Barbara Bears turned in a lovely performance in Carnival of the Animals.
Barbara Bears turned in a lovely performance in Carnival of the Animals.
Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet Premieres

Mabel Buntz, the school nurse, lumbered into the hall / The scourge of each virus and germ / Though Nurse Buntz was decidedly wider than tall / Her size didn't hamper her movements at all / When she daintily waltzed at the Elephant Ball / A flirtatious and pert pachyderm.

Pert pachyderm? The narration to choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's Carnival of the Animals is funny enough. Now imagine two-time Tony Award winner John Lithgow not only reciting it but dancing the part of Mabel Buntz in drag. That will tell you what a hilarious time the audience had opening night at Houston Ballet's repertory program "Animal Magnetism."

Wheeldon, who is leaving his post as resident choreographer of New York City Ballet next year to form his own dance company, became friends with Lithgow when they both did Sweet Smell of Success on Broadway. When he set out to create a ballet to Saint-Saëns's 1886 orchestral composition “Carnival of the Animals,” he asked Lithgow to create a rhyming narrative about young Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third, a boy who sneaks away from his classmates at the American Museum of Natural History and falls asleep among the taxidermied animals, dreaming that his classmates and family are animals themselves.


Animal Magnetism, Clear and "Les Noces"

Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, 500 Texas, 713-227-ARTS.

Through June 3. Tickets start at $17.

Lithgow, a renowned children's author, was originally just going to do the narration for the NYCB production, but when Wheeldon also suggested he dance the part of Mabel Buntz, he jumped — or jetéd — at the opportunity. With hilarious results. Towering over the four male dancers that partnered him, he twirled around in a giant gray dress with a little elephant tail. Wheeldon's choreography suggested animal movement. (Lithgow was only in town for two performances, but local talent Paul Hope and Justin Dorian have taken over the dual role for the rest of the run.)

Jon Morrell's creative costumes — people clothing with a few animal touches — worked well. The hyenas/classmates wore school uniforms with Sanjaya wigs, while the turtles/gossiping old women wore mink coats with bloomers and tortoiseshell umbrellas.

Barbara Bears turned in a lovely performance as a shy librarian/kangaroo who morphs into a sexy mermaid with a sequined tail, and Amy Fote got to relive past glories as the aging swan/aunt who was once a prima ballerina. Her arms, in white evening gloves, quivered like elegant wings. And little Gatlyn Holden, a student at the academy, made a cute and likable Oliver.

But it was Connor Walsh, as the piano teacher/baboon, who almost stole the show from Lithgow. Wearing a suit, in bushy facial hair and extended hairy arms, he ate up the stage with Wheeldon's baboon-arm-swinging choreography.

Also on the rep evening, and setting quite a different tone, was artistic director Stanton Welch's Clear. This abstract ballet for seven men and one woman is Welch's response to 9/11. The piece premiered at American Ballet Theatre in New York just one month after the Twin Tower attacks. Even without that knowledge, the dance is a laser-sharp expression of the power of love in a time of chaos.

The seven men oozed towering strength in Welch's typical grounded movements, with free-moving arms and torsos that brought a modern edge to the classical steps, while Bears added a calming touch as the only female, spending most of her onstage time aloft in the arms of the men. The ending was a delicate and sculptural pose bathed in light, sorrowful yet hopeful.

Fashion designer Michael Kors lent his classical style to the clingy, flesh-colored costumes, and the featured soloist, Houston Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Denise Tarrant on violin and Erik Behr on oboe, gave a big sound to the Bach score.

The Houston Ballet Orchestra sounded even better, playing full tilt in Igor Stravinsky's “Les Noces” for Jirí Kylián's Svadebka. St. Paul's Choir sung in the original Russian to the folksy score, creating a deeply moving sound for Kylián's choreography about an arranged marriage. As the bride, Mimi Hassenboehler was mesmerizing; she looked lithe and beautiful in the angular, pounding choreography.

All three pieces were premieres for Houston Ballet, and they make welcome additions to the repertory. It's particularly nice to have Carnival of Animals as an alternative to The Nutcracker when you're introducing kids to ballet. It's way more fun for the adults.


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