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Songs and Dance

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the Houston Ballet has a hit on its hands. At last Thursday's opening night performance of "Rooster," one of a trio of dance premieres being presented as the next-to-last production of the Ballet's 25th anniversary season, the crowd started shouting its appreciation before the piece was half over. When the lights faded, a few people were literally standing on their seats, the better to have their applause carry above the rest of the audience, which had risen to its feet for the first of what became a half-dozen hooting and hollering curtain calls.

Such a response is unusual for the Ballet; it, like many other arts organizations around Houston, bears the curse of the polite patron, the person who applauds appropriately whenever the action on-stage seems to enter a lull. But the opening night attendees attracted by "Rooster" didn't appear to be the standard dance aficionados. Instead, Brown Theater's seats seemed filled by the curious who wanted to see just what a ballet choreographed to the music of the Rolling Stones would look like. And when they enjoyed what they saw, they felt no compunction about letting that be known.

Two nights later, at a Saturday performance, the polite crowd had returned. But even they were moved to demand a quartet of curtain calls -- evidence, if any more were needed, that the Ballet has come up with a selection of works that can appeal to fans both old and new.

It's possible (if arguable) that the Houston Ballet has produced better art this year. It has not, however, produced anything more entertaining -- or anything more likely to serve as a good introduction to the wide ranging talents of Ben Stevenson's dance company. The trio of dances being presented through this Sunday contain a bit of something for everyone, from the pretty, traditional style of Helgi Tomasson's "'Haffner' Symphony" to the distinctly modern movements of Christopher Bruce's "Rooster" to the quiet and touching elegance of Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta." Indeed, the strength of the program is attested to by the fact that "'Haffner,'" which in other instances would be the highlight of an evening, comes in a distinct third.

Whoever set the order of the dances was wise to place "'Haffner'" first on the bill. If it followed "Rooster" or "Sinfonietta" or, worse, both, Tomasson's work, created in 1991 as a wedding gift for one of his leading ballerinas at the San Francisco Ballet, might even seem a disappointment. That would be a shame, for while it's not a terribly compelling piece, it's bright and attractive, and provides Li Cunxin a chance to remind balletgoers why he's been one of the company's stars for so long. Cunxin will be leaving Houston after this season, and while his last scheduled performance will be as the male lead in Peer Gynt, he took every opportunity "'Haffner'" gave last Thursday and Saturday to showcase a talent that, if a little older, is still impressive. His turns were crisp, his footwork assured, but most compelling was the sheer personality he radiated across the stage. It gave "'Haffner'" a welcome shot of life, something that occasionally seemed in danger of being lost due to sloppy work from the corps. On one occasion, Dawn Scannell, Cunxin's partner, appeared close to being dropped by three male dancers who couldn't quite get the grip they needed during a lift. And the female members of the corps weren't always as clean in their patterns as they might have been.

Still, Scannell and Cunxin managed to paper over most of the problems. And by evening's end, little of that remained in memory anyway. What did remain was the astounding work in "Rooster" and "Sinfonietta." Though "Rooster" had most of the advance publicity, "Sinfonietta" was the star of the production on opening night. By Saturday, however, after a few of the rough spots in "Rooster" had been smoothed out, it could have been a toss up. Both excellent, both quite different, the ballets combined to create one of Houston's finer dance experiences in recent memory.

"Rooster," of course, is choreographed to a suite of eight Rolling Stones songs ranging from "Little Red Rooster" to "Lady Jane," "Paint It Black," "Play with Fire" and "Sympathy for the Devil." One of the risks of creating a ballet to such well-known works is that the songs will overwhelm the dance, or that the audience, already having a fixed image of what the songs represent, won't respond to the choreographer's vision. And when Mick Jagger's voice came cranking out of the auditorium's speakers, it was obvious that those in attendance were reacting more to that than to the sight of Mark Arvin strutting cock-like across the stage.

That, however, was only momentary, and perhaps unavoidable. By the time the company of five men and five women had all presented themselves, the steps and the music were in admirable sync. Choreographer Christopher Bruce has been quoted as saying the overriding theme of "Rooster" is the rather abysmal attitudes men of the mid- to late 1960s -- when this particular group of Stones songs were recorded -- exhibited toward women. And there is an unquestioned battle of the genders motif at play. Still, "play" is the operative word. "Rooster" is nothing if not fun. And the Ballet's dancers appear to be having a great time performing it. From the bump and grind performed by Lauren Anderson, Dawn Scannell and Tiekka Schofield as a backing to "Paint it Black" to the vamp created by Erika Johnson in "Play with Fire," "Rooster" makes obvious the sexuality that lurks beneath almost all dance, and does so with a knowing wink. Bruce has done a tremendous job of setting the dance on the Ballet, and the Ballet, in turn, seems to be growing into the style of movement he's shown them. There was a noticeable increase in confidence and smoothness between the opening night performance and that seen last Saturday; if that growth continues, then by the time the Ballet does "Rooster" on Sunday, six curtain calls won't be enough. This is one piece that deserves a permanent position in the Houston Ballet repertoire.

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