Houston music community remembers Larry Rachleff, mourns passing of the longtime Rice conductor

Larry Rachleff / Courtesy of Rice University

The classical music world has lost a conductor, educator, and mentor described by many as a “genius” and a musical “giant,” and noted for his humor, humanity, and ability to bring people together.

Larry Rachleff, longtime professor and conductor of the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, died on Monday, August 8 at the age of 67 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Rice University shared news of his passing yesterday in a remembrance article, as well as in a social media post – with hundreds of students, colleagues, musicians, and friends reacting and commenting with personal tributes in appreciation of Rachleff, who touched countless lives during his 31 years at the Shepherd School.

“[Larry Rachleff] was a champion of all young musicians, not just those who sat under his baton several times a week or studied conducting with him,” wrote Grammy-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank, who earned her bachelor and master degrees at Rice’s Shepherd School.

“He took interest in me as a composer and followed my career for decades afterwards, sending me the occasional note of encouragement and cheer, premiering one work, and programming many others.

“I always loved talking with him, from the time I was an undergrad when he first came to Rice, until our last exchange just a few months ago when we were thinking of ways that I could come back to Shepherd as a guest. What an enormous loss. What a gift he was to all of us for so many years,” commented Frank on Facebook.

Soprano Melissa Givens, a Shepherd School alumna who sings with the Grammy-winning choir Conspirare, wrote on social media: “[Larry Rachleff] was a gentle giant and will be greatly missed. My condolences to the enormous circle of family, friends, and colleagues he leaves behind. I have very fond memories of working with him.”

“Larry made me a better musician and he forever touched my life,” commented Houston soprano and music educator Ana Treviño-Godfrey, who earned her doctorate at the Shepherd School.

Larry Rachleff conducting the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra / Courtesy of Rice University

Joining Rice University in 1991, Larry Rachleff was the Walter Kris Hubert Professor of Orchestral Conducting and Music Director of the Shepherd School Symphony and Chamber Orchestras. Rachleff also served for two decades as Music Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, stepping down in 2017.

As a guest conductor, Rachleff worked with numerous major U.S. orchestras, including the Utah Symphony, Houston Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony, and he was active at prestigious music festivals, including Tanglewood, Aspen, and Interlochen, among others.

Joel Luks remembers him as a “beautiful person.”

While studying for his Masters of Music in Flute Performance at Rice, Luks experienced a special connection with Rachleff during a rehearsal of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony.

“‘Joel,’ he said decisively but with a mischievous (but somber) tone. ‘Sound expensive,’” Luks posted on Facebook.

“I knew exactly what he wanted and how to give it to him. His descriptions and instructions were memorable, an imprint on all young musicians he trained at Rice,” wrote Luks in his personal tribute.

An advocate of public school music education, Rachleff conducted all-state orchestras and festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, and Canada. It was in this role that Houston composer Pierre Jalbert first met the conductor.

“I first played under him as a high school student in the early 80’s at the Vermont All-State Music Festival. Who was this amazing conductor who brought out the best in all of us and introduced us to such interesting repertoire?” wrote Jalbert on Facebook.

“It seems I followed Larry around most of my life, learning about music from him all the while,” posted Jalbert – who later studied at Oberlin Conservatory, where Rachleff also taught, and went on to join the Shepherd School faculty, alongside his former teacher.

Rachleff was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

The Shepherd School will honor the late Larry Rachleff at the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra’s 2022 – 2023 season opening concert on September 30 at 7:30pm in Stude Concert Hall. Details will be updated here.

A $10.7M education project aims to lead Houston – and the nation – in teaching Asian and Asian American narratives

Artist rendering of the North Gallery of the new exhibition “Explore Asia” / Courtesy of Asia Society Texas

Asia Society Texas recently announced a $10.7 million education project to transform itself into an “immersive learning center,” providing teachers with resources and exhibits to guide students in learning about Asian and Asian American narratives, perspectives, and arts and culture – curriculum that has been lacking in U.S. schools according to the National Commission on Asia in the Schools.

