March 18, 2008, 6:19PM
DANCE
An international blend of Salad
Fest features performances like no other

By MOLLY GLENTZER
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Sitting in the upstairs office of her River Oaks home, surrounded by piles of immigration paperwork, production notes, DVDs, videos and brochures, Nancy Henderek leaned forward one recent morning with an evangelist's zeal and fixed her eyes like rocket launchers on a guest.

"I never have to give my 'What is Dance Salad' speech anymore," she said, her voice measured but intense.

At least in Europe.

Henderek's not convinced that, even after 13 years, Houston understands what it has in her three-day feast of world-class performances.

"This is really a festival. The performances are the culmination of a week's activities that include master classes around town and a forum and film screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. People all over the world tell me this is unique," she says.

Henderek imports companies that aren't on the touring circuit, and it's a point of pride that many of them are making their American debuts. Spread over three nights, the shows are "curated" — juxtaposed in a way she hopes will help audiences see something fresh, often with the original choreography altered or excerpted to Henderek's specifications.

Asking her to pick highlights is like asking a mother of 10 to choose a favorite child.

"I go after groups that aren't known in the U.S.," she says.

New this year is Národní divadlo, the National Theater Ballet, Prague, which is making its North American debut. Contemporary ballet and modern dance companies from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, China and Japan are represented, as are the National Ballet of Canada and the independent duo Drew Jacoby and Rubi Pronk.

But Henderek really lights up when she talks about the thread of works she's presenting by the master choreographer Jirí Kylián. She's brought in his original Netherlands Dance Theater III dancers — whose company is now called Paradox On — to perform a pair of works she calls his "life-death" cycle: BIRTH-DAY, a signature dance from 2001, and his award-winning 2006 film CAR-MEN. Additionally, Národní divadlo will perform one of Kylián's very early works, Stamping Ground.

Kylián is one of the most influential choreographers working today.

"When he first came to the U.S. 25 years ago, critics panned him because his work didn't look like (George) Balanchine's," Henderek says.

But it's hard to watch a contemporary ballet company now — including, locally, Houston Ballet and Dominic Walsh Dance Theater — without seeing traces of his style.

"There've been enormous spinoffs," Henderek says.

Put an actual Kylián work on the program, and dance fans — and dancers — salivate. (Earlier this season, Houston Ballet had a hit with his popular Petit Mort.)

Henderek is excited that Dance Salad's offerings show both Kylián's prowess with both live and filmed dance.

A few years ago, she showed a five-minute film clip from BIRTH-DAY that Dance Salad regulars will remember. Set to Mozart, it's a hoot — as dancers in full baroque finery leap to the speedy beats of the music on a giant bed. But this is only a fraction of the actual 35-minute live dance.

The original BIRTH-DAY cast will perform. The live dance and film play off each other, Henderek explains, "so the characters react in front of you with things that are 'happening' in other rooms."

CAR-MEN, shot in black and white, is pure film. Set in a Czech coal mine and directed by Dutch filmmaker Boris Paval Conen, it features four dancers in a surreal, tragicomic telling of the Georges Bizet opera about a wayward seductress. In her press materials, Henderek describes the film as "a metaphor for time, speed, stillness, movement, youth and age."

"The two films really do fit together," Henderek says. And yet, while she wants you to see the them as a whole, to see them both you'll have to attend more than one event.

CAR-MEN screens tonight during a free sneak preview at the MFAH and will also be shown Friday at the Wortham Theater Center; BIRTH-DAY will be performed at the Wortham Thursday and Saturday.

DANCE SALAD FESTIVAL

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

• Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas

• Tickets: $17-$45, www.dancesalad.org

or 877-772-5425

• Sneak preview: 6:30 tonight; Brown Auditorium at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet; free