Best Left To History

It's time to demand more of the Houston Ballet than Stevenson's tired, limp Romeo and Juliet

It's time to demand more of the Houston Ballet than Stevenson's tired, limp Romeo and Juliet

9217-2, Houston Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, June 2012, Sara Webb, Ian Casady
Sara Webb and Ian Casady in the Houston Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet Photo by Amitava Sarkar
8048-2, Houston Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, June 2012, Simon Ball, Oliver Halkowich
Simon Ball and Oliver Halkowich with artists of the Houston Ballet in Romeo and Juliet Photo by Amitava Sarkar
8442-2, Houston Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, June 2012, Joseph Walsh,  Sara Webb
From the Houston Ballet's production of Romeo and Juliet, artists Joseph Walsh and Sara Webb Photo by Amitava Sarkar
9217-2, Houston Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, June 2012, Sara Webb, Ian Casady
8048-2, Houston Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, June 2012, Simon Ball, Oliver Halkowich
8442-2, Houston Ballet, Romeo and Juliet, June 2012, Joseph Walsh,  Sara Webb

Houston Ballet opened the final production of its 2011-12 season Thursday night with what company press releases called a “lavish production” of Ben Stevenson’s Romeo and Juliet.

The ballet is a landmark of sorts in the company’s history, having premiered in 1987 to christen the newly-opened Wortham Theater, with none other than Li Cunxin and Janie Parker in the leading roles. Twenty-five years later, however, the same ballet is cause for concern.

 The artists appeared to be doing their best to enliven an old-fashioned narrative ballet that is far beneath their talent and expertise.  

What should have been a lively celebration of the continuity was instead striking evidence of the very things that prevent Houston Ballet from becoming one of the great regional companies in America.

The problem does not rest with the dancers. In fact, the current roster boasts many young artists who could hold their own in any of the world’s finest ballet companies. It is a matter of an irregular repertory. This season it’s true that we’ve seen glimpses of challenging work: Masterpieces from Jerome Robbins, Mark Morris, and Ashton along with Christopher Bruce’s brilliant Rooster, not to mention a worthy premiere from Nicolo Fonte.

It’s obvious when the dancers like what they’re doing. Given the performances, Rooster and Fonte’s premiere were probably the two they liked the most this year. Thursday night, however, the artists appeared to be doing their best to enliven an old-fashioned narrative ballet that is far beneath their talent and expertise. 

Conductor Ermanno Florio, nonetheless, gave a thrilling interpretation of Prokofiev’s wild score, which vacillates between delicate flute and violin solos and those brash dark marches. The composer was inspired, indeed, when he made this music. Florio’s engaged performance with the confident orchestra was without flaws, and in some ways it really saved the evening.

Role Play 

One of the company’s most intriguing dancers, Joseph Walsh, started this season on an undisputed high note as the rogue ice-skater in Ashton’s Les Patineurs. Capable of quick, dense phrasing (both petit and grand allegro) as well as lyrical, strong adage, he is enormously appealing. Everyone raves about him and they’re not without reason.

He is a logical choice for Romeo, of course, but his interpretation is often too agitated and nervously comic. It was as if Puck had stumbled into the wrong Shakespeare ballet. Was Walsh simply working hard to make something of the role that Stevenson never put there in the first place?

I can’t fault his dancing. It’s the role itself that seems the problem.  

My notes on the performance contain entries such as “Sara Webb on balcony, stretches and yawns for minutes, nothing else.” She did her best as Juliet, but that’s about all one could say. The most exciting moments happen in the first act, when she’s still a curious, impassioned teenager being reigned in by her ever-present nurse.

 They’re laughable, I suppose, unless you’re the one who has to dance this lamentable role. 

After that, she’s little more than despondent, and her “corpse” pas de deux with Romeo in the Act III is a huge, huge mistake Stevenson should have revised.

Where's the Daring?

Perplexing. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most obvious to set as a narrative ballet. Numerous choreographers have taken it on, many of them making deeply imaginative versions. Edward Clug’s recent Radio and Juliet for Ballet Maribor, with its mysterious film background and score by Radiohead, is a perfect example.

There’s a ballet that will command a young audience, to boot. Rudi van Dantzig’s chilling version with sets and costumes by Toer van Schayk, seen in 2003 at Boston Ballet, is another example of the experimental tradition of settings of this work.

Stevenson’s first two acts open with labored marketplace business, as if he’d borrowed part of the Shrovetide Fair scenes from Petrushka, complete with a dancing bear. There is a very weird divertissement for some ragamuffin-scarecrow-looking corps-de-ballet members.

“What the hell was that?” my friend asked at intermission. I don’t know the answer.

To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t even any harlots in Shakespeare’s play. And if I had a dancer the caliber of Melissa Hough in my company, would I cast her as a hokey harlot in this tepid Romeo and Juliet? Absolutely not.

The three harlots (Kelly Myernick and Aria Alekzander were the other two Thursday night) don’t even make their way into the program synopsis, even though we have to suffer through several episodes of them in the first two acts of Stevenson’s ballet. Thigh-slapping and brazen, they’re laughable, I suppose, unless you’re the one who has to dance this lamentable role.

Only weeks after you appeared in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, I might add.  

A sense of boredom was felt also in the house. I had to ask an older woman who insisted on texting during Act I to turn off her glaring mobile phone. Another phone played a celesta-like melody during the poison scene, ruining Prokofiev’s melody. Patrons talked through all of the overtures, and there were certainly more empty seats for Act III then there were when the ballet commenced.

Audiences have been politely applauding Ben Stevenson’s choreography for years. It’s time to give it a rest, and that includes his faded Nutcracker every December.

The stakes are high. If the dancers become too bored, we could lose them to greener artistic pastures.