When a dead cat landed with a thud and a puff of powder, it was clear this was no typical premiere at Houston Ballet.
Something else was clear by the end of the Spring Mixed Repertoire program, which runs through June 5 at the Wortham Theater Center. Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti” was by far the standout, even in in the company of giants like George Balanchine and Kenneth MacMillan.
And not just because of a dead cat.
The cat in question hurtled to the stage floor in the midst of an oddly compelling duet near the end of Ekman’s provocative “Cacti.” As Connor Walsh, who was a standout performer of the night, and Jessica Collado, master Ekman’s funny, quirky movement, two voices also take center stage to reveal a blow-by-blow behind the scenes take on the performance happening right that moment.
With extraordinary timing, these voices translate physical movement happening into language, express the anxieties of the dancers, and even reveal a recently ended romantic relationship. As they discuss the post-breakup disposition of their feline, it plummeted to the stage, sending the audience into hysterics.
Ekman is a madcap master of slapstick as the opening section of “Cacti” exquisitely proves. As a cellist standing far upstage plucks a string, one dancer walks across uneven white pedestals behind which the other dancers writhe. A voiceover meant partly as a parody of aesthetic philosophy describes the dancers as “members of the human orchestra.”
Literally, the dancer’s members, their limbs, are an orchestra. They slap, clap, and vocalize. They climb on their platforms and a frenzy of swiveling hips, emphatic breath, wobbly knees, and eloquent arms ensues, embodying the rhythms of Schubert, Haydn, and Beethoven, often to great comic effect and as if they were grooving awkwardly to the beat or conducting their own private orchestra in the shower. Somehow this was even more compelling with the Apollo Chamber Players, composed of a cello, viola, and two violins, performing from upstage and occasionally traveling in relation to the dancers.
Ekman’s frenzy is structured. This opening section deploys a radical constraint for the dancers: they hardly use their legs and prove that rhythm extends to all parts of the body.
The articulate lighting and scenic designs of Tom Visser add a level of sophistication to “Cacti.” The lights, which at one point lower from above quite close to the dancers’ heads, feel like members of the cast. The simple platforms, which the dancers use to great effect, reassemble into a sculpture.
At one point, the titular cacti emerge, each dancer brandishing a gorgeous and distinct plant. During another of these texts by Spenser Theberge, it’s as if the cacti are symbols to decipher. But they turn out to be props and sources of physical humor more than mysteries to solve.
“Cacti” is funny and physical. It’s also extremely self-aware, wherein lies a danger. The choreography plays with postmodern self-reflexivity, and in this it can feel too cute and little dated. People have been discussing the postmodern for at least three decades, and it’s not novel to create self-aware choreography.
Where the text was most compelling was at the end of the performance, as a voice wondered, “Is this the end? This must be the end.” That anxiety is much more interesting than parodies of postmodernism. But this is a question of editing easily accommodated by this extremely talented young choreographer.
If only Kenneth MacMillan’s “Gloria” had seemed so revelatory. This Houston Ballet favorite felt, to me, awkward, overwrought, and an extended exercise in questionable taste.
Set to Poulenc’s gorgeous “Gloria in G,” MacMillan’s choreography considers youth in a time of war, particularly World War I. Andy Klunder’s striking set features a rust-colored hill sharply raked to the back of the stage and a series of spare metal frames. Sadly, Klunder’s costumes also left the impression that russet clowns had wandered into a theater of war.
MacMillan proves a master of freeze frame. and his tableaux were more compelling than his movement in “Gloria.” In one section, a handful of men freeze in place to become magnificent statues shadowy in the distance on a hill.
What MacMillan does in “Manon,” which Houston Ballet performs so well, is find queasy and intricate choreography suitable to a courtesan torn between her degrading profession and her naïve young love. The same kind of choreography doesn’t suit “Gloria.” There’s an awful lot of prancing and swirling and twisting about for a theater of war. Angels of youth and death float around, sometimes as if gaily stomping to a USO dance, sometimes as if having erotic disputes in a funeral cortege. “Why?” kept ringing in my head but not with reference to the brutality of war.
Live vocals helped animate "Gloria." While the choir was sadly muffled, stuck in the corner of the pit, soprano Lauren Snouffer soared. Houston Ballet dancers performed admirably what seems like choreography worth retiring. How much more compelling was their 2009 performance of Jiri Kylian’s moving “Soldiers’ Mass," where movement language and subject matter were perfectly aligned.
Lost in the Shuffle
Oddly lost on the program was the opening performance of the exquisite “Serenade,” set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings. Balanchine is a master architect, arranging the corps in ever more intricate patterns. Gauzy tulle skirts swirled in perfect tension with their sharply articulate steps, though occasionally those steps seemed to land a little too hard and loud. Karina Gonzalez, who I often think of as filled with raw, wild, passion, was remarkably channeled and pristine as she partnered the even-more elegant Chun Wai Chan, who barely seemed to touch the ground. They were entirely and appropriately dreamy.
But how hard it was to recollect such subtleties after overwrought angels and thudding cats.