The major initiative will include two components:

  • an Online Learning Platform, which will be made available first to Houston area educators and school districts before expanding both regionally and nationally
  • an Onsite Exhibition, open to the public

Both are slated to launch in spring 2023.

The Online Learning Platform is a virtual storytelling experience utilizing interactive graphic novels to deepen middle and high school students’ understanding of Asia and Asian American perspectives. Rooted in humanities and STEM-based concepts, the platform also includes an educator portal which provides lesson plans and curriculum resources aligned to learning standards for seamless integration into classroom teachings.

Asia Society Texas

“There is a great need for Asia-specific learning materials that are engaging and relevant to educators and students” said Rick Cruz, Deputy Superintendent for Houston Independent School District, in a statement.

HISD, the largest school district in Texas, is 4.45% Asian, 9.51% white, 22.19% African American, and 62.01% Hispanic, with about 100 languages spoken within its student population, according to 2021-2022 data.

“Our diverse student population will benefit from the intentional building of cross-cultural connections and the strong alignment to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS),” Cruz said.

Bonna Kol, President of Asia Society Texas, calls the project “the first of its kind in the U.S.” – given the combination of the immersive exhibition, which includes a virtual train ride through Asia; access to AAPI graphic novels with interactive lessons that encourage self-reflection and community action; and a portal for K-12 educators.

“Train to Asia.” A simulated train ride takes students on a guided tour through time, visiting historical and contemporary sites / Artist rendering courtesy of Asia Society Texas

The Onsite Exhibition will be the first interactive learning exhibition in Houston focusing on Asia. This flexible and permanent exhibition will guide guests of all ages on an immersive and multisensory experience to learn about Asian Americans, Asian art, culture, and contemporary global issues. The exhibition is designed to spark curiosity and highlight the interconnectedness between the peoples of Asia, Houston, and the United States.

Asia Society Texas

“To understand who we are as a nation, Asian American history must be taught. Teaching this demonstrates how our nation developed,” wrote national educator Freda Lin in a recent essay for PBS. “Also, these missing narratives of the curriculum can counter misconceptions of Asian Americans.”

At a time when anti-AAPI sentiment and hate crimes have been on the rise, Asia Society Texas says its new education project was motivated by a desire to address gaps in learning that can lead to intolerance and racism, and to combat bias through arts and dialogue.

The project grew out of two years’ worth of research with a 14-member Advisory Council, visits to more than 20 museums in 6 cities, and workshops with 30 educators and 120 students.

“As an Asian American who grew up in Texas, providing opportunities to foster curiosity and build human connectivity by elevating AAPI perspective is deeply meaningful to me,” said Gordon Quan, chair of the project’s Advisory Council, in a statement.

“I know how meaningful it is for a child to see their own story and identity reflected – reinforcing the idea that everyone’s life experience and cultural history is valued and important,” Quan said.

The Houston area’s diverse Asian community currently makes up about 7% of the total population in Harris County.

Asia Society Texas says it has secured more than $9 million in funding so far toward the $10.7 million education project, with fundraising ongoing.

Inprint adds newly-named U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón to its 2022-23 season

Ada Limón will be the 24th U.S. Poet Laureate / Courtesy of Inprint

As organizers at Inprint were finalizing the details of the upcoming 42nd season of its Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, one slot in the line-up was still open.

Then, Ada Limón was awarded the country’s highest honor in the field of poetry – the position of U.S. Poet Laureate – as announced on July 12 by the Library of Congress.

Acting quickly, Inprint reached out to Limón to invite her to come to Houston next season, adding her to the 2022-23 roster, which also includes six award-winning novelists and current U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.

“We were thinking of including Ada in the upcoming season since her fantastic new collection The Hurting Kind was released in May – and I was just about to invite her, when we received the news,” said Rich Levy, Inprint’s Executive Director.

“All the joy in the community about her appointment sealed the deal! We were lucky she was available. A brief email exchange, and we were set,” he said.

