Lone Star, Anyone?
Native Australian and new Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch has made good on his promise to choreograph a dance that pays tribute to his new home, the Lone Star State. His first full-length outing for the company, Tales of Texas, is a three-act two-step through the history of our state. While there are some gems along the way, the work isn't Welch's best choreography, and coming on the heels of his Houston premiere of Divergence, it appears less than stellar.
Welch chose three different ways to depict Texas: an abstract, plaintive look at pioneers, a fun, '50s-inspired honky-tonk scene, and the tale of Pecos Bill. "Pecos" is clearly the best section, with brilliant sets and costumes by Kristian Fredrikson and inspired original music by Matthew Pierce. For this piece, Welch has provided a moving story line and some very original choreography for duets between horse and rider.
The dance's plot, based on the cowboy legend of Pecos Bill, begins when a child is lost from a wagon train. He's reared by coyotes, but when he grows up, Pecos finally finds townsfolk and falls in love with tomboy Slue-foot Sue. But he loses her when she's killed by a horse named Widow Maker. With no human mother, no coyote mother and no girlfriend, Pecos is left to howl at the moon.
The charming plot of "Pecos" has plenty of pathos and comedy and moves briskly along. The dance-making gives a nod to the swagger steps and galloping moves in Agnes de Mille's Rodeo, but it also features some very imaginative footwork for Widow Maker, danced opening night by a forceful Nicholas Leschke. His flame-red mane and trunks looked more like an Indian chief's costume, but when he moved, there was no mistaking he was a wild stallion, capable of dispatching any rider to the hereafter.
As the first-night Pecos, Ian Casady stole the show in Fredrikson's cartoonish patchwork chaps, showing just the right balance of sensitivity and cowboy bravado. Lauren Anderson, the coyote momma, was smitten with his clinging as they danced a tender duet. As Pecos's tomboy lover, Mireille Hassenboehler beat him at horseback riding and arm wrestling in their competitive duet, recalling Doris Day in the 1953 flick Calamity Jane. Then she fell head over heels for him and exchanged her buckskins for a store-bought dress -- the same dress that caused Widow Maker to buck her into the heavens in a stunning duet.
In both ensemble movement and colorful costuming, the company artists created a world of strange and wonderful townsfolk. The show has saloon girls, pastors, Mexicans, Native Americans and a slick Snake Oil Salesman who did a fine money-grubbing jig opening night. Throughout all of the fun, Phillip Broomhead's Mortician (in black tails, a double-skull mask and top hat) portended death, silently stalking his way through the role. In the end, he carried off Sue in a floating lift. All this was set to Pierce's score, which echoes crickets and howling coyotes and evokes the wide-open spaces of Texas, making the legend of Pecos Bill magical and fun.
On the other hand, there isn't much fun in "Big Sky," an abstract piece set to some of Aaron Copland's most soaring music. The sets, costumes and lighting for this piece were muted and somber as four ghostly couples danced through the hardships and struggles of the early pioneers. What looked good here were some of the new, strong male dancers, like Simon Ball and Andrew Murphy. They blended seamlessly with the rest of the company, moving fluidly to his choreography. With strength and grace, they showed that this is Welch's company now.
The opening night audience hooted and clapped for "Cline Time," a rousing depiction of lonely nights at a Texas honky-tonk set to actual Patsy Cline recordings. It was great fun watching the troupe combine ballet and Texas two-stepping, but somehow along the way, the piece missed the fireworks and breakout solos of other genre numbers we've seen the company do. You couldn't help but root for Ilya Kozadayev in the "Stop, Look and Listen" male variation, but the segment somehow never achieved the success of Carlos Acosta's turn in Christopher Bruce's rock n' roll tribute Rooster -- or, for that matter, anyone dancing the "Tico Tico" male solo in Paul Taylor's brilliant '40s fling Company B. Lauren Anderson had a fine turn strutting her stuff to Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight," but a garish purple cowgal outfit with yellow fringe didn't do her any favors. Hassenboehler got to wear a very refined dress in this dance and shined again here opposite Ball in the closing hymnal duet, "Just a Little Closer Walk with Thee."
Tales of Texas may wind up being another Billboards, Joffrey Ballet's tribute to the music of Prince. It's a popular work, at least for Prince lovers, but hardly a masterpiece. The classical ballet crowd may not take a hankerin' to this Tales of Texas, but if you need somewhere to wear your rodeo finery, come on down.
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