Monday, March 16, 2015

Houston Ballet - Modern Masters

This past Saturday night we saw Houston Ballet's Modern Masters, a mixed repertoire performance of three diverse pieces that showed everything this company can do. I personally think that mixed rep programs are Houston Ballet's best-kept secret; these performances are never as well attended as the full-length "story" ballets, but they often have more opportunity to demonstrate technique, creativity, and artistry, and they sometimes fill the hall with a higher level of energy than a full-length ballet can achieve. Last but not least, they allow the company to cast more dancers in featured roles, giving regular audiences a chance to see what some of the up-and-coming dancers can do too.

The first piece was George Balanchine's Ballo Della Regina, a pretty ballet set to music from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Don Carlos. Allison Miller and Oliver Halkowich were very impressive in the lead roles. The program described the piece as the story of a fisherman's search for the perfect pearl; I can't honestly say that I would have figured that out on my own, but the costumes and lighting certainly did suggest a lovely underwater scene, as shown in the photo above. If I can't think of much more to say about Ballo Della Regina, it's in part because there's nothing to criticize about it; it was simply beautiful.

The second act, Jardi Tancat, was a sensual, earthy piece set to a series of Catalonian folk songs voiced by Maria del Mar Bonet. Choreographed by Nancho Duato (his first ballet, in fact, created in 1983), it features three couples, telling the story of "the people who work the barren land, praying to God for the rain that does not come." Although it's very different in tone and mood, for me the experience was somewhat similar to watching Alvin Ailey's Revelations, which is probably the single work most responsible for getting me interested in dance back in college.

When I see pieces like this performed by a traditional ballet company, I often wonder how the dancers feel about them. Do they find it a relief to dance this way after so much formality in most of their work, or do they want to get back to the technique they've spent their lives developing? The precision still has to be there in any dancing they do, especially if it involves lifts, but from the audience's point of view, there's a naturalness to this kind of dancing that you don't see with classical technique (which I sometimes think of as the opposite of natural, in spite of how graceful it ultimately looks). I suspect most of the dancers enjoy the variety, but I don't really know. The audience certainly seemed to love it.

As gorgeous as Jardi Tancat was, for me the final ballet was the real highlight of the evening. Titled Etudes and described in the program as "a tribute to dancing," it begins with a dozen ballerinas at barres, with only their lower legs spotlighted as they move through rapid variations of the basic ballet positions. It then progresses through increasingly complex movements and costumes, with the female dancers going from "rehearsal" leotards to formal tutus, half in white and half in black -- which of course brings that most formal and technically demanding of ballets, Swan Lake, to mind. The piece ends with the stage full of dancers -- so many that some companies cannot stage this piece because they simply don't have enough dancers to do so. Karina Gonzalez danced the lead and was exquisite as always; she and the three male leads (Connor Walsh, Ian Cassidy, and Jared Matthews) looked flawless to me as they performed choreography that required unbelievable stamina. A corps of at least 36 other dancers rounded out the cast, and their timing and precision was spot-on the vast majority of the time.

In addition to the ballet on Saturday night, we had also attended a dance talk the night before, during which principal dancer Simon Ball interviewed guest Johnny Eliasen, who staged Etudes for the Houston Ballet. Mr. Eliasen then gave a demonstration in which he instructed three male student dancers in the Bournonville method, which Wikipedia describes as "a ballet technique and training system devised by the Danish ballet master August Bournonville." Although I could not hear everything that Mr. Eliasen said to the dancers and I don't feel that I truly understand what this method is, it was fun to watch how quickly the dancers seemed to understand the nuances Mr. Eliasen was describing, and incorporate them into the same steps they'd just performed a moment ago.

I also note that prior to this weekend, I was unfamiliar with this concept of "staging," which I now understand (hopefully correctly) to mean guiding and coaching the dancers to perform a specific ballet in a specific way. In looking at the program, I see that the other two pieces were also staged by people who I imagine were, like Mr. Eliasen, brought in solely for the particular ballet for which they're listed. Mr. Eliasen specializes in Etudes, apparently, so he has fulfilled this same role for several companies around the world. (He told some fun anecdotes about dancers who wanted to perform the turns in the opposite direction -- and one who actually did so during a performance, without warning. One can imagine what a shock that would be to the rest of the dancers!)

My only regret is not also getting to see Katherine Precourt and Aaron Robison in the same lead roles in Etudes, which they were scheduled to dance on Sunday. Particularly in Katherine's case, it would have been amazing to see how she danced this compared to Karina Gonzalez, as two ballerinas who are physically very different from one another.

I mentioned above that mixed rep performances sometimes result in more audience energy, and that definitely seemed the case here. In fact, the dancers looked almost taken aback at the enthusiastic response to Jardi Tancat. Not so for Etudes; they knew to expect that the audience would be impressed by that ballet's impossibly long sequences of turns and leaps. In fact, I was more moved by simply witnessing these dancers perform so well, without an involved "story," than I was during the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet last week. That's not to fault that performance, which was also gorgeous, but rather to express how powerful these mixed rep performances can be.

There are three more performances of Modern Masters, on Friday March 20, Saturday March 21, and Sunday March 22. (More information here.)

EDITED TO ADD ON 3/16/15: I just came across this review on Culture Map Houston. It seems the reviewer, Theodore Bale, liked it as much as I did.

Unrelated, I also just realized that I didn't comment on the ballet orchestra.
Jardi Tancat was set to recorded music, but the other two pieces were played live. The music for Etudes was especially gorgeous, and at times I felt that a stage full of tinkling music box ballerinas had come to life.

All photos property of the Houston Ballet.

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