Houston Ballet caps its spring season with a brand of theatrically rich dance that continues to set this company apart. Like Dracula, Peer Gynt features a suppressed, depraved male antihero from the 19th century who turns innocent women into victims, while keeping audiences in his charismatic thrall. Peer is a womanizing rake who's easy to love. Like most, he gets his fill of various females for awhile, but eventually life slows him down, giving him long bouts of suffering, a well-deserved comeuppance and, finally, wisdom.

Peer's adventures emerge in a series of well-timed, visually poignant vignettes. Author Henrik Ibsen inoculated the carousing Peer with doses of sex appeal that keep audiences mesmerized -- reminiscent of the tantalizing Count Dracula -- in spite of his selfish habits of seduction. Adapted from the Norwegian playwright's lyrical drama, the Houston Ballet story moves from harsh bucolic realism to the romance of an otherworldly fiefdom imbued with the familiar violin strains of Edvard Griegs's Peer Gynt Suite. We follow the young Peer as he leaves his native village for romantic, moonlit forests, an Egyptian desert and an insane asylum.

When Peer is at his most heartless, Ben Stevenson's choreography touches on the amazing. He accomplished that in spite of distracting mechanical squeaks in Act II and problems lowering some of Peter Farmer's scenic drops, which marred opening night Thursday at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater.

Although principal dancer Dominic Walsh will perform the role of Peer only two times out of six this season, he's extremely well suited for the part. He brings chiseled good looks and seasoned agility to the role he first performed in 1995. One minute he gets to play the indolent son stifled by his aging mother. Next, his eyes rivet on the reticent Solveig (Barbara Bears), then on Ingrid (Kathryn Warakomsky), an eye-catching girl who marries a middle-aged villager she doesn't love.

In several opening duets, Bears deftly translates shyness into elegant physical rebuff, using her outstretched left foot in the beginnings of a pirouette to keep Peer at a distance. She answers each of his seductive advances with a similar rebuff, giving the audience its first taste of Stevenson's choreographic ingenuity.

When he can't score with Solveig, Peer sees a chance to lure the bride, Ingrid, away from her new husband. Escaping from her wedding party, Ingrid throws herself at Peer. His response is chilly. This pas de deux between Walsh and Warakomsky is unsurpassed. Peer's reluctance to return Ingrid's attention comes through nicely as Walsh musters lukewarm acknowledgement, eventually standing rigid against Warakomsky's desperate clinging. Her cloying adulation comes across as she eases herself over and over beneath his spread-apart legs, forcing him to notice her and raise her to her feet. The more she demands, the more forceful he dismisses her. After his own mother, she's the first woman he disappoints.

Men and women take turns in the seduction game throughout the story. After Peer runs from the villagers who discover he has deserted Ingrid, he encounters three women in shimmering green gossamer who take him into the forest's bowels, replete with trolls and goblins. Soloist Sally Rojas is the long-legged, sinewy Woman in Green and daughter of the Mountain King who tries to seduce him. He manages to escape her lure, but he gets what he deserves when faced with an exotic man-eater, the daughter of an Egyptian chieftain. As Anitra, the bare-legged principal Lauren Anderson seems a bit camp when she cocks her wrists like an Egyptian statue. She builds steam, though, entrancing Peer as members of her retinue flaunt her anatomy in the air before him. She entices Peer away from the parasol-toting American lady who has been keeping him company after he gets rich trading slaves in the Carolinas. The poor fool doesn't suspect Anitra's out to steal him blind and leave him beaten in the dirt.

In Act II, Peer ends up with ragged inmates hanging about listlessly in an insane asylum. But the one going genuinely crazy on opening night may have been set designer Farmer, who was plagued with mishaps in the lowering of some of the sets. Despite that, at this point the show's deft choreography gets fully complemented by Farmer's set and costume design.

Soloist Susan Cummins gives her career-ending performance as the Madwoman who corrals the inmates into crowning Peer as asylum king. (She ends her 14-year stint with the company to join her husband in Prague.) Cummins frets and hops about in a frenzy, jumping frenetically into Peer's arms a couple of times. The troupe will be hard-pressed to duplicate Cummins's ethereal airs and Gothic presence.

Three male dancers add a solid dose of fun to Peer's moonlight adventures. During the frolicking of Ingrid's wedding in Act I, Parren Ballard (who will alternate with Walsh in the lead role), Li Anlin and Mauricio Canete offer pyrotechnic leaps and antics atop a narrow banquet table.

As Peer gets deeper and deeper into trouble, the shy Solveig pines for him. When Peer comes under Death's grip after meeting the stranger in black, the sight of the aged woman, old and blind, returns him to the land of the living. Now hoary and decrepit, Peer lives the rest of his life with her.

Ibsen meant for this rake's halfhearted seductions to resemble the egoistic, character-flawed behavior of his Norwegian countrymen at the end of the romantic period. Although the origins of Peer's development will be lost on audience members, they'll sense some of Ibsen's disapproval. It won't be too far from our own era's universal reproof of loose morals among the elite and presidents. In Peer Gynt, Houston Ballet fuses drama and lyricism in awe-inspiring ways.

Peer Gynt runs through June 20 at the Wortham Center's Brown Theater, (713)227-ARTS. Tickets: $11-$84.


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