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Crowd-pleasing Modern Masters showcases Houston Ballet dancers in best way

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Houston Ballet Modern Masters
A scene from the Houston Ballet production of Modern Masters. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Modern Masters. Oh, the understatement!

Houston Ballet’s spring repertory program, which premiered Thursday night and continues through June 1, is hardly ho-hum, as the title might suggest. Yes, the evening holds three works from the modern period. The oldest, George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, is either from the late 1940s or the early 1950s or the early 1960s, depending on which version you’re talking about.

 It is challenging to say exactly why, but the dancers convey the impression that they are as happy performing this material as the audience is watching it. 

The newest, Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, is only 23 years old, practically new in the context of the conservative ballet company milieu. William Forsythe’s late '80s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is technically a post-modern work, and also a classic, but really, let’s relax on such labels for the moment.

This program is perfection. It is challenging to say exactly why, but the dancers convey the impression that they are as happy performing this material as the audience is watching it. Company director Stanton Welch has done an outstanding job putting together a crowd-pleasing evening that demonstrates the versatility and prowess of his dancers to the utmost. Modern Masters shows us three very different and compelling aspects of a vital period in 20th century ballet.

A new light

In such masterpieces, as well, it is possible to see certain familiar dancers in a new light. For me, The Four Temperaments is the greatest ballet of the last century. That is saying a lot, I know, and believe me, there are plenty contenders for that precious title. But Four Temperaments stands not only for an era and the choreographic developments within that era, but also a kind of summary of the thinking that came before.

Four Temperaments synthesizes aspects of the choreography of Petipa, Bournonville, Fokine, and Nijinska. It also influenced much of the choreography that followed, at least in the west. Four Temperaments solidifies the notion of true abstraction in ballet, and the particular “roles” are like outfits every successive generation of dancers wants to try on for size.

If there was ever a corps de ballet member desperately in need of a promotion, it is William Newton, who nearly stole the show with his deeply committed “Phlegmatic” variation.

Connor Walsh, who in narrative works has lacked a certain expressivity, is nearly made for Balanchine’s first variation, “Melancholic.” Here he shows a stunning musicality, dynamic line, and a kind of brave confidence. Yes, he is inherently melancholic, but that isn’t a synonym for sad. More, he is the careful analytic.

Karina Gonzalez and Simon Ball gave an articulate interpretation of the somewhat hedonist “Sanguinic” pas de deux, flashy without vulgarity, really edge-of-your-seat thrilling. And if there was ever a corps de ballet member desperately in need of a promotion, it is William Newton, who nearly stole the show with his deeply committed “Phlegmatic” variation. This is always where I feel the ballet accumulates a certain power, and the section needs the right messenger. Newton’s series of side extensions, in particular, were a kind of miracle: elastic, perfectly aligned, and each as beautiful as the one preceding it.    

Static cling

On opening night Katharine Precourt didn’t quite contribute the right energy when she appeared as the focal point of the “Choleric” variation. Perhaps this is because in Balanchine, and particularly in the Four Temperaments, the events. Are. Not. Isolated. From. Each. Other.  Rather, TheyShould ComeTogetherAsBigLongPhrasesThatDazzleTheViewer. You get the point. Sometimes she held her phrase-finishing poses with static cling, when they needed to be invested with a stronger energy and direction.

I have been watching William Forsythe’s work for 30 years, and I have seen his masterpiece In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated many times as performed by many different companies, including the Ballett Frankfurt when Forsythe was director. This ballet is actually a section from an evening-length piece called Impressing the Czar. The other sections have fabulous titles, such as “Bongo Bongo Nageela,” “Potemkin’s Signature,” and “Mr. PNut Goes to the Big Top.”

 This is a dance about attaining perfection, about grabbing the golden ring, about the epitome of human ideals and perfection. 

While Forsythe calls In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated a theme and variations, that description covers only the formal aspects. The metaphorical theme, I speculate, derives from the golden cherry bob that hangs in the middle of the stage, high enough to remain out of reach for the dancers and almost without notice in Forsythe’s own lighting design.

This is a dance about attaining perfection, about grabbing the golden ring, about the epitome of human ideals and perfection. It could relate to another section of the full work, in which dancers dressed in gold are being auctioned off. In terms of movement, however, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is a ballet desperately striving symmetry. It keeps trying to “get it right,” as odd as that might sound. Sections of the work have an off-kilter feeling. In many instances, the viewer must try to focus on several simultaneous events, all of them vying for attention. Sections require the dancers to improvise within the classical mode. The final effect is mesmerizing.

Booming score

Thom Willems’ booming score, shocking for its time, didn’t sound as good as it could have in the Wortham Theater. The bass was lacking, and some of the electronic score’s quieter moments, including the sound of a striking match, were swallowed up quickly. The dancers prevailed however, with stunning interpretations from all nine cast members, especially Nozomi Iijima, Chun Wai Chan, and Derek Dunn.

Forsythe was present opening night, and took a gracious curtain call. He is one of the greatest living choreographers, but even that label doesn’t do him full justice. Forsythe is an innovative lighting designer, set designer, costume designer, and his creative work has extended to film and video and a wide range of installations. A recent one in New York, Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, no. 2, included a room in which 40 pendulums could be manipulated by spectators and which “…produces a lively choreography of manifold and intricate avoidance strategies,” as he put it. 

 Forsythe was present opening night, and took a gracious curtain call. He is one of the greatest living choreographers, but even that label doesn’t do him full justice.  

Houston Ballet has done a good job of staging Forsythe’s most beloved work on several occasions, along with his remarkable The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude from 1996. Only two? Why not bring more of his pieces into the company’s repertory? I would recommend the spectacular One Flat Thing, Reproduced.

The dreamy, archetypal vaudeville of Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort  and Sechs Tänze won enthusiastic applause opening night. They are humorous, sexy, and technically challenging, and the company delivered them with a thrilling sensibility. I first saw these in 2009 at Boston Ballet, where they were staged as part of the full-length, five-balllet presentation Black and White. These were so popular in Boston that artistic director Mikko Nissinen staged them again the following year. Houston is ready for the same, and I can’t believe any of the dancers wouldn’t relish the opportunity.

Modern Masters returns to Houston Ballet next season with ballets by Balanchine, Nacho Duato, and Harald Lander, not a bad line-up but there is always 2016. In the meantime, don’t miss these two masterpieces from Kylián while they’re here.

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