The Review Is In

Simply brilliant: Houston Ballet loses the frills and keeps all the chills in showing off its Masters

Simply brilliant: Houston Ballet loses the frills, shows off Masters

Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Emily Bowen and Melody Mennite in Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Emily Bowen and Melody Mennite in Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Connor Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet in Etudes choreographed by Harald Lander
Connor Walsh and artists of Houston Ballet in Etudes choreographed by Harald Lander. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Soo Youn Cho in Ballo della Regina choreographed by George Balanchine
Soo Youn Cho in Ballo della Regina choreographed by George Balanchine. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Jessica Collado and Ian Casady in Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Jessica Collado and Ian Casady in Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Emily Bowen and Melody Mennite in Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Connor Walsh and Artists of Houston Ballet in Etudes choreographed by Harald Lander
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Soo Youn Cho in Ballo della Regina choreographed by George Balanchine
Houston Ballet Modern Masters March 2015 Jessica Collado and Ian Casady in Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato

The costumes? Plain and for the most part, unremarkable. The sets? Well, none, except for an assortment of poles suggesting a fence in the second piece. The lighting design? Largely uneventful, though at times surrealistic, at least in the case of the third ballet.

Houston Ballet’s Modern Masters, which opened Thursday night at the Wortham Theater Center, is one of most straightforward assorted-rep programs the company has produced in a long time. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s anywhere near plain.

On the contrary — this is one of the most thrilling evenings you’ll ever experience. Without being didactic, it also brings recent ballet history alive for viewers.

None of the dancers can hide behind anything on this stellar bill, which is exactly what it claims to be: Three masterpieces by three great choreographers.

 If you wanted to show off the exemplary skill and technical range of your dancers, this is the ideal program.   

If there is a common denominator among them, it is inspired choreography, unfettered by narrative, decoration, or acting. Each work evokes a different period in 20th-century ballet, as well as a different national tradition. Each demands something singular from the dancers, though they are all good examples of choreographic harmony, balance and invention. Musically, they are dazzling.

If you wanted to show off the exemplary skill and technical range of your dancers, as well, this is the ideal program.  

I cannot imagine a better curtain-raiser than George Balanchine’s sparkling Ballo Della Regina, which was given a rousing interpretation opening night with Allison Miller and Oliver Halkowich in the leading roles. One could argue that it is a narrative work, at least indirectly. Balanchine was quick to refute the idea of story-lines in his carefully-nuanced ballets, but there is legend that he intended the idea of a fisherman looking for the perfect pearl in some forgotten grotto.

The music comes from Verdi’s opera Don Carlos, which some audience members will remember from Houston Grand Opera’s deeply-sophisticated 2012 staging. It’s likely that Verdi intended his ballet music, at least in my imagination, as respite from the somber theme of his opera.  

There is a third loose narrative, however, in that Balanchine made Ballo Della Regina in 1978 for the brilliant dancer Merrill Ashley. His seemingly plot-free work is really “about” his impression of her as a woman, a muse and a thrillingly confident dancer. Having seen her perform many times on the stage of the New York State Theater with the New York City Ballet, it is strange for me to separate this work from the woman who danced its premiere.

Coached by Ashley here, soloist Miller makes this role her own while still remaining true to tradition. Halkowich is dashing and precise, an inspiringly musical dancer and an ideal partner for Miller.

I was thrilled to see two of the company’s soloists, Halkowich and Miller, in such grand parts. Here they prove that they are ready for a promotion on Houston Ballet’s roster. I was also extremely taken with demi-soloist Emily Bowen, whose clean, sweeping phrasing and striking silhouette made her emerge from the rest of the cast. Given the overall proficiency of the company, this is saying a lot.

She looks like a Balanchine dancer from the great heyday of the New York City Ballet, that is, from the time of Merrill Ashley’s reign. It is the greatest complement I can think of to pay any ballerina, and as Ballo Della Regina finished, I made a mental note to be sure and watch for Bowen in subsequent programs.

I did not have to wait long. Bowen was Halkowich’s partner in Nacho Duato’s expressive Jardi Tancat, a dance I first saw nearly 30 years ago. It seems to be the work that Duato can’t shake, even though he has created a vast repertory since his first and most widely-admired work. Program notes suggest that the six dancers in this intimate piece are lamenting the advent of drought.

Looking at it solely as movement, however, it seems that Duato has emphasized his exploration of the possibilities of the spine. For ballet dancers who are used to lifting and straightening the torso, the piece is a clear challenge.

 Is there anything as thrilling as watching two crossing lines of men and women leaping gracefully in hundreds of grand jetés? 

Sandwiched in between two company spectacles on this program, it is refreshing and poignant. Jessica Collado and Ian Casady, Bown and Halkowich, and Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh demonstrate here that they are superbly flexible, expressive dancers who can swiftly accomplish technical challenges well outside of their classical training.

As the curtain rose on Harald Lander’s 1948 Etudes, sparse lighting focused only on rows of women’s legs in basic pliés, tendus, and rondes de jambe. Knudage Riisager’s rousing orchestrations of Carl Czerny’s piano etudes breeze by one after the other, as the dreamy scenes accumulate and the dancing for large groups of men and women in white, black, and grey classical garb become more dense and chaotic.

Is there anything as thrilling as watching two crossing lines of men and women leaping gracefully in hundreds of grand jetés? It’s hard to imagine something better that this seemingly simple ballet, which contains nearly all the steps dancers should accomplish in their ballet training, from brisé volé to tours chaînés déboulés.

The piece is wildly entertaining and captures, as well, the maddeningly-detailed Danish style that Balanchine held always in such admiration. Etudes, as realized by the talented artists of Houston Ballet, is a stunning finale in every sense.