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Choreographer Nicolo Fonte See(k)s a new ballet that's "Made in America"

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Connor Walsh and Melissa Hough in See(k) Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Artists of Houston Ballet in See(k) Photo by Amitava Sarkar Courtesy of Houston Ballet, Nicolo Fonte, Made in America, See(k), Artists of Houston Ballet
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From See(k), Allison Miller and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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It's rare that I get the urge to make dances these days. Watching Nicolo Fonte mid-move made me long for those dance-making days. Fonte's new ballet See(k) runs tonight through June 3 at the Wortham Theater Center as part of Houston Ballet's "Made in America," which also includes Mark Morris' Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes and George Balanchine's Theme and Variations.

Fonte paints with a dynamic brush: his phrasing has a nuanced dialogue to it. It's as if the dancers are making conversation. He has a way of asking the dancers to lean into movements such that we feel an elongation of space and intention. The choreographer is a master at milking the moment. He peppers his phrases with surprising flourishes that bend traditional ballet vocabulary into something extraordinary.

Fonte urges his muses on, "Don't fake riskiness. Insist on achieving it. I don't want to be too poetic here, but the women should look like a spirits bursting out of your bodies."

With seven couples, much is made of the man/woman tangle. The partnering has a suspended quality; the points of contact are unique, evoking a stolen moment quality. At times, the dancers look as if they are hanging by a thread, and when it snaps, there's a visceral  excitement.

Much of Fonte's movement occurs out of the comfort zone, with ornamented shapes that move towards the exotic. Yet, there's an attention to shape with a sculptor's sensibility. All of this adds a juicy texture to his work.

"Nuance is a good word for my work," says Fonte. "My timing and rhythm are quite specific."

And he's right, the level of detail is astonishing. From one flexed foot and one pointed one to quick pulses of energy, Fonte's signature is clear. "I think it's a good thing that my ballets are so recognizable," Fonte muses. 

Fonte's dance lineage includes Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, where he danced works by Balanchine, Tudor, Kudelka and Spaniard Nacho Duato. Fonte then joined Duato's Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid, where he first started making dances. Duato gave him his first go in a baptism by fire way of earning his choreographic chops.

"He was a mentor to me, but it was like tough love," Fonte confesses. "He really jump started my career."

His style is influenced by his contemporaries but not defined by them.

Fonte knew Houston Ballet more by reputation than by anything else. Once his commission was in hand, he came to Houston to watch the dancers. "These dancers are totally equipped to do my work. It's been an easy process," he says. "They are strong classical dancers, with a good work ethic."

 Fonte knew Houston Ballet more by reputation than by anything else. Once his commission was in hand, he came to Houston to watch the dancers. 

So much goes into making a dance come alive. Fonte is big on a give and take process.

"I can't come into a room and say, 'do this.' I want to hear the voices of the dancers, but not to the point of blurring my vision," he says. "I need to follow what's happening in front of me. Sometimes, the little mistakes a dancer makes are far better than what I imagined. I need to let the dancers shape the piece with me."

And sure enough, during the rehearsal I watched, Fonte could pinpoint an exact quality he was looking for in one of the dancers. I could see the collective brain trust feeding Fonte's choreographic engine.

This piece started at "ground zero" according to Fonte. Slee(k) is performed to a commissioned score by Anna Clyne. Fonte had choreographed Made Man, inspired by Da Vinci's Last Supper, to one of her compositions, but this was his first work with a new score with the composer. Both Clyne and Fonte live in Brooklyn, so they were able to have a good amount of back and forth on the score. 

Clyne's score is certainly a terrific element, yet it's also about how far the dancers are willing to go in any new creation. Fonte appreciates that they are not afraid to take risks, which is a good thing in considering some of the rather extreme shapes his dances take. 

A new ballet requires more than excellent dancers. Fonte finds a big difference in working with a company with a choreographer at the helm. "Stanton has been so nurturing, making sure I have enough time with the dancers. He has such respect for the choreographic process."

Watching a room full of dancers willing to move beyond what they thought they were capable of is an inspiring scenario. Fonte urges his muses on, "Don't fake riskiness. Insist on achieving it. I don't want to be too poetic here, but the women should look like a spirits bursting out of your bodies."

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Catch a preview of Nicolo Fonte's new ballet:

 

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