Simon Ball partners up with Mireille Hassenboehler in 
    the Stanton Welch premiere Nosotros.
Simon Ball partners up with Mireille Hassenboehler in the Stanton Welch premiere Nosotros.
Jim Caldwell

The Best of Us

It may have come after February 14, but Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch served up a romantic valentine for Houston audiences with his newest world premiere, Nosotros. The title, the Spanish word for "us," aptly sums up the theme of this abstract ensemble piece, whose 11 duets showcase the quick-paced partnering strengths of the company.

Despite the name of HB's winter repertory program, "Rock, Roll & Tutus," this first of three pieces has none of the above. Set to Sergei Rachmaninoff's popular Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini -- remember the Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour tearjerker Somewhere in Time? -- Nosotros is modern in its speed and sweeping lifts, while evoking a classical, romantic image. Pat Padilla's floating gowns and flesh-toned tights enhance the mood, as does Christina Giannelli's star-studded backdrop, which conjures a dreamy spring night. And, like modern love, the choreography is tinged with sensual, sometimes downright sexy, steps. From the delicate butterfly beats of ballerina feet to the languorous développés of their long legs, Welch has created a work that showcases the best of "us," both new company stars such as Mireille "Mimi" Hassenboehler and longtime favorites such as Sara Webb and the delicious Barbara Bears.

This isn't one of Welch's kick-ass, high-octane contemporary works like Divergence, with its raw sex and Madonna-like corsets. It's much more classical and softer -- yet it's another sign that Welch has untapped talents in the dancemaking department and should continue to surprise and delight local dancegoers.

The rockin' part of the evening came with Christopher Bruce's fabulous tribute to the Rolling Stones and '60s machismo, Rooster. This is one of the troupe's signature pieces, like Paul Taylor's Company B, and it's hard to believe we haven't seen it since 1998. If Nosotros is a love letter to the women of the company, Rooster is a cock-sure compliment to the guys. And yes, if you previously got to witness Carlos "Air" Acosta's pyrotechnics in this work, you might be reminded that the company doesn't have a male dancer of his talent. Heck, there aren't many companies that do. But what looks even better about Rooster today is that the entire male corps is much more even. They've raised the bar for everyone, and it looks darn high.

Opening night, Ian Casady and Shingo Yoshimoto strutted and preened in their colorful crushed-velvet jackets and skintight pants to such tunes as "Little Red Rooster," "Lady Jane" and "Ruby Tuesday," where the female lead gets thrown into the air to the sounds of Mick Jagger. Sure, lots of ballets -- from the Joffrey's Prince-ly Billboards to Twyla Tharp's Billy Joel-driven Movin' Out -- have used pop music to engage audiences. But Bruce's brilliance is in his feel for interpreting the music, of going beyond the lyrics and into the very emotion of the songs. He doesn't just set steps to the music; he creates a structured, fully fleshed dance, one that just happens to rock like mad to the Stones.

And for those needing their tutu fix, HB throws in Serge Lifar's 1943 abstract classical work Suite en Blanc. This is a company premiere of the Paris Opéra Ballet leader's work, and here the coaching of Houston's new artistic associate Maina Gielgud shines through like starlight. This celebrated ballerina brings a clarity of line and sense of control to the company's classical work that has been missing in the past. Suite en Blanc is a big ensemble piece with dancers in white tutus and tights. It focuses on crystalline classical movement. Five years ago, I wouldn't have thought the company capable of a piece like this, yet they hold more than their own this time. In fact, the entire evening is a snapshot of where the company has arrived, talent-wise. From the dazzling solos to the corps work, Houston Ballet members seem secure in this rep, whether they're dancing contemporary, rock and roll or classical.


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