There's a moment in ballet when dancers seem to hang in the air, their muscles sprung like coils, their pointed feet reaching toward the earth, their faces alive with the sheer excitement of defying gravity. It is a fleeting rush of energy, and the best dancers can make you feel it even as you sit still in your seat. It's the second before the ground, and in his 1996 ballet by that name, Trey McIntyre manages to make the second last half an hour.
Set to several African compositions recorded by the Kronos Quartet, Second Before the Ground is a bouncy ballet, with fast footwork, toss-up lifts, pelvic thrusts and modern takes on folky steps. But the steps themselves aren't what make McIntyre's work great. Neither is it the beautifully simple stage design nor the skin-tingling music nor the dancers' performances. (In fact, the male corps de ballet was a little off in the opening of the Houston Ballet's mixed repertory program on Thursday, May 24.) Second Before the Ground is a testament to McIntyre's ability to capture a feeling in his choreography, and to help his dancers radiate that feeling all the way up to the rafters of the Wortham Center. It is a rare talent.
Ostensibly, Second Before the Ground is a ballet about love, and there are many funny, flirtatious and wonderfully intimate moments between the lovers in the three pas de deux. But the work is just as much about McIntyre's love of dance. Falling in love can make you feel like dancing; dancing sometimes feels like falling in love. The underlying connection is a sense of giddiness, anticipation and joy, and McIntyre understands this. Judging by her performance, so does Dawn Scannell. The principal ballerina, who is retiring at the end of the season, danced her heart out in McIntyre's piece. She was confident and playful and in the moment. When she smiled that second before the ground, it didn't seem like acting.
Houston Ballet's Spring Mixed Repertory
Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue
Through Sunday, June 3, with some changes in cast. For tickets, $11.50-$101.50, call 713-227-ARTS.
Compared to the purity of McIntyre's piece, the other offerings on the mixed repertory bill seem just mixed up. Image, Ben Stevenson's 1988 solo tour-de-force created for former prima ballerina Janie Parker, has been dusted off to highlight principal Barbara Bears in her last season with the company. Based on Marilyn Monroe's quip, "If you're nobody, to be somebody, you have to be somebody else," and on a rather pathetic Marilyn wanna-be whom Stevenson saw on Oprah, the ballet plays up the dichotomy between Monroe's confident and seductive on-camera image and her inner world of insecurity and torment.
An impressive actress, Bears moves seamlessly from one personality to the other and back again. If only she didn't have to work around all those heavy-handed costumes and props. Her hip bones protruding through a flesh-colored body suit and a haphazardly shorn wig on her head, Bears's inner Marilyn looks a little like a concentration camp survivor. Not helping the Auschwitz image are a searching spotlight and stone walls that literally close in on her. Despondent, Bears swings around poles, hangs from ropes, screams without making a sound and convulses to Gustav Mahler's score. In the end, and somewhat strangely, she is hoisted up above the stage in a big net like a fish.
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I suppose the idea of the ballet is that Marilyn can't maintain her glamour-girl image, that when the cameras are gone she has nothing, but it's not a very interesting idea. As one ballet patron was overheard saying, "Duh."
Lila York's world premiere All American is also equal parts obscure and obvious. Set to Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, York's work is a tribute to the American man in general and to her father specifically. It must be said that York is a master at expressing music through the complex visual patterns of many, many dancers moving through space. But while the larger effect is impressive, the details leave much to be desired. The dozen male dancers riff on movements inspired by macho clichés: baseball tossing, rough-housing, muscle-flexing, running, jumping, competing.
The three women in the piece are almost extraneous: Scannell flits through the group of men pointlessly as an object of desire. Sara Webb plays a little boy in a pas de trois between grandfather, father and son. And as the men dance and play under a lighting design that is at one point -- ugh -- red, white and blue, a stoic Naomi Glass processes downstage in a wedding gown. She spins around and around, ever so slowly, eventually sinking to the floor. By the end of the movement, she is wrapped up entirely in a long train of white tulle -- confined, suffocated, bound.
All American may be a tribute to men, but York delivers her homage with a twinge of jealousy -- a woman longing for the freedom of the opposite sex. That feeling, unfortunately, is never truly explored.