The choreographers in the Cullen Contemporary Series, Houston Ballet's sleeper hit of the season, have a lot more than pretty moving pictures dancing through their heads. In this, the last Cullen concert of the millennium, Houston Ballet principal Dominic Walsh and New York-based dancemaker David Roussève are after substance. "If I can make people think a little bit," says Walsh, "then I will have used my stage time well."
What does Walsh plan to make you think about? Well, God, for starters, then religion, spirituality, life, death, life-after-death, reincarnation, energy, conformity and the perfect sense of self -- all the things that Walsh himself has been thinking about ever since he read Neale Donald Walsch's self-help best-seller Conversations with God and his brother, a doctor of holistic medicine, moved closer to home.
The 28-year-old choreographer, who turned heads two years ago with his sensual first work for the company, Flames of Eros, doesn't buy into any particular religious faith, because "religion can divert you from your own beliefs your own connection with the divine." But Walsh does believe in the "collective soul," and that's what his new piece, The Illusion of Separation, set to the music of Bach and danced by an ensemble of 13, is all about. The ballet looks in on three guardians who are preparing souls to go through another physical life. The dancers await their impending rebirths, Walsh says, "lamenting the past life and anticipating the next."
David Roussève, on the other hand, seems to say that "separation" is no New Age illusion. Born and raised in Houston's Third Ward, the choreographer uses his dance-theater piece, Simple Gifts, to address his memories of racial desegregation in the '70s, when he was bussed to the previously all-white Bellaire High School. The setting is a surreal high school dance, the music is Aaron Copland's pioneer-style score "Appalachian Spring," the choreography is a fusion of ballet, modern, folk and disco, and the narrative is about a young African-American woman (Lauren Anderson) realizing she's different from everyone around her. Beyond the ballet's racial overtones, Roussève explains, "It's about coming to terms with the idea of being alone. And that's a question that every adolescent must address: Am I the most popular girl in the school, or am I alone?" Roussève is clear on his answer to the question. At the end of Simple Gifts, the lead dancer dies. "And death," he says, "is the ultimate journey that we have to make alone."
If Walsh's work seems too flaky and Roussève's too morbid, the third choreographer on the bill will lighten the mood with some leave-your-deep-thoughts-at-the-door musical comedy. Houston Ballet principal Timothy O'Keefe's first piece for the company, Fascinating Evening, has dancers in tuxedos and '30s-style gowns playing out love affairs and having a grand old time accompanied by the Gershwin song stylings of local chanteuse Deborah Boily. In O'Keefe's cabaret, everybody's got rhythm, not to mention someone to watch over them, and even calling the whole thing off seems like a whole lot of fun. Ah, brain candy. Houston Ballet's Cullen Contemporary Series performs Thursday and Friday, October 21 and 22, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, October 23, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, October 24, at 2:30 p.m. Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue. Go to www.houston ballet.org for more information. Call (713)227-ARTS or (800)828-ARTS for tickets. $11.50-$51.50.