Most people, when they think "ballet" and "holidays," think of The Nutcracker, but for me, the Christmas season begins with Houston Ballet's Jubilee of Dance, a yearly one-night production that takes place on the first Friday in December. For one evening, the dancers and audience get a break from Sugar Plum Fairies, and instead perform highlights from past seasons as well as the upcoming season. Many years, there is a short video retrospective honoring a retiring dancer or a long-term employee. And although the company's principal dancers do appear throughout, I tend to think of this performance as something of an "audition" for some of the non-principal dancers, as they are often featured in significant and/or difficult roles.
The performance opened with Sleeping Beauty's "Rose Adagio", which Wikipedia describes as "one of the most notoriously difficult sequences in all of ballet." This piece featured Katharine Precourt, who along with Karina Gonzalez is one of my two favorite female dancers in the company. I can see why the piece is considered so difficult; the princess, Aurora, accepts a rose from each of her four suitors, and balances in one precarious position for an impossible length of time, while suitor comes forward to take her hand. I thought Ms. Precourt danced it beautifully. I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about the costumes, though; Aurora's tutu was a garish pink that looked even more out of place due to the lack of stage sets.
Throughout the first "act," we saw two other pieces from The Sleeping Beauty: the Act III pas de deux, featuring Sara Webb and Jared Matthews, and the Act III finale. In February/March 2016, the company will be performing the full production to honor the 80th birthday of Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson.
Other pieces were interspersed throughout the first act, including pas de deux from Giselle (which will also be staged in 2016) and Manon, the latter of which has some of my favorite ballet music, by Massenet. I was also happy to see the "Cancer" segment from the Zodiac piece that we saw last June. (Review here.)
The second "act" consisted of a single piece: the Capulet Ball and the balcony scene from last season's new production of Romeo and Juliet (preview post here). This time they did use the full sets, and it was as scrumptious as I remembered, with principals Connor Walsh and Karina Gonzalez reprising the lead roles.
My favorite part of the evening was the third act, Brigade, choreographed by Stanton Welch and set to music by Benjamin Britten. I'm not particularly a fan of Britten's operas, but I do like his ballet music. This piece had several movements, each featuring a different dancer or small group in classic, pale blue costumes dancing with classic technique. There was also a big finale featuring many artists. The only set dressing consisted of several crystal chandeliers, but it was enough to give the impression of a grand ballroom. I felt that this act had more energy than the others, and for me the standout performance was that of Hayden Stark during the "Waltz" movement.
In addition to The Nutcracker, Houston Ballet has four other major productions coming in the first half of 2016: the aforementioned Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, and two mixed rep performances, one of which will include pieces from West Side Story. If you live in Houston and you haven't seen what this company can do, I highly recommend going to at least one of these shows. Personally, I prefer the variety and energy of the mixed-rep programs, but you really can't go wrong with any of their performances.