Days later, Inprint announced its 2022-23 season – its first full, in person season since the pandemic – with Limón scheduled to appear in a poetry reading and on-stage interview on March 6, 2023, the venue still to be determined at this time.

Levy says he is “thrilled and delighted” at Limón’s new national role.

“Personally, I am a great admirer of Ada’s work – “The Raincoat,” from The Carrying, is I think one of the most moving and concise tributes to the unselfish energy and love of mothers that I have ever read,” said Levy.

Limón begins her term as U.S. Poet Laureate on September 29, succeeding Harjo, who will appear on Inprint’s upcoming season on November 14, 2022 at Rice University’s Brockman Hall for Opera.

“I really truly believe with my whole body in the power of poetry and in the power of poetry to heal and bring together communities and celebrate the interconnectedness that we all have with each other,” said Limón in an interview with the Library of Congress. “And I think this is a huge opportunity to really honor those beliefs.”

Organizers at Inprint say that they loved the idea of presenting both the 23rd and 24th U.S. Poet Laureates in the same season, as part of their mission of championing poetry and nurturing writers everywhere – but also at this moment when poetry may be on the rise.

“It seems in the U.S. and elsewhere that more and more people are reading poetry, and feel empowered to write poetry. And if the pandemic has introduced some folks to the joys of poetry, then I am grateful for that salubrious effect,” said Levy.

“For too long, poetry was an elitist enterprise. I think both Joy and Ada are part of the trend among our Poet Laureates and in general to enlarge and enrich the canon and the field,” he said.

Complete information about Inprint’s season, which includes virtual options, is available here.

Since 1980, the Inprint Brown Reading Series has featured more than 400 award-winning writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry from 37 countries, including 19 U.S. Poet Laureates. Limón previously appeared in a joint reading with Pultizer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo in 2017.

After two summers without live shows, Houston Shakespeare Festival is back – in person and online

Kyle Clark, Kenn Hopkins, and Laura Frye in Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Cymbeline” / Courtesy of University of Houston

After canceling shows in 2020 due to COVID-19 and curating a Shakespeare film festival in place of live plays in 2021, the Houston Shakespeare Festival returns to Miller Outdoor Theatre for the first time since the pandemic. It runs July 28 – August 6 with free performances of King Lear and Cymbeline.

“We’ve assembled a cast of amazing actors as well as a truly outstanding design team. This year’s dynamic productions of King Lear and Cymbeline will make audiences feel that HSF is back at full force,” said Rob Shimko, the festival’s executive director, in a statement.

The longtime Shakespeare festival has been produced by the University of Houston’s School of Theatre and Dance since 1975, when it was founded by the School’s late director and professor emeritus Sidney Berger. Shimko is the School’s current director.

This summer’s production of King Lear – the festival’s first of this play in more than 20 years – will be directed by Stephanie Shine, who directed 2019’s As You Like It, and feature HSF Artistic Director Jack Young in the title role. In a press release, Young said the set design evokes a “mythical Game of Thrones world” for this tragedy with themes of family loyalty, betrayal, and madness.

Starring Kenn Hopkins as King Cymbeline and Laura Frye as the king’s daughter Imogen, Cymbeline will have a “fairytale Princess Bride ambience” in its production design, according to Young, to help convey this tale of forbidden love, secret plots, and mistaken identity.

King Lear performances are July 28, 30, August 1, 3, and 5, and Cymbeline performances are July 29, August 2, 4, and 6. More information is available here.

With livestreaming now a regular offering by Miller Outdoor Theatre, festival performances can also be watched live online and will remain available for 48 hours on YouTube, according to Miller’s website.

“Both of these plays have a large number of wonderful roles, which is giving all of the performers great lines to say and events to experience – big battles, some of Shakespeare’s most resonant lines,” said Young in statement. “These plays will be a great way for us all to return to Miller Outdoor Theatre.”

