Minnesota Dance Theatre (MDT) honored its founder, Loyce Houlton, with its spring concert at the Cowles Center. Houlton died 20 years ago and MDT presented a lengthy tribute filled with excerpts of dances that she created, plus projected text and photographs culled from the Performing Arts Archives at the University of Minnesota.

While Houlton may be best known now for her popular “Nutcracker,” the photographs and excerpted dances showed another side of a legendary choreographer who was steeped in the avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century.

The MDT concert occurred on the same weekend that Martha Graham Company visited Northrop Auditorium, allowing audiences a chance to revel in two giants. There are many comparisons between Graham and Houlton, who came a generation later but was essentially a contemporary. The Houlton tribute included a short snippet of her 1985 “Rite of Spring,” while Graham’s 1984 version was presented in full.

Graham’s influence on Houlton is apparent. While much of Houlton’s work was undoubtedly ballet, elements of Graham’s modern aesthetic — work on the floor and loose, free torsos — was evident.

The evening included work from another 20th-century modern dance giant — José Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” based on Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Structured as a Renaissance courtly dance called a pavane, the piece is set to music by Henry Purcell. The intricate 20-minute piece, packed with the bare essentials of the play, delivered a thrilling punch. Sam Feipel, a 12-year MDT veteran who was featured prominently in all three dances of the evening, aptly portrayed Othello.

MDT concluded the performance with a world premiere choreographed by Lise Houlton, Loyce’s daughter and current MDT artistic director. “Point of Reference,” a follow-up to the 2008 “Point of Departure,” offered a glimpse of where the company is heading this century. With a simple set of three ramps that were moved periodically to transform the space and visible colored lights designed by Marcus Dilliard, the work showed the dancers discovering a new world, seeing each other and the space around them with wonder.

 

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.