In the early 1980s, Ashley Wheater was a young dancer for the Australian Ballet; at the time the company was led by Garth Welch. Stanton Welch, Garth's son, was 14 years old and at the beginning of his dance training. The young men met and remained friends over the years. Fast forward to today and the pair now lead two of the most prestigious dance companies in America. Ashley Wheater is artistic director for the famed Joffrey Ballet and Stanton Welch is the artistic director for the Houston Ballet. Joffrey Ballet is in town, courtesy of the Society for the Performing Arts, to perform its American Legends program, an evening of works by celebrated American choreographers, including Stanton Welch's Son of Chamber Symphony.
At Wheater's invitation, Welch set his complex and athletic three-movement work Son of Chamber Symphony on the Joffrey Ballet company in 2010. Welch has been said to give the corps de ballet choreography more often set on principal dancers and soloists. That tendency is evident in Son of Chamber Symphony.
"Technically, it's very difficult," Wheater tells us. "It's really demanding for everybody. And the thing about it is that the company's completely exposed; you can really hone in and see what the company can do, what each dancer is capable of. What I love in Stanton's work is that he believes in the language of classical ballet. He wants to keep people having to work at it and to be on their game. In the piece you can see everything that's required of us as a classical dancer. and it's in a very contemporary way."
In a nod to Welch's classical but deconstructed and pulled-inside-out choreography, the dancers wear costumes that are also inside-out. (There are tutus, but they're single-layered and translucent. They would be more at home in Alice in Wonderland than in Swan Lake).
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"It's a small detail but the costumes are all made inside out," Wheater says. "The tutus are wafer thin and what's really beautiful is that the light is able to go right through them. Sometimes when a dancer is wearing a traditional tutu is that it casts a shadow on the upper part of the leg. With these tutus the light goes right through them and you can see the leg all the way to the hip. It creates a different line."
American Legends is a three-act program. Jerome Robbins's non-narrative Interplay opens the first act, followed by Christopher Wheeldon's pas de deux After the Rain.
Welch's Son of Chamber Symphony is performed during the second act. The third act is Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs, a work that Wheater considers a representation of the special relationship between Tharp and company founder Robert Joffrey.
The Joffrey Ballet performs its American Legends program at 8 p.m. Friday. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $25 to $105.