Maureen Zoltek is the latest hire in a year of new leaders at Houston Grand Opera, with more to come

Maureen Zoltek / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has spent this past year recruiting new talent, and the latest is Maureen Zoltek – with another new hire expected in August.

The company recently announced that Zoltek has been appointed Music Director of the HGO Studio, its highly competitive and acclaimed training program for rising opera artists. She begins her role in September 2022.

The position was formerly held by Miah Im, who served from mid-2020 until she passed away in September 2021 after a battle with cancer. HGO’s 2022 Concert of Arias was dedicated in Im’s honor.

HGO describes Zoltek as an “active proponent of new works” with a “commitment to emerging artists.” She is currently assistant conductor, vocal coach, and orchestral keyboardist at San Francisco Opera, as well as a faculty member at the Music Academy of the West.

Zoltek has served on the music staff for world premieres operas by Mark Adamo, John Adams, and Bright Sheng. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music and Master’s Degree in piano performance and musicology from Roosevelt University.

In Houston, Zoltek will work closely with HGO Studio Director Brian Speck to lead the program, serve as a member of the company’s casting committee, and oversee programming for HGO Studio’s recital series.

“Artists compete to join the program because it provides personalized, intensive training that prepares them to perform at the highest levels, alongside the best in the business,” said Speck in a statement. “Under Maureen’s exceptional mentorship, our HGO Studio artists will be positioned for success on stages across the world.”

Zoltek is the fourth addition to HGO’s leadership this year. The company also announced a new Board Chair (Claire Liu), a new Director of Community & Learning (Jennifer Bowman), and a new Composer-in-Residence (Joel Thompson) in recent months.

While departures have left some of these positions open, HGO says the changes are also a sign of commitment to fostering talent in the industry and advancing the artform.

“It’s a new era at HGO!” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in an email to Houston Arts Journal. Dastoor herself joined the company in August 2021 as she transitioned from her previous role at Opera San Jose, then fully taking over this past January.

“Since joining the organization our priority has been to sharpen our entire strategic focus,” she said. “A huge part of that is building the right team, and over the past year we’ve put everything we have into launching an exhaustive and wide-ranging recruitment initiative.”

HGO says it also plans to announce a Chief Marketing and Experience Officer in August – a newly created position (previously named Chief Audience Officer), whose search began earlier this year.  The role is crucial for the organization’s strategic focus and emphasis on creating lasting experiences for audiences, says HGO.

“It’s essential that we hire arts leaders who are not just the best the industry has to offer, but fervent believers in our mission of bringing world-class artistic experiences to everyone in this city,” Dastoor said.

Joel Thompson is named Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time Composer-in-Residence

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping “The Snowy Day” / Photo by Matthew Fried

A doctoral student at Yale School of Music with an American Prize for Choral Composition and an Emmy Award to his name, Joel Thompson wrote his first opera for Houston Grand Opera this past season.

That opera was The Snowy Day, with libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney and based on the classic Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Thompson’s The Snowy Day made its world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center on December 9, 2021 and had a successful nine-performance run with positive feedback from the community and coverage by The New York Times and Texas Monthly. In a historic first, HGO livestreamed the opera’s opening night for free, drawing viewers in 34 countries.

In another historic first for the company, HGO recently announced that it has recruited Thompson to live and work in Houston as its first-ever, full-time Composer-in-Residence, in a role that will aim to strength connections with Houstonians and their communities through opera. His five-year residency begins on August 1, 2022.

“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a transformative artist that is redefining the future of opera and expanding its reach,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in a statement.

“We are confident that Joel’s artistic contributions are making the world a better place, and we can’t wait to see and hear what he will do next,” Dastoor said.

During his tenure, Thompson will serve as a member of the company’s artistic leadership. According to a press release, his initiatives and plans will include: forming music-based educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits; identifying and mentoring homegrown composers, librettists, and other artists and creatives; composing a major mainstage commission; and composing a set of smaller-scale original works, informed thematically by his collaborations with the people who live here, which will premiere at HGO.

