Nao Kusuzaki’s World Premiere Ballet, “Genji,” marks Asia Society Texas’ second dance commission in its 43-year history

Emma Forrester, Aoi Fujiwara, Yumiko Fukuda, and Jindallae Bernard during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, on Monday, January 30, 2023, at the Houston Ballet. ‘Genji’ makes its world premiere at Asia Society Texas March 24–25, 2023 // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

Told from the perspectives of four female characters and set in 21st century Japan, Genji is Nao Kusuzaki’s contemporary retelling of The Tale of Genji – the classic 11th century novel that depicts the aristocratic and romantic life of the Emperor’s son, Hikaru Genji, and written by novelist, poet, and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu.

The World Premiere chamber ballet is Asia Society Texas’ second dance commission its 43-year history – and its second dance piece created in partnership with Houston Ballet. It also marks the organization’s second time working with Kusuzaki, the Founder and Executive/Artistic Director of Creative Minds Collaborative and a former Houston Ballet soloist, whose 12-year career with the company spanned from 2004 to 2016.

Genji will debut in performances March 24 – 25, 7:30pm, at Asia Society Texas, featuring dancers from Houston Ballet and an original score written and performed live by New York-based composer and musician Kaoru Watanabe.

Aoi Fujiwara and Ryo Kato during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, in partnership with Houston Ballet // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

As described in a press release, Kusuzaki explores the female characters’ relationships with Genji and one another in this contemporary ballet about friendship, love, and the dynamics of power and social class.

“The intricacies of these relationships reveal universal human emotions – such as loyalty and jealousy, beauty and destruction of love, and dealing with life’s impermanence – that make the story as relevant today as it was in 11th century Japan,” she said in a statement.

Asia Society Texas began its foray into commissioning dance works in 2015 with Tsuru, performed by Kusuzaki and co-created by her and choreographer Kenta Kojiri. Based on the “The Crane Wife” folktale, Tsuru debuted with praise from Arts and Culture Texas and the Houston Chronicle.

“Houston Ballet has built a strong relationship with Asia Society Texas over the past decade … We are excited to once again partner with Asia Society Texas on the World Premiere of Genji,” said Jim Nelson, Houston Ballet Executive Director, in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“Again, Kusuzaki draws on classic Japanese literature and folklore to create a new dance adaptation of a classic Japanese tale,” Nelson said. “Ms. Kuzusaki brings a unique perspective to narrative dance work that is rooted in classical ballet technique, and Houston Ballet is proud to support her and our dancers in sharing this work with our community.”

Nao Kusuzaki with Aoi Fujiwara during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, in partnership with Houston Ballet // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Nao Kusuzaki to learn more about the World Premiere of “Genji”:

Houston Arts Journal: Why do you think a contemporary retelling of The Tale of Genji is important?

Nao Kasuzaki: The Tale of Genji is not only known as one of the world’s oldest literary works, but it is also one written by a female author, during a period in Japanese history (Heian period) when the arts truly flourished. The arts cultivated during the Heian period are what we identify today as traditional Japanese art. The Japanese phonetic syllabary kana was born, waka poetry blossomed, as well as music and dance – gagaku and bugaku. The stage work of The Tale of Genji was a perfect backdrop to share with Houston audiences about these elements of Japanese history.

And the further along I read The Tale of Genji, the more intrigue I found in the various human emotions and how similar our relationships can be from a thousand years ago. Seeing its relevance and universal appeal, I felt the contemporary retelling through a ballet would offer interesting and meaningful perspectives. Layering onto it are elements of history and culture – through use of kimono fabrics, traditional instruments like koto and fue, calligraphy and waka poetry recitation, and gestural movements.

Aoi Fujiwara with choreographer Nao Kusuzaki during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, in partnership with Houston Ballet // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

HAJ: Why do you love to work with Houston Ballet dancers? What do you think they will add to this World Premiere?

NK: When I was involved in the first commissioned work with Asia Society Texas in 2015, I was dancing full-time with Houston Ballet. Since I joined the company in 2004, Houston Ballet had become my ballet family, and naturally, I was drawn to working with them for that project. I also felt very supported by the Houston Ballet organization for that collaboration and had a truly fulfilling process leading up to the performances.

This time, for the second commission from Asia Society Texas, I was retired from full-time dancing, but still felt connected with Houston Ballet, as I stayed involved with the organization. I continue to love and respect what they do and am thrilled to be able to work with them again. 

