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Great Expectations

Sometimes the hype hurts

Public relations is a dangerous business. The name of the game, of course, is creating a buzz -- but too much pre-performance excitement means the real thing can't possibly live up to expectations.

With world premieres by both Glen Tetley and Lila York, two of the most respected choreographers in contemporary ballet, the Houston Ballet's Spring Mixed Repertory Program was ripe for heavy promotion.

Tetley is the father of the now popular concept of melding classical ballet technique with modern dance's sense of gravity and organic movement. He was one of the first dancers to perform both as a principal with American Ballet Theatre and as a soloist with the Martha Graham Contemporary Dance Company. He has created some 65 ballets for the most prestigious companies in America and Europe -- including Rite of Spring, which the Houston Ballet revived in 1997 to rave reviews and sold-out houses. And for nearly 20 years, Ben Stevenson has been after Tetley to create a piece specifically for the Houston Ballet.

Lila York's career is still young, but it is likewise celebrated. A former Paul Taylor dancer, she too mixes modern and classical vocabularies. Houston audiences know her from Rapture, the joyful, giant ensemble work she set on the Houston Ballet last spring.

It should have been a great night -- and that was its downfall.
Tetley's Lux in Tenebris, created to showcase ballerina Lauren Anderson, has some fascinating moments that seem to be getting at something. A strong and sexy Anderson stalks the stage and takes a long, slow backbend flanked by two male guardian angel figures (played by Phillip Broomhead and Sean Kelly). Six women stampede in with a distinctive heel-toe step, slide on the floor in a mesmerizing split pattern and finally leap to the air, each on her own count, in a rush of outstretched arms and legs. (With a spine so fluid she seems to melt into the movement, Mireille Hassenboehler is a standout among the corps women.) Here, Tetley takes an interesting voyeuristic approach to the piece: We watch a stoic Anderson as she watches the interjecting women.

But the movement gets repetitive and plodding -- at times no competition for the set. Lux in Tenebris is a Latin phrase meaning "light in darkness," and the set and lighting were, I'm sure, meant to reflect that idea. But with an overworked fog machine, a giant circle hovering over the stage and a follow spot that looked a little like a searchlight, the scene is more evocative of The X-Files than what Tetley has described as a "soliloquy that one has in the middle of the night when one is talking with God." It didn't help matters that the score, Introitus, by Sofia Gubaidulina, has all the suspenseful string music of a movie soundtrack. I recognize that I'm a product of my television-obsessed generation, and I know it's tantamount to dance sacrilege to say this about a Glen Tetley ballet, but I kept wondering when the aliens were going to come down and abduct Lauren Anderson.

If Tetley's piece was obscure, York's was mundane. Set to Brahms's Variations on a Theme by Haydn and inspired by Jean Renoir's 1939 film by the same name, Rules of the Game is like a romantic comedy where everyone is jumping from bed to bed, in love with the wrong person. The dancers wear mid-century street clothes (gauzy '50s dresses for the women, slacks, button-downs and vests for the men) and act out all of the strange scenarios of the dating game under starry skies. There's even a strange make-out scene in which the performers writhe on top of each other as only HB dancers can. Susan Cummins and Sean Kelly are particularly memorable in their "don't touch me" break-up variation, as is Timothy O'Keefe as the comedic Don Juan who gets chased and mauled by half a dozen women. But the most charming actress/dancer in the piece is the young corps de ballet member Britain Werkheiser in a variation in which she attaches herself to a reluctant boyfriend, Damian Schwiethale. Werkheiser dives between his legs, scrambles up onto his shoulders and wraps herself around his waist in a seemingly infinite number of ways as he spins across the floor.

Like Lux in Tenebris, Rules of the Game might have been perfectly enjoyable had I not expected profound brilliance from its choreographer. One definite disappointment, however, is York's use of pas de deux and pas de trois throughout much of the piece. She is known for her amazing ability to move large numbers of dancers across the floor in varying patterns, but we get to see her work with the full cast of 17 in only the opening and the finale.

The pleasant surprise of the evening was the one non-world premiere, Ben Stevenson's Four Last Songs. Created in 1980 as a tribute to the Houston Ballet's founding board member Winifred Wallace and set to Strauss's composition for the cycles of life, the piece reflects four endings: spring, fall, sleep and twilight. The choreography is some of my favorite Stevenson work, but it's a few of the very well rehearsed featured dancers that really make it shine. A childlike but poised Barbara Bears improves on "September" with her gorgeous, languid extension and a tragic parting from the pas de trois at its close. Julie Gumbinner and Phillip Broomhead dance "Going to Sleep" with alternately passionate and tender partnering. And Lauren Anderson chews up the scenery in the final good-bye, "At Gloaming." At the end of Four Last Songs, the scenery takes its revenge: The enormous, white, billowy backdrop drape drifts down to cover the dying dancers.

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