Abstract Art

One to watch: New soloist Melissa Hough (with Houston Ballet favorite Connor Walsh).
Amitava Sarkar

Jewels isn't about jewels. In fact, it isn't about anything but the beauty of movement. George Balanchine's first full-length, abstract (plot-less) ballet wound up with its name because of its gorgeous jewel-toned costumes and the names of its three sections: "Emeralds," "Rubies" and "Diamonds." In fact, when New York City Ballet premiered the work in 1967, it didn't even have a title.

Frankly, you could call this ballet anything you want. It remains a masterpiece of dance, and one that Houston Ballet has finally conquered. If you have trouble wrapping your brain around an entire evening of a non-story ballet, just think of it as a repertory evening. Each section can, and sometimes does, stand on its own.

It all begins with "Emeralds," a neo-romantic dance with nymphs in diaphanous, green gowns that is all about perfect posturing. There is a "walking" duet and a lot of synchronized arm movement from the corps. The work is set to music by Gabriel Fauré, beautifully performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Ermanno Florio.


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Ivory drapes flank the stage, and the backdrop is lit in subtle green. That's it for staging — the focus is on the dancers, their movement and their costumes, which are recreated from Barbara Karinska's original designs. The outfits are simple but dazzling; they look as if someone took a BeJeweler to them (in a good way).

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Opening night principals Melody Herrera and Simon Ball (the cast rotates) gave a credible performance as the leads in this lyrical dance, and the corps held together well. But "Emeralds," supposedly based on Balanchine's Paris experience, is not a real dazzler. It's very nice; don't get me wrong. But the best is yet to come.

In the second segment, "Rubies," the background color changes to red. This is the essence of the legendary choreographer's American dance-making. It's all fast-paced, sharp attacks en pointe, with angular arms and legs and wicked hip swiveling. A new soloist, Boston import Melissa Hough, demanded attention as the femme fatale with her saucy moves and sky-high leg kicks. In scanty red leotard with a wisp of a skirt (also bejeweled beyond belief), she thrust her way through a jazzy rendition of Igor Stravinsky's Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, aided by talented pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon.

Principal Connor Walsh, a boyish heartthrob who has shot to fame dancing everything from comic to prince roles, was almost relegated to a supporting role as her consort, so powerful did Hough embrace her role. She's definitely one to watch this season. The audience spontaneously erupted several times during the dance as both Hough and Walsh took solo turns with piqués and grand jetés and then came together again to partner with off-kilter balances.

"Rubies" may be the essence of Balanchine's new American ballet experiment, the expansion of his Stars and Stripes — an American version of classical ballet on 'roids — but somehow it pairs perfectly with Balanchine's "Diamonds," the final segment on the program. "Diamonds" is a nod to Balanchine's years with the Ballet Russes: pure, classical, Russian ballet. It's also more than that.

This white ballet demands perfection of the corps — 16 couples on stage, all moving in unison. And Houston Ballet did it superbly. Coached by Elyse Borne and Maria Calegari of The George Balanchine Trust, the company has ascended to the level of really mastering Balanchine choreography. A decade ago, Houston Ballet could not have pulled off this masterpiece, but today the company succeeds with panache.

Choreographed to part of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3, the ballet is just breathtaking. Dancers in sparkling, rhinestone-encrusted costumes waltz across the stage in intricate patterns, arms and legs moving in unison. The company looked so good in this cool, classical piece, it was awesome — and awe-inspiring

Ballerina Mireille Hassenboehler pranced through her solos with icy precision, partnered by the equally long-limbed Jun Shuang Huang. They may not be the perfect couple yet, but they showed promise of being one of the best partnerships since the glory days of Lauren Anderson and Carlos Acosta. By the final polonaise, as the ensemble swept across the floor in three-four time, the audience was mesmerized by this vision in white. Well done, Houston Ballet.

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