emotional experience in the midst of significant social and historical events or working with school teachers to devise integrated arts lesson plans delve into specific content from core-curriculum subjects. “Our ensemble-driven work draws on the rich well of diverse talents and life experiences of our company members to make work that is not only athletic and virtuosic, but also socially engaged and deeply human,” says Artistic Director, Annie Arnoult, “Then we take that same creative process into schools, parks, and hospitals to empower young Houstonians with the 21st century learning skills they need to succeed in life."
Photos Courtesy Young Audiences Houston. Photo by Glenn Bailey.
Open Dance Project is committed to using the documented potential of dance theater performance and integrated arts education programs to change lives. Research by The Houston Arts Access Initiative demonstrates that increased arts engagement among HISD students leads to decreased disciplinary actions, decreased incidence of truancy, and increased STAAR results, even when the data is controlled for ethnicity, socio-economic status, English-Language Learners, Special Education, and Gifted and Talented distinctions *
Open Dance Project has been a leading partner in The Houston Arts Access Initiative since the Fall of 2016 - developing sample integrated arts lesson plans, leading pre-service teacher training workshops for HISD school teachers, and providing classroom residencies to school partners throughout the year. Since the Fall of 2015, Open Dance Project has engaged over 4100 students and teachers in over 850 contact hours of integrated arts residencies, workshops, and teacher trainings in Houston schools, parks, and hospitals.
Our community based programming is three tiered. We offer
one-day workshops, and
artist residency programs (lasting one to ten weeks, depending on the school's needs and resources).
One of our school performances, “STAGING STORY LIVE!," uses a narrative theme chosen by the school and suggestions from the audience to build a live dance/theater/music performance right in front of the students’ eyes. Their suggestions help us generate choreography, dialogue and music for the show, which can be used to reinforce a particular curricular or social theme that the school is focusing on, while simultaneously teaching dance, theater and music vocabulary and skills.
"ENGINuity," a second performance we tour to the schools, focuses on the creative minds who invented engines and the mechanical principles behind them. It's a great show for Houston, where the energy industry plays such a major role in our economy and, like "Staging Story Live!," the show begins with an interactive portion that teaches the students about the dance and theater skills and tools we will use in the show and wraps up with a 5-10 minute question and answer session, where the students engage with both the STEM content and ask questions about our art, composition process, and lives as artists.
Open Dance Project’s classroom workshops are ensemble driven, interdisciplinary (dance/music/theater) composition workshops where students work together through improvisation and creative movement and drama exercises to create choreography, music and text based on a subject or theme given to us by the classroom teacher or school.
All classroom workshops are co-taught by a two artist team who model the collaborative process they are teaching the students.
Our 1-Week to 10-Week residency programs extend the classroom workshop into a more fully-developed, progressive format that allows for the students to engage in the generation, development and rehearsal of a more fully realized performance that is shared with the school community in an informal “share-out” event that demonstrates the skills and vocabulary learned in the classroom in addition to the final performance that has been collaboratively developed by the students. These residencies usually involve multiple classrooms and/or grade levels and often kick-off with Open Dance Project’s “STAGING STORY LIVE” performance in a school assembly, which serves to introduce the school to the artists who will be teaching in the classrooms as well as the creative process that the classroom workshops will follow.
ODP serves the greater Houston area. Our community based programming takes place in schools, parks, and hospitals. In each of these locations, we work primarily with underserved students from low socio-economic brackets. The great majority of our students are English and/or Spanish speakers in K-5th grades.
Open Dance Project is a dance theater company. Our work and our teaching privilege expressivity, theatrical intention, and the incorporation of voice and gesture.
Our residencies, touring performances, and workshops bring students, teachers, and professional performing artists together to witness and participate in the generation of original interdisciplinary performance. Open Dance Project’s unique integration of dance, music, and theater exposes students to a wide range of arts vocabulary and skills and offers students a diverse creative learning experience that nurtures their physical, verbal, and emotional intelligence.
Through a carefully crafted feedback system, Open Dance Project programming offers young artists the opportunity and tools to contemplate the structure of different performance elements and define what makes material stage worthy, encouraging young artists to engage critical thinking skills and develop a deeper understanding of composition and performance as both a creative and critical practice.
Open Dance Project residencies bring students together to develop original dance theater performance. In ODP’s cross-disciplinary approach, students generate and craft movement, music, and text for the stage based on literary, scientific, or historical source material drawn from the classroom curriculum. Through creative movement and drama exercises, technical skill building activities, and group composition work, Open Dance Project residencies and workshops train students to be makers of art.
Why? Because at Open Dance Project, we believe in collaborative community. We believe every human being benefits from engagement in the arts. We believe that participating in a creative process empowers individuals and strengthens communities. We believe that every man, woman and child in Houston should have access to the arts.
The performances created by students in a Open Dance Project residency are entirely original and based on the dance choreographed, text written, and music composed by the students themselves.
We encourage students to contemplate the structure of different performance elements and
leading young artists to a greater and more holistic understanding of storytelling and performance.
The performances created in a Open Dance Project residency are composed collaboratively, by the ensemble. This means that students are not only gaining an understanding of how performance is created from their Open Dance Project instructors, they are also actively collaborating with the instructors and their fellow students. The process of creating performance collaboratively gives the individual artist an appreciation of the diversity of ideas in the room, and the way in which each individual’s idea is strengthened by the context of their fellow collaborators’ contributions. It also allows the ensemble to experience the joy of shared achievement.
By teaching the common vocabulary of the performing disciplines of dance, theater, and music, Open Dance Project offers multiple opportunities for students with diverse artistic interests to enter the creative process. Open Dance Project instructors believe firmly in the concept of multiple intelligences. Some students are kinesthetic learners and will connect to the choreographic exercises; some learn rhythmically or melodically and will excel at the composition of music for the performance; some connect with language and will compose highly creative and stage-worthy monologues or dialogues. By making all three performing disciplines accessible as tools for storytelling and performance, Open Dance Project makes room for students of many learning styles.
Though the emphasis in a Open Dance Project residency is on the collaborative creation of material, the instructors also build into every compositional exercise a moment in which each individual can shine. It may be in asking an individual student to lead an exercise, or to stage a theatrical moment, or to choreograph the movement to accompany a particular part of a song. Allowing room for the individual student artist’s voice to be heard strengthens the individual’s sense of his or her own artistry and understanding of how that artistry contributes to a larger work.
What did I have to learn to do this work? Man, oh man. I feel like my entire life needs to be listed here. My most formative experience was the year I spent in AmeriCorps, directly after graduating with a dance and comparative literature degree from Northwestern University, in a program called "Integrated Arts, Integrating Education." We worked as team teachers to develop integrated arts lesson plans for neighborhood schools in Chicago's West Town neighborhood. They were tough schools with kids who were hungry for the arts. It was inspiring and hard and life changing.
My undergraduate dance work included pedagogy classes taught by one of Chicago's leading integrated arts thinkers, Dr. Susan Lee, who was instrumental in the development of _The Chicago Guide for Teaching and Learning in the Arts_. She is brilliant, and she made me want to work in the schools for the rest of my life.
My first professional dance gig was as a company member with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, led by Artistic Director Billy Siegenfeld, who was also an inspiring educator and a deep believer in arts equity. He had us teaching quarter notes and eighth notes and quarter note triplets in our bodies by vocalizing the names of fruits and vegetables. Billy taught us how to sing rhythms and to value improvisation. He also modeled extreme care in lesson planning. Perhaps most importantly, I learned from Billy that teaching and learning through dance needed to be communal and it needed to be fun. I've carried that with me and always will.