"Moby in Motion," Houston Ballet's three-work repertory program now on view at the Wortham, isn't the spectacle that this season's opulent new Swan Lake was, nor does it feature any pyrotechnic displays by the company's stars. But it does showcase the talents of the corps de ballet, and it's an interesting -- if a bit uneven -- program that gives some of the lesser-knowns a chance to strut their stuff.
Shingo Yoshimoto shines in the hip-hop-inspired Play, with a rag-doll solo of jerking movement danced to "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?" In another work, Velocity, he gives a strong classical (although super-fast-paced) performance. Little Cleopatra Williams also makes an impact throughout the program, as does the more towering Chavo Killingsworth. These are young people to keep your eye on for next season.
The choice of dances for this program allows almost the entire company to perform, but it's also a bit one-sided, strongly slanted to contemporary works.
Artistic director Stanton Welch's Play, set to electronic pop music by DJ/techno artist Moby (real name: Richard Melville Hall, and yes, he's a descendant of Herman Melville), likely has some of the most recognizable music ever paired with pointe work. That's because every song from the Grammy-nominated 1999 album Play was commercially licensed and appears almost constantly in TV ads. But familiarity isn't all it takes to make good dance.
Choreographing ballet to pop music is a device that's been around for a while, partly as a way to attract younger audiences and partly as an artistic expression. Sometimes it works, as in almost anything Twyla Tharp sets, and sometimes it's just gimmicky, as in the Joffrey's Billboards tribute to Prince. Here it doesn't really work; not because of the music, but because the choreography is so uneven. Welch uses pedestrian movements -- simple impressions of walking, working and everyday tasks -- but doesn't quite stretch them to look like seamless dancing. Except for Play's all-male section, in which the dancers jingle change in their pockets and perform hip-hop precision kicks, it seems repetitive and simplistic. This may be due to the fact that Welch created the work for BalletMet, a company not as technically adroit as Houston Ballet.
And one wonders, what's the point of pointe here? The femmes wear pointe shoes (cutely dressed as athletic shoes), yet there's little pointe work in the choreography of Play. And there's also some gratuitous violence in the partnering, which actually makes it inappropriate for the younger set, unless you want to answer questions like "Mommy, why is he slapping that girl, and why is she trying to choke him with his necktie?"
Also, the device of beginning with a bare backstage with the curtain already up, allowing the arriving audience to watch the dancers warming up, has been done to death. Without being integral to the ballet, it just seems ho-hum.
Welch does hit the right notes with his supercharged Velocity, commissioned in 2003 for the Australian Ballet. Here, the music of Michael Torke evokes futuristic dance; the backdrop is cubist; and the cutaway mesh tutus and unitards are sexy without going overboard. The company takes to the work like ducks to water -- ducks on crack, that is -- and it is absolutely thrilling to watch the ferocious way they attack the spins and lifts at this speed. It is choreographically a much more complex work than Play, and the company seems to relish it.
As for the other work in the program, maybe it was the Memorial Day weekend opening, but Sir Kenneth MacMillan's 1980 antiwar ballet Gloria was moving almost to the point of tears. The stark, war-torn set, the World War I helmets and the incredible lifting voices of the St. Paul's Choir reaching over the strains of the Houston Ballet Orchestra in composer Francis Poulenc's epic were showstopping. MacMillan's poignant partnering and soaring aerial lifts, not to mention the theatrical dive at the end, make this a true balletic classic for any age.
This repertory program may have been uneven, but it still leaves one hopefully anticipating next season's lineup and the surprises the corps has in store.
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