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Bold Indigo

Brash ballet premiere overshadows Sylphide

There are mixed repertories and then there are mixed repertories. The playbill for the Houston Ballet's performances of Indigo and La Sylphide quotes Artistic Director Ben Stevenson as saying, "When I put a season together, I try to go in as many different directions as possible." But this particular pairing may be an example of the something-for-everyone ideal taken too far. Indigo, a world premiere by the dashing 29-year-old Australian choreographer Stanton Welch, points out that the 19th-century La Sylphide is antiquated, conservative and -- let's face it -- a little boring.

Welch's sensual and athletic pure-dance production plays with the rigidity of ballet by combining jerky run-throughs of academically classical arm and head positions with hips that look like they might belong to a belly dancer. Set to nearly every beat of two Vivaldi cello concertos, Indigo is punctuated by dramatic fan kicks, guttural pelvic thrusts, flexed hands, wobbly heads, jutting chins, stamping feet, acrobatic lifts, crumpling bodies and hip slaps that develop into laid-back leg extensions. The eight dancers moved through formations, using the upstage wall as well as the wings for simultaneous, perpendicular entrances and exits. Indigo is soft and severe, abstract and evocative. It's ballet, only better. In short, it's no wonder Welch has risen to the rank of resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet and has been asked to choreograph new works for the San Francisco Ballet as well as the Royal Danish Ballet.

As compelling as his choreography is Welch's choice of midriff-baring costume. The women wore periwinkle bikinis masked halfheartedly by two sheets of sheer material attached at the waist. Long, lean bare legs kicked through the side slits; stomach muscles contracted in plain view. In fact, the sheer skirts did little to mask the grand partnered second positions that splayed legs open toward the orchestra. And one dancer, upside down and chest-to-chest with her partner, opened her legs not far from his face. That transition move was definitely less than lewd, but I'm embarrassed to report that a contingent of the Wortham Center audience actually guffawed.

There would be nothing in La Sylphide to elicit embarrassed titters. Men's heavy kilts, women's modest plaids and the Sylphide's tea-length tulle tutu left everything to the imagination. Sure, they were all appropriately period, but, after Indigo, it was disappointing to have all manner of skirts obscure dancers' movements.

Not that there was that much movement to be seen anyway. We tend to forget that story ballets, when they're not presented after a fast-paced, jam-packed new piece like Indigo, intersperse key variations with many minutes of walking, ensemble folk dances and exaggerated pantomime: "Brrr, I'm cold," says old witch Madge with a zealous shiver; "Get out," says our hapless hero, James, with the emphatic pointing of his finger.

Returning to the stage six months after foot surgery, Barbara Bears was sufficiently sprightly as the Sylphide, even if the constant posturing of her head made her sometimes seem a bit like a pecking bird. Bears, however, could not rise to the airy level of the legendary ballerina who originated the role back in the 19th century. Critics at the time said Marie Taglioni was so unbound by gravity that it was a wonder she could stay on the ground at all. Her performance in La Sylphide is said to have ushered in the age of female domination in dance, with prima ballerinas downstage and supporting men either behind or underneath them.

But this renews the question of why Stevenson decided to produce La Sylphide on this night, after an exciting modern work and on the occasion of Carlos Acosta's return to the Houston stage after his debut with London's Royal Ballet. When Acosta's first, brief solo came late in the first act, audience members practically jumped out of their seats, whooping and clapping as if to say, "That's what we came to see. Give us more."

He simply leaps higher, tour jetes more grandly, turns with more force, walks with more spring and smiles with more joy than any other dancer on stage. Forgive the gushing: Acosta's stardom is not news, but we missed him while he was away.

The point is that Acosta is, by no means, a "supporting" dancer. There were a few more pas de deux with Bears in the second act (thankfully Acosta followed the sylphs into the forest where there was more room to dance), but they just made Bears look small and earthbound by comparison. La Sylphide reminded the audience that there could have been an entire evening of Acosta, given the right ballet.

-- Lauren Kern

Houston Ballet's La Sylphide and Indigo continue March 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m., and March 14 at 2 p.m., at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. (713)227-

 
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