“This residency will provide me with an opportunity to do the things that matter to me most: creating music through community and creating community through music,” said Thompson in a statement.

“I’m especially excited to do this in partnership with HGO, the visionary company that has helped me launch my career in opera,” he said. “HGO is giving me the chance to dream and to create works that I hope will be deeply meaningful to the community we will build together over the next five years.”

Artistic team of HGO’s “The Snowy Day,” L-R: Omer Ben Seadia (director), Andrea Davis Pinkney (librettist), and Joel Thompson (composer) / Photo by Matthew Fried

Thompson’s works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and EXIGENCE.

In addition to The Snowy Day, Thompson is known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which commemorates the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of police or authority figures. The work earned Thompson the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition and a 2017 Emmy Award for a documentary about the piece.

Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Joel Thompson, in a conversation with HGO on Art & Activism

While Thompson is HGO’s first Composer-in-Residence dedicated solely to that role, the company has supported other resident composers over the years, including Damien Sneed, who served as Music Director and Composer-in-Residence of HGOco (now HGO Community and Learning) during the 2018 – 2019 season and whose chamber opera Marian’s Song, with libretto by Deborah DEEP Mouton, premiered in March 2020.

Among the five major Texas opera companies that make up the Texas Opera Alliance, HGO is the only company currently with a full-time composer residency – a position that the company considers renewing in the future.

“HGO is committed to identifying and supporting opera’s most extraordinary creatives – the composers, librettists, and other artists poised to push the art form forward,” said Houston Grand Opera in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“When we identify rare talents like Joel Thompson, we will always find a way to support them, and that could very well mean establishing future residencies. We tailor these positions individually.”

A new dance project honors Black Texas heroes, families, and the towns they created

Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in “The Fairytale Project” / Keda Sharber of Images by Papillon

Shankleville, Texas was founded by Jim and Winnie Shankle in Deep East Texas.

Both born into slavery in the early 1800s, the Shankles were known as the first Blacks in Newton County to buy land and become local leaders upon emancipation – establishing Shankleville as one of the many Freedom Colonies in Texas settled by former slaves during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Between 1865 – 1930, African Americans founded 557 historic Black settlements, according to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.

The Shankle family’s story of love, resistance, and triumph became the basis for The Fairytale Project, a new work by Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective. The work debuts this Sunday, June 26 at 5pm at Discovery Green in a free performance.

Through choreography that blends modern/contemporary, jazz, musical theater, and dance styles inspired by the African Diaspora, the plot follows the journey of a modern day African American family as they reconnect with their East Texas roots through “peculiar encounters with the past,” as described in a press release – and along the way, telling story of Jim and Winnie Shankle and their descendants.

Stacey Allen – dancer, choreographer, and Artistic Director of Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective – was inspired by her husband’s family history, whose ancestors can be traced back to the Shankles, as she told Jaundréa Clay of the Houston Chronicle.

Allen is also the Director of Artistic Programming at Harris County Cultural Arts Council, a nonprofit arts and culture center that has been serving communities in East Harris County for over two decades. The Fairytale Project is presented in partnership with HCCAC.

“I wanted to create opportunities for Black children to be able to see themselves on stage, especially in live dance theater, outside of Black History Month,” said Allen in a statement.

“It’s a part of my artistic style to celebrate the contributions of Black role models in our families and close-knit communities,” she said.

The adults in the photo are Jimmie Odom (Jim and Winnie Shankle’s grandson) and Roxie Brooks Odom. The kids, L to R back row, are Alvah Troga (A.T.), Leon, Lola and Almada; L to R front row are Jimmie, Louella and Jettie. Jimmie and Jettie are twins. The photo was taken circa 1906. / Caption and photo courtesy of Shankleville Historical Society

Allen founded Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective in 2018 as a multigenerational group of Black women dancers and multidisciplinary artists.

“Nia is Swahili for Purpose, and Nia’s Daughters Movement Collective creates with purpose,” said the organization in a statement. “Upon its founding, Nia’s Daughters was organized to perform culturally competent dance works while telling the stories of Black women and girls.”

