Previews / Reviews

Toni Leago Valle Takes On Body Image, Media and Women’s Rights in “CRACKED” by Adam Castaneda, The Dance Dish


On July 18, 2013, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law House Bill 2, significantly limiting women’s access to abortion services. It’s 2016, and women are still fighting in the federal courts for absolute control of their bodies, but it’s a battle that seems to be overshadowed by popular culture, consumerism, and the cult of the self perpetuated by social media. This unawareness of what’s happening in the political sector is part of the reason why Houston choreographer Toni Leago Valle is bringing back CRACKED, a show that originally premiered a decade ago, on May 19 – 21 at the University of Houston-Central’s Quintero Lab Theatre.


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Flash Response to Vault/6 Degrees Performance

by Jacqueline Nalett

May 13, 2010

There are many beautiful and intriguing reasons to see this show, two of which are the use of trapeze bars and water onstage. The first half of the show opened with video of the Vault performers rehearsing. I enjoyed seeing some of the process behind the product. We got to see them warm up, figure out how to grab onto the bars with various body parts, and make funny facial expressions when something didn’t go quite as planned. For me, being allowed to see some of the preparation breeds a deeper appreciation of the final product. One of my favorite sections was the group floorwork in Amy Ell’s choreography. Movements that might normally flow straight from one to the next, here were divided into segments at the joints. For example, you might see a toe touch down, then a pause, the ankle flexing, knee bending, pause, hip shifting, pause, torso twisting, spine contracting, pause, shoulder rolling, pause, elbow creasing, wrist curving, pause, fingers pressing, position change. The breaks were smooth and deliberate, and because they were performed in unison by the group, their morphing effect was magnified. I absolutely loved this section, it was gorgeous. At some points during the position changes, their hands were running along their clothing, and very slyly one dancer was removing pieces of her costume to reveal another underneath, but is was performed as coolly as a cucumber and when she suddenly lay there with more skin revealed than the other dancers, it was a very satisfying image.


When they rose to standing level movement, there were some more rapid moves that I thought would keep going at that momentum, but then a sudden freeze in a kind of flatback position, feet apart, focus down, and then a slow turning of the faces toward the audience. This pattern of rapid moves, freeze, slow, detailed gesture continued and because I’m a sucker for suspenseful dynamics, I loved it.


The aerial work was very intriguing. Dancers got onto the bars in darkness and were spun by others underneath them, so when the lights came up, what we saw were 5 women standing, legs apart, ankles against the ropes, spinning in the air, the triangle created by their legs inside of the triangle of the trapeze bar and ropes. It was very interesting to see just how many movement and shape possibilities there are when suspended above the floor. They hung upside down, with one or both knees draped over the bar. They laid arched over the bar, torso facing upward, limbs dangling softly. They even used geometry, twisted and pressed their feet away to create new angles with the ropes and bodies. They really were dancing in the air. I look forward to seeing more of the Vault’s performances, and even taking a class or two myself!


The second half of the evening belonged to Toni Valle’s choreography, which included video images of flowers and rain, arm movements that looked super human and lots of water on the dancers. That’s a cool combination indeed! The first section was very sculptural, one dancer standing in the middle of a group and one dancer alone stage right, with fingers spread apart like tree branches, arms crooked at angles to the sides, arms that appear to break and pop at more joints than the it has. Beautiful pink costumes draped in multiple layers around their heads and torsos and the sound of rain filled the space. The dancers crouched in various positions, moved their arms in mechanical undulations, stepped around each other to form multi-level human statues, and then beautiful music started and the dancers narrowly spun and stealthily kicked, dropped, and crawled their way around the stage, finishing this first section by being rained upon for real. Water begins falling from the upstage left area, in a linear sheet that splashes the dances as they move into their final pose. If for no other reason than to see it rain onstage, you have to attend this show, but there is much more to satisfy you in this second half.


In one section Toni Valle appears crouched with a little girl clinging to the front of her body. Toni procedes to flip her around, lift her and dance with the little girl attached to her in some way as if the girl is as light as a feather. Her moves were sharp, deliberate and strong with awesome arms that “popped and locked” in unique ways. In another section a dancer does a solo but she is not completely alone. A dancer in semi-darkness and clothed in pants and a hoodie, walks around the edges of the light, whispers in her ear and performs movements in unison with her but only in certain spots. I love the effect of these sudden unison moments with one dancer as the focus and one as a dancing shadow, so to speak. It’s a very effective technique.


Another very unique section was a solo dancer with an oil lamp. As I watched I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. She was doing the cool, muscular arm breaks that I had seen in the earlier section..but hers were somehow also vibrating. From my position in the back of the audience, every time she did those two arm moves, digging her fists forward and down toward the floor, there were vibrations that I could see running the length of her arms. Great effect..not sure how she did it. There was a nicely done trio where the dancers got to wet their hair from a bowl of water onstage and then fling it around while they danced, which looked very fun and refreshing J. There are other group sections with unique choreographic qualities, but one of the most beautiful parts is the very ending shower scene. The dancer’s shadow against the fabric and the real water falling was just sexy and gorgeous. The fabric moves with her, her shadow created great shapes, and she wrapped herself in it. I just loved this section and thought it appropriate as the ending. It seemed like Toni Valle had shown us many forms of baptism, but it all came back to the most simple, personal form that we each give ourselves everyday.


