What the heck took so long?
That's the question that comes to mind after seeing Houston Ballet's current repertory evening "Without Boundaries." The three-ballet production ends with the company's first Twyla Tharp work, In the Upper Room. This company rocks Tharp. The dancers look born to her movement, and they clearly have the talent and energy to excel in her breathtaking marriage of modern and classical dance.
The 1986 In the Upper Room hardly looks retro; it's as fresh, wild and soaring as anything choreographed today. Even Norma Kamali's red, black and white costumes are more hip than dated. And Santo Loquasto's dramatically stark set, along with Jennifer Tipton's innovative lighting, are just icing on this choreographic cake.
The 40-minute adrenalin-fueled ballet was inspired by Mahalia Jackson's song about the upper room where Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Last Supper, and Tharp makes the stage her own shrine to dance as religion. Starting with a swirl of fog, two women emerge to frame the stage, but the cast quickly builds as dancers seem to appear and disappear magically through the smoke with increasingly fierce and furious movements perfectly in synch with the driving pulse of Philip Glass's score. Tharp mixes what she calls stompers (in sneakers) with the bomb squad (women in blood-red socks and pointe shoes) brilliantly, so that instead of featuring either grounded, modern dancers or classical ballerinas, the corps becomes a blur of energy, arms and legs jutting here and there, ballerinas tossed from one stomper to another, people jogging and jeté-ing about. The pace builds toward the finale, when the entire cast appears together for one last glorious celebration.
In the Upper Room is one of Tharp's finest works, and Houston Ballet makes it its own. And, yes, maybe there is a reason it took so long to bring a Tharp work into the rep. Ten, even five, years ago, the company probably couldn't have pulled off this opus, but today the strength and talent of the dancers are more than equal to the challenge. Which means the real question we should be asking is, when do we get more thrilling Tharp?
"Without Boundaries" opens with another modern masterpiece, Jiří Kylián's Falling Angels, and here the girls get to dazzle all by themselves. Another '80s epic, Falling Angels is one of the Czech choreographer's black-and-white ballets. Set to Steve Reich's "Drumming" (wonderfully performed onstage by the Houston Ballet Orchestra's percussionists Christina Carroll, Tim Tull, Karen Slotter and Nancy Nelson), eight women in short black unitards rhythmically move through a depiction of their struggle to achieve perfection. With pulsating, flat-footed movements, they swish and sway to the beat of the drums, creating sexy, then fearful, scenes. With repeated tugging at the fabric on their abdomens, the dancers evoke pregnancy; they alternately swing their arms as though rocking a baby, then quickly mime punching motions. It's a fast-paced, pulsating look at how women view themselves. Opening night, Melody Herrera, Kelly Myernick and Sara Webb ate up the stage, and Lauren Ciobanu, Jessica Collado, Nozomi Iijima, Elise Judson and Katherine Precourt were no slouches either.
Sandwiched between these two '80s classics was a world premiere by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch. Elements is another short, plotless ballet set to lovely music by Paul Hindemith and danced by 40 members of the company. Mireille Hassenboehler gave it her all opening night as Mother Nature, with her sons Earth, Wind, Fire and Water partnering her and various other dancers, but something here just seemed lacking. Maybe it was the 2001: A Space Odyssey obelisk set or the rather boring costumes (both conceptualized by Welch), but more than that, it seemed the choreography was strangely stylized and stilted. Particularly when bookended by the energy of Falling Angels and the brilliant In the Upper Room, this piece seemed far from the talented Welch's best. One longed for the passion of his Divergence on this program.
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