As his first full-length ballet, Madame Butterfly is Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch's calling card. Taking its cue from the iconic Puccini opera, which in turn was inspired by the popular fictional narrative by John Luther Long, the ballet is a tragic tale of betrayal set in nineteenth-century Japan. It tells the story of the beautiful geisha Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly, who marries Lieutenant Pinkerton, an American naval officer. Instead of the life of happiness that she envisions, she is met with betrayal from both her husband and her people.
Butterfly is a sumptuous story ballet, yes, but what makes this work such an essential piece of dance art is its striking images. Take, for instance, Cio-Cio San's character introduction in the opening wedding scene. Geisha after beautiful geisha materializes from a sea of fog, wrapped in white kimonos suggesting the ethereal, with a fan demurely hiding each face. In like manner, Cio-Cio San bursts out of nothingness, placed onto the stage as if she is a spirit gracing the world of mere mortals. From the moment we see her, the audience knows Butterfly is not of this earth.
It is obvious that Welch understands the power of images. The production proves to be more than old-fashioned confection. There are strong implications in the visuals, particularly in the final moment of Act I. Concluding a ravishing pas de deux, the reserved Butterfly gives herself over to Pinkerton. He leads her to their marriage bed and places her beneath him, her hand reaching towards the stars in both hopeful anticipation and uncertainty. Butterfly is thus conquered over a shrine to the United States, complete with an American flag and a naval officer's cap. In this way, Welch's ballet becomes a scathing postcolonial critique.
Of course, none of these moments would be anything without the dancers and their movement. Last Sunday's matinee performance featured soloist Nao Kusuzaki in the lead role, and what was so special about her portrayal was her acute awareness of the character's nuances. Butterfly is not a cypher, but a multilayered heroine. She is a woman who is ruled by the world around her, but is always in control of her destiny. Kusuzaki plays her with reckless abandon, and the audience feels every emotional strain. By the time Butterfly is forced to give up her child and meet her tragic end, the audience can only feel privileged to have witnessed the life of an extraordinary woman.
Houston isn't just a top destination for world-class ballet, it's also a burgeoning central for innovative modern dance. One of the most prominent names in this style of movement is NobleMotion Dance, headed by Andy and Dionne Sparkman Noble of Sam Houston State University. Since 2009, NobleMotion has established itself as a company built on athleticism, explosiveness and a keen exploration of technology and contemporary culture in relation to dance. The company recently wrapped a two-weekend run of its newest repertory program, Spitting Ether: A Reality Bending Dance. A full-on collaboration with resident lighting designer David J Deveau, Ether proved to be one of the coolest dance concerts in recent memory.
In much the same way that light is used in photography to capture striking images, the creative team at NobleMotion created a plethora of jaw-dropping visuals. In Luxate, the ensemble danced in the dark, lighting devices affixed to palms. There was just enough light to see the hint of an extended leg or the swirl of a turn, but the frenzy of hidden movement was easily imagined. Windows and Doors marked another highlight. In one memorable sequence, a light show was cast onto the dancers and rendered them gyrating, pulsating holograms.
Perhaps the most ravishing moment in the concert was found in Lorelei's whisper. A projector created a green wall of light that the dancers touched and reached through, a body of souls curious about what was on the other side. Some pushed through; others timidly tested the water. Profiles dipped into the green haze like swans rising into the air. The imagery made for a lovely picture, one that was made grandiose by the accompanying operatic score.
Ether's few hiccups had more to do with its subject matter than with its movement. The first piece, Landing Light, featured a trio of compelling solos which revealed dancers tormented by technological overload. One spiraled and turned while a camera captured her movements and projected them back onto her, while another fell and leaped amid an entanglement of tripods; exhausted and fearful, she attempted to enclose herself in the metal easels before being dragged away by two menacing doctors.
What Landing Light suggested is intriguing, that perhaps our dependency on technology and our need to be stars of our own one-man-show are something akin to being insane. But this assertion was never fully investigated, and after the unmistakable beauty of Lorelei's whisper, the unsettling imagery of lights chasing a writhing body behind hospital curtains became a mere afterthought.
After the success of Spitting Ether, there's no question that NobleMotion will mount a spring performance in either its home base in Huntsville or Houston. Regardless of location, it's sure to be a hot ticket.
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