Three of the dancers are soloists and of Japanese origin, and the other two are in the beginning years of their careers. I also know that all of the cast members have studied The Tale of Genji through school and showed curiosity and excitement from the beginning. They’re all such team players with unique individuality. These qualities certainly add to their interpretation and development of characters for Genji.”


Choreographer and Artistic Director: Nao Kusuzaki
Composer and Musician: Kaoru Watanabe
Set Designer: Ryan McGettigan
Costume Designer: Allison Miller
Lighting Designer and Stage Manager: Tiffany Schrepferman

Ryo Kato (Genji), Houston Ballet
Jindallae Bernard (Rokujyo), Houston Ballet
Emma Forrester (Aoi), Houston Ballet
Aoi Fujiwara (Fujitsubo), Houston Ballet
Yumiko Fukuda (Murasaki), Houston Ballet
Evelyn Chang, Houston Ballet Academy
Jordan Evangelista, Houston Ballet Academy
Victoria Mosher, Houston Ballet Academy
Giselle Ford, Houston Ballet Academy

Jindallae Bernard and Emma Forrester during a rehearsal for ‘Genji,’ an original ballet by Nao Kusuzaki and commissioned by Asia Society Texas, on Monday, January 30, 2023, at the Houston Ballet. ‘Genji’ makes its world premiere at Asia Society Texas March 24–25, 2023 // Photo courtesy of Asia Society Texas/Chris Dunn

First-ever Houston Theater Week could mark the start of a new performing arts season tradition

In place of the once annual Theater District Open House, Houston First Corporation and the Theater District Houston Association have collaborated to launch the first Houston Theater Week, August 22 – 29, 2022.

Modeled after New York’s Broadway Week (a bi-annual event that offers 2-for-1 Broadway tickets), Houston Theater Week features the opportunity to purchase Buy One, Get One Free tickets to more than 100 concerts and shows presented by more than 20 local arts organizations in the 2022 – 2023 season.

“Think of it like the Black Friday of the performing arts season,” said Holly Clapham, Chief Marketing Officer of Houston First.

Houston First also called the new week-long event “the largest consumer promotion celebrating live theater and performing arts in Houston’s history.”

The previous annual tradition of Theater District Open House took place for 26 years until 2019.  While that event was a day-long festival of ticket deals, as well as activities and performances, Houston Theater Week will focus on providing significant discounts to benefit patrons and to drive ticket sales that will help the local performing arts community continue to recover from the pandemic, according to Houston First.

Clapham told Houston Arts Journal that it was “hard to keep the momentum” of the Theater District Open House in the face of modern technologies, such as social media – and that the new concept of Theater Week “marries well with the way people shop … and engage with products.”

However, with the construction of Lynn Wyatt Square – a new plaza framed by downtown’s major performing arts venues – expected to be finished in early 2023, there is still the potential for a reimagined in-person event in the future, Clapham said. She anticipates that the new plaza will allow for “endless possibilities” to engage the public, and that arts leaders will be taking note of how Houstonians use and respond to that space.

In the meantime, Houston Theater Week provides the return of a collective citywide celebration of the performing arts season – and one that aims to include acclaimed local arts groups that perform beyond the downtown Theater District, such as the Ensemble Theatre, which recently won the Theatre Longevity Award at the 2022 National Black Theatre Festival.

“Houston Theater Week was developed to showcase and strengthen Houston’s diverse professional performing arts portfolio,” said Michael Heckman, Houston First President and CEO, in a statement.

“We are proud to partner with resident companies in the heart of downtown, as well as community theater groups located throughout our city, and look forward to this campaign continuing to grow in popularity and success,” he said.

Participating local arts groups include:

  • 4th Wall Theatre Company
  • Alley Theatre
  • Ars Lyrica Houston
  • Chamber Music Houston
  • Da Camera
  • Dirt Dogs Theatre Company
  • The Ensemble Theatre
  • The Hobby Center
  • Houston Ballet
  • Houston Brass Quintet
  • Houston Chamber Choir
  • Houston Grand Opera
  • Houston Symphony
  • Kinetic Ensemble
  • Main Street Theater
  • Mercury Chamber Orchestra
  • Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
  • Performing Arts Houston
  • ROCO
  • Stages
  • Tee Zee Productions
  • Theatre Under the Stars

Details on Houston Theater Week will be updated and available here.

