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Ben Stevenson once told Dance Magazine that when he first arrived at the Houston Ballet in 1976, he was afraid "they'd want a company with big-name guests -- Baryshnikov with rent-a-corps." Stevenson had a different vision: a company that, with the help of a top-notch ballet academy, would produce its own stars. He had the right idea. The Houston Ballet does attract flashy part-time principals like Nina Ananiashvili, and while it's wonderful to watch the Bolshoi ballerina execute 32 perfect fouetté pirouettes, it's even better to see local talent make good.
It was this feeling of hometown pride that filled up Wortham Center Thursday, March 9, after the world premiere of Stevenson's latest full-length work, Cleopatra. The standing ovation and admiring whistles never lost enthusiasm through the long curtain call, even as, in very Houston fashion, the technical crew was summoned on stage for a bow and Stevenson and star Lauren Anderson shared a big bear hug.
It's no wonder. Stevenson's ballet plays to the company's strengths. For starters, there's Anderson, one of very few African-American principal ballerinas in the country and a dancer who trained exclusively at the Houston Ballet Academy from the age of seven. Cleopatra was created specifically to show off her considerable talents. Big gold bracelets and stylized Egyptian gestures highlight her gorgeously sculpted arms. Cleopatra's conflicting character traits of aloof regality and sensuous accessibility call on Anderson's subtle skills as an actress. And Stevenson's dynamic, athletic choreography allows the dancer, who has often been described as a firecracker, to do what she does best: explode.
But while Cleopatra has been plugged as a star vehicle for Anderson, it's actually the ballet's pas de deux with other members of the company that shine the most. Stevenson has abandoned the classical idea of partnering in which male dancers simply stand behind the ballerinas to support them as they pirouette, balance them as they arabesque and lift them as they jété. In Cleopatra, the men get to dance, and act, just as much as Anderson does.
Principal dancer Timothy O'Keefe, as Caesar, is a commanding presence, dancing around Anderson more than with her until the two great leaders give in to their passion. And as Marc Antony, Dominic Walsh is perfectly desperate as he accuses the seductress of murdering her lover, trying in vain to remain angry and immune to her backward-glancing, hip-undulating charms.
Stevenson takes Anderson out of the picture entirely in a homoerotic pas de deux between Cleopatra's scheming younger brother, Ptolemy, and the traitor, Pothinus. As they plot Cleopatra's demise and their rise to power, the burly Nicholas Leschke hoists the diminutive Mauricio Canete, both of the corps de ballet, through a series of powerful leaps that in the last possible minute turn into full vertical spins.
The corps men, Stevenson's stars of tomorrow, stand out in ensemble work as well. In a dance staged in the Roman senate, they show off their fierce, athletic prowess in an impossible combination of innovative, direction-changing jumps that barely lets their knees bend to receive them back to the earth before they take flight again.
But Anderson, O'Keefe, Walsh and the corps de ballet aside, it is Stevenson himself who deserves most of the applause. A modern dancemaker who deals in the antiquated art of the full-length story ballet, he manages to preserve the best parts of the past without stumbling over its pitfalls. Touching on the histories of the Egyptian queen, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony in just two hours and with exciting choreography, Cleopatra is a ballet that avoids the long exposition and the absurd, overacting pantomime (Kathryn Warakomsky's beside-herself portrayal of Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, the only exception) typical of many classic ballets.
Stevenson was also smart enough to reunite the creative team that helped make his 1997 ballet, Dracula, such a success. Thomas Boyd's sets, atmospheric images of Egypt, Rome and a barge that opens like the wings of a bird, received applause before the dancing could even begin. Cleopatra's many gilded gowns, designed by Judanna Lynn, were a veritable Egyptian fashion show. And conductor John Lanchbery's arrangement of Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic and operatic melodies managed to bring to mind the drama of old gladiator movies.
Most important, after spending nearly a quarter of a century developing the Houston Ballet into a nationally recognized institution, Stevenson seems to appreciate his achievement. No need for flashy guest artists; Cleopatra is a ballet for the company.
E-mail Lauren Kern at email@example.com.