The Setup: Houston Ballet kicks off its 2013-2014 season with Four Premieres, a mixed-rep program featuring the works of master choreographers Christopher Bruce and James Kudelka, and Houston Ballet alumni Melissa Hough and Garrett Smith.
The Execution: If there's one common denominator that links the four pieces in Four Premieres, it's the high-concept nature of the choreography. Take for example James Kudelka's Passion, the one dance I felt appealed both to the intellect and heart. Like the Beethoven concerto it is danced to, Passion is a baroque construction in all its busyness. The composition has no center; the eye shifts between a paired embodiment of idealized love, a paired depiction of what love really is, and five preternaturally pretty ballerinas who move across the stage in a line like carefully placed pearls.
Two other courtly couples enter and exit periodically, further complicating the visual arrangement, but it's this multi-layered, carefully schemed patterning that makes Kudelka's work so edifying. There's a lot to digest, and each bit is just as savory as the next. Of course, there's no denying that the real meat here is the raw, pained duet danced by Karina Gonzalez and Simon Ball. Unlike the rest of the dancers and their lovely promenades and dainty polka steps, Gonzalez and Ball are grounded by the long-suffering reality of blood-and-bones passion. Their movement veers away from the classical and finds its weightiness in Modern motifs. Even when they are in the background, their smoldering draws the audience to them. Thus, Passion finds a center, and becomes an ordered thing of beauty.
Garrett Smith's Return is equally arresting, but for its musicality and robust movement. A throng of dancers dressed in exploration gear return to a subaltern retreat where they leap and hurl themselves onto the floor to a booming, yet, melodic John Adams score. The conceit is simple, and its alarming how beautiful a stage full of bodies in simple unison can be. There's a moment when the ensemble is on the floor beneath a sky full of stars. There's a sense of magic in the air, even when the movement is as simple as a body half from side-to-side. Of course, the dancers don't stay on the floor for long. The partnering work is a sight to see, and in the rush of the music, the frenetic and airborne duets become the heart of this boyish bounding dance.
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Christopher Bruce's Intimate Pages has an interesting construction in that the exterior lives of its subjects are not only conveyed through the dancers themselves, but through four additional bodies who flank them in alternately aggressive and nurturing phrases. There are many exquisite moments, especially when the key figures are framed by two other dancers apiece, limbs posed and linked in stunning stationary arrangements. But somewhere along the third movement, the ambiguity of the relationships between concrete and imagined bodies starts to surface and wear the premise thin. The interplay and exchange of the two parties is simply not interesting enough to sustain the dance's extended length.
Melissa Hough's ...the third kind [is] useless. is a more concise experiment and maintains its intriguing focus. The gem here is Connor Walsh's striking performance as a mad prince who commands his subjects with imperious grace and power, but shrinks into himself when left alone. It's great watching him throw himself into the role with such passion for the assignment, but I think the dance works better as psychological character study than dance theater.
The Verdict: Of the four dances, Kudelka's Passion had the strongest resonance, not only for its heartfelt treatment of a universal subject matter, but for its execution of its high-concept choreography. For sheer fun and musicality, Smith's Return gets high marks as well. But as a program, there were times in Four Premieres when I found myself questioning why the choreographer chose to explore his content in the manner that he did (Intimate Pages) or wondering why the choreographer was even interested in her subject to begin with (...the third kind [is] useless.). The answers were not on the stage.
Four Premieres runs through September 15 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.