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Anticipation: World premiere & rarely seen Tharp work highlight Houston Ballet's Women@Art

Anticipation: World premiere & rarely seen Tharp work highlight Houston Ballet's Women@Art

WOMEN@ART Houston Ballet, Melody Mennite
Dancer Melody Mennite Photo by Ron McKinney

"What's the news?" is the burning question at the heart of media coverage.

On the surface Houston Ballet's upcoming "Women @ Art" offers two immediate answers. The program is composed of works choreographed by three living women: Julia Adam, Aszure Barton, and Twyla Tharp. Barton's "Angular Movement," is a world premiere.

But is "What's new?" always the news? And what to make of the fact that a program full of choreography by women is both rare and newsworthy?

Adam we might call the "newest of the new" on this program. She is increasingly in demand at a range of dance companies but is probably the least well known on the program.

 We need to inspire young women to want to dance make," Adam said, "and when there are more of us, there will be more opportunities."  

Adam was a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet and is the daughter of a ballerina, so it's fair to say dance is in her blood. "Ketubah" also reaches back to her Jewish roots. The title refers to a marriage contract, and the performance draws from Jewish folk dance to explore an Ashkenazi marriage ceremony, from matchmaking to ritual cleansing to marriage to consummation. "Ketubah" is set to music by "The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas."

In a video interview on the Houston Ballet website, Adam discussed the piece as a way of "We’re always trying to develop audience in the ballet world. I could tap into a community of people who might not come to the ballet." Now, they can "see their heritage on the stage."

Adam also wants to help develop community for female choreographers. "We need to inspire young women to want to dance make," she said, "and when there are more of us, there will be more opportunities." A bio on the BalletMet website notes she made her way into choreography through a workshop at the San Francisco Ballet. She was especially motivated after noticing that there no women on the sign-up sheet.

Emerging talent

Extravagant praise is hardly new for the ascendant Barton. My first experience with her work was a performance in Hartford of "Come In" featuring the stunning Mikhail Baryshnikov. How not be sold on her work with that particular vote of confidence? In spite of her rapid rise, Barton is still an emerging talent, and it's worth watching where that talent takes her.

Barton's world premiere, "Angular Momentum," is set to music by composer and DJ Mason Bates whose innovative combination of orchestra and electronics have garnered attention. You can hear his driving, swelling, and often popping and crackling "The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra & Electronica" here. Canny musical selections seem part of Barton's well-tuned brand.

Barton's choreography is that of a chameleon. Sometimes it seems soft and balletic, sometimes sharp and dramatic, and often it seems idiosyncratic and even madcap. Here are selections from her meditative and intriguing "Busk."

 A world premiere is big news, and this commission represents another canny choice for Houston Ballet.

 A world premiere is big news, and this commission represents another canny choice for Houston Ballet, which sought out the much-in-demand Nicolo Fonte to choreograph "See(k)" last season.

But to ask again, is "What's new?" always the most important news?

The presence of Adam and Barton are certainly to be celebrated, but to my mind, "Women @ Art" tells another story in the addition of a major and rarely performed work by American master choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Consummate innovator

What superlatives have not been spoken of Tharp? Her contribution to the canon of contemporary dance will take decades to understand and appreciate. A consummate innovator, Tharp has had unparalleled success in crossing over to mainstream audiences.

Houston Ballet has only just begun to add her works to the repertory, beginning with the magnificent and challenging "In the Upper Room" in 2009. I had seen "In the Upper Room" at Boston Ballet, as well as her own company performing "Surfer in the River Styx" at Jacob's Pillow. It would be an understatement to say I'm a fan. The dynamism of her choreography is unforgettable and infectious. And this is a choreographer who turns on a dime, shifting with ease from Phillip Glass to Shaker songs to Frank Sinatra.

Here's one of her memorable and brutal "Nine Sinatra Songs," performed by Baryshnikov. "Nine Sinatra Songs" blossomed into the Broadway hit Come Fly Away, recently performed in Houston and reviewed by CultureMap's Theodore Bale.

While Houston Ballet struggled with their first performance of "In the Upper Room," its inclusion in their repertoire is a sign of serious ambition. I'm eager to see them take another crack at it, and I'm even more eager to see the rarely performed "The Brahms-Haydn Variations," which Tharp choreographed for the American Ballet Theater in 2000.

 While Houston Ballet struggled with their first performance of "In the Upper Room," its inclusion in their repertoire is a sign of serious ambition.  

The innovation of "The Brahms-Haydn Variations" seems to lie in shifts in scale. Thirty dancers appear on the stage in couples, and the piece requires an interplay between solos, duets, and other groupings of the fifteen couples. How to manage those groupings seems a problem of mathematical proportions. But the real challenge, which perhaps makes it a rarity in repertoires, is, as critic Marcia B. Siegel argues, that it "essentially requires thirty virtuoso dancers."

Sounds perfectly suited to a hungry company.  

Critic Mindy Aloff described the Tharp of "The Brahms-Haydn Variations" this way: "She is also a ballet democrat: her works on point consist of passionate assaults on symmetry and hierarchy." An assault on the hierarchy of ballet?

Sounds perfect for "Women@Art."

"Women @ Art" runs Thursday through Sept. 30 at the Wortham Theater Center.

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