This past Saturday, we attended the last ballet of the season for the Houston Ballet: La Sylphide and A Doll's House.
Even though we have season tickets to the ballet this year, it's still pretty new to me, and I've never had any formal training as a dancer or a dance critic. So please excuse in advance my lack of appropriate terminology, and of a historical knowledge of classical ballets. (End disclaimer.)
I didn't know anything going in about La Sylphide, but I had heard all about Stanton Welch's world premiere of a short ballet titled A Doll's House. The music, by István Márta, was performed by a percussion ensemble, and the premise was that something had gone terribly wrong in a toy store, such that the toys and dolls were engaged in a full-out battle. Fun enough premise, but the part that got me excited was the costumes. The Houston Ballet had been promoting this for months, with articles and blog posts about the two in-house junior designers, Monica Guerra and Travis Halsey, who had been tapped for this show. For me, here was the magic phrase: anime-inspired.
The image at the top of this post shows sketches for the costumes "Panda", "Mohawk Man", and "Aquaman", and those are only three of the nineteen costumes. This entry from Houston Ballet's En Pointe blog, written by Travis Halsey, states that the costumes incorporate "full body suits that have been hand-painted, ... embroidery, soft sculpture, hand-made jewelry, glow-in-the-dark paint, neon-lighting, fur, fringe, crystal, leather, French lace, pom-poms, bells, buckles, beading, quilting, smocking, yards of pleating, yarn spinning, etc." This online article from Playbill gives more information and another costume sketch.
Even with all this build-up, the costumes did not disappoint. They were whimsical, playful, and edgy all at the same time. Similarly, I loved the music, which seemed a bit techno, and the choreography.
My only bit of disappointment lay in the set design, or lack thereof. Now, I'm guessing two things played a major role in the decision to go with a minimalist set, consisting of the very rough outline of a house on the back wall of the stage, as if outlined in thick, colored masking tape. The first thing is that this show was paired with La Sylphide, which itself requires two major sets. Preceding La Sylphide with another elaborate set would have been quite the challenge, logistically speaking. The second (suspected) factor was cost. The Houston Ballet is a world class company, the fourth largest company in the U.S., in the fourth largest city in the U.S. Yet for the first Saturday performance of a world premiere by Stanton Welch, that auditorium was nowhere near full, which borders on tragic, in my opinion. However, even if the theater was sold out for every performance of every ballet, that doesn't cover the cost of several productions over a season.
In other words, I understand why they might not have done an elaborate set for this ballet. (And it is possible they made that decision for artistic reasons, so as not to compete with the costumes.) But I really feel that the costumes were short-changed, that they cried out for a wonderful, bizarre, grotesque toy shop background, with oversize props they could have danced and hidden behind occasionally, or even leapt on top of, during their battle. I wouldn't have wanted the set to overwhelm, but oh, it could have added so much.
During the first intermission, I read up in the playbill about La Sylphide, one of the oldest ballets in existence, created by Danish choreographer August Bournonville in 1836. A young Scottish farmer is about to be married, but is visited in his sleep by the Sylphide, a fairy or butterfly-like enchanted creature. He is eventually lured away, but not before he commits the cardinal sin of being rude to the old soothsaying woman who is telling fortunes at his betrothal celebration. Well, it's an old ballet, so perhaps you can guess: the old woman curses a filmy scarf that James places around his new beloved's shoulders, and it poisons her. She dies, he dies, and the witch cackles in triumph.
This image shows principals Connor Walsh and Sara Webb in the roles of James and the Sylphide. Sara Webb danced at the performance we saw, while James was performed by Ian Casady.
I fully expected not to like this, and I was unhappy that the season was going to end on a downer story. But I was so wrong! The ballet was divided into two acts, and there was a Scottish dancing scene with a large corps, including some children, that was really spectacular. There was a bit more exaggerated pantomime that I would have liked, but I guess that's quite common in classic ballet. Anyway, the music, by Herman Lovenskjold, was stirring. And the tragic scenes in the second act were gorgeous. I think this is probably the first time as an adult that I've seen such a classic ballet scene, with a full female corps doing en pointe steps in the most graceful, fluttering manner. The little tiny steps (here's where my lack of ballet terminology really shows) even made their tiny wings flutter. It was truly lovely. Oh, and the opening of the second act, with the witch and her cronies gathered around a cauldron in a very MacBeth-like manner, was wonderful.
All in all, a great evening. Here is a link to the review in the Houston Chronicle, which I haven't read as of the writing of this post. (That's where I'm headed next!)
They're doing Swan Lake next season. I think I'm finally ready for it!