A Dream Garden

A poet's death is given grand life by the Houston Ballet

The major misstep in this production is the melodramatic Inquisitor, a tall, bald figure in a Gestapo getup with beady green penlights for eyes that gives him the appearance of someone who's wandered in from Star Wars. Unlike most of Cruel Garden's imagery, the Inquisitor doesn't resonate. He just moves about ominously, lurking here and smirking there as peasants shrink before him. His one redeeming characteristic is that he's led about by the blithe Moon -- a favorite symbol of Lorca's -- who, in his innocent amorality, seems like both lapdog and boyish sexual object to the towering Inquisitor.

On opening night, Karl Vakili brought a likable adroitness to the taxing role of the Poet. As demanding as the role is physically, it's even more exacting because of its range of characterizations, from the bullfighter, face dispassionate above a body amazingly fluid and alive, to the Bride, disjointed yet beguiling, to the flatfooted, deadpan, all-too-human Buster Keaton. To play the part of the Bull, former Ballet principal Mark Arvin returns as a guest performer; he renders well the complex and seductively multifaceted aspects of his role, even as he triumphantly glories in its muscular machismo. Isabelle Ganz brings a riveting stage presence as the proprietress of the Cafe de Chinitas.

What makes the whole experience possible is Carlos Miranda's fabulous score, which borrows from Spanish folk songs, Moorish influences, medieval madrigals and many other sources -- all combined into a haunting, lingering whole that seeps into the corners of the evening.

Cruel Garden transfixes like a dream and stays to haunt you the next day like a dream. But as with most dreams, one awakes from the ballet a little vague on what one has experienced. It seems too short, or somehow incomplete. The images of dreams seduce and transport, but to be ultimately effective, a dream must be able to connect with waking life; perhaps a little more narrative spine would have supplied that bridge. Still, that's a minor point. For sheer experience, Cruel Garden remains one of the most beautifully compelling works in the Houston Ballet's repertoire.

Cruel Garden will play through March 3 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. 227-

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