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By Nancy Wozny
Dominic Walsh glides through the elongated contours of Mats Ek’s Pas de Dans with an uncanny ease. The serpentine edges look second nature to Walsh, as do the witty punches, quick shifts in direction, and shreds of a narrative, so characteristic of the Swedish dancemaker’s ballets. With a movement vocabulary that respects no boundaries, Ek’s ballet shifts between pedestrian gestures and virtuoso feats in a heartbeat.
Walsh encountered Ek’s work on his European travels, at Houston’s Dance Salad Festival, and through videos. “I was shocked and mesmerized when I first saw Ek’s Sleeping Beauty,” recalls Walsh. “He makes bold choices, but backs them up.”
Walsh’s boutique troupe, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater (DWDT), performs Ek’s Pas de Dans this month at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, the company’s home base.
“One of my pie-in-the-sky goals was to have a piece by Ek,” says Walsh, who feels a kinetic kinship with the Swedish master. “His work is so tactile, oscillating between the sensual and the grotesque. He sheds light on the mundane, shaping it, elevating it.”
Walsh tried for five years to acquire a work by Ek, with no success. Then, in Naples, he crossed paths with Pompea Santoro, one of Ek’s leading ballerinas at the Cullberg Ballet and a prominent stager of his work. With her help, Ek finally agreed. The company traveled to Turin to work with Santoro last summer.
The sheer volume of the movement forms another point of connection with Ek. Walsh’s own style possesses a kind of pushing past known shapes. “You have to reach beyond what you know. The fullness of the movement is extraordinary,” he says. “If you give 100 percent, you are halfway there.”
Serious about the word “theater” in his company’s name, Walsh is especially drawn to Ek’s hyper-theatrical sensibility. “He uses the stage space so architecturally,” he says. “It’s almost invasive. The human exchange is always there.”
In its ninth season, DWDT has distinguished itself as the little company that could, securing works by Mauro Bigonzetti, Jiri Kylián, and Matthew Bourne. DWDT is the only American company performing a ballet by Ek and the pas from Bourne’s Swan Lake. Last season, Paris Opéra superstar Marie-Agnès Gillot guested with the troupe.
A former principal with Houston Ballet, Walsh left after 17 years with the company to devote himself to his new troupe, to an overwhelming audience response. Winner of the HS2 National Choreographic Competition, Ballet Austin’s New American Talent, a 2008 Princess Grace Award, and named a “25 to Watch” in 2004, Walsh continues to maintain an international presence. Having just finished a residency at Sam Houston State University in nearby Huntsville, TX, the home front is more on his mind these days, too.
It’s unusual for a such a small company to perform the works of big-name choreographers. In the beginning, Walsh experimented with developing young voices, but found it wasn’t a good fit. “It muddled my vision,” he says. With five full-lengths under his belt, Walsh finds masterworks make for a better chemistry with his own work.
As a choreographer, he balances his time at DWDT with commissions, including a new piece for Sarasota Ballet and a restaging for Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Currently, his work is in the repertoires of ABT II, Asami Maki Ballet Tokyo, London Studio Centre, and Sarasota Ballet.
At 40, Walsh still moves with fluidity. “I need to be dancing. There’s so much I can learn,” he says. “If you don’t dance the work, you don’t know it.” —Nancy Wozny
The Kylián Foundation’s Aurélie Cayla (center) with Dominic Walsh and Felicia McBride. Photo by Gabriella Nissen, courtesy DWDT