A Soaring Butterfly

Houston Ballet's second offering of the season was a clash of cultures: East and West in Stanton Welch's Madame Butterfly, and old and new in Butterfly versus artistic director Ben Stevenson's Five Poems.

Despite a torrential downpour and late curtain on opening night last week, the Brown Theater at the Wortham Center was almost full. And unlike the usual symphony or opera performances, nobody was hailing the valet during intermission. The audience was clearly there to see the Houston premiere of Madame Butterfly, although they warmly applauded the opening dance, Five Poems.

Stevenson's abstract 1999 work for eight men and three women is visually lovely, with blue-based designs by actress Jane Seymour and lighting by local whiz Christina Giannelli. And the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of silver-haired Ermanno Florio was brilliant as usual, lending the proper amount of angst and mood to the Richard Wagner score while soprano Jessica Jones sang the Wesendonck Lieder with beauty and grace.

But the dancing lacked the vibrancy seen in previous performances and made the choreography seem less than fluid. Even the usually stirring "Fourth Poem" seemed a pale comparison to Gerry Arpino's "Round of Angels," made more than two decades prior for The Joffrey Ballet.

Maybe the company is moving on, toward next year, when Stevenson will step down.

The future of Houston Ballet was in the second piece. Although made in 1995, four years before Five Poems, the two-act Madame Butterfly seems fresher and more contemporary than Stevenson's work. Here the company really danced, flowing through the choreography and shining in the storytelling. The brilliant wedding pas de deux was breathtaking in its movement and evoked Pinkerton's passion and Cio-Cio San's devotion, moving the story forward while letting the audience revel in the moment. Exactly what you want a grand pas to do.

Other choreographic moments stood out as well: the cymbal-like legs of the four uncles during the wedding scene, the heart-wrenching bourrées of the faithful Suzuki (Tyann Clement replacing Julie Gumbinner opening night), and the group scenes, oh, the group scenes. Welch moves dancers with fans and parasols around the stage like an impressionist's painting come to life. But lest Welch be handed the reins too quickly (he's a certain contender for Stevenson's post), there are a few shortfalls in his first narrative ballet.

Welch certainly isn't the first choreographer to inject comedy into a serious story dance, but it would be best if he were the last. An over-the-top Prince Yamadori, an arranged suitor for the abandoned Cio-Cio San, distracts from a poignant dance by the jilted one and the shadow-figure who jilted her. And the usually stalwart Phillip Broomhead dances American Consul Sharpless wonderfully, right up until the final scene, when he becomes positively melodramatic. Even soloist Sara Webb, easing into San's slippers for the injured Naomi Glass opening night, shows less theatrics in her hara-kiri scene.

Welch's previous abstract works for Houston Ballet, Indigo in 1999 and Bruiser in 2000, showed deft dancemaking, but he takes his craft to the next level with Butterfly. Welch marries the operatic score and story with movement, and graces the stage with beautiful costumes and sets by Peter Farmer. Theatrical touches such as the giant butterfly wings, flags carried by dancers and Pinkerton's spotlight blend into the plot, creating an experience that is a visual feast for audiences.

Houston Ballet needs more story ballets like this one and Trey McIntyre's Peter Pan of last season. They incorporate darn good dancing with the kinds of spectacles audiences weaned on Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Lion King have come to expect.

Stevenson is known as the king of story ballets, having given Houston and the world such recent productions as Dracula, The Snow Maiden and Cleopatra. While their dancing is not always well received by critics, they are always big shows. And big shows sell. Whether it's Welch or McIntyre or some other choreographer who succeeds Stevenson, it would be nice to see Houston Ballet ascend to the next level of big shows: a marriage of wonderful modern ballet with Broadway production values. The soaring wings of Madame Butterfly are a first leap in that direction.

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Marene Gustin