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Skating on the edge: Houston Ballet's Return of the Masters doesn't play it safe and that's refreshing

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Houston Ballet artists Danielle Rowe and Linnar Looris in Song of the Earth, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMilan Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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From In the Night choreographed by Jerome Robbins, artists Connor Walsh and Sara Webb of the Houston Ballet Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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Artists of the Houston Ballet Jun Shuang Huang and Amy Fote in Les Patineurs, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton Photo by Amitava Sarkar
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News_Houston Ballet_Return of the Masters_8316_In the Night
News_Houston Ballet_Return of the Masters_Les Patineurs
News_Joseph Campana_head shot_column mug

The masters are back. Where have they been all this time?

Houston Ballet's opened its season Thursday night with Return of the Masters, a program composed of three masterworks by choreographic visionaries Frederick Ashton, Jerome Robbins and Kenneth MacMillan. Houston Ballet first perofrmed these three works in the late 1980s. Sweet, subtle and strange, this night with Houston Ballet often left me speechless, and it's thrilling to see these works come back in from the cold.

After Houston's recording-breaking heat and drought, a little snow was just what the doctor ordered. Nothing was more refreshing and invigorating than Ashton's "Les Patineurs," literally "the skaters," which brought a winter wonderland to the Wortham.

 It's as if she was trying to show Swan Lake's Odette who's really in charge at this party. 

Under bare branches and paper lanterns, a group of skaters spends roughly 30 minutes creating the illusion that the floor beneath them is really ice. As a group of dancers in brown tests out the surface, a witty geometry emerges. Ballet "on ice" looks like an even more complex social ritual than it is on the regular stage.

The real daring of Ashton's work becomes apparent as two girls in blue, the daring Karina Gonzalez and the precise Allison Miller, stalk across the stage en pointe as if they'd strapped on elegant crampons to gain traction. They and the other dancers build a repertoire of icy movement by weaving, gliding, sliding and slipping. Just when you think there's no way of extending the illusion, Ashton surprises you and reworks earlier movement with subtle differences.

Gonzalez made quite an impression with a dazzling series of whipping turns. As my companion pointed out, I was so dazzled as to miss the fact that she had probably traveled a bit too erratically during the sequence. I confess I don't mind. It's as if she was trying to show Swan Lake's Odette who's really in charge at this party.

But it was Joseph Walsh who perfectly combined fiery daring and icy precision as the boy in blue. Whether turning, leaping, bounding or flirting, it was impossible not to get excited each time he appeared on stage. Every ice skating party needs the showy boy who dazzles and slips away before anyone catches him. Similarly, Walsh seems increasingly indispensable to the Houston Ballet.

Watching this ballet for this first time, I wondered, "Why does this work so well?" The elements of Les Patineurs are potentially a nightmare.

In lesser hands, the work could be saccharine and rife with cliché: like being trapped in a snow globe watching a dusty version of The Nutcracker. Ashton is coy and quirky enough never to be cloying. He shows restraint when others would be flashy. There is consummate taste without a hint of pretension. You couldn't ask for a better season opener or one more sweetly executed.

The program whisked us from the wintry white of Les Patineurs to the starry black of Jerome Robbins' In the Night. Even more spare was the setting of this work, but it was lush in other ways. Wonderful selections from Giacomo Meyerbeer were the perfect music for Ashton. So too were selections from Frederic Chopin, wonderfully performed by pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, essential to the elegant psychology of Robbins.

In the Night observes three couples in an odd dreamspace. Sara Webb and Connor Walsh emerge in blue, stalking the stage with an unexpected alternation between protocol and drama. Webb really shines in this role as she explodes into motion, her tulle skirt billowing dramatically. Near the end of their section, Walsh lifts Webb who collapses over his shoulder as he carries her off.

If a good exit is one test of a great choreographer, Robbins should be the one who writes the exam.

Next, in orange, Melissa Hough and Simon Ball seem, at first, to promenade. At critical moments the music interrupts them and triggers what seem like symptoms of unknown tension. Robbins moves from stately to dramatic with no warning and to great effect. I don't recall seeing Ball partnering Hough before, but it's a match made in a starry heaven.

 If a good exit is one test of a great choreographer, Robbins should be the one who writes the exam. 

Amy Fote and James Gotesky were equally impressive as the fiery third couple in black and red. With such intensity between them, it's as if their relationship is a constant tango. Frequently, one would abandon the other and rush off stage and then later to return to rejoin the dance. It is as if they were acting out a relationship composed of equal parts wildness and gratitude.

In the Night made we wonder if I weren't really seeing three versions of the same couple, eternally acting out love and disenchantment in a dreamy world hidden just behind our own.

Easily the most portentous of these three works was Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth, which involved a larger share of the company dancing to six extraordinary songs composed by Gustav Mahler as performed by tenor Russell Thomas and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer. With no disrespect to Kenneth MacMillan or the dancers, I often found my attention drifting back to the stirring vocals of these singers, even though the text doesn't really ever unlock the mystery of Song of the Earth (and why should it?)

In spite of MacMillan's great ambition and the swelling grandeur of Mahler, Song of the Earth was easily my least favorite. Each section seemed perfectly composed and beautifully executed by the company, but it was as if we were left watching an elaborate ritual of private anguish acted out in a series of willfully awkward, even animalistic, gestures. Oh, and Death keeps returning to interfere (and dance) with the poor mortals on the stage.

It's hard not to mention so many stellar moments and performers, but the dancer I followed consistently was Nozomi Iijima, who was meticulous and explosive in equal measures.

At times I wondered if Song of the Earth was unintended camp. At times, I wondered if this is simply work that requires repeated viewing. Both are possibly true. MacMillan is the great genius behind Houston Ballet's wonderful Manon of seasons past, and even Song of the Earth, perhaps not his greatest moment, is eminently worth watching.

Another thing was clear to me as well. Houston Ballet isn't resting on its laurels now that it has one of the most impressive dance buildings in the country. Song of the Earth is represents a daring choice. It is an important but, to a few who left early, less immediately pleasing work.

But like dancers, audiences need challenges too.

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