Houston Ballet's latest mixed repertory is billed as a family-friendly program of British masterworks, complemented with a brief guest appearance by Bolshoi Ballet's principal dancer Sergey Filin. That may be a good marketing ploy, but what's really alluring about this collage is the humor and stylistic variety that you can't find in blockbuster story ballets.
To be sure, classical fluidity and pyrotechnics liven up the antics of the ice-skaters on a frozen pond in Sir Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs ("The Skaters"), and there's no question that the iconic Filin and the Russian-trained Houston Ballet principal Nina Ananiashvili shimmer in the Black Swan duet from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. But the classical appeal of both programs is more enjoyable when juxtaposed against the folk rhythms of Christopher Bruce's contemporary Sergeant Early's Dream.
Two qualities set Sergeant apart from the overriding sentimentality of typical dance story lines. One, female dancers don't command the spotlight; much of the show's star appeal depends on the visual quirks, quips and antics of the ballet's male dancers, instead of the predictable romance between lovers. And two, the interaction between the sexes is playful and comic, not melodramatic and maudlin.
Sergeant is a unique fusion of plodding square-dance steps and angular classicism. It weaves together ten vignettes that evoke the struggles of immigrants as they adjust to the New World. These minidramas are heightened by a sense of longing, as if the newcomers remain intent on remembering the past. Rather than using live music from an orchestra pit, Bruce set his piece to recordings of haunting and lively folk melodies, incantations and ballads. These recordings, both instrumental and vocal, feature Anglo-Irish string and reed instruments, including the guitar, mandolin, bodhran, concertina, bagpipes and whistle. When Houston Ballet first performed the work eight years ago, producers included live music on stage.
Bruce's choreography grafts a variety of classical steps onto the familiar footwork of European folk dances. To pull off the synthesis, the dancers must balance the vastly differing emotional undercurrents of each style. Principal Dawn Scannell and soloist Cameron Smith show a special flair for Bruce's eclectic vocabulary, blending the lightness of arabesque-style sweeps with the abrupt, ponderous rhythms of the square dance. Both come across as earthy and stylistically harmonious. At times, accomplished principal dancers look like willowy classical divas in a Gypsy disguise.
In two vignettes, the males engage in a hilarious tug-of-war over an aloof female. Principals Timothy O'Keefe and Dominic Walsh paint a comic picture of pining rubes drunk with passion as they cavort and fall over each other. In their ensembles with soloist Yin Le and corps member Mauricio Canete, in which their stylized footwork synchronizes well with the Irish rhythms, they look like something out of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The show's dependence on recorded vocals doesn't compromise the folk tunes' spiritual aura.
In Les Patineurs, eminent British choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton sets his action on an oval-shaped skating rink. Groups of varying size move on stage and off throughout the eight vignettes of this slice of the skating life. At first, the four Skating Couples appear a bit loose and lackluster against interspersed solo and duet movements. And for good reason. Displaying rare control, Walsh, as a young show-off known as the Boy in Blue, is the star here; he balances the technical requirements of his balletic moves with an undeniable theatricality and pure cutup humor.
Ashton's light comedy is conveyed through whimsical stage exits and occasional slapstick expressions. Soloists Sharon Grimsley and Cameron Smith as the Girls in Blue bounce on stage and perform their tricks, then cradle their arms from side to side until they disappear off stage. At another point, one of the skaters falls but is assisted by his partner before making an exit.
Experienced as a brief intermission between Bruce's and Ashton's modern works, the Black Swan duet is even more technically impressive out of context. Still, it's a little disappointing that our first glimpse of the legendary Filin's classical powers comes in a 15-minute showcase. Next to the ethereal Ananiashvili, who looks more relaxed that she did in last year's production of Sleeping Beauty, Filin appears elegant and sure. After the duet, Filin and Ananiashvili polish off several fiery solos, alternating one right after the other.
For all of their technical purity, Swan Lake and Les Patineurs seem rather pale compared to Bruce's folk-inspired tale. In the end, it's his immigrant saga that gives this mixed repertory the down-to-earth dimension that modern dance lovers crave.
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