Whenever the curtain rises on a Christopher Bruce ballet, I feel as if something crucial is at stake. In his world, the stage is far more than just a space where action unfolds. It’s rather a kind of tense arena, and the events often feel more like ritual.
Bruce has always demonstrated a predilection for archetype, and when his ballets finish, you feel as if you’ve completed a wild journey through the collective unconscious. Impressively, Houston Ballet has 11 works by him in its repertory. The company first performed his stunning Ghost Dances in 1988 (the ballet had premiered in England seven years earlier), but due to music copyright issues, it has been in limbo for more than a decade.
Set to a series of heartfelt South American folksongs recorded by Inti-Illimani, Bruce dedicated Ghost Dances to “… the innocent people of South America, who from the time of the Spanish Conquests have been continuously devastated by political oppression,” as he described in the program. I experienced deep emotions at the opening night performance.
Story behind the story
The story behind the creation of this singular work is extensive, and it includes Bruce’s association with Joan Jara, the wife of singer, composer, and poet Victor Jara, who had been tortured and executed during the Chilean military coup of 1973. Joan Jara had danced with the legendary Kurt Jooss Company, and I imagine that in this ballet, Bruce is also making some reference to her via Kurt Jooss’ great masterpiece The Green Table.
Bruce has amplified the death figure of Jooss and cast three men (on opening night, the brilliantly fluid Ian Casady, Christopher Coomer, and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama) as skeletal ghost-figures. As the dance progresses, it seems these three are summoning the remaining cast of three men and five women to the grave.
The movement bears some relationship to the rise-and-fall, and recovery-from-fall, style of José Limón, and the entire cast captured this feeling with skill and clarity. In its more simple sections, the ensemble works in blocks of unison phrases or basic line dances, and for the most part their interpretation was correctly understated and restrained.
Of particular note was a short duet from Christopher Gray and Jacquelyn Long. Gray’s everyday necktie seemed magically transformed into a dog leash, and his horizontal trajectory across the stage featured short steps on his back “paws.”
There was something tragic and poignant in his desperate solo, and it’s clear that he has become an interpretative artist.
World premiere spectacle
While Ghost Dances was the middle piece on a bill unimaginatively titled “Fall Mixed Repertory Program,” the big news of the evening was Garrett Smith’s spectacle and world premiere, Reveal. Smith has made a huge leap from his already successful Return, his first commission for Houston Ballet, set to a rousing orchestral score by John Adams. I would speculate that Smith could become a significant choreographer of ballets in the years ahead, if he can resist a few of his eccentricities (such as overuse of running) and avoid stealing too much from his own earlier works.
Smith is evidently thrilled by speed, mass and volume. His two works for Houston Ballet take a handful of dancers and make them seem like a company of 50 or more. He likes sharp, athletic movement often imbued with a sense of ecstasy.
I am impressed that he seems to pull a winning performance out of each and every dancer. In this work, as in Return, the cast showed no ambiguity or indifference. They were clearly fully committed to the piece.
Reveal suggests that Smith has become familiar with the well-codified movement strategies of the great master William Forsythe. This is evident from his extensive use of mirroring, a common scheme in Forsythe’s early work, as well as his focus on an extremely fluid spine, something also quite evident in Jorma Elo’s ballets.
But where Forsythe or Elo would allow simultaneous events to comfortably co-exist, Smith resorts to excessive use of unison phrasing. This makes it seem like he doesn’t quite have enough ideas for Philip Glass’ lengthy scores.
Having seen my first Philip Glass ballet more than 30 years ago, I thought the fad has passed, at least in the world of contemporary dance. However, Glass’ Double Concerto for Violin and Cello (first commissioned by Nederlands Dans Theater) his Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra are stunning, highly theatrical works. Ermanno Florio brought a polished and inspired performance from the orchestra and soloists. But I think that Smith maybe bit off more than he could chew, and I would have rather he had focused on the overall form and made a shorter piece.
Stanton Welch’s Tapestry opened the program, a nondescript and longish dance set to Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5. It gives the impression that it was not made for anyone in particular, without any specific intent. Most of the arrangement is symmetrical and played directly to the front of the house.