JUBILEE OF DANCE

5 Dec

Houston Ballet, Wortham Center 

By JOHN DeMERS 

It might have been called “Goodbye in Three Acts.” Or, with apologies to Hemingway, “A Farewell to Legs.” Still, what it was called was even more intriguing, allowing one of Houston Ballet’s all-time favorite dancers to do the nearly impossible – get her name into the title. The company’s 40th anniversary Jubilee of Dance carried the special notation “A Tribute to Barbara Bears.” And it was. 

A member of Houston Ballet since 1988 and for several years one of its most respected principal dancers, Barbara definitely “went out” on her feet, courtesy of three showpieces that each, in its own way, was more spectacular than the other two. There was even the now-predictable (but touching) video tribute projected on a lowered screen. Gotta love those baby pictures. All the same, someone unfamiliar with the many attributes Barbara brought to the company over more than two decades would have gotten at least an inkling from the images that rolled past, making way for the ballerina’s final number. 

As with any Jubilee of Dance, the bulk of this one was divided between looking back and looking forward. Chief among the latter were two excerpts from artistic director Stanton Welch’s new production of La Bayadere that will debut in February. Considering that the music was by Minkus and the original choreography by Petipa, these bits were about as close to Old School as Welch is likely to get. It’s a safe bet he’s saving some surprises for sections of the full-evening ballet less familiar than “Gamzatti’s solo from the pas de dix” (danced wonderfully by Kelly Myernick) and “The Kingdom of the Shades” (nicely handled in white by Nao Kusuzaki). 

Many of the evening’s highlights harked back to earlier successes, including Houston Ballet’s recent version of Manon set to music by Massenet. Everyone who caught that ballet on the night Manon was danced by Amy Fote and Des Grieux by Connor Walsh was delighted to see those two step onstage at the Jubilee, revisiting their lovely pas de deux from Act I. And if Manon provided the most lyricism, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance), set to “If I Loved You” and a handful of other melodies from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, provided the most complete narrative drama. It’s a shame that this piece, exultantly danced by Sara Webb and Simon Ball, was allowed to simply peter out into the next number, with no true finish. 

There were several other fine moments scattered around the Barbara Fest, beginning with the strange but beautiful Fingerprints, Welch’s choreography originally for the Cincinnati Ballet that placed both men and women in something resembling bright flowing skirts. This high energy continued through Anthony Tudor’s pas de deux from The Leaves Are Falling, gracefully presented by Mireille Hassenboehler and Nicholas Leschke – and finally, right into Welch’s world premiere that closed the evening, a light, fast-moving and ultimately satisfying anniversary romp titled 40. Woven into the Capriccio Espagnole by Rimsky –Korsakov, gypsy melodies connected cultures all the way from Spain to the composer’s Mother Russia. Every so often, it sounded like a flamenco production of Fiddler on the Roof

For all this, the heart of the Jubilee (in more ways than one) belonged to Barbara Bears – so much so that most of the second act featured her in one medium or another. After delighting the audience with her flutter-armed “Dying Swan” in the opening stanza, Barbara came back with Connor Walsh (Des Grieux no longer) to dance the Blue Couple from the second movement of Welch’s Tu Tu.  There was something appropriately Norma Desmond about Barbara’s character here, seeming to wander off into the shadows only to return near the end with a distant, perhaps lost look in her eyes. And whatever mysterious, conflicting emotions Barbara poured into Tu Tu, she simplified and intensified them for her finale, Franz Lehar’s lovely operetta The Merry Widow with choreography by Ronald Hynd.   

It was a reminder that some of Barbara’s greatest gifts were always as an actress, as a storyteller. If you knew nothing about The Merry Widow – and maybe not even the title – her final romantic waltz that lifted her visibly from melancholy was all you’ll ever need to know. After Barbara accepted a solo bow or six, all the dancers and staff of Houston Ballet streamed onstage from the wings to lay long-stemmed roses at her feet.

Photos by Amitava Sarkar: (above) Barbara Bears as Fokine’s Dying Swan, (below) Sara Webb and Ian Casady in the premiere of Welch’s 40.

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