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Interview: Rebecca French and Robert Thoth

Submitted by @GunsandTacos on January 9, 2012 – 7:45 pmNo Comment
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By Alex Wukman

Photo by Anthony Rathbun

The week before Christmas and the leaves are finally turning; sub-tropic green giving way to New England orange. Specks of dried color lay scattered across the patio of Brazil as Rebecca French and Robert Thoth enjoy a late afternoon snack of coffee and cigarettes. Over the last 10 years French and Thoth have become well-known faces in the Houston underground arts scene. Much of their notoriety is derived from Freneticore, a dance/theatre company they founded in 2003, and Frenetic Theatre, the former machine shop on Navigation they purchased in 2006 to house their vision.

Even before they filed the papers to make Freneticore a legal entity, Thoth and French were known quantities at some of Houston’s more esoteric locations-like Nestor Topchy’s quasi-legendary Feagen Street art complex Zocalo and Jim Pirtle’s social sculpture/punk rock club Notsuoh. Not only do French and Thoth cite Topchy and Pirtle as aesthetic influences, but they also draw a line between the work performed at their spaces in the late 1990s and early 2000s and the work being done at Freneticore now. The connecting line is drawn particularly strong for French.

“We come from the Richie Hubscher School,” says Thoth citing underground Houston choreographer, and former member of the Houston Ballet, who left the Ballet to create Easy Credit Dance Company. French, who learned dance from Hubscher, doesn’t bat an eye at the comment-probably because it’s been over a decade since she and Hubscher parted ways. Even though Thoth and French run a successful non-profit when they talk about their productions their life stories start showing.

As Thoth describes the “raw and emotional” qualities of the shape singing featured in their 2004 production Sacred Harp, the light from a Mississippi childhood shines through his eyes. And the little laugh that follows French telling of renting a strip club to shoot video for their most recent show Tenderina reveals a well developed sense of irony. The reflective quality is well earned, as Thoth describes some of the difficulties the troupe faced performing their first show Owni vs. Hive in 2001 the waning light from late December provides a capstone for the pair’s first 10 years.

“We had dancers in giant PVC spheres and we brought in a fight choreographer for a sword fight,” says Thoth. Thoth goes on to tell about how one of the performers in the sword fight showed up for the performance “with huge pupils” and that the fight was performed in “slow motion.” The anecdote ends on a bittersweet note, since the performer is now serving time in the County Jail. Like many small venue owners Thoth and French have struggled with the city. In 2007, a year after putting money down on their space, the Fire Marshal came by and closed them down. Fortunately they didn’t have the same problems that other venue owners have had and they were able to reopen a few months later and stage Outside, a show they describe as “A cyberpunk dance drama..based on the concept album by David Bowie.” Outside wasn’t the pair’s first venture into the world of adaptation. In 2005, as a reaction to the 2004 election, Freneticore staged a dance/film interpretation of George Orwell’s classic 1984.

Over the last 10 years Thoth and French have let their muses take them, both physically and metaphorically, into some strange places and often those strange places are informed by experiences. In the case of Bedlam, a 2006 production about asylum inmates, Thoth explains that one of the characters came from a girl he knew in college.

“She was called ‘Crazy Mary’ and she dance around the fountains. She had an imaginary friend named Snowball-he was a giant white seal who played the saxophone and cried blood. How can you not make a show about that,” asks Thoth. Despite the inherent oddness to some of their concepts, Thoth and French have become best known for literally taking dance to strange places. The 2009 piece Tetsujin/Exile took dancers into abandoned buildings and industrial settings and it allowed audiences to reconsider what Houston means.

“A lot of dancers use props, whether it’s a bench or a bamboo spear, we just like using rubble or abandoned buildings and telling dancers ‘imagine this is an insane asylum and you’ve just broken free. Now dance with that,” says Thoth. He goes on to say that as a filmmaker he enjoys the challenge Houston, which isn’t known as one of the country’s most photogenic cities, presents.

“I like making ugly things pretty. Finding the beauty in urban decay, and we’re never going to run out of that in Houston,” said Thoth. French explains that Freneticore is positioning itself to take advantage of another plentiful resource, undereducated youth. “We offer free dance and theatre classes to kids in our neighborhood. Unfortunately we’re not going to run out of kids who need arts education,” says French.

One of the lessons that Thoth and French hope to pass on to the children they teach and the artists they work with is that it art is about using what you have. Thoth goes on to say, “you don’t have to be rich as a company or be a genius creator as long as you use the resources you have in a clever way.” Thoth and French’s generally positive attitude towards their art and their supporters has helped them build a brand name and a strong audience following, something that French doesn’t take for granted.

“Art is my religion and it’s great to be able to worship with other people,” says French.

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