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A Moving Tale

With Peer Gynt, the Houston Ballet finds a theatrical soul at the heart of dance

There is a moment about halfway through the first act of Peer Gynt, the Houston Ballet's current production, that is quite likely more emotionally affecting than anything else presently being seen on a stage in Houston. It comes when a peasant girl named Solveig (danced on opening night by Janie Parker) is running through a forest in search of her lover, Peer Gynt, who has just left her behind in order to travel the world and search for adventure. Peer, at this moment, seems long gone; Solveig, at this moment, suddenly comes to a realization of that fact. She rises on her toes and at the same time, and in apparent contradiction, appears to collapse completely, her head down, her shoulders turned inward, her soul shrunken into a tiny knot of despair. She is, at that instant, the very essence of romantic loss, and it is hard to imagine anyone watching her and not feeling a slight tear across the fabric of his or her own heart.

On opening night, part of that impact was due to the talent of Parker, who aside from being a marvelous dancer may be the best mime actress this town has ever seen or is ever likely to see. But a Sunday performance in which the part of Solveig was danced by Tiekka Schofield was only slightly less moving. In part, that points to Schofield's own admirable talent. But it also means that the emotion is more than just a product of the performers; it's there to be found in the story of the ballet itself.

That's not always the case. For modern audiences, one of the problems with traditional story ballet can be that the story and the ballet are too separate. In a Nutcracker or a Sleeping Beauty or even a Swan Lake, the narrative is too often little more than a setup for a formal performance: the dancers mill about on-stage smiling at each other until a king or queen or prince or princess comes out, sits on a throne, and asks the assembled throng to step aside and let the dancers do their variations, one by one and two by two.

That can result in marvelous dance, of course, but as an emotionally affecting creation it has its problems. There are exceptions in the classical repertoire -- Giselle, in particular, stands out -- but for the most part story ballet revels in its own anachronistic nature. It's not a nature, though, that the Houston Bal-let's artistic director, Ben Stevenson, has ever seemed particularly happy with. Stev-enson, who's probably better than any other major American ballet artistic director in finding the theatrical elements inherent in dance, has worked hard to make sure that his dancers can act as well as they perform their steps. But while his staging has helped bring life to the non-dance segments of such ballets as this season's Cinderella, it still runs up against the wall of classical story ballet structure.

That's what makes Peer Gynt (the first half, at least) such a wonder. In this instance, Stevenson was not limited by having to follow a form set in an earlier century. He choreographed Peer Gynt in the early 1980s, and when it premiered at least one critic suggested that it pointed a new direction for modern story ballets. It's easy to see why. The first act of Peer Gynt runs almost an hour, and it's gripping from start to finish. Beginning at a small Norwegian farm during the 1820s, it follows the adventures of the title character as he becomes dissatisfied with his rural life, disrupts a wedding by running off with the bride, abandons the bride when he realizes his true love is the peasant girl Solveig, and wanders into the lair of a troll king and almost marries his daughter. From there, Peer escapes deeper into the woods, where he builds a small cabin, hooks up with Solveig, and seems settled, until he learns his mother is dying, which draws him back to her farm and, from there, launches him again into a world of adventure and travel while Solveig patiently waits for him.

As story ballets go, Peer Gynt is unusually detailed and complicated. But where it's outstanding is in the way that the dance and the story advance each other. Though there are distinct set pieces -- including when Peer is introduced and a wedding scene in which a trio of male dancers perform for an appreciative crowd -- the dance never seems distinct from the story. When Peer is dancing, he's not just performing athletic feats the ballet audience is supposed to appreciate, he's creating his character. That, in fact, is the case with most of the choreography. The dance is so firmly intertwined with what the characters on-stage are doing and feeling that at times one almost forgets just how intricate the steps being performed actually are. You don't notice the fine footwork; what you notice is how that footwork makes you feel.

And when the male dancers step out at the wedding, the rest of the cast doesn't fade into the wings; the marriage celebration simply (and reasonably) proceeds on around the trio. Indeed, it's during this bravura bit that Peer, off in a corner, is talking the bride into coming away with him.

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