If there were any doubts that the Houston Ballet is grooming Lauren Anderson to take over as the symbol of the troupe once prima ballerina Janie Parker steps down, last week's world premiere of Ben Stevenson's restaging of Don Quixote should have lain them to rest.
It's not just that Anderson was given the prime spot of female lead in the first performance of what's been trumpeted as the high point of the Houston Ballet's 25th anniversary season. Nor is it just that the T-shirts on sale in the lobby prior to the performance bore Anderson's image. Rather, it's that most of the promotional machinery geared up to push Don Quixote focused on Anderson -- whose picture was omnipresent in both advertising and pre-performance puff pieces in the Post and the Chronicle -- instead of on the fact that the ballet is an ensemble piece that shows off just how deep the talent runs in the Houston Ballet's corps of dancers -- though it is, and it does -- or on the fact that, even with Stevenson's new choreography, Don Quixote retains its distinction among the classical story ballets as a showcase for the male lead -- which it does.
Not that Anderson's a bad choice for the Houston Ballet's attention. As a native of Houston and a product of the Houston Ballet Academy, she's an easy locus for hometown pride. And Anderson is an admittedly fine dancer graced with an elegant ballerina's body. She has technique to burn, enthusiasm that radiates from the stage and a forceful style that's an intriguing contrast to the more willowy Parker. Too, the fact that she's African-American doesn't hurt. Black primas are rare in the world of ballet, and for a company trying to appeal to a city that's composed of considerably more than the standard Caucasian dance audience, highlighting a talented performer who also happens to be black isn't a bad move.
But if Anderson has most of what it takes to slip into Parker's pointe shoes, last Thursday's Don Quixote indicated that there's at least one area where she could use some work: she needs to learn how to act.
Acting may not be as crucial an element in companies built slavishly on the model created by George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet -- dancer Gelsey Kirkland has written of her battles with Balanchine, in which she'd ask the great choreographer what her motivation for a particular piece was, only to get the reply that her motivation was to do the steps right -- but Ben Stevenson has opted for a style in which story and character are crucial. It's a style that puts an extra demand on the dancer, requiring not just that she execute her choreography properly, but that she become the character who's dancing the steps. One of Janie Parker's strengths has been her ability to create emotion from movement, to not only dazzle with her proficiency but to engage the audience in the inner life of her performance. Anderson has the proficiency down pat, but she's still struggling to create the people who inhabit her actions.
Creating character in dance is a subtle endeavor. It's a slight fall of the shoulder at the right time, a stiffening of the back, a movement of the eyes. And it's possible that all Anderson needs is time to learn how to modulate her performance. But in Don Quixote, where her Kitri needed to be fiery, she found only petulance; where she needed to be swept away by love, she found only infatuation.
Her strength was in the steps. Luckily, she's able to execute them so well that the opening night audience, which was predisposed to like her even if she'd been performing in army boots and a trench coat, was swept away, giving her and the company standing ovations at both the end of the famous third act pas de deux and at curtain fall.
The adulation was not unearned. Ben Stevenson has crafted a commendable addition to the Houston Ballet's repertoire. If his Don Quixote isn't completely original -- anyone who's seen the version staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov for the American Ballet Theater, or any of the other versions that use as their base Marius Petipa's ballet, will recognize much that's here -- it is fresh and lively. And both the costuming and, in particular, the sets were marvels. Scenic designer Thomas Boyd has created a lush and engaging Spanish harbor town that would be entertaining to see even if it weren't the setting for some notable dancing.
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The story remains the same: we're introduced to Cervantes' knight in a mimed prologue that sets up his quest for his lady Dulcinea, then move quickly to the Barcelona harbor, where the ballet's true stars are introduced -- Basilio the barber and Kitri, his true love. The three acts tell the tale of Basilio's attempt to convince Kitri's father that he's worthy to marry her, with Don Quixote acting as an observer to the action and, when the plot requires it, a prod to get things moving toward Kitri's and Basilio's engagement
Though the evening appeared set up to showcase Anderson -- who did particularly notable work in the second act as the idealized version of Quixote's Dulcinea and demonstrated her considerable technical skill in the third act pas de deux, executing a difficult series of fouettes near flawlessly and balancing en pointe with an almost careless grace -- the true star to emerge from the performance is likely to be her partner, Carlos Acosta. In only his second year with the company, the Cuban-bred dancer matched Anderson step for step while managing to bring Basilio to full and vibrant life. He was all contained energy that exploded at just the right moment; perhaps the most honest piece of emotion to issue from the audience opening night came when Acosta, clearing an on-stage crowd for an entrance by Anderson, burst from the wings, legs akimbo, in an impossibly high leap. The audience gasped audibly. Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev both used Don Quixote to show off their prowess, and now so has Acosta. He's an exciting dancer who deserves to be watched.
Equally impressive in a secondary role as one of Kitri's friends was Dawn Scannell, a dancer who doesn't always get the notice she deserves. Though not given a great deal to work with, she nevertheless managed to pull attention her way. Scannell has learned the trick of inhabiting a character, of pouring emotion into every movement; each step she made seemed to issue from somewhere inside her. Unfortunately, she's not scheduled to dance the role of Kitri this time around; it would have been interesting to see what she would have done with it. Even if Lauren Anderson is the designated star of the Houston Ballet's future, she's going to need a virtuoso company to surround her, and Scannell deserves to be among the first in line.
Don Quixote will play through March 5 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, Texas at Smith. 227-2787.