Like the clock that strikes midnight in The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet’s annual Jubilee of Dance marks the minutes as much as it marks important life passages.
The one-night-only performance Friday evening was the company’s ninth such Jubilee. As in previous years, it appears to have two aims.
The first is to offer the audience a hodgepodge of dances, usually fragmented and removed from their original context, in order to showcase the various talents of the company members, including artistic director Stanton Welch.
The audience gave Fote a rousing standing ovation, as well as an endless shower of fresh roses.
The second aim is to provide a public forum for saying goodbye and paying tribute to someone important to the company. Two years ago it was former principal dancer Barbara Bears, who had joined Houston Ballet in 1988. Last year, it was former managing director Cecil C. Conner, Jr., who came on board in 1995 and who’d brought Houston Ballet into an impressive era of renewed financial health.
On Friday, it was retiring ballerina Amy Fote, currently in an endowed position as The Robert F. Parker Principal Dancer. She’ll finish out the season with Nutcracker, but these were her final performances in other works from Houston Ballet’s repertory. She offered confident and inspired dancing in an excerpt from Act III of Stanton Welch’s Marie, Act I of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, and Act III of Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow.
Did Fote want these particular dances as her Houston Ballet swan songs? Perhaps, but they seem odd choices, given that masterpieces like Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations were also on the program. Hearing Fote’s name alongside the word “retirement” seems like an oxymoron, anyway.
She may be leaving ballet, but she remains young, beautiful and intrinsically dramatic, still possessing the qualities of a true star. She is hardly like Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point. Roles like Marie and Merry Widow, however, have a certain setting-sun flavor that recall Bancroft’s attempt at portraying Anna Karenina in that classic film.
After a charming video tribute by Brian A. Walker (scripted by David L. Groover and narrated by Louise Lester) and her final dance in Widow, the audience gave Fote a rousing standing ovation, as well as an endless shower of fresh roses. The entire company assembled on stage, one-by-one, each offering Fote a single rose. It was one of those heart-warming, unforgettable moments that demonstrated how much everyone will miss this sophisticated dancer.
The Jubilee was also a reminder of how much the roster has changed in the past year. Stunning dancers like Danielle Rowe and Jun Shuang Huang, of course, have since left the company.
It’s a reminder, as well, that dancing can be hard on the body. Recently promoted (in March) principal dancer Joseph Walsh was seen in the audience, but not on stage as had been intended. Simon Ball, filling in for Walsh in addition to his own roles, danced his heart out throughout the night, also partnering Fote with a kind of affectionate panache in Merry Widow.
It seems crazy to present a three-hour Jubilee in the middle of the run of Nutcracker. Aren’t the dancers busy enough without this added expectation?
Hint for next year: Shorten the program and keep it to one intermission.
The troubling effect could be seen throughout the evening, as energy waxed and waned. Of the 14 dances presented, nine were by Welch (three of those “after Petipa,” in the case of La Bayadère), with one dance each from Nicolo Fonte, Tharp, Balanchine, Hynd and MacMillan.
Why splice three excerpts from Welch’s Bayadère with two movements from his 2001 Clear? It was a weirdly disturbing shift for both the audience and the dancers. Artistically, it didn’t make any sense.
Balanchine’s Theme and Variations was either too strenuous and or seriously under-rehearsed, it’s hard to discern which problem caused the overall sloppiness. Hint for next year: Shorten the program and keep it to one intermission.
Something about Fote’s tribute, however, must have reinvigorated the group. They came together in the finale, Tharp’s The Brahms-Haydn Variations, with stunning precision and great artistry.