One of the nice things about a mixed repertoire program is that it can sometimes surprise you. The pieces you assumed would be excellent may be only ordinary, while what you anticipated to be passable proves an unexpected pleasure.
Such is the case with the quartet of dances being performed through Sunday by the Houston Ballet. When the choreographers being highlighted are George Balanchine, Ben Stevenson and Trey McIntyre, one can be forgiven for thinking that McIntyre is the one who's going to suffer by comparison. But while McIntyre has a long way to go before he catches up to Stevenson -- and a long, long way to go before he catches sight of Balanchine -- the surprise is that McIntyre's Skeleton Clock is the delight of the evening.
Or at least it was the delight of the evening last Saturday, aided in part by some less than stellar work in Stevenson's Three Preludes, a piece that, when danced right, can carry a program. Originally created three decades ago for New York's Harkness Youth Ballet, Three Preludes is still a fresh and original work. Set in a ballet studio and featuring the interplay of a ballerina and her (perhaps imagined) consort, Three Preludes is a light and delicate construction that needs to be danced almost unconsciously, as though the movements are occurring in a dream, or possibly memory. When danced too deliberately, it can become leaden, as was the case Saturday with Rachel Beard and Sean Kelly. They got the moves right, but the spirit wrong.
Three Preludes was paired with Stevenson's Sylvia Pas De Deux as the center section of the evening, bookended in front by Skeleton Clock and in the rear by Balanchine's Western Symphony. Sylvia, a sort of world premiere, suffered not from difficulties in the dancing, but predictability in the designed steps. The piece is getting a "sort of" premiere because it's actually been shown before, at the 1994 International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, where Stevenson came up with it as a showcase for Tiekka Schofield (who went on to win a bronze medal). Unfortunately, the competition origin of the piece shows through; while it allows the performers to demonstrate their expertise well enough, it has no emotional spine. When Dominic Walsh positioned himself upstage and, before he made his first move, you knew he was going to do a traveling series of semi-bravura turns -- and then that's exactly what he did -- the boring predictability of the choreography became glaringly apparent. For those who see ballet as little more than a display of physical prowess, this sort of thing may be fine. But ballet can move considerably beyond that, and with the Houston Ballet it generally does. Here, though, while Walsh and Lauren Anderson gave the pas de deux their all, there simply wasn't much to find in it.
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Still, if the center pieces fell flat, the opening and the closing made up for it. Balanchine's Western Symphony isn't among his most memorable dances, but it is one of the more entertaining. And, with its male dancers in cowboy regalia and ballerinas decked out like saloon girls, it's an obvious Houston crowd pleaser. Though it started surprisingly flat, the pleasure Balanchine found in the robust West being muted by lackluster playing from the orchestra pit and frantic more than excited dancing from the corps on stage, it found its direction with the second movement, when Janie Parker as a flirtatious dance-hall girl appeared and glided oh-so-carefully cross stage to where her cowboy paramour stood. Parker's ability to combine delicate movement with insouciance and humor continues to be amazing, and she gave Western Symphony a shot of life that carried it through to the end.
But if Parker's performance highlighted what's always been good about the Houston Ballet, the company's work in the more modern choreography of McIntyre's Skeleton Clock suggested some strengths yet to come. McIntyre has reworked his 1990 piece, stripping it down to its essentials, making it more abstract and at the same time more cohesive. Yet while McIntyre has improved his ballet, what's most striking is how well it fits Houston's troupe. The strength of the Ballet has always been in the classical and semi-classical pieces, often with stories attached, at which Ben Stevenson is so proficient. On Saturday, though, the verve and intensity with which 12 of the corps moved through Skeleton Clock suggested it may be time to start varying the repertoire a bit.
This is obviously a transition year for the Houston Ballet, both because of the dancers it's losing to budget cuts and the apparent crowning of Lauren Anderson as prima in waiting. In that light, the ease with which Anderson fit into McIntyre's modernist landscape was particularly notable. Her muscular structure and energetic movement was well suited to the demands of Skeleton Clock's choreography, and she managed to make herself a standout in what is basically an ensemble piece -- just as Janie Parker made herself a standout in the ensemble Western Symphony. Given that, it might be a good idea if the Ballet's management started giving thought to mixing its bill a little more often, and lining up some more modern pieces to balance off the Coppelias and Sleeping Beautys. It's probably a tossup as to whether the Houston audience is ready for that. But Skeleton Clock makes it clear that the Houston Ballet dancers are more than up to it.
Skeleton Clock, Three Preludes, Sylvia Pas De Deux and Western Symphony will play through Sunday, March 19 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Texas At Smith, 227--2787.