Leaps of Faith: Two new dance companies debut
By MOLLY GLENTZER Copyright 2010
Houston Chronicle
May 7, 2010, 11:42AM

Why launch a dance company now? Or better yet, why launch two?

For veteran independent choreographers Toni Leago Valle and Amy Ell, who debut new companies on a shared program at DiverseWorks this week, it's about seeking validation.

“There's a point where people don't take you as seriously if you don't have a name,” says Valle, who has produced three previous evening-length dances since she graduated from the University of Houston 10 years ago. She calls her company 6˚ — a reference to a six-degrees of separation factor she sees in her life, work and relationships.

Ell, who's made dances for more than 15 years, calls her group VAULT.

“It can mean taking off or moving over or be a place of storing something valuable,” she says. She hopes forming a company will force her to produce more. “That's been a complaint about me,” she adds.

Neither wants to establish a nonprofit organization, the traditional means of building a support base.

Valle, a UH dance faculty member who also does marketing for several troupes, says the economy isn't good for that right now, but she has other reasons, too. The application process to gain 501(c)3 status takes about a year, and you have to show two years of financial accounting, pull together a board and hold quarterly meetings, she says.

“I like my freedom. We're just putting our feet in the water, and we'll see how it goes.”

Art is the point for Ell as well. “I just want to keep performing,” she says. “I'm just taking baby steps.”

Sixto Wagan, DiverseWorks' co-executive director and performing-arts curator, thinks it's a smart approach. “I'm not usually excited to hear an artist is forming a new company because it takes so much energy away from the creative work,” he says.

With or without nonprofit status, somebody still has to pay for productions.Wagan says that Ell and Valle are smart to combine their resources into one night of dance.

DiverseWorks is supporting the new companies by providing the theater at no cost — that rental is typically about a fourth of a production's budget — although Ell and Valle still have to pay the lighting designer and stage crew. The companies share several dancers, many of whom are UH dance department graduates or faculty.

Baptism, the 50-minute dance Valle is premiering, cost about $10,000 to make — and whatever she doesn't collect from donors and ticket sales comes out of her own pocket. Her biggest expenses have been hiring a costume designer, paying her nine dancers and building a set that rains. (She had more support last year for another evening length piece, Tetris, through a DiverseWorks grant, but wasn't eligible to apply this year.)

Ell's 37-minute Blau has a cast of 12, some original music, and trapezes and ropes — which still hadn't arrived as of last week — and cost about $12,000.

Some creative fundraising was in order. Promoting the shared concert as a marriage, VAULT and 6˚ gave sneak previews Thursday during a donor party dubbed Rehearsal Dinner at the home of supporters Anita Kadala and Dr. Eckhard Alt. An earlier fundraiser was Wedding Shower; and when the show closes, fans can attend the post-performance party, Honeymoon, for $25.

Facebook is important, too, Valle says. And there's a “donate” button on her website.

Ell and Valle are also in a similar place developmentally, as artists, suggests Wagan — and collaborating on a production encourages them to explore ideas more than they might on their own.

Valle says Baptism is the first piece she's done that's not about her personal life. Her dances tend to follow story lines; this one is more abstract. “Amy's work is more abstract, so I felt like I needed to go up to the barre with that, and it stretched me,” she adds.

It's also the first time she's hired a costume designer. One of Cherie Acosta's designs — evoking upside-down flowers — was inspired by the work of Houston collage artist Tim Chambers.

Valle built Baptism's score from the Jesse James and The General's Daughter soundtracks, with a little Peter Jones thrown in. “One has old-timey violin that sounds like the West but not country; the other is dark, with chanting and interesting rhythms,” Valle says.

The highly athletic Ell describes Blau (German for blue) as “a dance pictorial of the stratous self.” Along with original compositions by New York-based artist Elise Kermani, it uses music by Efterclang and Nickel Creek.

By day, Ell is a master Gyrotonic trainer (a fitness technique that involves complex movement and equipment). She's found a good niche in recent years with aerial dance. Her last big piece, 2004's Arthropodic Animal: Insecta, employed a rock-climbing wall.

“I've always been the daredevil,” she says.

While her company name VAULT has branding potential, Ell says she doesn't want to restrict herself to aerial work. Blau will have only a few minutes of flying.

“It's a different way to use the stage,” she says. “I know how to use the floor, but I'm trying to learn more about that middle space. There's an element of circus to it but I'm trying to move it beyond that. Circus training is based on tricks, and you learn to style afterward. Dance is about the movement between tricks.”

And, she notes, one section of Blau is danced entirely on the floor — as in, no one even stands up.