UPDATE, 8/16/22, 4pm: This article was updated to reflect the increase in the number performances eligible for discounts from 86 to 93, and to include the addition of the Ensemble Theatre’s participation in Theater Week.

UPDATE, 8/22/22, 9:30AM: This article was updated to include the added participation of Chamber Music Houston, Houston Brass Quintet, Houston Chamber Choir, and Stages. The number of performances eligible for discounts was updated to “more than 100,” and the number local arts groups participating updated to “more than 20,” to reflect the changing numbers on Houston Theater Week’s website.

Hobby Center announces a new President and CEO

Mark Folkes / Al Torres Photography

Veteran Houston arts leader Mark Folkes, formerly of Stages and the Houston Symphony, has been named President and CEO of the Hobby Center, as announced today in a press release.

Folkes “will provide strategic leadership and drive deeper community engagement” in his role, effective August 22, 2022. His selection was the culmination of a search process that began this past January by the Hobby Center Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts / Courtesy of the Hobby Center

“We are delighted to welcome Mark Folkes to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,” said Rob Doty, Chairman of Board of the Hobby Center Foundation, in a statement.

“With a passion for the performing arts, an impressive business acumen, and strong ties to the Houston community, Mark stood out as the right candidate for the position. There is no doubt he will be an outstanding leader for the Hobby Center for many years to come,” Doty said.

Folkes comes to the Hobby Center from Greater Houston Community Foundation, where he was Chief Advancement Officer since 2021. His history of arts, community, and fundraising leadership also includes serving as Managing Director of Stages from 2015 – 2021, where he headed the company’s $35.8 million capital campaign to build its new facility The Gordy. Prior to that, he was Senior Director of Development at the Houston Symphony.

“Arts and culture are at the center of our civic identity. Houston has so much to be proud of for fostering a dynamic and diverse arts ecosystem, and the Hobby Center is, in many ways, at the center of this progress,” said Folkes in statement.

“I am excited to lead the team to help deepen our impact in presenting engaging performing arts experiences for all Houstonians,” he said.

Folkes joins the Hobby Center as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Home to Broadway at the Hobby Center and Theatre Under The Stars, as well as a major Houston Theater District venue for numerous local arts groups and touring acts, it opened in May 2002 and is operated by the nonprofit Hobby Center Foundation.

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.

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.

Jones Hall’s $50 million renovation plan could help Houston arts recover from the pandemic

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

This summer, Jones Hall continues major renovations that will aim to improve acoustics, backstage technology, ADA accessibility, restrooms, and more – and potentially help Houston arts groups recover from the pandemic.

The projected $50 million renovation plan – which builds upon renovations made in 2020 and 2021 – will take place primarily in summer months over coming years, as recently announced by the Foundation for Jones Hall. Organizers are hopeful the work will be completed by 2024, according to the Houston Chronicle.

This multiyear approach works around resident arts organizations’ seasons, allowing them to carry on full performance schedules in order to recoup some of the significant financial losses sustained from COVID-19.

The Houston Symphony – which is based in Jones Hall, along with Performing Arts Houston (the former, recently renamed Society for the Performing Arts) – estimates that it lost about $9 million in ticket revenue between March 2020 to September 2021 due to cancelation of shows and performances to very reduced audiences for social distancing.

“Rather than close Jones Hall for a full year or more, this project will be done over a series of summers to allow the Symphony to have its full regular season in Jones Hall, its performance home, without disruption,” said the Houston Symphony in an email.

While Performing Arts Houston says it’s grateful for the support of federal pandemic-related programs, donors, and foundations during COVID, its ticket revenue also took “an extreme hit.”

“In a normal season, almost 70% of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and that revenue came to a full stop in March 2020. It was almost 19 months before we returned to live performances,” said Performing Arts Houston in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“We look forward to Jones Hall improvements to enhance the audience experience to help us grow our ticket revenue back to normal levels and beyond,” said Performing Arts Houston.

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

Both arts groups point out that the renovations will benefit patrons as well as performers, thus attracting both back to the venue – and potentially strengthening ticket sales, plus diversity and quality of programming.

“Returning audiences will see exciting changes to this iconic Houston structure, updates that many have looked forward to for years,” stated Performing Arts Houston. “And with an improved audience experience, we expect new attendees will be more likely to return again and again.”

