Opening night of the Houston Ballet's Winter Repertory Program featured choreographer Julia Adam's world premiere of Ketubah. Set to live klezmer music and performed by Houston Ballet, the work was full of even-keeled, solemn movement, and its ceremonial structure left room for only brief bursts of fun. The company danced Ketubah and Ben Stevenson's Four Last Songs with reverence, and in Stevenson's piece, the dancers carefully shaped themselves into subtle formations, then put their movement to rest, as if for the last time.
But the program's other piece, artistic director Stanton Welch's Divergence, brought the company to life, making it hard to believe that these creatures were the same performers who had looked so serene and devoted in the earlier ballets. In Divergence, the dancers staked their territory, fought for dominance and proudly pranced like uncaged animals.
Welch created Divergence in 1994, one year before he was named resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet, a position he held for eight years. Just as remarkable as the choreography were the ballet's underlying themes of boldness and confidence -- and Welch's willingness to push dancers to the edge. Rarely did they have time to catch their breath, moving from powerful lifts and steadily held balances to unusual head bobbles and in-your-face stares.
For Divergence, the curtain opened on dancers wearing extraordinary tutus designed by Vanessa Leyonhjelm, a native of Australia who has worked in the costume department of New York's Museum of Modern Art. While these skirts didn't allow for much partnering, they were true to Welch's vision of a ballet that's fresh and unexpected, as were the Judy Jetson-like headdresses and sexy, feathery disco pants that came later on. Divergence is set to Georges Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suites No. 1 and 2, a traditional score that stands in contrast to the contemporary choreography.
Welch's brother Damien was at the top of the ballet's hierarchy on opening night. Visiting as part of an international exchange program with the Australian Ballet, Damien moved partner Sara Webb as easily as if she were a scarf wrapped around his neck. Their amazing, expertly performed series of lifts looked like they must have required mats on the floor during rehearsals, but the pair approached them with a fearlessness that the company hasn't embraced in a long time.
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Divergence was like a mini onstage marathon; from the outset, the dancers looked like they were entering a special zone and taking us with them. In one section, several women entered the stage en pointe, crawling sideways like long-legged spiders. By the end of the section, they were left standing tall and reaching for the ceiling. Welch certainly made the audience think about conventional dancing roles. Throughout the work, men and women took turns being in charge. But the transitions were smooth and matter-of-fact: At one point, the spiderlike ladies emerged victorious, and then the tall, handsome Damien took unquestionable command of the stage.
Divergence's unconventionality contrasted with Ketubah's homage to tradition ("ketubah" is a Hebrew term referring to the contract signed by a bride and groom in a Jewish wedding). While the movement style in Ketubah at times looked unstructured, with its upstretched forearms and happily bent elbows, the dancers still looked contained, as if the stage were closing in on them. At the end of the piece -- after we were taken through rituals of matchmaking, bathing, consummation and celebration -- candles descended from the ceiling on the new bride and groom (danced by Ian Casady and corps de ballet member Lisa Kaczmarek). The curtain closed on him twirling her joyously in a circle. Still, aside from respect for tradition, little in this ballet was uplifting. Christine Darch designed the ballet's simple, earth-toned costumes, and the Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas performed the music.
Four Last Songs touched on the spiritual, with the entire cast ending up on a kind of onstage deathbed. Stevenson created this work in 1980 as a tribute to the memory of Winifred Wallace, and the company performed the piece on opening night as if in tribute to Stevenson. Soprano Jessica Jones admirably performed Richard Strauss's songs.
Still, Divergence was the standout of the night. In the 1980s, when Stevenson was at the height of his career and Adam and Welch had hardly begun to train, a hard-hitting dance like Divergence was only remotely conceivable. But Welch has harnessed this generation of dancers' powerful physical capabilities to create movement that highlights their strength. The result is a style that points to ballet's promising future.