A Rippin' Rep

In the beginning Stanton Welch created a dance program and saw that it was good.

Houston Ballet's young new artistic director pulls off a minor miracle with the season's opener: He melds new and old dancers into one cohesive company, and brings three choreographers into one consistent program. And this blend creates a seamless victory that looks to catapult Houston's troupe to the next level of artiste.

Anyone with any interest in ballet, or modern dance or theater with music -- or just needing two hours and 20 minutes of eye movement -- should check out the Fall Repertory Program now at the Wortham Theater Center. This is not the usual here's-the-history-of-ballet performance, with a new short work sandwiched between a classical pas and an older European offering.

Those traditional evenings generally do not fare well with Houston audiences, who tend to throw box office money at big splashy story ballets. But this rep evening showcases three brilliant, modern choreographers of neoclassical ballet. The movement vocabulary becomes a shared language between Welch, the equally thirtysomething choreographic associate Trey McIntyre and the legendary William Forsythe. This is not ballet yesterday, today and tomorrow -- it is ballet right now.

Welch opens with his own work, A Dance in the Garden of Mirth (premiered by Atlanta Ballet in 2000), a postmodern take on the happy peasant dances of story ballets. This ensemble piece for four couples is plotless but not heartless, showing dancers of an indeterminable period cavorting to medieval music from the 13th and 14th centuries. The movement is all about angles, pliés in second, upper-body flexibility and Middle Eastern middles. It is fun, beautiful, fluid and quite speedy for this company. The structure of the piece is simple and serene: There are strong female and male solos, a lyrical duet, the saucy trio and the fleet and frolicking finale. Welch has new moves, but he manages to make even old standards, like overhead lifts in arabesque, look like fresh creations.

The lanky McIntyre flies back into town on the heels of his last-season success Peter Pan, with a new short-story ballet that continues his playfulness and use of props, but adds a layer of darkness. The world premiere of The Shadow, to Antonín Dvorák's Symphony No. 8 in G, Op. 88, is a collection of five slightly threatening Hans Christian Andersen tales. McIntyre blends them all together with contemporary movement, no miming allowed, simple sets and effective movie-style titles for each tale. Dominic Walsh dominates, appearing in three of the five vignettes, and is stellar as the selfish soldier in The Tender-Box and the evil shadow in title number, The Shadow. The latter tale gives chilling new meaning to the phrase "me and my shadow" and is a brilliant piece of story choreography about the shy poet (Luca Priolo) and his increasingly independent, and murderous, shadow. Other Andersen tales are the poignant The Dead Child, the love-is-bad The Naughty Boy and the completely sweet Thumbelina, a duet on opening night for the softly fragile Sara Webb and newcomer Simon Ball.

While the choreography of Welch and McIntyre complement each other, the offering by Forsythe (he's not a thirtysomething dancemaker, but not yet a dead white choreographer, either) kicks it up a notch and blows the cobwebs off classicism. Quintessential Forsythe is in the middle somewhat elevated (Paris Opera Ballet, 1988). It is Balanchine on crack. It is raw sex the way you wish you could choreograph sex, to a percussive, grinding score by Thom Willems. It is, as the finale piece of the evening, a preview of where Houston Ballet is heading, and that is into ballet today as it is in Europe or New York City -- exciting, fast, fresh. These elements are visible in the new company members, many expats of Boston Ballet such as Ball. Even longtime members, or those returning after a brief retirement, like Barbara Bears, seem to have a new vibrancy in their dancing. The upper bodies are more fluid, the feet more fleet and the corps more engaged than they have appeared in some time.

If only Houston could have been as engaged. This was the opening night of the ballet season -- a big opening, no less -- and empty seats abounded on the orchestra floor. Yes, there was a torrential downpour and a tornado watch, but the lack of interest was clear by the first intermission, when the audience began bleeding. A few more also vaulted for the valet during the second intermission.

This may not mean Houstonians won't like this new-style ballet (new to Texas, at least). Perhaps they just need a little time to come around.

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Marene Gustin