The term ‘winning’ may have changed in nuance of late but it still seems a fitting description of the three contemporary works Houston Ballet has delivered to its audience with Raising The Barre. Introducing a World, American, and Houston premiere, the company displays its versatility, the prowess of its members, and three impeccable examples of ballet’s alive-and-wellness with one fell swoop.
Jorma Elo, resident choreographer at Boston Ballet, is clearly winning throughout the ballet world with a characteristically playful, always satisfying catalog that now includes ONE/end/ONE, created for and on Houston Ballet. To be the instrument and focus of Elo’s creativity is a rather victorious notch in the HB belt, as well.
Adorned in straight black tutus and rich bodices with embroidered necklines for both, men and women, the dancers’ classical appearance is a red herring in this ballet. Classical lines and structure do embed the framework of ONE/end/ONE’s three sections but Elo turns tradition and expectation on their side, if not completely on their head, as he weaves in his unique language of quirk.
With head dives and kicking legs, hip swivels and the occasional body roll, the charm of Elo’s dances is that throughout their twists and surprises, we see something human. Personality. Elo’s work is full of it, and Houston Ballet’s eight couples each add his/her own to the work.
Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez have a romantic but mischievous chemistry as he ducks a rotating leg or leads her in a somersault offstage. Melissa Hough, having danced Elo during her time at Boston Ballet and with a strong background in jazz and contemporary forms, is unleashed in the energetic third section. Following this lightening round, ONE/end/ONE skids to a halt with the final strains of a Mozart violin concerto, played with wicked agility by the Houston Ballet Orchestra and featured violinist, Denise Tarrant.
America’s past and the music of its heartland is a fascination for many an artist ‘across the pond.’ New to Houston Ballet and surprisingly, on this side of the Atlantic, is the 10-year-old Grinning in Your Face by Christopher Bruce. Set to selections from guitarist, Martin Simpson’s album of the same name, Bruce bid farewell to Rambert Dance Company with this ode to America’s Dust Bowl. Simultaneously timeless and old-timey, the slide and scratches of Simpson’s acoustic folk renderings are immediately transporting while vocals rich and raw evoke the hardships of life in the Depression-era Midwest.
With a vocabulary that borrows more from modern and folk dance than ballet, Bruce’s choreography brings a barefooted ensemble to what you might imagine is a dirty, earthen floor. The men gamble, win hearts (or not), and swagger in work clothes. The women fret, confab, and tend to one another in loose feedsack dresses.
Grinning is the theatrical centerpiece of Houston Ballet’s program, displaying a series of encounters rather than a single narrative. Assuming the velocity of a hummingbird, Melody Mennite (formerly Herrera) flits charmingly through one scene as the yellow-winged “Little Birdie.” The heart sighs along with Rupert Edwards and Jaquel Andrews as their duet recalls the exuberance and mischief of young love. Their entanglement resolves with a twinge of menace before giving way to lighter subject matter, including a stamping, sweeping social soirée featuring the full cast. As a lone motherly figure, Jessica Collado is the witness weaving each episode into the fabric of memory.
Where war seems at times celebrated as the boon that brought America out of their 1930’s economic depression, Bruce wraps up his work with a disquieting homily reminding us of the cost and violence of combat. The connection this Texas audience has with the often somber but heartfelt Grinning In Your Face is palpable.
In contrast to the sepia palette of Grinning, Christopher Wheeldon’s acclaimed Rush cascades onto stage with a splash of color. The elegant geometry of the costume design and opposing lines and diagonals of the staging have a cool art deco feel. The ballet, originally choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet in 2003, has a familiarity rooted in Balanchine and the traditional ballet hierarchy of two principals, four soloists, and a corps of ten.
Having attended the Saturday performance, I missed the pairing of Houston Ballet’s new addition, Danielle Rowe with Simon Ball. It was my good fortune, however, to view the exquisite Sara Webb whose quintessential feet and legs seem to go on forever as they envelop partner Ian Casady. Though a single red line of light extends across the backdrop, the central pas de deux frequently surrenders Webb to the floor and the air in what seems an unbroken helicoidal pathway. Is the homage to the spiral intentional? Who knows, but Wheeldon breaks through this aloof and evasive magic with more canon and color, ending it all in a gratifying flourish.
Ripe with prepossessing charm, all three works are welcome additions to the Houston Ballet repertoire. This city is winning as our resident ballet company continues to raise the bar… barre.
Raising the Barre performances continue this weekend, June 3-5. Visit houstonballet.org or call 713.227.2787 for tickets or more information.