For summer 2022, work in Jones Hall will include:

  • Refinishing of the stage floor and rebuilding of orchestra pit floors
  • Replacement of hydraulic lifts for the orchestra pit with a new lifting system, allowing for gentle, quiet movement and stable support of the stage and orchestra pit
  • Work to replumb and redirect cable and conduit, while removing electrical equipment to further modernize infrastructure
  • Replacement of the audio network, which consists of the equipment and data network that support amplified performances, to further revamp acoustics in the hall for musicians and patrons

By the end of 2023 and beyond, expected improvements will include:

  • Renovations to the Green Room, lobby, and other public spaces, easing lobby congestion and traffic flow throughout the facility; lobby layout to be expanded, along with aesthetic transformation
  • New seats installed in the concert hall
  • ADA improvements made for greater wheelchair accessibility
  • Restrooms added, expanded, and relocated, including those on the courtyard level; restrooms accessible by only a short flight of stairs, rather than a long walk up and down, with widened stairways between levels
  • State of the art lighting and rigging systems to improve the efficiency of backstage work
  • New stage automation control to modernize how large pieces of scenery, electrics, and audio-visual components are used in the venue
  • Introduction of fiber networks to enable the hall to unitize the full potential of entertainment industry technology

These renovations come at a time when Houstonians are eager to return to live performances, as evidenced by public response to the 2021-2022 season – the first full, in person season for both the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, following the pandemic’s nearly two-year disruption to the arts.

“Ticket demand has already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the Symphony hopes to continue expanding audiences,” said the Houston Symphony, adding:

“Improvements to Jones Hall support those efforts as they will not only improve audience experience, but also improve the acoustics and artist experience which will enable us to continue to attract the best musicians and guest artists to Houston.”

Jones Hall: During summer 2021 renovations, the focus was on acoustic work, including custom construction with sidewall and alcove “infills,” using metal framing with four layers of sheetrock for acoustic density. This was covered by a wood veneer finish. The infills corrected echoes and sound delays that impacted musical performances and allowed sound to be evenly distributed throughout the hall. / Photo by Paul Hester

An updated Jones Hall may also attract the public’s overall return to Houston’s Theater District, whose parking revenue fell about 45% during the pandemic. Revenue from the Theater District Parking Garage dropped from $9.8 million in 2019 to $5.3 million in 2021, according to figures provided by Houston First.

“Houston has a dynamic and robust love for the arts, which are an integral part of our city’s identity and essential to the quality of life,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. “Every Houstonian will benefit from this magnificent project.”

The Foundation for Jones Hall, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations, has currently raised $25.5 million toward the $50 million project through its ongoing capital campaign “Overture to the Future.”  Donors to date include an anonymous donor, Houston Endowment, the Robert and Jane Cizik family, Janet Clark, Nancy and Chuck Davidson, the Shirley and David Toomin family, and the City of Houston.

“Jones Hall has stood the test of time and gave rise to the Downtown Theater District over 50 years ago,” said Barbara McCelvey, the foundation’s board president, in a press release. “We are thrilled to be making this new investment in the Hall so that it can serve millions of artists and the public for the next 50 and beyond.”

The venue’s post-pandemic future includes virtual offerings, which are here to stay– and the technological renovations will benefit those digital options as well.

Since July 2020, the Houston Symphony has livestreamed performances from Jones Hall, and it says it will continue doing so in 2023 and beyond, having developed a loyal virtual audience outside Texas and the U.S.

“The new renovations of Jones Hall include a substantial investment to improve audio/visual capabilities throughout the facility, bringing those systems up to the latest standards … [and] will provide very noticeable improvements in the experiences that our audiences will enjoy both in person and via livestream,” said the Houston Symphony.

Cautiously optimistic, Performing Arts Houston notes that theaters are filling up, but not at pre-pandemic attendance levels – yet:

“Enthusiasm for returning to the theater is continuing to grow … We will have to wait a few more years to enjoy the full benefits of the renovations, but the momentum of support for a thriving and enduring performing arts culture in Houston is continuing to build.”