The Fairytale Project also features an original score by Andre Cunningham, set design by Ariel Bounds, and film/photography by Keda Sharber. The work is funded in part by the BIPOC Arts Network and Fund, Dance Source Houston, and a Houston Arts Alliance “Let Creativity Happen Grant” with support from Discovery Green Conservancy.

MFAH’s Glassell School of Art has a new director – Paul Coffey, Chicago arts educator and leader

The Glassell School of Art / Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has appointed Paul Coffey, a longtime educator and administrator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as the new director of its Glassell School of Art.

Coffey begins his role on July 18, 2022. He succeeds Joseph Havel, who retires on June 30 to return full-time to his studio practice, after serving as director for 30 years. During that time, Havel is credited with expanding Glassell’s curriculum, increasing student enrollment, and raising the profile and reach of its Core Residency Program.

“I know that [Paul Coffey] will bring thoughtful leadership to the Glassell School, which is so essential to the Museum’s educational and artistic mission and which, under Joe Havel’s direction, became a center of creativity,” said Gary Tinterow, MFAH Director, in a press release.

“Paul Coffey brings to the Glassell School of Art and to Houston an extraordinary commitment to art, education and community, one that he has demonstrated over two decades in leadership roles at the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago,” Tinterow said.

Since 2011, Coffey has served as Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the historic and highly ranked training ground for artists, designers, and scholars at the graduate, post-baccalaureate, and undergraduate levels.

He has created and led community engagement programs in Chicago, such as: SAIC at Homan Square, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s campus in the underserved local neighborhood of North Lawndale; summer intensives for military veterans with PTSD, now in its seventh year as a collaboration with CreatiVets; and the College Arts Access Program in Continuing Studies, a free 3-year college-bridge program for Chicago Public Schools students with artistic talent and financial need.

Paul Coffey, incoming director, Glassell School of Art / Photo by Cosmo Coffey

Coffey’s relationship with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago goes back to earning his own BFA there in 1989.  He also holds an MFA in art and design from the University of Chicago (1992), and he completed the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education in 2018.

As he begins his new chapter in Houston, Coffey says he brings with him a connection that he has long felt to the Bayou City through its acclaimed art institutions, like the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, and the MFAH – and through the connection that other artists, like Cy Twombly, also felt to the city – according to reporting by the Houston Chronicle.

As head of the Glassell School of Art, Coffey will oversee the nation’s only museum-affiliated art school serving pre-K through post-graduate students.

Founded in 1979, the Glassell School opened a new 93,000 square-foot building in 2018. Its programs include a Studio School for adults, a Junior School for children and teens, and the Core residency program for artists and writers. According to the MFAH, it serves more than 5,000 adults and children each year.

Flamenco scholar Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada joins University of Houston’s dance faculty

M. Gabriela Estrada / Courtesy of UH Dance Program

The University of Houston Dance Program recently named to its full-time faculty Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada, a bilingual multidisciplinary educator, choreographer, journalist, and filmmaker.

Estrada begins her position as Assistant Professor of Dance in fall 2022. She was one of 60 national candidates who applied for the opening vacated by longtime faculty member, Rebecca Valls, who retired this past spring.

“My creative work embraces contemporary theatrical western dance forms and flamenco,” states Estrada on her website. “In academic settings, my creative work is often inspired by dance history, movement analysis, and social justice.”

Karen Stokes, Head of the UH Dance Program and Professor of Dance, said she is “thrilled” to welcome Estrada to the Houston dance community.

“In addition to her congenial personality, Dr. Estrada brings a deep bench of practice and scholarly activity to our program,” said Stokes. “While she wears many dance hats, including strong organizational skills, I am personally very excited about her flamenco background, and her fusion approach to using flamenco within both teaching and research.”

