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Joseph Campana
Performance Reviews
Ballet
Wortham Theater Center
United States
Texas
Houston, TX
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From Sparkle To Soul: Houston Ballet's "Of an Era" – Nosotros, Jardí Tancat, Carousel (A Dance)

by Joseph Campana
May 28, 2009
Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Avenue

Houston, TX 77002
713.237.1439
www.houstonballet.org
You can tell everything about a choreographer by the company he keeps—or aspires to. When Stanton Welch arranged Houston Ballet's "Of an Era," he put his own "Nosotros" (2005) in the company of Nacho Duato's "Jardí Tancat" (1983) and Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel (A Dance)" (2002). If the work of Wheeldon most resembles Welch's own marrying of technical precision, elegant levity, and aptitude for spectacle, those two dances framed Duato's deeply affecting masterwork (remarkably his very first ballet) which sets an ambitious standard for this or any era in dance.

Welch's "Nosotros" takes up Balanchine's often pragmatic approach, which leads him to generate dances to suit the particular needs of his company members. As the program indicated, "Nosotros" (Spanish for "ours") came out of Welch's desire to create "a signature piece for our current dancers. I know what scares them, what challenges them, and what looks good." The challenge was to create movement to the tune of the iconic and at times unrelenting Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43. Welch fills the stage briefly with a complement of eleven pairs of dancers who melt away into solitary couples. At first the couples seemed dwarfed by the swelling tones of the Rachmaninoff, expertly performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra. And I admit I feared this celebration of technique might leave the viewer with too much reaching for the stars amidst all those fluttering white gowns and shirts. But the variations become slightly and captivatingly estranged. Each new couple enters before the previous one finishes, lingering on stage while the new couple begins. Who should hold our attention and where are we to look? A man ever so slightly drags his partner across the floor before lifting her elegantly upward. Another plays cat and mouse with his partner, his touch sending her traveling across the stage as he pursues. Welch is at his best with groups, as when four men squared off around a woman and all five leapt and spun across the stage as one. At one point, all the men filled the stage for one variation just as, later on, all the women would do. Welch uses these larger groups to toy with syncopation and unison, asking us to think not only about the masterful technique involved in good partnering but also about how significant groupings can suddenly materialize. The more bodies Welch worked with the greater the sense of risk, rendering what might otherwise remain a series of pretty exercises a rather compelling exploration.

Welch's anatomy of partnering managed to set up Duato's "Jardí Tancat" as well. Although Welch and Duato are seemingly peers, these two ballets share little in style or emphasis. Houston Ballet's performance of "Jardí Tancat" was simply revelatory, providing the spiritual heart of a night full of smart, precise, enjoyable dance. Here, the stakes for partnering or being amongst other people are very high. "Jardí Tancat" (the closed garden) begins in silence with three couples enclosed in small section of the stage by a series of fence posts. Is this garden an Eden or a pen? Are the ritualistic motions that emerge from gestures of planting and tilling a form of contact with the earth or a form of forced labor? Out of the silence of this opening emerges the mournful voice of Maria del Mar Bonet, singing Catalonian folk songs reminiscent of Portuguese fado. We may not know why the garden is closed or from what its residents are isolated, but this provides a sense of breathless and attentive urgency. Rituals of work extend into more sweeping gestures and a series of odd duets and trios emerge. At moments the denizens of the garden worked as one while at others they watched as another group would briefly emerge. The piece has about it the feel of folk or social dance, with its reliance on communal patterns of movement and emotion, but it also preserves the elegance of the balletic body. Whether wrenched into tormented shapes or twined about the bodies of their compatriots, the dancers found in this music the source of an electricity and necessity. It was hard to look away or to remember to breathe. Having seen "Jardí Tancat" indifferently performed elsewhere, I was grateful to experience Duato's masterpiece anew, thanks to the uncompromising performances of Kelly Myernick, Ian Cassady, Jaquel Andrews, Oliver Halkowich, Jessica Collado, and Connor Walsh, who seem to move and breathe as one.

Christopher Wheeldon's "Carousel (A Dance)" works in the tradition of American musical theater at its best—a form once much more friendly to balletic collaboration. With two songs from CarouselCarousel Waltz and If I Loved You—Wheeldon creates a marvelous machine of romantic phrasing. At the opening, a scrim renders hazy the scene of a couple divided by a carousel composed of dancers. About twenty men and women circle, separating a lover, Simon Ball, who turns slowly at the center as he watches his beloved, Sara Webb, circling him outside the ring of dancers. Whether separated by a carousel of bodies, as they are at the beginning and the end of the piece, or dancing together on an otherwise bare stage, Ball and Webb manage to combine all the sweetness and violence of erotic longing, that mixture of consent and compulsion that makes love the maddening carousel it is. In between these scenes, the rest of the company provides a more carnivalesque atmosphere. Three couples cartwheel across the stage, the men assisting the women before launching into their own little carousels. Wheeldon, like Welch, artfully moves between syncopation and unison, so it's difficult to tire of watching these groupings even as these segments seemed non-sequiturs to the psychology of the primary relationship. But if recent musical theater relied, as it once did, on powerful choreography (as opposed to excessive technology) to sustain its spectacles, it would be much richer.

"Of an Era" shows us that Wheeldon and Welch are master craftsmen, whose zeal for grace in movement more than satisfies. But dancers and viewers alike need more than gorgeous technique, and the soulful Duato supplies that and much more.

This program will be repeated May 30, 31 and June 5, 6, and 7, 2009.
Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Carousel (A Dance) choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon Dancers: Sara Webb and Simon Ball

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Carousel (A Dance) choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Dancers: Sara Webb and Simon Ball

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Carousel (A Dance) choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon Dancers: Sara Webb and Simon Ball

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Carousel (A Dance) choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Dancers: Sara Webb and Simon Ball

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato Dancers: Oliver Halkowich (top) cart wheeling over Ian Casady & Connor Walsh

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Dancers: Oliver Halkowich (top) cart wheeling over Ian Casady & Connor Walsh

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato Dancers: Kelly Myernick and Ian Casady

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Dancers: Kelly Myernick and Ian Casady

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato Dancers: Jaquel Andrews

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Dancers: Jaquel Andrews

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Jardi Tancat choreographed by Nacho Duato
Dancers: Artists of Houston Ballet

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era Ballet: Nosotros choreographed by Stanton Welch Dancers: Michelle Carpenter and Nicholas Leschke

Houston Ballet's program: Of An Era
Ballet: Nosotros choreographed by Stanton Welch
Dancers: Michelle Carpenter and Nicholas Leschke

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar


Ballet: Nosotros choreographed by Stanton Welch Dancers: Barbara Bears and Christopher Coomer Photographer: Amitava Sarkar

Ballet: Nosotros choreographed by Stanton Welch
Dancers: Barbara Bears and Christopher Coomer
Photographer: Amitava Sarkar

Photo © & courtesy of Amitava Sarkar

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