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Three ballets & one world premiere

Plenty of reasons to celebrate Houston Ballet's "Made in America"

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From See(k) choreographed by Nicolo Fonte, artists of the Houston Ballet Photo by Amitava Sarkar Courtesy of Houston Ballet, Nicolo Fonte, Made in America, See(k), Artists of Houston Ballet
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Theme and Variations with Joseph Walsh and Sara Webb, choreographed by George Balanchine Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Connor Walsh and artists of the Houston Ballet in Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, choreographed by Mark Morris Photo by Amitava Sarkar
News_Houston Ballet_Nicolo Fonte_Made in America_See(k)_Allison Miller, Charles-Louis Yoshiyama_Choreographer_Nicolo Fonte
From See(k) choreographed by Nicolo Fonte, Allison Miller and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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News_Houston Ballet_Theme and Variations_Joseph Walsh_Sara Webb_chor_George Balanchine
News_Houston Ballet_Made in America_Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes_Connor Walsh_Artists of Houston Ballet
News_Houston Ballet_Nicolo Fonte_Made in America_See(k)_Allison Miller, Charles-Louis Yoshiyama_Choreographer_Nicolo Fonte

Twenty-five years, one mayor, three ballets, one world premiere, four chandeliers, one swinging stage light, and a lot of cupcakes. Or, another night at the ballet.

At least it was another night at the Houston Ballet, and not just any other night as the penultimate program of the season, "Made in America," celebrated the Wortham Theater Center's 25th anniversary. Guest star Mayor Annise Parker opened the show by praising the 3,200 Houstonians who privately funded the over $60 million facility.

Hence the cupcakes.

There were plenty of other reasons to celebrate. The Houston Ballet shone in performances of Mark Morris's Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte's See(k), and George Balanchine's legendary love song to the Imperial Russian Ballet, Theme and Variations.

 At times the dancers seemed like perfectly crafted wind-up toys that induced an endearing quirk every fourth of fifth step. Gradually the oddities built up into an utterly singular texture.

 Last season ballet-goers were treated to Morris's compelling Sandpaper Ballet. Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes was an equally canny selection. This seemed Morris at his most balletic, but in took no longer than a wink of the eye and a slide of the hips to shift to a different idiom.

The dancers not only took this in stride but seemed to relish the coy and changeable movement. At times they seemed like perfectly crafted wind-up toys that induced an endearing quirk every fourth of fifth step. Gradually the oddities built up into an utterly singular texture.

But this supple and metamorphic quality is largely a consequence of Virgil Thomson's surprising score. As the evening began with the virtuoso performance of pianist Katherine Birkwall-Ciscon, we were just shy of dissonance. At that point, a dancer carried his partner onto the stage and then off the other side. Now, the game was afoot.

As the music changed — sometimes lushly classical, sometimes more tango — so too did the choreography, though it never abandoned a perfect balance of wit, contrast, and quirky appeal.

All in white, it is at first as if the dancers are there dancing for themselves, and they're backs are often turned to us. Slowly, they turn out and let us in, and I  felt fortunate to be included.

Clearly, this movement suits the dancers, who never seemed to break a sweat in spite of the attentiveness required by Morris's choreography. But I found myself following the graceful Oliver Halkowich when I wasn't captivated by Melissa Hough and Connor Walsh.

One moment Hough is compact and fiercely precise. The next, explosive. I always wonder what going to happen when I watch her even when she repeats a sequence I've seen before.

Another of the many reasons to celebrate is that Hough pairs so beautifully with Connor Walsh. He has seemed to me perhaps the most technically perfect male dancer in the company. At times a little too technical, leaving much to admire but less to feel passionate about. Dancing with Hough seems to release him from the burdens of perfection to reveal playfulness and exuberance.

See(k): A problem of velocity

Hough and Walsh seized center stage in Fonte's See(k). While Morris provides little psychology but much sociality, Fonte seemed tortured, as the dancers twisted themselves into psychic and physical knots on a bare stage with stage lights hanging low and glaring down.

Throughout See(k), whose title suggests both vision and visionary quest, the lights would play a significant supporting role as they raised and lowered, swung across the stage, and even stare out at the audience. After a few suggestive minutes, the lighting was simply harsh.

 Fonte's choreography, though impressively demanding of Houston Ballet's dancers, seemed similarly overdone. 

 Anna Clyne's score, which began even more discordantly than Thompson, was at first suggestive. But a few moments in intriguing cacophony started to seem confused and often-overwrought.

Fonte's choreography, though impressively demanding of Houston Ballet's dancers, seemed similarly overdone. A woman always seemed to be the awkward object of a twisting tug of war between two men. Groups moved briefly in unison but constantly in some form of undecipherable struggle. There was much accomplished reaching and leaping, odd poses, and impressive feats, as when Hough stood on Walsh's calf in the midst of an intriguing sequence. But I wondered, how there could be so much tortured movement and so little tension?

See(k) suffered, too, from a problem of velocity. The least interesting moments of movement were held to oddly stretched out while the most intriguing rushed past too quickly. If Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes was such a study in subtlety and structure that it made me wish the very different style of See(k) had been realized with an equally profound architecture. Seeing and seeking are only interesting when the object of one's attention isn't obvious.

Still, Houston Ballet acquitted itself admirably, and it is to the company's credit, also, to have commissioned a work from a young choreographer whose work has excited much interest of late.

Balanchine's Theme and Variations

At the start of the final piece, it was clear that it was Balanchine's Theme and Variations, not cupcakes, that the audience was hungry for. Throughout the Fonte ballet, frustrated viewers wanted to clap for the impressive contortions of dancers, but it never seemed the right time. That was no issue for the Balanchine, the resplendence of which was irrefutable.

And if there were a rating system based on chandeliers instead of stars, I would give the entire cast five chandeliers. Every group formation seemed utterly perfect.

 Hence the chandeliers. And if there were a rating system based on chandeliers instead of stars, I would give the entire cast five chandeliers. Every group formation seemed utterly perfect.

But the news, as it were, was another pairing. Joseph Walsh, recently promoted to principal dancer, shone with Sara Webb at his side. I first saw them dance seasons ago in Manon. The chemistry was utterly persuasive. In Theme and Variations, Webb was never so precise and spritely as she was when accompanied by Walsh. Whereas he was startling and charming on his own, Webb, at times, looked a touch off her game — a little worried when completing this admittedly demanding choreography.

Still, the crowd was understandably sated. After all, we had finished all those cupcakes.

"Made in America" runs through June 3 at the Wortham Theater Center.

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