A free performance series encourages COVID-19 vaccine awareness through the arts

L-R: Donald Rabin (“Come Together Houston” project manager), Dr. Courntey Crappell (Director of the Moores School of Music, University of Houston), and artist GONZO247 at the Lyons Avenue Festival, April 9, 2022 / Photo by Donald Rabin

At the height of the omicron variant surge in January, the CDC Foundation awarded $2.5 million in funding to 30 organizations across the U.S. to create arts and culture-based approaches to promote vaccine education and acceptance.

Among the grant recipients was Dr. Courtney Crappell, Director of the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. 

The arts and culture can be crucial tools in public health communication. Because local artists have long served as trusted messengers and translators of vital information in their communities, they can support vaccine education and acceptance in ways that cut through cultural barriers, skepticism and misinformation.

CDC Foundation

Dr. Crappell and colleagues at the UH McGovern College of the Arts, in collaboration with Houston Methodist Hospital, used the grant to develop Come Together Houston: A Community Arts and Health Partnership – a series of free performances this spring/summer that also brings free vaccinations to underserved and immunization-hesitant communities.

Neighborhoods include Third Ward, where the percentage of vaccinated individuals is lower in comparison to other parts of Houston, said Donald Rabin, the series’ project manager.

Outspoken Bean / Photo by Donald Rabin

Performances will feature four Houston artists: GONZO247, a graffiti muralist; Mariachi Pumas, the UH Mariachi ensemble; Outspoken Bean, Houston Poet Laureate; and Urban Souls, a contemporary dance company.

The first event took place at Lyons Avenue Festival on April 9, and the series continues May through July:

  • May 6, 5:30 – 8pm, Outspoken Bean at MECA Dow Campus (Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts) 1900 Kane St, Houston, 77007
  • May 21, 12 – 2pm, Outspoken Bean at Trinity Houston United Methodist Church, 2600 Holman St., Houston, 77004
  • May 27, 5:30 – 8pm, Mariachi Pumas at MECA Dow Campus (Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts) 1900 Kane St, Houston, 77007 
  • July 23, 4 – 7pm, GONZO247, Mariachi Pumas, Urban Souls & Outspoken Bean at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney St., Houston, 77010

During the events, a team from the Moores School of Music will record stories from audience members, reflecting on their COVID experience. Individuals who wish to participate will answer prompts, such as “How did COVID affect you using one word?” and “What did you learn from COVID so far?”

Organizers say the answers will be used to inspire the performances, in an effort to raise awareness of the benefit of vaccines. Digital stories may also be featured on the Come Together Houston website and shared with the CDC Foundation.

Most of the events will have access to free vaccinations, and brochures with information on vaccines and vaccine hesitancy will also be distributed.

Currently, the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals (ages 5 and older) in Harris County is 67%, compared to the national rate of 70%.

Organizers say the series uses the arts not only to encourage vaccination but also to bring the community back together from the pandemic.

Mariachi Pumas at the Lyons Avenue Festival / Photo by Dr. Courtney Crappell

No more ‘SPA’ – The organization soon becomes ‘Performing Arts Houston’

Winners and performers of the 2021 Houston Artist Commissioning Project with Mayor Sylvester Turner / Asaeda Badat Photography

After 55 years, Society for the Performing Arts is changing its name to Performing Arts Houston.

The major nonprofit arts presenter publicly announced the new name on April 5 in a newsletter to patrons and on social media.

The new name goes into effect on April 12, along with a new website, new branding, and a new membership program. That same day, Performing Arts Houston will also announce its 2022-2023 season and open applications for its 2nd annual Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“Dropping the word ‘Society’ from the name helps us welcome everyone to the performing arts. This is an experience for all Houstonians,” said the organization in a statement.

The shorter new name is intended to celebrate the connection to local communities, while capturing the depth of arts presented.

“It also lets us lose the acronym SPA,” stated the organization, adding cheekily: “As therapeutic as the performing arts may be, we are not a spa.”

We’ve presented Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for over 50 years. We’ve brought Marcel Marceaux, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Graham Dance Company, Lang Lang, STOMP, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Spalding Gray, American Ballet Theatre, and hundreds more world class artists to our city. Parallel to what you see on stage, our education and community programs create and inspire arts engagement to the wider community. We’re proud to continue that work as Performing Arts Houston.

Society for the Performing Arts, April Newsletter

The new name was first revealed to attendees of its April 2 gala, The Kaleidoscope Ball, which raised nearly $600,000 is support of the organization’s presentations and education and community engagement programs.

