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Royal Pain

Houston Ballet has a ball with Marie.

It's time for dirty jokes, food fights and glitter, juxtaposed with beheadings, riots and gang rape: The Houston ­Ballet and ­Artistic Director Stanton Welch have ­returned to the 2009 original ballet Marie.

This three-act ballet is paired with an intense musical score by Dmitri Shostakovich, impeccably arranged by Ermanno Florio. Welch's choreography is fresh, infused with contemporary formations and powerhouse partnering. Relying heavily on the pas de deux to carry the meatier emotional junctures of the story, this work features fewer traditional (and time-consuming) variations and complex corps de ballet, resulting in a story ballet with real steam.

Act I journeys from the austere ­Austrian court and home of young Marie ­Antoinette (Melody Herrera on opening night; the cast rotates) to the lively French palace of Versailles, where Marie is married to shy, naive Dauphin Louis Auguste (Ian Casady), otherwise known as Louis XVI.

Members of the court royalty endlessly tease the young couple for their lack of marital consummation. Amy Fote's portrayal of the menacing Comtesse du Barry, King Louis XV's mistress, is particularly sharp and scintillating. The peering, prodding royals have some brilliant moments — in dressing Marie or as silhouettes behind the bed chamber — but at other times, the stage is so busy with activity, you aren't sure which way to look. Eventually, Marie and Louis XVI seal the deal with a tender yet bashful love scene, underlined by a foreboding sense of loneliness and solitude.

Act II rides the rise and fall of Marie's tenure as queen of France. Herrera's dancing is confident and sweet, as she balances her roles of lover, mother and wife. The dinner scene is magnificent, its food fight undeniably hilarious. Eventually, the Revolutionaries, gritty and frenzied, drag Act II to an end and flood the stage for the opening of Act III. The dancers do not merely pantomime their roles — they completely embody them with every arabesque and port de bras.

Kandis Cook's set and costume designs aren't just the icing on Marie's cake — they're stellar frames for this story. Perfectly striking the balance between gold-laden opulence and modern aesthetics, they are exquisite. The vertical space above the dancers is filled by the likes of a five-story bookcase, a towering canopy bed and splintered palace walls, emphasizing the grandiose scale of royalty without cluttering the stage.

Welch portrays the legendary Marie Antoinette as a victim of feminine duty, almost a passive vessel in the political and social agendas of those around her. She is a shy, awkward youth, a mischievous, pleasure-seeking adult and a pious prisoner in her last days. This ballet is a classic in the making.

 
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