The Houston Ballet could be in trouble.
That's one of the things that comes through clearly in the company's current production of Four Last Songs, Image and Bartok Concerto, three short works choreographed by Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. This mixed rep program marks prima ballerina Janie Parker's penultimate performance with the Ballet, and the transition of Parker into retirement promises to deal a rough blow that the Ballet's repertoire might find hard to handle. The prima-in-waiting, Lauren Anderson, is so utterly different a dancer than the lyrical and wonderfully flexible Parker that it's a question just how easily she can slide into roles that were obviously not designed for her.
This is particularly an issue in Four Last Songs. Choreographed to a quartet of Richard Strauss songs, Four Last Songs is ripe with seasonal and human cycles. Stevenson's short ballet plays with the repeating shapes of circles and larger loops, shadowed by a billowing muslin ceiling curtain. Stevenson has established a tradition in each movement of this work, a gesture that begins with an abstraction, then slowly grows in meaning and emotion as it passes from dancer to dancer. The first movement is danced by nine members of the company, with Barbara Bears as the centerpiece; her arabesque serves as a passage in and out of different circles of dancers. Bears has the rare ability to effectively translate the weightiness of this movement's steps into something graceful -- the most evident being a series of flat-footed turns that she executes dreamily.
The second movement is the pas de trois "September," and here more than anywhere else in Four Last Songs the power of a repeated gesture is moving. Danced by Rachel Beard, Christopher Veljovic and Sean Kelly, the shape Stevenson uses is a triangle, repeated in skating and sliding and in the trio's work as a unit. The most poignant gestures come in Beard's partnering with Veljovic: on a diagonal procession, Veljovic rolls Beard over his hip into a dive. Later, he carries her aloft, her hands delicately gripping for something lost. By the end of the movement, Beard is carried out by both men, as if on a pyre, as a symbol of the end of a season and the end, evidently, of a life.
The third movement of Four Last Songs is danced radiantly by Parker and her partner, Phillip Broomhead. The combination of Parker's mature artistry and evocative dancing leaves the audience in breathless expectation for Anderson, who dances the final movement. The atmosphere is rich with metaphor: Parker dancing a death knoll and Anderson an awakening. Unfortunately, the fourth movement was designed for a dancer with a vastly different sensibility than Anderson's. While she has a regal presence and lovely form, Anderson exhibits little acting ability. She never gels musically with her role here, and her tensile strength reads as stiffness in the fluid choreography. There are moments where Anderson's truncated style works, but for the most part, she seems a dancer who deserves different material.
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The second ballet, Image, a work created for and never danced by anyone other than Janie Parker, is the obvious centerpiece of the program, though the work is a definite departure from the prettiness of the dances that bookend it. On opening night last Thursday, the audience was clearly there to see Parker perform. They weren't disappointed. Based on a chance remark by Marilyn Monroe, Image is a scary ballet, and one that Parker siphons through her small form as much as she dances it. Opening against a gloomy, Maurice Sendak-like set, the ballet has Parker's character range from a neurotically distressed nobody to a glamour girl who thrives on flashbulbs. Dancing around a series of ropes and poles, Parker changes in moments from a charismatic flirt to a tortured shell of a woman. Her dance prowess -- a flawless line and superior extension -- often masks the ballet's less effective theatrical aspects. Between ropes, mirrors, lights, cameras, clothing and, finally, a net, the iconography can get too thick to process. Still, Image succeeds in demonstrating Parker's ability to act out an emotional role while captivating an audience with her joyous ability to dance.
Image set the stakes high for Anderson, who came into some of her own during Bartok Concerto. In this work last Thursday, she appeared more relaxed, more willing to provide some essential elements of performance (such as a bit of personality). This ballet has been called the most Balanchinesque of Stevenson's works, and that certainly holds true. It is in the darting, truncated movement of Bartok that Anderson's strength finally finds an outlet, her fantastic spinning shown off in Stevenson's vocabulary of arcs. Unfortunately, her personality shuts on and off, lacking the consistency her dancing so readily displays.
Though in her time with the Houston Ballet Lauren Anderson has danced many classical roles, Bartok Concerto makes it clear, again, that she's best in more contemporary works. The Ballet has been built around the romantic style of Janie Parker, but with Parker tying up her toe shoes, it may be time to start rebuilding it around another style. It's obvious that Anderson, an ultra-contemporary ballerina, needs to dance pieces created for her, not someone else. No doubt Ben Stevenson has already given that some thought, but how far, and how quickly, the Ballet can be moved to accommodate Anderson's distinctive sense of movement remains to be seen. The question is whether or not Stevenson and the Ballet are ready to make the leap from the success they've enjoyed with lyric story ballets into a different, and riskier, arena.
Four Last Songs, Image and Bartok Concerto will be performed through June 2 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-