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Three to the Beat

Peter Martins' Waltz Project gets its Houston debut

The waltz is a simple and beguiling dance form, from its appealing one-two-three beat to its romantic, swirling motion. In The Waltz Project -- which the Houston Ballet is presenting in repertory with Ghost Dances and Gloria as part of An Evening of Three -- choreographer Peter Martins plays with the notion of the waltz, bending and twisting it with his modern ballet sensibility until he has a witty, savvy piece that would be unrecognizable, I'm sure, to Strauss as his beloved form.

The Waltz Project is primarily a suite of duets -- danced by four couples -- in which Martins has his "waltzing" couples taunt and tease and wrap about each other. They dance, but they also make jest of dancing in a slick, cosmopolitan manner, the women held nonchalantly aloft to dance in the sky. The men are macho and distant, hard to read, moving their partners about like furniture or dolls. The women are more varied. Rachel Beard is harsh and torrid, while Janie Parker is more lyric, like a sinuous spider monkey twining about her partner, almost executing yoga mid-air. Julie Gumbinner is pixielike; likewise Dawn Scannell, baiting her unresponsive man.

The original "waltz project" was really the score: 26 years ago, American composer Robert Moran asked a variety of his colleagues to write piano waltzes. Martins uses 11 of the original 25 short pieces, such as Philip Glass' Modern Love Waltz and Tom Constanten's Dejavalse. Pianist Katherine Ciscon capably performs the suite with a bright and jaunty modernism.

Just as Martins and Moran deftly play with the sentimental form of the waltz, so too do the dancing couples seem to play at love and romance. In their romantic duets, they seem sophisticated and above it all, dabbling in amorous play for cool amusement, like jaded city dwellers.

Indeed, in the culminating ensemble scene -- set to John Cage's Waltzes for the Five Boroughs, a counterpoint of New York street sounds -- the mood changes as the previously color-washed backdrop is replaced by a Gothic slice of a brownstone, complete with graffiti. The women stonily clamber over the immobile men as though on a jungle gym. The men then manhandle the women, who treat them as mere conveyances. All seem to have become part of the inanimate components of the metropolis -- traffic from the Cage score, a garbage truck, a bus stop, scaffolding or a load of clothes being wheeled about.

As the section ends, and before the audience's applause has dwindled, Virgil Thomson's 12-second piece For a Happy Occasion is played and a cluster of dollar signs is projected on the brownstone's facade. Only a fleeting glance of mood and sound (one barely catches it), a distant music heard from a farther room, then the Project is over. Is this Martins' glimpsed moral to his non-narrative modernist work: that all the distance and cool adroitness is laid at the feet of Mammon?

Whatever the interpretation, Martins' choreography is spare and riveting, with its gymnastic twining and clever grace, and the Houston Ballet is equal to the task. This production marks the first time The Waltz Project -- which debuted in 1988 -- has been performed by any group other than the New York City Ballet, of which Martins is ballet master in chief. The work makes a sophisticated, sleek addition to the Houston Ballet repertory.

The night I attended, The Waltz Project was followed by Ghost Dances, although that was not the sequence in the program. Still, the order seemed right because of the emotional progression. Familiar to Houston audiences, Christopher Bruce's strong Ghost Dances is as wrenching and human as The Waltz Project is aloof and passionless.

Set to the music of the Chilean group Inti-Illimani -- who have been forced into exile since 1973 by Augusto Pinochet's military regime -- the piece is dedicated by Bruce to "the innocent people of South America who from the time of the Spanish Conquests have been continuously devastated by political oppression."

Li Cunxin, Paul LeGros and Sean Kelly are three masked "ghosts" of terror, opening the piece with a demonic, bounding dance executed in a chilling silence. After their athletic orgy seems to have surpassed the dancers' capacities, the music begins and the troupe enters, dressed in tattered street clothes, shuffling as though sleep walking. But as these "villagers" come awake, they dance movingly and convincingly about what seems the joy and breadth of life. A passionate pair sexily dance their love; an innocent pair of newlyweds cavort; two sisters bond; a village boy capers with all the women. But every time, the ghosts come forward and the villagers crumble, their bodies eloquent as they are "disappeared." With its folk rhythms, honest choreography and unsentimental humanism, Ghost Dances is the high point of the evening.

Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria should have been a perfect finale to the emotional trajectory, going from head, to heart, to spirit. However, this enigmatic work doesn't achieve the soaring grace it seeks, being rather too opaque to transcend, rendered earthbound by its stylistic ungainliness.

Set to Francis Poulenc's Gloria -- beautifully performed by St. Paul's Methodist Church choir under the direction of Robert Brewer -- MacMillan's opus occurs in a surreal World War I battlefront, the misty stage angling sharply up toward the back, creating an optical illusion of distance and perspective gone cock-eyed. The men are done up in ugly brown army tights with doughboy hats (which flub their visual line), powdered faces and eyes ringed with black like silent film leads. The women are garbed in a shimmery moonwalk jumpsuits; odd muses, indeed.

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