The Review Is In

From Houston to the World: Recycled ballets suffer from a Midsummer Night's letdown

Recycled Houston Ballet repertoire suffers from Midsummer letdown

Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Chun Wai Chan in Murmuration
Chun Wai Chan in Murmuration from the Houston Ballet's production of From Houston to the World. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Yuriko Kajiya, left, and Jared Matthews and Artists of Houston Ballet in Paquita
Yuriko Kajiya, left, and Jared Matthews with artists of the Houston Ballet in Paquita from the production, From Houston to the World. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez in ONE/end/ONE
Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez in ONE/end/ONE from the Houston Ballet's production of From Houston to the World. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Karina Gonzalez in ONE/end/ONE
Karina Gonzalez in ONE/end/ONE from the Houston Ballet's production of From Houston to the World. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Yuriko Kajiya and Artists of Houston Ballet in Paquita
Yuriko Kajiya and artists of Houston Ballet in Paquita from the Houston Ballet's production of From Houston to the World. Photo by © Amitava Sarkar
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Chun Wai Chan in Murmuration
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Yuriko Kajiya, left, and Jared Matthews and Artists of Houston Ballet in Paquita
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez in ONE/end/ONE
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Karina Gonzalez in ONE/end/ONE
Houston Ballet From Houston to the World September 2014 Yuriko Kajiya and Artists of Houston Ballet in Paquita

A bevy of swans, a murder of crows, a charm of finches, a host of sparrows. It seems that all bird groups have their own collective nouns. Last Sunday, while I was enjoying brunch with friends at Brady’s Landing in the Port of Houston Ship Channel, I watched an impressive gulp of cormorants, wings flapping anxiously in the sun. It’s a kind of dance, if you choose to watch the cormorants in that way.

Birds do dance, don’t they?

Murmuration is the particular collective noun describing a group of starlings, but we could also call them a congregation, a clattering, or even a cloud. Murmuration is the most fun, of course, and it’s no wonder that choreographer Edwaard Liang chose it for the title of a dance he made for Houston Ballet in March, 2013. At that time, I reviewed the piece in this publication, saying that it was “a little lost” in between two other works.

It is back, sandwiched once again between two other pieces, on the company’s latest repertory program titled From Houston to the World. Judging from audience response, it’s a popular piece, but still not to my liking.

Amateur poetry

On second viewing, I remain convinced that it suffers from the same problems as amateur poetry: solipsism and sentimentality. With its dark décor and brooding score by Ezio Bosso, the work is unfocused, too long, and maddeningly uneventful. The 17 dancers, Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh chief among them, gave it their all, though I feel their talents are not fully exploited by Liang’s choreography. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Liang’s “style.”

 Last time I checked, starlings did not lift each other in pas de deux, attempt pirouettes, or tours en seconde 

Several years ago, a group of dancers and choreographers from Le Ballet National du Senegal explained to me that the majority of their dances are based on the movements of birds. Their performances are stunning, because they result from a serious study of actual birds. Merce Cunningham’s famous Beach Birds is yet another wonderful example of choreography that truly embodies bird movement.

Liang’s Murmuration, if one looks at it simply as it is, is really just a quotidian chamber ballet masquerading as a work “about” starlings. Last time I checked, starlings did not lift each other in pas de deux, attempt pirouettes, or tours en seconde. I stand by my view that Murmuration does not add anything of particular interest to the repertory, especially in the early 21st century. I have seen an endless number of similar “nature-inspired” ballets over the years; Liang’s is hardly new.

Curtain call

Jorma Elo was in town to take a curtain call at the finish of his clever ONE/end/ONE, a work for eight dancers set to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218. Christina R. Giannelli’s lighting design is still too dark, and Holly Hynes’ lovely black costumes are nearly swallowed by the black curtains that surround them. I don’t understand why the production is fighting itself for visibility. This isn’t Elo at his most profound, but it’s a charming opener.

 This isn’t Elo at his most profound, but it’s a charming opener. 

I remember speaking to him once when he was working on a piece at New York City Ballet. He seemed unusually pre-occupied with the speed and versatility of the dancers in that company.

This particular works demonstrates that pre-occupation, and I think at the very least it is a worthy challenge for talented artists such as Oliver Halkowich, Jared Mathews, and Melody Mennite. Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh took the most prominent place, and I wonder if ONE/end/ONE didn’t DRAIN/sap/DRAIN and them before they had to emote their way through Liang’s Murmuration.

Really, give them just a bit more of a break, I say.

Strenuous masterpiece

Which brings me to another matter. Should the Houston Ballet dancers have to turn out a long rep show after two weeks of a strenuous masterpiece like Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

 Should the Houston Ballet dancers have to turn out a long rep show after two weeks of a strenuous masterpiece like Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? 

Stanton Welch’s abbreviated Paquita, which premiered last December at the Wortham, was described in this program as “…an opportunity for Houston Ballet’s dancers to display their sparkling technique.”

It didn’t quite come off that way, unfortunately. Lines were sloppy, jumps and turns were often “low and slow,” and body direction appeared to be different in each and every dancer. The company is deficient in elegant, and collective, port de bras. I tired of hearing pointe shoes clomping on the stage floor.

Paquita, for any who know it, is hardly heavy on symbolism and weltschmerz. It is a refreshing, light-hearted piece which should, as the program says, give dancers the option to show off. A choreographer creates a new staging when she wants to do one or more of what I’ll call “the three Rs.” That is, re-interpret the story, refine what was already there, or revise what happens to be left of Petipa or any other prior choreographer’s work. It’s not clear to me why Welch took this on, since many of his decisions seem banal at best, unmusical at the worst.   

The Houston Ballet Orchestra and conductor Ermanno Florio did, however, give Leon Minkus’ charming score a truly sparkling interpretation.