Houston Ballet’s Season Debut

11 Sep

Additional Performances Sept. 11, 17 and 18 at 7:30 p.m., plus Sept. 12 and 19 at 2 p.m.

By JOHN DEMERS

Houston’s ballet company, only months away from taking up residence in its impressive new downtown dance center, is opening its 2010-11 season this weekend with one of those open-ended, evocative titles artists think of so well: Body, Soul and Gershwin. Seen choreographically, the company kicks off a new year with two pieces by artistic director Stanton Welch and one by Jiri Kylian – for both gentlemen, pretty impressive company to keep.

Though Houston Ballet has attracted some of its biggest headlines for world premieres of full-evening story ballets (such as Marie, as in Antoinette, which gets another outing this season), there are definite advantages to a mixed-rep program in terms of audience satisfaction. For one thing, it shows off more of the company’s always-impressive “depth chart.” For another, it does much the same for the diversity of its styles, from movement to music to costumes. Each of the pieces presented on opening night has been seen here before; none has ever looked better.

Though “fun” might seem a shallow word for a ballet, Welch’s bright and mostly breezy Tu Tu wears the word on its sleeve. It features three couples, told apart not by storyline but by the color of their costumes – Gold, Blue and Red. Unlike Balanchine’s Jewels (coming from HB later this month), these colors aren’t particularly personified here; they seem merely ways of telling who’s dancing with whom. Nonetheless, the action is nonstop, all carried out on an empty stage marked by a changing box of white light that advances or contracts across the darkened floor. On opening night, top bravos from the audience went to company veteran Mireille Hassenboehler, who danced Blue with Peter Franc. This was only a subjective preference, though, since Nozomi Iijima and Connor Walsh were terrific as Gold, and Nao Kusisaki and Christopher Coomer were impressive as Red.

The evening’s middle selection, by Czech-born dance great Kylian, offers that “something completely different” you keep hearing about. Somberly northern and almost violent at times, Forgotten Land replaces the depersonalized dance-for-dance’s-sake of Tu Tu with an ambiguous drama about the land, the sea and seemingly the darker side of human relationships. Again, people appear only as couples – including two pairings whose dark costumes seem smeared with red, as in blood – and there’s little to no smiling going on.

Dance, especially modern ballet like this, at its best defies strict representation. It evokes, instead, strong emotions that don’t exactly know where to fit. With its incredibly bold and sometimes thunderous score by Benjamin Britten, who apparently stepped over from Houston Grand Opera,  Forgotten Land makes us think and feel – without making us think or feel any certain thing. All six couples are ominous and angular, sweeping and turning across blank space before a dark-clouded projection that perfectly matches the timpani-thunder in Britten’s score. Again, Hassenboehler drew some of the biggest ovations, dancing what must be the piece’s scariest pas de deux with Jun Shuang Huang. Kelly Myernick was amazing with Walsh, as was Melody Herrera with Ian Casady.

If ballet often seems 90 percent technical prowess, once in a while it seems at least 70 percent acting, or at least characterization. This, of course, is a matter of the choreography itself, which points us to Welch’s finale of fireworks set to George Gershwin’s Concerto in F.  Far less known (meaning less hummed) than the American composer’s Rhapsody in Blue or An American in Paris, the concerto does nonetheless serve up some of his finest melodies in the early 20th-century classical-jazz vein that was his life’s work.

The Core: Gershwin the Heart of the Big Apple presents us with the colorful flora and fauna of New York,  virtually all showing the swagger for which the city is known. Lucky for Welch, swagger workers well on dancers in general, and Houston Ballet’s dancers in particular. So many of the company’s best dancers are also excellent actors that we can only look forward to many story ballets from Welch in the years to come. With the same street-wise spirit of big-budget NYC musicals like On the Town, The Core shimmered with its huge cast of characters – featuring names as tongue-in-cheek as Stanley and Stella, Three Sailors, USO Girls and even Two Broads. We got a particular kick (no, not from champagne) out of Connor Walsh as JR and Amy Fote as Velma.

Photos by Amitava Sarkar: (top) Houston Ballet artists in TuTu; (middle) Mireille Hassenboehler and Jun Shuang Huang in Forgotten Land; (bottom) Katharine Precourt and Houston Ballet artists in The Core.

 

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