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Art Therapy

Houston Ballet cops out with the Cullen Contemporary Series

In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, many critics have proclaimed the abilities of art to remind us of the optimism of the human spirit, to show what beauty we can create, and to heal the wounds of the psyche. They have proclaimed, in a sense, art as therapy. And this is a worrisome idea, because while good art can be therapeutic, therapeutic art is rarely good.

Unfortunately, Houston Ballet principal Dominic Walsh's new work for the Cullen Contemporary Series falls prey to the therapeutic trap. Dolcemente looked in the beginning to be the most interesting piece on the program at the Wortham Theater Center. Five men dressed only in twisted white sheets ran out from a blinding light in the wings. They scurried about the stage randomly, occasionally coming together for gorgeous leaping turns, bare backs and chests all arched in the air. When another light shone on them from the back of the theater, they pulled their sheets over their heads. The dancers were like a strange swarm of insects, repelled by the light rather than attracted to it.

But it was all a ruse. These insects, at Walsh's direction, soon showed just how much they love the light, the limelight. Joined by five women, the dancers eventually formed a semicircle around an unexplained shaft of dripping water. One by one, they came forward and "improvised" to the recorded sound of their own voices talking about, well, nothing in particular.

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Houston Balletís season continues November 23 with The Nutcracker.

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They told of how they love their spouses (deeply), how they feel about their bodies (mixed), how they feel when they're dancing (good), which roles were the most "them," how they don't know exactly what they're doing here, how a light gel once got stuck to a costume, and on and on. A few mentions of the "occurrence" of September 11 were offered without insight and given the same weight as an "occurrence" like stress fractures in both legs. As their taped voices played, the dancers moved about in the kind of improvisation that may have felt good, but looked repetitive, aimless and flat.

We audience members are supposed to applaud these performers for being so brave, for baring their souls -- as if the baring of a soul is in and of itself great art, no matter how insignificant the thing that is revealed. But art like this is not brave; it's a cop-out. It hog-ties criticism, because any form of soul-searching (no matter how shallow) is to be encouraged in our self-improvement-obsessed culture, and because it references the one thing that absolutely no one can take exception to: the horror of September 11.

But art like this deserves to be criticized. Dolcemente is so self-important, so bound up in its own therapeutic creation and performance, that it completely ignores the audience. It is easy and undisciplined and manipulative, but neither entertaining nor moving nor provocative. It relies on its gimmick of improvisation and interview to cover up the fact that there are no creative choreographic concepts at work.

However misguided his attempt, at least Walsh tried to break out of the Houston Ballet mold. Recently retired dancers Barbara Bears and Damian Schwiethale both created pieces derivative of artistic director Ben Stevenson's own contemporary works. The structure was all too familiar: six dancers performing individual pas de deux, bookended by sections for the entire group. Each pas de deux had to convey a different aspect of love, of course. In Schwiethale's Basics, the first couple was carefree, the second passionately angry, and the third peaceful. The partnering was awkward in Basics, but the piece was helped by the nude costumes printed with Japanese characters made by Schwiethale's wife, Naomi Glass. Bears's Speaking in Strings was equally formulaic, although the partnering was better and an energetic performance by Mireille Hassenboehler perked it up a bit.

Houston Ballet's choreographic wunderkind Brian Enos stole last year's Cullen showcase with his athletic and unconventional Landing. But the 19-year-old's latest work, The Long Road Home, was less original. Set to a bluegrass soundtrack and against a photographic backdrop of turning leaves, it was a sort of Appalachian Spring, er, fall, redux. With traditional pas de deux (and lots of walking off into the sunset) inserted into Enos's more organic movements and ever-changing formations, the piece made one wonder if the choreographer's elders have been telling him what a good ballet is supposed to look like. If this is true, he should stop listening and develop his own more compelling sensibilities.

The Cullen Contemporary Series ought to attract the nation's most talented young choreographers and encourage groundbreaking work. While it is laudable to try to cultivate homegrown choreographers, it is a shame to limit the creative gene pool by inviting only Houston Ballet's own trainees. More outsiders next time, please. And leave the therapy on the psychiatrist's sofa.

 
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