What's in a name?
Each year a company must decide how to start a season. It's so easy to pick works that are charming, romantic or nostalgic. Hats off to the company for adding daring and ambitious to the list. Premiere works by Houston Ballet associate choreographer Christopher Bruce, former Houston Ballet dancers Melissa Hough and Garrett Smith and National Ballet of Canada artist-in-residence James Kudelka were provocative, surprising — and surprisingly different.
Bruce's Intimate Pages premiered with Ballet Rambert in 1984, but this revised version represents a North American premiere. The title references romantic letters between composer Leoš Janáček and Kamila Stösslová, a much younger married woman. Set to Janáček's String Quartet No. 2, the work is a study of the tortures of unrequited love. Bruce makes extraordinary use of the score, which was exquisitely performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra.
Intimate Pages was less idiosyncratic and less dominated by groups than other Bruce works in the Houston Ballet repertoire. Often it seems that Bruce has unearthed some lost vernacular in the way bodies twitch and touch to create new forms of social dance.
Intimate Pages was austere. Deliberate strings swing from desperate to sweet as the flawless Ian Casady, principal, and first soloist Jessica Collado act out a love scene that's constantly interrupted. Bruce deploys a clever device as he pairs each lover with two other dancers. As the lovers reach for one another, the other dancers, garbed in ghostly colors, distract them into other phrases of movement. Occasionally they unite, but never for long. Such is the frenzy and pain of frustrated love.
Athleticism and spelunking in undergarments
Hough and Smith more than held their own with the more established Bruce and Kudelka, bringing plenty of frenzy into play.
Hough's concept is a paradox: Thrilling yet cerebral, athletic yet complex. Her title, …the third kind [is] useless, quotes Machiavelli's The Prince. With a jarring, ponderous score by Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei) at her disposal, Hough rings the dancers through exciting changes: One minute sinuous, the next, abrupt. Of course she had ample support from startling lighting and costume designs by Lisa J. Pinkham and Monica Guerra.
Never has the always-exceptional Simon Ball been so persuasive. It felt like I was seeing him dance for the very first time. Is that not what all passion, especially in ballet, aspires to?
Principal dancer Connor Walsh plays a prince consumed by a power that slowly destroys him from within. With mere gestures, he moves the bodies around him. The dance is marked by an ambitious patterning of bodies in groups that swerve between unity and individuality.
Whereas Hough's earlier choreography seemed wonderfully intimate and sexual, this latest effort is queasy, wry and capacious. I couldn't help thinking of the middle of Balanchine's Prodigal Son, with Kelly Myernick as the Siren drawing the prince to his doom. As if drunk on power, Walsh slowly unravels until dissent finally overtakes him. He whimpers at the end, "I'm the prince."
Maybe no one's really the prince, but Hough held all the power.
Smith's Return may not pack the dense, cerebral punch of Hough's thrilling creation, but he accomplished something extraordinary: A genuine crowd-pleaser.
That term is often a backhanded compliment that refers to exciting but shallow work. And admittedly, the scenario of young dancers exploring caves seemed, at times, hokey. As they emerged on the stage, someone nearby whispered, "Why are they spelunking in their underwear?"
But harnesses strung over shorts were part of Smith's ambitious athleticism. Mere straps and the strength of dancers Oliver Halkowich and Rhodes Elliot kept Nozomi Iijima and Jacquelyn Long swinging in dizzying and dazzling circles. These were only a few of a series of thrilling moments. So what if there were a few too many flashlights on helmets for my taste? Smith made an ambitious selection of John Adams' scores, his well-composed choreography handily withstood the music's awesome force. That's his brand of frenzy delights.
Fighting or making love?
What a pleasure it was to end with Kudelka's masterful Passion, one of the most intelligent pieces of choreography I've seen. Set to Beethoven's Concerto for Piano in D major (the composer's transcription of the Violin Concerto), Passion opens on a gauzy, neo-classical affair. Five women in a line travel like a fragment of a corps de ballet while three couples glide around them. Whether this is a performance or a ball, the dancers maintain a gorgeous façade that evokes dance as pure elegance.
But like wolves after prey, principal dancers Simon Ball and Karina Gonzalez stalk the stage. Ball wears a vest but no shirt; Gonzalez sports disheveled hair. It's as if they've just been fighting or making love. They only eye each other as if unaware of the others. Overwhelming forces rage beneath the pristine exterior of this ballet.
It takes a choreographer of supreme confidence to obscure his central couple. For long stretches, they walk around and stare at one another. At times they struggle while at other times they melt, weary, into one another. Never has the always-exceptional Ball been so persuasive. It felt like I was seeing him dance for the very first time.
Is that not what all passion, especially in ballet, aspires to?