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A Step Beyond

This rep program only looks Simple

Simple Elegance, the repertory program kicking off Houston Ballet's 37th season, isn't simple or always elegant. But it is one of the best rep evenings HB has ever offered.

The Simple in the program's title refers to the streamlined, minimal classical movement by legendary choreographers Hans van Manen, Glen Tetley and HB artistic director Stanton Welch. But let's be honest: It only looks simple. In reality, the program displays complicated, lightning-fast steps that only a truly great company can pull off. And HB does.

Holland's master dancemaker, van Manen, starts the evening with the Houston premiere of his 1971 ensemble work Grosse Fuge, set to a pounding Beethoven score. This is no white-tutu ballet, but a stark contrast of style between women in white leotards and macho men in bare chests and long black skirts. An abstract dance for four pairs, Grosse Fugeblends balletic elements with modern, ground-driven choreography that's decidedly sensual. This is no Full Monty, but the men do lose their skirts to reveal tight black trunks with belts, which the women, lying beneath them, use to pull themselves upward. Think of a Madonna video, only better danced.

Brigade (with Ian Casady and Barbara Bears) is crisp, clean and fun.
Amitava Sarkar
Brigade (with Ian Casady and Barbara Bears) is crisp, clean and fun.

In honor of Glen Tetley's 80th birthday, the company has added its fifth Tetley piece to the repertory: 1973's Voluntaries. Following on the heels of the timeless Grosse Fuge, Voluntaries, while beautiful, looks a little dated around the edges. The winglike back arches, as well as the white unitards -- which were the cat's meow when Rouben Ter-Arutunian designed them in the '70s but now belong in the closet with Elvis's Vegas-era jumpsuits -- are minor quibbles. Get past them, and what you have is a sweeping, emotional dance. The elegant partnering and delicate point work are gorgeous, and the music is almost religious. The Francis Poulenc score played by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Ermanno Florio -- with brilliant organ playing by Robert Brewer -- raises the spirit as high as the soaring lifts on stage.

Voluntaries is a welcome addition to the company repertory, expanding the talents of the troupe to still new levels and styles. As the female lead opening night, Sarah Webb took to the movement like a duck to water. Now, if we could just do something about the unitards.

After seeing such deeply felt, groundbreaking works, it's a relief to watch Welch's world premiere, Brigade. I had expected one of his edgier, abstract works, the kind that makes the audience leave the theater and head to the nearest dark espresso bar to contemplate the meaning of life.

But Welch surprises again, this time with a frothy tribute to George Balanchine's 1958 patriotic parade Stars and Stripes, which allows the company to shine technically and take a much-needed smile break.

The piece, for the full company, is divided into eight sections -- a nocturne, a waltz, a pantomime, a march, a canzonetta, a tirolese, a bolero and a tarantella -- performed to music by British composer Benjamin Britten. Holly Hynes has costumed the company in blue military garb, with the women in traditional plate tutus with brass buttons and braiding on the bodice and the men in tights and soldier jackets. The only set piece is a golden chandelier by Thomas Boyd, which starts as one glittering globe and then splits into multiple orbs above the stage.

The choreography is crisp, clean and fun, with some excellent solo work, including a male variation with a flex-footed soldier jumping, spinning and saluting. (First-cast Ilya Kozadayev had the crowd bursting into machine-gun applause.) The moment is reminiscent of the solo in Stars and Stripes, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

In old-fashioned style, dancers enter from the wings, pose, perform their magic, then bow and exit. The work builds to a crescendo as the sections come faster and faster, one almost on top of another, and then explodes in an all-on-stage finale. The company performs the bounding air work and the head-snapping turns -- there's a section of driving fouettŽs that Leticia Oliveira nailed opening night -- with flying feet and big smiles plastered on their faces.

Brigade isn't deep, and it isn't dark or sexual or even terribly thought-provoking. But it lets you leave the theater with a giddy grin and a spring -- or a snappy march -- in your step.

 
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