Launching a company, it seems, is tricky enough without the flash. Non-artists might be tempted to wonder, is it really worth all the time, money and energy?

David Lake, who's served on the boards for several local dance and theater companies and attends many performances, would say yes.

“I certainly admire all the people who are stubbornly managing to keep things going and putting on shows on a regular basis,” he says. “It makes Houston a fun and more artistically vibrant place.”


KUHF - The Front Row May 10, 2010  We talk with the Artistic Directors of Houston’s two newest contemporary dance companies. Toni Leago Valle’s Six Degrees of Dance and Amy Ell’s group, Vault, make their debuts together this coming weekend with pieces look at the fears and tendencies toward inertia that keep people from achieving the lives they dream of...


Wedding bells in the Dance World — and you're invited by Nancy Wozny. 

CultureMap Houston

Cue the wedding march, 6 Degrees and Vault, two Houston contemporary dance companies are about to tie the knot. There hasn't been this much excitement in artsy nuptials since The Arts Guys married that oak sapling.

The ceremony begins Friday promptly at 8 p.m. at DiverseWorks, when choreographers and artistic directors Toni Leago Valle and Amy Ell reveal their new work and pledge everlasting love, for at least two weekends.

Opposites attract and this couple couldn't be more different. Valle, dark-haired and intense, projects a no-nonsense presence. Her ability to do it all is legendary in the dance community.

Valle's work is often deeply personal, sometimes even autobiographical, always dance-y. Her newest opus, Baptism, is all about water, bucket loads of it, how it contains us, holds us captive, and sometimes sets us free. "Water is a nurturing force, a chance to be reborn," Valle says. "It can also drown us." Valle is married in real life and is a mom.

Ell, white-haired and pale, is soft spoken, keeping a quieter persona on the scene. She prefers to hang from the rafters, and is one of the most trained aerial artists in Texas. She's studied circus arts all over the world, including a close collaboration with Fred Deb' the orginator of "silks" and director of Compagnie Drapes Aeriens.

Ell may be tiny, but as the reigning triple threat of Gyrotonic, Pilates and aerial work, she is hands-down one of the strongest dancers in Houston. No one scampers up a 20-foot pole or down a silk like this little dynamo. Ell premieres Blau, a work that travels from the ground into the airspace using single-point low-flying trapeze.

"Blau" is German for blue, and refers to both the layers of self and stage spaces she uses during the piece. "Think of the human onion, you peel off one layer and there's another one," she says. Ell likes to adapt her many aerial skills to the space. Although DiverseWorks' ceiling is too low to use silks, it's perfect for for trapeze. Ell is single and a single mom of a teen ballet dancer.

It's a marriage of water and air. As expected, neither has seen each other's new work yet. That would be bad luck for the betrothed pair. "We are both working from an abstract place this time," Valle says. "I am sure our work will complement each other's, but be different enough to make a really fun evening of dance."

Not-so silly nuptials

The choreographers have been meeting for over a year, discussing the possibility of doing something together. Being a choreographer can be a lonely job, slaving away in a studio alone to come up with cool moves to show your dancers. All the biz work takes another toll. Valle and Ell came up with an idea where they share the production and marketing, rather than the artistic end, of making a show.

"We make good partners. It's more fun than going it alone, and we share the workload of putting it all together," Ell says.

"One day after a meeting, I murmured 'Something old, something new' as a way to describe what we are doing as older choreographers doing something fresh," remembers Ell. "At first, I thought the idea of a wedding was silly. I finally got the nerve to call Toni with the wedding concept and she immediately loved it. It's just quirky enough."

The idea stuck and gave the team just enough of a concept to present their work together.

In a generous move, they also share five dancers, which makes the evening feel even more unified. University of Houston assistant professor and choreographer/dancer Teresa Chapman finds the couple inspiring.

"In some ways they couldn't be more alike. They have such passion, energy and drive," Chapman says. "In other ways, they couldn't be more different. Amy works micro to macro, while Toni has the big picture more in mind from day one."

As for which one is the groom or the bride? "Depends on the day, really, on the hour," quips Valle. "Today, we were both grooms," Ell adds.

To commemorate the big day they have tweaked the saying to read, "Something old, something now, something drenched, something Blau."

The wedding idea worked well for all the usual kickoff parties and fundraising efforts leading up to the show. Their announcement came in one of those traditional fat envelopes with a fancy engraved invitation. The two held a shower, complete with a layered vegan wedding cake. The rehearsal dinner featured short performances. The wrap-up cast party has a honeymoon theme. I imagine they will be sharing the dreaded thank-you-note writing to donors.

Ell and Valle are two of the most generous, adventurous, and well-loved dance people in town. I know the entire dance community joins me in wishing them well on this special occasion.

Quick, run and get some champagne. To Toni and Amy, may your dance dreams come true.

As for the future, The smiling couple declined to speculate how long the marriage will last.

"We like to live in the moment," offers Valle. Ell concurs. "As they say, one day at a time."


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