Register Saturday | March 24 | 2018

Beyond the Two-Step

Houston Ballet Celebrates Its Thirty-Fifth Anniversary

Texas, my old home state, has never really been able to live down its reputation as the land of the two-step and the Dallas Cowboys-especially since Dubya became president no. 43. "Culture" with a capital C couldn't possibly exist there, right?

Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's new artistic director, has proven himself to be one of the hottest choreographers of his generation.

Truth is, Texas has never really been bereft of Culture. Indeed, when it comes to ballet, the state has long been a fertile breeding ground for talented dancers. It was reportedly for this very reason that the late, great Robert Joffrey held his wonderful annual workshops in the Lone Star State rather than at his school in New York City.

While there have been good schools and companies in cities and small towns across Texas for decades, Houston, with its premier company and school, has long stood head and shoulders above them all. The Houston Ballet was established in 1969, but it really hit its stride in 1976, when English choreographer Ben Stevenson took the helm. Drawing on his experience with Britain's Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet, Stevenson helped make Houston's academy one of the best in the country and shaped the company into a fine classical ballet troupe that today is the fifth largest in the US.

Inspired by such beautiful dancers as the luminous Janie Parker and the high-flying Li Cunxin (both of whom thrilled this writer in her youth), Stevenson choreographed several successful full-length story ballets. He also expanded the repertoire to include the works of his fellow countrymen, particularly those of the two greatest English choreographers of the twentieth century: Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. Under his twenty-seven-year tenure, the company delighted local audiences and garnered international attention.

On a recent trip back to Texas this past December, I couldn't resist seeing how the company had fared since I last saw them during my ballet student days. The timing could not have been better. In 2003, Stevenson was succeeded as artistic director by Stanton Welch, a thirty-four-year-old former soloist and choreographer for the Australian Ballet. Throughout the1990s, Welch worked with companies worldwide, establishing a reputation as one of the hottest ballet choreographers of his generation. It seemed especially appropriate, therefore, that Houston Ballet's thirty-fifth Anniversary Gala featured Welch's aptly named Divergence. But just how far is the company planning to take its new direction? I hoped the Gala would hold some answers.

English Roots
Houston Ballet certainly paid homage to the English choreographers whose works have come to dominate its repertoire and define the company's style-it is the only major US troupe with such a background.

Curiously absent, though, was the art of Englishman Christopher Bruce, the company's associate choreographer, who has nine works in the rep (though his Rooster is slated for performances later this winter). And considering Stevenson's long tenure at the company, it was surprising that only one of his pieces was performed that evening: Three Preludes, an excerpt from a work about love discovered between warm-up exercises at the barre, touchingly performed by Barbara Bears and Carl Coomer.

In honor of MacMillan, Zdenek Konvalina and Sara Webb depicted the impassioned lovers from that choreographer's Manon, ecstatically making their way through the high lifts and challenging partnering work. For a lighter touch, Phillip Broomhead in drag led four charming girls through the clog dance from La Fille Mal Gardée in a celebration of Ashton's centennial year.

Zdenek Konvalina and Andrew Murphy lent a gravitas to the Gala in Maurice Béjart's Songs of a Wayfarer.

Twentieth Century Greats
Nor did Houston neglect the other great choreographer celebrating his centenary in 2004: Balanchine. The Gala reprised Apollo, his first neoclassical masterpiece, with Australian Ballet import Andrew Murphy as a dignified-if not especially inspired-Apollo and Mireille Hassenboehler as an unusually sprightly (though winsome) Terpsichore.

But what really was most intriguing in this year of Balanchine celebrations was the Gala's excerpt from another neoclassical gem, Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc. Unlike Apollo, this piece is rarely performed in North America. Originally conceived as a showcase for the Paris Opera Ballet's splendid dancers, the plotless work requires incredibly strong technique and the height of Parisian style, from the soloists down to the corps. Leticia Oliveira's solo was a little rough around the edges, but she managed the fiendish pointe work well enough and kept her composure in what had to be the most taxing of the female roles performed that evening. Having only seen the ballet on videotape (luckily in the company of former Paris Opera Ballet dancers), I may just have to travel down later this winter for a performance of the ballet in its entirety.

No doubt artistic associate Maina Gielgud (a former artistic director of the Australian Ballet, one of the few companies that has Suite en Blanc in its rep) had a hand in nabbing this work for Houston. She also acquired another equally rare ballet-and the most psychological work of the evening: Maurice Béjart's Songs of a Wayfarer. As the Man in Blue (a role originally created for Rudolf Nureyev in 1971) and the Man in Red, Konvalina and Murphy brought a gravitas to the evening with their poignant portrayal of a soul's struggles and final acceptance of fate. Set to Gustav Mahler's orchestral songs, this is one of the most moving duets for men ever created.

The presence of the entire Houston Ballet and its junior troupe onstage, moving to Ravel's driving score, thrilled the audience.

Onward Ho!
Lest the evening be only a blast from the past, the Gala included pieces by the younger generation at work today: Lila York's Celts, featuring the brute power of the company's men, and Timothy O'Keefe's Fascinating Evening, showcasing hometown favourite Lauren Anderson. But, of course, the real focus of the evening was the work of Stanton Welch. The first act of the Gala began and ended with movements from his Divergence, with twenty dancers attired in Vanessa Leyonhjelm's playfully exaggerated costumes. The equally witty choreography toyed with and slyly subverted our notions of classical ballet.

Less convincing in its humour was an excerpt from Welch's Tales of Texas. Barbara Bears made a funny enough drunk, being passed limply from man to man, to the strains of Patsy Cline's "Crazy." Though I haven't seen the rest of the work, I couldn't help but wonder from the taste I got if it was one of those ballets made for local ticket sales: an attempt to show that ballet and Americana can go together like bacon and eggs. Sometimes, as in the case of Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, it works. Other times, you end up with something like Balanchine's Alma Mater, a take on a Harvard/Yale football game. What, you don't remember it?

More successful was Welch's Bolero. Having seen plenty of interpretations of Ravel's overly familiar but always thrilling score, I can't say it ranks among my favourites, but Welch's choice to put the entire company and the school's junior troupe onstage (adding up to over seventy dancers)-and in nothing but regulation leotards and tights-was statement enough for a company celebrating an important anniversary. Here we are, the gesture seemed to say, ready to start anew without forgetting the classical past. And the audience responded enthusiastically.

It seems that Houston is counting on Welch to work the same kind of magic as Stevenson: provide new work while preserving an already fine heritage. Though Welch is well proven as a successful choreographer in other parts of the world despite his tender age, the question remains if his new work for the company (beyond Bolero and Tales of Texas) will turn audiences on as much as the more old-fashioned Stevenson formula did. And what about the younger generation of choreographers whom Welch is bringing in to appeal to Houstonians? I, for one, wish him the best of luck. Stay tuned.

Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.