As an educator, my mission is to promote the appreciation of dance as art, tradition, and culture while advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Dr. M. Gabriela Estrada

Estrada holds a BA and an MFA in Dance from the University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Flamenco Interdisciplinary Studies from the Department of Sociocultural Anthropology and Philology at the University of Seville, Spain.

Examples of her work and research include the solo Ni Una Carmen Más! (Not a Single Carmen More!), The Choreographic Development of The Three-Cornered Hat through the 20th Century (MFA thesis), and Flamenco’s Contributions to Ballet (Ph.D. dissertation).

Estrada also directed and produced ENI9MA: The Legend of Félix, a documentary about Félix Fernández García, the flamenco dancer who collaborated with Léonide Massine, Pablo Picasso, Manuel de Falla, and the Ballets Russes de Diaghilev in creating The Three-Cornered Hat.

Estrada was founding director of Dance Collage School of Dance in Mexico and founding faculty at the Universidad de Sonora. She has served as Community Arts Partnership Education Manager for New York’s Ballet Hispánico and is currently a Teaching Assistant Professor of Dance at East Carolina University.

Three teens win Houston’s only high school playwrighting festival

“These kids are the future of the American theatre,” said Trevor Cone, Executive Director of Dirt Dogs Theatre.

Cone is referring to the teens who participate in his company’s annual Student Playwright Festival, now in its fourth year and open to high school seniors in Greater Houston who submit previously unproduced, original one-act plays.

When he and his company started the festival in 2018 – inspired by the talent and hard work in his daughter’s own high school playwrighting class – he says they were not aware of any other local or regional playwriting festivals specifically targeted at high school students.

“This is one of the reasons we decided to start the [festival],” Cone said. “With encouragement and guidance, we hope that kids who are interested in theatre, and specifically the creation of new plays, will follow through on that urge.”

The winners receive a $500 scholarship, mentorship by a local professional playwright, and production of their plays at the festival.

So far, Dirt Dogs has produced 9 student plays over the years – with past winners continuing to write and design for theater after graduation at colleges such as Brandeis, Emerson, and the California Institute of the Arts, according to Cone.

“The festival has been extremely fulfilling to the playwrights, the mentors, and Dirt Dogs Theatre Company,” said Cone. “For the playwrights, the [festival] is a validation of their talent and a celebration of their creativity and dedication to their craft.”

The 2022 winners are:

Alexandra Askew (Westside High School). Her play, Absquatulate: To leave without saying goodbye, centers on a family struggling with unexpected loss. She describes the play as “a story about the complex relationship between mother and daughter following the death of their father/husband.” Askew will be mentored by Ted Swindley, creator of the hit musical Always…Patsy Cline and Founding Artistic Director of Stages Repertory Theatre.

Kaleigh Medlow (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her play, Hand Me Downs, takes on the journey of three generations of Black women who hand down a blouse from daughter to daughter, while simultaneously handing down generational trauma and tendencies. Medlow will be mentored by playwright Gwen Flager, whose plays have been produced in Houston, as well as festivals in California, Kansas, and Louisiana.

Pearl Reagler (Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). Her written work focuses on the grotesque, gothic, and futuristic. In her play, Stay Sunny, four teenagers join a group phone call to try and make sense of a mysterious impending disaster. Reagler will be mentored by Doug Williams, a playwright, novelist, and award-winning screenwriter.

The 2022 Student Playwright Festival takes place in person on June 8, 7:30pm at MATCH and virtually via video-on-demand available for view June 9 – 24.

Based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of multiple arts organizations, Dirt Dog Theatre Company’s Student Playwright Festival is currently the only festival of its kind open to high school students citywide.

Houston has an active and nationally-recognized youth theater scene overall, with youth training programs offered by institutions such as the Alley TheatreEnsemble TheatreMain Street TheaterStages, and Theater Under The Stars. Local teachers have garnered prestigious accolades, including Roshunda Jones-Koumba, theater director at G.W. Carver Magnet High School, who will receive the 2022 Excellence in Theatre Education Award on June 12 at the Tony Awards in New York City.