Performance Review

Houston Ballet shakes off the doldrums with mesmerizing Women@Art trio of dances

Houston Ballet shakes off the doldrums with mesmerizing Women@Art trio of dances

8276, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Connor Walsh, Melissa Hough, Angular Momentum
A scene from Angular Momentum with Connor Walsh and Melissa Hough Photo by Amitava Sarkar
8999, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Allison Miller, Rhodes Elliot, The Brahms,Haydn Variations
Allison Miller and Rhodes Elliot in The Brahms/Haydn Variations, choregraphed by Twyla Tharp Photo by Amitava Sarkar
8689, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Artists of Houston Ballet, Angular Momentum
Artists of the Houston Ballet in Angular Momentum, choreographed by Aszure Barton Photo by Amitava Sarkar
7949, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Mireille Hassenboehler, Ian Casady, Ketubah
Mireille Hassenboehler and Ian Casady in Ketubah, choreographed by Julia Adam Photo by Amitava Sarkar
8276, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Connor Walsh, Melissa Hough, Angular Momentum
8999, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Allison Miller, Rhodes Elliot, The Brahms,Haydn Variations
8689, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Artists of Houston Ballet, Angular Momentum
7949, Houston Ballet, Women@Art, September 2012, Mireille Hassenboehler, Ian Casady, Ketubah

Three talented choreographers. Three brilliant musical scores. Three stunningly different artistic challenges for one great company. These make Houston Ballet’s latest program, Women@Art, an infinite success.

At Thursday night’s opening, the winding harmonies of The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas eased viewers into the overture of Julia Adam’s Ketubah, a loosely narrative dance based on Jewish wedding ritual. Divided into seven short movements, from matchmaking to wedding canopy and even to the couple’s consummation, the events depicted are more archetypal than literal.

 From the opening, it is evident that Adam’s choreography is smooth and phrasal, punctuated with recurring sweeps of unison passages for strictly divided groups of men and women.

 From the opening, it is evident that Adam’s choreography is smooth and phrasal, punctuated with recurring sweeps of unison passages for strictly divided groups of men and women. Her skillful choices reflect both the rhythm and texture of the traditional Klezmer score, making them feel like a single impulse.

Adam’s sets and props are minimal. She uses plain wooden chairs, a chicken, a stretch of white silk, rows of candles, these latter two suspended at times, suggesting the starkness and instability of a Magritte canvas. Christina Giannelli’s lighting design is warm and glowing, giving subtle distinction to the seven scenes.

Houston Ballet premiered this work in 2004, and due to its archetypal nature and restrained vocabulary, it still looks timeless. Adam has an enormous precedent, however, and it’s another archetypal ballet by the greatest female ballet choreographer of the 20th century. It’s impossible for me to watch a dance about a wedding without thinking of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces.

Where Nijinska went for spectacle, though, Adam strives for intimacy. Les Noces is played straight to the audience, at times almost confrontationally so, or with the groups of men and women in strict opposition to each other. Adams has organized her dancers focused towards the center of the stage, even if the men and women are mostly separate, and with the head of each dancer often tilted sharply forward or bending backwards at the neck, which changes the focus significantly. The viewer feels at the perimeter of the ritual.

If there is a small problem with this dance, it is in the consummation pas de deux. The music here is nearly a tango, with an occasional shrieking squiggle from the clarinet, and Adam mimics those spurts with a concomitant gesture or leg swirl from one of the dancers. The scene needs a great duet, not a coy one, and the eroticism is at times simply too diffuse.

World premiere  

This was followed by Aszure Barton’s Angular Momentum, a world premiere set to a thrilling original composition by Mason Bates (The B-Sides- Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica) with other-worldly (sort of like David Bowie on the cover of his classics, Space Oddity and Aladdin Sane) costumes by Fritz Masten. Burke Brown has created starkly beautiful lighting design and kind of jungle-gym scenery.

I have remained largely indifferent to Barton’s work in recent years, but my attitude has changed drastically with this landmark dance. It is a gem for Houston Ballet and a deeply experimental piece that furthers the contemporary ballet repertory. Other companies will want to perform it. With 27 dancers, it not only makes an enormous impact, but also exploits the many attributes of the ensemble.  

It is a gem for Houston Ballet and a deeply experimental piece that furthers the contemporary ballet repertory. Other companies will want to perform it.  

Angular Momentum appears as a test of temporality, of pacing, of dynamics and volume. The dancers seem almost inhuman at times, like robots or androids. They stare blankly. And then, they stare intently, and without warning they become fiercely physical and unmistakably sensual.

The first section seems painfully slow, as if time has been irreparably distorted. There is a stunning pas de deux which might seem unremarkable performed at greater speed, but is weirdly mesmerizing at a snail’s pace.

Barton has also incorporated poignant scenes of complete stillness, a daring move in any ballet. Some of the more energetic events quickly cease, as if they are being sucked up into the body of each dancer by a vacuum, finishing with a perplexing (and sometimes beautifully unison) shrug of the shoulders. It is all very mysterious, delivered throughout with military precision.

Ballet premieres in at least the past two decades (and, it should be said, at least in the United States), have been largely dull. A number of factors are to blame, from financial restrictions to usurped imagination and certainly to a lack of courage in offering audiences something new and bewildering. It seems that with Angular Momentum, Houston Ballet has permitted Barton the full extent of her inspiration, with stunning results.         

A Tharp masterpiece

The program finale was nothing short of a masterpiece: Twyla Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations, a Houston Ballet premiere danced with extraordinary finesse to Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56a.

 Like Barton’s ballet, this dense and at times complicated work calls on the full complement of the company, and Houston Ballet did not disappoint. 

Like Barton’s ballet, this dense and at times complicated work calls on the full complement of the company (seven primary couples and eight secondary couples, for a total of 30 top-notch artists), and Houston Ballet did not disappoint. Couples who really stole the limelight last night included Amy Fote and Simon Ball, as well as Nozomi Iijima and Oliver Halkowich.

Tharp’s take on classical variation has a compelling visual rhythm. The stage keeps filling and clearing and filling and clearing, at first quite symmetrical, and then later to the extent that it feels as if the center of the work is somehow shifting. It is a challenge to take it all in, especially with Santo Loquasto’s nearly monochromatic costumes in beiges and browns. The effect is sort of liking watching a dried chrysanthemum expand at the base of a glass tea pot.   

All of the music in this program is performed live, including the selections from The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas (the group’s violinist and singer Marcia Sterling and clarinetist David Salge took curtain calls last night). Houston Ballet Orchestra, under the sophisticated direction of Ermanno Florio, gave bright, confident, and engaging performances of the Brahms and Bates.