Groundbreaking ballerina Lauren Anderson inspires a new scholarship fund at Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet Principal Lauren Anderson as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker / Photo by Jim Caldwell (2005), courtesy of Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet has announced the company’s first endowed scholarship to be named for a dancer.

Established in honor of the company’s first African American Principal Dancer, the new Lauren Anderson Young Dancer Scholarship Fund will provide yearly scholarships “for up to four underrepresented artists who aspire to be professional ballet dancers and show great promise in their physical and artistic abilities,” according to a press release.

The scholarships will cover full annual tuition costs at Houston Ballet Academy and aim to help develop the next generation of elite ballet dancers.

The company says that incoming and current students in the Academy’s Professional Program may be considered for the award, and the first scholarship will be presented at the Academy Spring Showcase in late April 2022.

Former Houston Ballet Principals Lauren Anderson as Kitri and Carlos Acosta as Bastilio in Ben Stevenson’s Don Quixote / Photo by Geoff Winningham (1995), courtesy of Houston Ballet.

Native Houstonian Lauren Anderson danced with Houston Ballet from 1983 to 2006, during which she became the first African American promoted to Principal Dancer at the company in 1990. She remains one of the few African American ballerinas to hold the highest rank at a major U.S. ballet company.

Anderson’s critically acclaimed 23-year career with Houston Ballet spanned performances of leading roles in all the great classical ballets, as well as roles created for her including Ben Stevenson’s Cleopatra – though her deep relationship with the company goes back to when she began training there at age 7.

“Fifty years ago, I started at the Houston Ballet Academy on scholarship, which gave me the opportunity to begin my journey towards becoming a professional dancer,” said Anderson in a statement.

“To now have a scholarship named after me means everything,” she continued. “Houston Ballet is the foundation of my life … It’s where my dreams came true, and I am so proud that this scholarship will give the next generation of aspiring young dancers from underrepresented communities an opportunity to reach further than they ever thought they could go.”

Houston Ballet Education and Community Engagement Associate Director Lauren Anderson guest teaching students during the Academy Summer Intensive Program / Photo by Chenay Newton (2019), courtesy of Houston Ballet

The Lauren Anderson Young Dancer Scholarship becomes the Academy’s 9th endowed scholarship. Information about donating to the fund can be found here.

“It is our mission that our student body reflects the city of Houston, the most diverse city in the country. This will allow us to reward deserving students based on their merit to receive the highest level of training,” said Jennifer Sommers, Houston Ballet Academy director, in a statement.

Lauren Anderson continues to serve the Houston community through master classes and lectures in her role as the Academy’s Associate Director of Education and Community Engagement, and she continues to inspire the ballet world and beyond.

A Lauren Anderson Scholarship was also established at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in Chicago in May 2021.

Anderson’s life story has been adapted into a World Premiere stage work, Plumshuga: The Rise of Lauren Anderson, by Deborah DEEP Mouton, with music by Jasmine Barnes, choreography by Stanton Welch and Harrison Guy, and featuring Houston Ballet dancers. Plumshuga will debut in October 2022 at Stages.

Local performing arts groups updated – and reduced – COVID safety requirements throughout March

Melissa Pritchett as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Kaldis as Anne Steele, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Chris Hutchison as Mrs. Ferrars & Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of Sense and Sensibility, March 28 – April 10, 2022 / Photo by Lynn Lane

While the omicron variant wave forced some local arts groups to cancel events in late 2021 and early 2022, nearly all of the major Houston Theater District arts organizations have lifted masking or proof of vaccination requirements for audiences this past month – following the significant decline of COVID-19 cases in the City of Houston and Harris County.

In a statement by the Alley Theatre, which changed its protocol to ‘masks optional’ on March 9: “The Executive Directors at the Theater District organizations were in communication with each other around updating policies,” indicating information sharing and support within the arts community.

As March continued, arts groups – one after another – began announcing updated COVID policies on their websites or social media, citing guidance from public health experts, government officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (A list of updated protocol appears at the end of this article.)

Two local milestones also helped pave the way. On February 24, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted mask requirements for employees and visitors in city buildings, and on March 10, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered the county’s COVID threat level to yellow, signifying a “moderate or controlled level of COVID-19.”

With a recently reported new BA.2 subvariant now in the Houston area, it’s unclear to health officials if that could lead to another surge.  The average positivity rate in Harris County currently remains low, under 2%.

