With a deafening crash the stark white lights are switched on over the Houston Ballet's fall mixed repertory to reveal dancers in rehearsal clothes, casually stretching and slouchily milling about the stage. There's an energy to their easiness, like something's about to happen. When they slide, by ones, twos and threes, into and out of discordant athletic variations, haughtily glaring at each other all the while, you get the sense of rivalry, of showing off. It feels like we're on the good side of a two-way mirror watching, unbeknownst to the dancers, a kind of choreographed class. And as most dancers will tell you, class, where it's okay to fall, is where some of the most dangerous and exciting dancing takes place.
Of course the combinations being taught in this class are unlike anything you'd actually see in the studios of the Houston Ballet Academy. The class here is In the middle, somewhat elevated, and the teacher is American-born but European-bred neoclassical choreographer William Forsythe. Inspired by Balanchine, but in many ways surpassing the master, Forsythe dismantles the structure of classical ballet and reconfigures it according to his own illogical instincts. Movement can be initiated by a knee, a hip, an elbow, as long as it continues to move, to push the body off any inertial balance.
Most exciting in In the middle, somewhat elevated is the way Forsythe simultaneously plays up the contrast between dance and nondance, performance and pedestrian movement, yet makes them one and the same. Whether a dancer is being undancerly by letting her belly protrude at the bottom of an S-curved slump or stacking her vertebrae up high for a series of pirouettes, he seems to say, she's doing it because he choreographed it.
Teacher's pet in Forsythe's class is the incredible up-and-coming soloist Mireille Hassenboehler. Though I never want to be accused of encouraging the anorexia of already thin ballerinas, I have to admit there is something about the waifish Hassenboehler's lanky limbs that makes her irresistible on stage. After years of strict training designed to make them strong enough to elegantly endure the coveted leading classical ballet roles, most ballerinas seem too solid to be sensuous, too rigid to let the body get very far off its upright axis. But for Hassenboehler, Forsythe's extreme choreography becomes a star vehicle. She slinks like a cool teenager and prowls like a cat. She throws her long legs into stunning arabesques, allows her torso to undulate through hip rolls and tangles with passion in an intense pas de deux. She never struggles, instead letting Forsythe's juxtapositions of imbalances keep her somehow suspended. Best of all, the shy new star accepted the audience's appreciative applause and catcalls opening night with a surprised and gracious giggle.
A less inspired take on the ballet class-as-choreography theme is Ben Stevenson's Three Preludes, a love story by the barre that was created as a classroom exercise for two dancers in the Harkness Ballet in 1969. Barbara Bears and Jose Herrera perform Stevenson's crescendo of high-flying lifts flawlessly, but they have all the chemistry of Richard Gere and Julia Roberts (which is to say, not much).
For its pomp and circumstance -- 60 onstage choral singers, 31 dancers, a steeply raked stage, smoke machines, ripped and bloodied costumes -- Gloria, choreographed by the late Houston Ballet artistic associate Sir Kenneth MacMillan, is also disappointing. Inspired by Vera Brittain's wartime memoir Testament of Youth, set to Francis Poulenc's "Gloria" and full of crucifix references, this dance elegy for the soldiers who perished in the first world war has the feel of a force-fed message.
The evening's finale instead should be the pyrotechnical pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Whatever the purists may say, I think these showpieces are the best way to see the three-act, three-hour, classical story ballets -- culled to their most impressive 20 minutes. Houston's internationally acclaimed Russian acquisition Nina Ananiashvili is regal in the role, with precision-perfect pirouettes, bounding grand jetés and beautiful leg extensions. The virtuoso completed so many dizzying fouetté turns that the audience stutter-started to applaud several times, each time thinking she was finished.
Ananiashvili's partner in the Le Corsaire pas de deux is yet another Houston Ballet soloist-turning-superstar, Yin Le. The exuberance and charisma with which he completed the variation's barrel turns, tours and a split leap that made it midway to the ceiling before switching legs was reminiscent of the celebrity who didn't perform on opening night. Le is certainly not yet a substitute for Carlos Acosta, but he might be his successor.
Houston Ballet's Mixed Repertory continues Friday and Saturday, September 17 and 18, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, September 19, at 2 p.m. Wortham Center, 510 Preston, (713)227-2787. $11.50-$90.50.
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