This must have been what it felt like to witness Urlicht in Stuttgart in 1976. William Forsythe's first piece for a professional company announced the choreographer to the world, or at least to Germany, and launched a career that would push ballet beyond its neoclassical boundaries. It was this feeling of dance destiny that was in the air last Thursday night at the Houston Ballet's Cullen Contemporary Series.
Perhaps that's overdramatizing a bit, and we don't want to put too much pressure on young choreographer Brian Enos, but his work Landing was, quite frankly, brilliant, and besides, he's got nearly a ten-year jump-start on Forsythe. The 18-year-old is a Level 8 student at the Houston Ballet Academy. Artistic director Ben Stevenson invited Enos to choreograph a piece for the academy's graduation performance last spring -- rare for a student. After seeing a rehearsal of the dance's first movement, Stevenson offered Enos the chance to work with the professional company -- absolutely unheard of for a choreographer of his age. But Stevenson has an eye for talent, and the efforts of this inexperienced teenager dominated the Cullen program.
Indeed, some critics will put Enos in context as a successor to Forsythe's neoclassical deconstructionist movement. And it's true that the speed, athleticism and unusual plays on the classical lexicon are similar. But Enos resists the categorization. Perhaps it's just artistic arrogance, a young man trying not to follow in someone else's footsteps. Then again, there's something to the idea that what Enos is doing is different.
The Houston Ballet's season continues with The Nutcracker on November 24
Inextricably tied to aboriginal didgeridoo music by Stephen Kent, Landing was both primitive and sophisticated, a space-age tribal dance for the new millennium. The hooded, one-legged costumes, which Enos designed, lent the dancers an androgynous quality; the men and women were distinguished only by color: blue or pink. But the androgyny was overlaid with intensely, though not overtly, sexy choreography.
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More impressive, Enos has an unusually adept eye for both the big picture and the details. He moved his ten dancers through a series of dynamic patterns on the stage, and yet paused the frenetic pace ever so briefly to give a strikingly nuanced image of a sharply turned head or a flexed wrist. Soloists emerged from the group effortlessly -- the chorus complementing the featured dancer with subtler movements and then syncing up with a larger phrase here and there. In other words, Landing was not just a series of steps but an integrated whole. Something that many choreographers never master seems to come naturally to Enos.
Enos wanted to use younger members of the company in his piece because, understandably, he thought it would make him more comfortable. And while the corps de ballet dancers in other pieces seemed to struggle, they attacked Enos's choreography with confidence and professionalism. Still, experience is not to be discounted. Principal dancer Dawn Scannell was phenomenal in the featured role, dancing a breakneck pas de deux with Lucas Priolo. She was sharp and sensual and on, from the dramatically simple entrance of a deep second position plié to the conclusion when the choreography acknowledged its own difficulty by dropping Scannell lifeless and exhausted into Priolo's arms.
Scannell was also featured, with principal Dominic Walsh, in Natalie Weir's In a Whisper, although the dancers had less to work with in this piece. Inspired by an adagio that Franz Schubert composed just before he died, the resident choreographer of the Australian Ballet created movement that was supposed to be charged with emotion. But this emotion was without context in the obscure narrative of the ballet, which seemed to be about little more than trying to pull a pained Walsh away from an oversize floating window. And except for a battling mano a mano pas de deux between Walsh and soloist Nicholas Leschke (who was substituting for Yin Le and really appears to be coming into his own), the choreography was flat.
Houston Ballet principal dancer Timothy O'Keefe has made several attempts at classical choreography in recent years, but Uncommon Valor is his most ambitious work. Using grainy projected photographs, FDR speeches, Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations and theatrical scenes, O'Keefe paid homage to those who lost their lives or their loved ones in World War II. He proved himself to be a solid storyteller. But the big dance numbers were too segregated from the rest of the piece, and in them the corps de ballet dancers seemed under-rehearsed. While Uncommon Valor didn't always work, O'Keefe played with some interesting ideas: notably, re-enacting iconic images. When his dancers struck the famous Iwo Jima flag-raising pose, the past was invited into the present, and the result was moving. Unfortunately O'Keefe couldn't stop making his point -- falling soldiers and crucifixion references abounded.
Enos's work blew away that of his older colleagues. Perhaps in the coming years he, like Forsythe, will push the limits of ballet for his generation. But he's already got the talent to remind us why we love dance, pure dance, movement and music conspiring to hypnotize an audience. And if he can keep doing that for people, he will be a success.
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