For now, audiences have the opportunity to attend spring performances with less restrictions, while arts groups – many of whom have recently announced their 2022 – 2023 seasons – hang onto the hope for a healthier future.

Here’s a summary of updated COVID protocol of the 8 major Theater District arts groups and 3 Houston theater companies that operate their own venues:


As of March 1, A.D. Players no longer requires masks and temperature checks for patrons.

Due to the recent, rapid decline in positive COVID-19 cases in our area, revised union guidelines, and the new CDC guidance regarding indoor masking, we are pleased to announce that masks will no longer be required when attending a performance at the George Theater. We cannot thank you enough for your patience and support during this difficult time and we look forward to seeing your smiling faces once again at The George!

Kevin Dean, Artistic Director and Jake Speck, Executive Director


As of March 4, the Houston Symphony no longer requires masks for patrons, though “mask-wearing is strongly recommended for all audience members while inside of Jones Hall.”


Beginning today, Wednesday, March 9, we are pleased to announce that the Alley will no longer be requiring proof of negative COVID test or proof of vaccination to enter the Theatre. Additionally, guests and volunteers will no longer be required to wear a mask inside the Theatre, though anyone is, of course, still welcome to do so.

Alley Theatre website



As of late March, Main Street Theater no longer requires masks, but continues to require proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, for audience members of its MainStage productions at its Rice Village venue.

Due to the intimacy of our MainStage theater in Rice Village, we are erring on the side of caution and continuing to require proof of a negative COVID test or vaccination.

We are prepared to be flexible. We will adjust as the virus and positivity rates adjust. Also, keep in mind that for our MainStage, we operate under an Actors’ Equity Association contract, so some rules they set. Basically, we are re-evaluating before each new production on both our MainStage and Theater for Youth stages.

Shannon Emerick, Director of Marketing and Communications

Previously in late February, Main Street Theater lifted mask requirements for its Theatre for Youth productions at MATCH. Proof of vaccination was never required for patrons of that series.

Elias String Quartet at the Menil Collection, March 29, 2022 / Courtesy of Da Camera


As of March 21, Da Camera no longer requires proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, while maintaining its mask requirement: “All patrons must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth at all times, except while actively eating or drinking.”

DACAMERA’s safety policy was recently updated to reflect changing conditions in the community while remaining consistent with the policies implemented by the various venues in which we present performances.

Brandon Bell, General Manager


As presenters at The Hobby Center, both companies follow the safety protocol of the venue.

As of March 21, The Hobby Center no longer requires proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, while maintaining its mask requirement: “Currently, all patrons must only wear a mask while inside the building and are required to provide their own mask.”

Houston Grand Opera’s 3rd Annual Giving Voice Concert, March 19, 2022 / Photo by Lynn Lane


As of March 25, Houston Grand Opera no longer requires masks for patrons.

Per the latest guidance on COVID-19 safety from the HGO Health Advisory Committee, local health officials, and the Centers for Disease Control, HGO will no longer require masks for audience members, effective immediately, although we continue to encourage their use.

In addition, HGO will remove all previous requirements (masks, proof of vaccine/negative COVID tests) for those attending special events at the Wortham Theater Center, including Opera Ball on April 9, and we will be reopening the Green Room for our spring repertoire.

Houston Grand Opera website


As announced in a March 28 email, SPA will no longer implement the same requirements – masks and proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination – at all of its shows.

SPA has revised policies for several upcoming shows, on a case-by-case basis.

We present artists from around the world, each with varying needs and perspectives. Conversations around health & safety differ for them all.

As the situation around Covid has changed, we’ve kept those conversations going. And we have updates.

Please see revised Covid policies below for upcoming 21/22 Season performances. Like our programs, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Society for the Performing Arts

Details can be found on its FAQ page, under Health and Safety.


In an email to Houston Arts Journal, Houston Ballet says it plans to lift mask requirements for patrons in time for its next production, Pretty Things, opening May 20, 2022.

As we are planning to head back to the theater in mid-May, our current plan will include having a mask as an option, not a requirement. However, we will continue monitoring local conditions and updating our COVID policies with guidance from our medical partners, government officials, and the CDC.

Angela Lee, Director of Marketing and PR

Updated March 31, 2022, 1:20pm: This article has been updated to include new information provided by Houston Ballet.