Classic Strut

Mark Arvin was moving across the rehearsal space on the second floor of the Houston Ballet's home on West Bell as though he'd suddenly fallen under the spell of a witch from a children's fairy story. His arms were bent before him, hands cocked and rigid as claws. His head bobbed forward and back. His legs were supposed to be carrying him forward in a cocky strut, but they couldn't seem to find the exact rhythm he needed. Instead of a barnyard bantam, which he was supposed to be, he looked like some sort of large insect getting ready to pounce on his prey.

"You're a little stiff there, I think, Mark," a small bearded man dressed in a black, short-sleeved T-shirt, black pants and black jazz oxfords said softly. "What you want to do is a little more like this... " And suddenly Christopher Bruce, artistic director of London's famed Rambert Dance Company and Houston Ballet's resident choreographer, was twitching his way across the floor in a way that appeared only partially human. The difference between what Arvin had been doing and what Bruce was demonstrating was subtle -- a slight sweeping of the leg rather than a formal forward step, a continuous sliding of his body through space instead of a movement from one set position to another -- but it made all the difference. Bruce, for that small moment of time, was in fact the titular fowl of "Rooster," a ballet set to eight songs by the Rolling Stones that, along with Helgi Tomasson's "'Haffner' Symphony" and Jiri Kylian's "Sinfonietta," make up a trio of Houston premieres that will mark the penultimate performance of the ballet's 25th anniversary season.

The final ballet of the season will be Peer Gynt, and the variety evident between that work and the dances scheduled for this weekend and next has been perhaps the most satisfying revelation of this year's Houston Ballet schedule. Though the Ballet has never been exclusively a classical company, it's classical works, such as Peer Gynt, that have built its reputation. But as the recent mixed repertory performances have shown, the Ballet has grown well beyond its core strength. And its apparently growing willingness to experiment is a welcome sign in a city that has very little local dance that can come close to what the Ballet offers.

Of the three works being offered this time around, "Rooster" is probably the most intriguing, if only because it's the only one being done to modern music. ("'Haffner'" was choreographed to Mozart, and "Sinfonietta" to the music of Leos Janacek.) But beyond that, it's also a reminder of the influence that Christopher Bruce is having on the Ballet. Bruce, brought to Houston in part by his friendship with Ben Stevenson -- a friendship nurtured by the fact that they're both products of the English dance world -- has been resident choreographer for the ballet for almost seven years now, and even though he's in Houston for only one to three months a year, his vision of what dance can be is an interesting balance to the story ballets at which Ben Stevenson has proven so adept. Shortly after he was named artistic director of the Rambert Dance Company, Bruce told a reporter for the Times of London that he was interested in dance that "bridged the gap between classic and contemporary," something that had the artistic heft of traditional ballet but also had a connection to the modern world.

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"Rooster," which Bruce created in 1991 for Switzerland's Geneva Ballet, has been heralded as one of his more adept attempts to bridge that gap. "It's been very, very successful," the choreographer says, a bit of an understatement when contrasted with some of the rave reactions from both the Swiss press in 1991 and then the English critics when the ballet debuted in London in 1992. ("A smash hit," "a sensation," breathtakingly innovative" and "wickedly observed" were among the phrases that were bandied about.) "A lot of companies in America have asked for it," he says simply. "But for the American premiere I wanted to give it to Houston."

The use of rock songs could, Bruce admits, be seen as an attempt to draw in an audience that might otherwise ignore a dance performance, but that's exactly why he waited so long before creating his ballet. "I lived with this music for more than 20 years before I choreographed the piece," he says. "I always loved the songs; they were part of my youth. But I had to figure out a way to use them. It's not easy. There are a lot of traps. It had to have a theme, the dance had to be able to stand by itself, it couldn't depend totally on the music. It has to say something. And I think I've proven that it can be done successfully." He pauses, and gives a small shrug. "I treated it like any other music, like I was choreographing to Beethoven or Bach." And then, after a little longer, he notes that classical ballet "developed from the court dances of the day. It was contemporary. You have to learn to do the same thing today. The trick is to find a way to use what dancers have learned through their long years of training, but make it contemporary, make it relevant. It's not easy."

Indeed, that was part of the problem he was facing with a dancer such as Arvin, who's been a mainstay of the Houston Ballet for much of the last decade (and who will be leaving after this season to try his hand at musical theater in New York). In the "Rooster" rehearsal, Arvin's line, in a classical sense, was fine. But it was a line that had to bend to fit Bruce's requirements. "It's such a big jump to get off pointe from a classical work and then be doing a contemporary piece, even though my dance has a very strong classical and traditional background," he notes sympathetically. "In my modern dances I'm more interested in the movement than in striking a particular position. I like them to move off their weight, to move laterally across the stage, to get down into the floor. It can be a major shift from what they're used to. Fortunately, though, this company has an ability that not too many companies do. They do have that ability to shift their gears. It's quite wonderful, actually. That's one of the reasons I come to Houston. It's one of the reasons I stay."

As Bruce works with Arvin, that adaptability he speaks of becomes clear. It doesn't take more than one or two times watching Bruce demonstrate a step before Arvin begins to adjust his movements to the requirements of the song "Little Red Rooster" that's booming out of a tape machine at the front of the rehearsal space. Behind Arvin, the rest of the company is perfecting its own moves, breaking down their years of traditional training into something that fits the sounds they're hearing and the ideas Bruce is showing them.

Just a few days earlier, while his assistant began setting "Rooster" on the Houston Ballet, Bruce had been in San Francisco to participate in "United We Dance," a six-day international dance festival arranged as part of the California city's observance of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations charter. The festival featured works by dance companies from five continents and 13 different companies; one was Rambert, which performed a new piece by Bruce titled "Meeting Place."

It was an unusual opportunity to see what was happening at different ballets across the world, and as Bruce watched performance after performance, one thing that struck him, he says, was how difficult it seemed to be for the classically based companies to move in new directions. "It was a real problem for some of them to find new outlets for their talented dancers," he says, "to find something that relates to today, and not just the past century."

It's a problem that, for the Houston Ballet at least, Bruce hopes he can help solve. And it's also a problem, he says, that the Ballet has addressed better than most. "What I saw in San Francisco was very impressive," he says before getting back to fine tuning the movements of "Rooster," "but it was also nice to know that, for what I wanted to do, I was coming to Houston, and the talent I have to work with here."

"Rooster," "'Haffner' Symphony" and "Sinfonietta" will play through June 4 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-

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