METdance: Diverse and Powerful

METdance is a leading arts organization in Houston that excels in fostering and presenting diverse dancers and repertory. The company was founded in 1995 by Executive Director Michelle Smith, who performed and taught with Metdance’s preceding incarnation, The Delia Stewart Dance Company and Center. The World Dances spoke with Smith about her vision, company, supporting the Houston arts scene following Hurricane Harvey, and more.

How did Metdance fare during Hurricane Harvey?

I’ve lived in Houston for 40 years and been through multiple hurricanes. This one was a doozy! We were lucky. We didn’t have any physical damage and were actually able to house Houston Ballet for two weeks. Some of the smaller studios lost everything. We gave a lot of studio space and time away for free because we had it. The impact on us was more financial than physical. People aren’t thinking about dance classes; they’re thinking about having to fix their flooded cars or about how to eventually get back into their homes.  We’ve always had an open policy. Our space is a community space. We’re tasked with making our space available whenever we can. It’s not always free, but at that point, we didn’t think twice. And Texas is known for that. If people are in need, we help. It’s a Southern thing. We help each other out.

What’s ahead for METdance  this season?

Our first presentation will be “Where the Heart Is” November 16-18 at the Match which will focus on Texas choreographers and artists. We have a full season of performances with six ticketed season performances plus some outreach. We also have two free performances, plus five additional free educational performances. The company had its third appearance at Jacob’s Pillow in August. We were supposed to go to the Mid-America Arts Conference, but we couldn’t get out of Houston during the hurricane. Additionally, we have a youth company that does several performances. We’re always busy.

How has the company build its impressively varied repertoire?

We’re always on the lookout for choreographers. In any year we may have three or four new pieces created on the company, because we are a rep company. We have Camille A. Brown’s “New Second Line,” and we’re one of the few companies beside her own to have that. We have work by Robert Battle, Katarzyna Skarpetowska, Rosie Herrera, Sidra Bell and many more. It takes years to get a lot of the choreographers. Our artistic Director, Marlana Doyle, is fantastic. She does her research, and it’s her people—artists in their 30s and 40s now—who are really creating the dance world now.

I’m very proud to say that Marlana is very strict about upholding the integrity of a piece, and upholding it year after year. Choreographers know that what they set is what will be performed. There’s no morphing. Choreographers trust us with their work and vision.

We know what our patrons like. What works in NYC or Chicago does not always work in Texas. Really, really heady pieces don’t work here. We tend to sculpt seasons where the audiences get what they want. There will be fun pieces, some really high-energy pieces, pretty pieces, and we’ll throw in some headier work. You might see six different pieces in a night, so the audience can experience dance from across the gamut. Our motto is, you will find something you like in every performance. We want to teach the community that there’s some really good dance out there that will make you uncomfortable and make you think. That’s not a bad thing.

Belief in what we do is key. I truly believe we’re creating excellent work. I’ve gone to my board before to justify pieces they thought may have missed the mark. They’ll insist occasionally on more control over the creative process. I respond, “Nope, we can't do that. We would never ever create anything new. And here’s a list of new creations we’ve performed that you all think are phenomenal.”

How did you decide to make METdance so diverse in terms of its dancers and rep?

My background is ballet, but I was lucky enough to have had a director that forced us to take Graham. I had as many years of Graham as I had of classical ballet. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. When we were recreating the company, I knew ballet would be very important. But I had been introduced to great jazz and amazing modern pieces. I thought, what if we do it all? As a performer I was not the epitome of a ballet dancer. If you’re told you don’t fit the mold, what do you do? I didn’t want that for our dancers or company. There’s so much wonderful dance. The vocabulary that our company uses has morphed ballet, modern, contemporary, jazz, and urban into movement. If students today can get all of that, you produce incredible dancers. And you also give them a choice. If classical ballet isn’t a fit for you, you have options. Houston is a melting pot, one of the most diverse cities in the nation. You can’t look at a young girl—from any background—who knows she doesn’t look like a stereotypical ballerina and tell her she can’t dance. I have always been about the creation and support of dancers.

What advice would you offer young dancers aspiring to join your company?

Train, take all the classes you can and work on your technique in all of them.  Don’t limit yourself to one genre.

For us, we want dancers trained in ballet, jazz, modern, and contemporary at least.  Start auditioning once you have finished high school.  College is great and teaches so much. And it is a four-year commitment or more. That is important in today’s world, commitment.  When you are done with that come to one of our auditions!

Also if you are interested in a company, research them.  If they have classes, go to their intensives. Take them BEFORE you audition for the company.  A little research, effort, and time in decision makers’ presence go along way when you walk into an audition.  

Photo: METdance performing in Katarzyna Skarpetowska’s Snow Playground