Despite stellar dancing and lavish sets, Houston Ballet's Aladdin doesn't really fly
The orchestra members played with gusto. The dancers gave their all. And the complicated production, with its flying carpets, Chinese dragons, and smoke-filled genie lamps, went off without a hitch. Why then, didn’t everything add up to a stellar evening at the Wortham?
Because the choreography lacks invention, and the scenario is inconsequential. David Bintley’s Aladdin is to classical ballet just what Wicked was to the great Broadway musical: A pretty, over-priced, and ultimately hollow spectacle.
Six years ago, National Ballet of Japan premiered this three-act clunker in Tokyo. Thursday night, Houston Ballet offered the American premiere. Usually a thrilling occasion, this particular premiere makes my job as a critic very challenging. That’s because Houston Ballet is clearly at the top of its game. The quality of the dancing is nearly supreme. In his first decade here, artistic director Stanton Welch has brought the ensemble to very high standards, and it shows.
David Bintley’s Aladdin is to classical ballet just what Wicked was to the great Broadway musical: A pretty, over-priced, and ultimately hollow spectacle.
Why, then, does Houston Ballet want a work like Aladdin in its repertory?
Could it have something to do with audience development? Is Welch hoping that young adults who saw Disney’s animated Aladdin in the early 1990s (or any of Disney’s unending sequels and television spin-offs) would be drawn to see the story realized as a ballet?
I will say that the performance helped me think deeply about what works and what flops on the ballet stage. A great ballet needs a great score, right? Not always. Sometimes, good choreography covers the problem areas in the music.
Petipa worked so much sophistication into Raymonda, despite Glazunov’s trite melodies. Musically, Giselle has some sublime moments but also plenty of dull spots from Adolphe Adam. Great choreography and great music are, of course, best friends. Petipa had Tchaikovsky, Balanchine had Stravinsky, and Forsythe has Thom Willems, whose pulsing pastiche for In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is already a classic.
Bintley, it seems, has Carl Davis. Davis composed Cyrano for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and has composed for television (Pride and Prejudice, The World at War, and others.). His music for Aladdin is forgettable. Like a lot of heavy-handed film scores, Davis’ phrases are too dramatic for their own good, and my ears tired quickly from all that schmaltz brass and generic, pentatonic East-ness. Conductor Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra did their best with it. Thursday night’s performance began at 7:30 and finished at 10:22, with two intermissions. That’s a long time to go with a mostly cloying score.
Bintley’s scenario is a confusing blend of pan-Asian imagery and hokey pantomime. The intricate synopsis covers more than two pages in the program. Orientalism, of course, has been a problem in western performance since Oscar Wilde wrote The Sphinx, Verdi composed Aïda, and Fokine choreographed Le Dieu bleu and Scheherazade (the latter, much to the dismay of Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow), to mention only a few.
I suppose I could have forgiven it all if the corps de ballets hadn’t emerged in the third act dressed in black burqas.
I tried to imagine precedents for Bintley’s choreography, which is so plain here that it doesn’t ever quite materialize into what could be called a style. I thought of Rita Hayworth delivering her saucy “Dance of the Seven Veils” in the 1953 film Salome, a great example of Orientalist kitsch. And then I started to make a list of Bintley’s borrowings. The evil Mahgrib (danced emphatically last night by James Gotesky), for example, is a bit like Swan Lake’s Rothbart, Sleeping Beauty’s Carabosse, and The Nutcracker’s Drosselmeyer, all rolled into one character.
The first act of Aladdin, with its numerous “cave of riches” dancers, seems but an empty echo of Balanchine’s deeply sophisticated Jewels, or perhaps the fairies in the first act of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty. I thought also of Frederick Ashton’s Ondine, though nothing of Davis’ score reminded me of Hans Werner Henze. Bintley’s style is tentative paraphrase.
I suppose I could have forgiven it all if the corps de ballets hadn’t emerged in the third act dressed in black burqas. Let’s be clear. In the early 1990s, Mark Morris wore a flowing black burqa for his mesmerizing Arabian solo in The Hard Nut. It was an intelligent move, commenting on gender and the western fetish of the Middle East. Morris had clearly read his Edward Said and he was adding something to it through dance. But Bintley, described in Margaret Willis’ program notes as “one of Britain’s most prolific and respected choreographers,” should know better. This isn’t the sort of scene any choreographer of the 21st century should celebrate.
Joseph Walsh, in the title role, spends much of the evening running around and leaping. His estimable talents are underused in this silly story ballet, and I felt for him. Really, he did his best to make a go of it. Ian Casady as The Sultan and Karina Gonzalez as Princess Badr al-Budur are as lovely as ever. But it’s impossible not to imagine how the evening might have gone if they’d had something real to dance, something more worthy of their artistry.