Houston Ballet's Spring Mixed Repertory is a behemoth of heavyweight dances, including two titans of the ballet canon and a new work from this decade that has been making its rounds of the world's major companies. Together, the three pieces may be taken as an example of the general trajectory of Western dance, with George Balanchine's early Serenade (1934) a distillation of classical ballet vocabulary; Sir MacMillan's Gloria (1980), an observation of the modern world using that same vocabulary; and Alexander Ekman's Cacti, a hilarious repudiation of high-art pretensions, arguably built upon the legacies of the former dances.
Balanchine always looks great on Houston Ballet; the company's fine footwork and otherworldly musicality exemplify his smart, elegent style, but especially Serenade, the first ballet he choreographed in the United States. What makes Serenade so aesthetically pleasing to watch is the quality of the port de bras, the arms shifting through the familiar positions with an ethereal grace. It's a lesson in less is more, the simple gestures of the hand and strokes of the arm speaking volumes about the fleeting nature of beauty and the folly of perfection.
MacMillan's Gloria remains a potent meditation on war and its aftermath 36 years after its world premiere. The ballet opens on what looks to be the remains of an industrial landscape. People descend from the incline wearing metallic colored costumes that suggest military garb. Their hands shield their faces, and their heads are bent downwards; these are the remnants of a war-torn population. MacMillian's thematic material is the generation afflicted by the Great War, but his choreography is so modern and interested in the human form, the dance transcends its immediate sources of inspiration.
On opening night, Connor Walsh, Sara Webb and Ian Casady danced the principal roles, the haunted figures of human apathy and the inevitable desolation that comes from it. Francis Poulenc's opulent music lends the piece much lamentation, but the movement itself is equally solemn and weighted by a peculiar gravitas. The trio is adept at portraying such dramatic rumination, but their performances were measured and thoughtful, a counterpoint to the grandiose scale of Poulenc's composition. A sprightly quartet, danced by Chae Eun Yang, Chun Wai Chan, Christopher Coomer and Harper Waters, served as a reminder of brighter days, and the clear-eyed view of the world before it has been muddied by strife.
The program takes quite a tonal shift with the much-anticipated company premiere of Alexander Ekman's Cacti. It's a comedic piece, but so much more in what it has to say about how contemporary dance is created and digested. The dance is not about the prickly succulents, but they do make an appearance marked by a good-natured grand entrance.
Inspired by the rituals of Tibetan monks, Ekman's choreography is a counterpart to his musical selections, performed live by the Apollo Chamber Players. The dancers' bodies become instruments themselves, creating a percussive rhythm that is compelling entertainment. Ekman possesses a heightened sense of theatricality, allowing him to use his movement to interpret comedic impulses in the music.
There are many fun moments, especially when the company is moving as a single body, but what is the relationship between dancer and cactus? That's probably what his fictional critic is thinking as he writes his review, which hilariously has nothing to do with the dance itself. The critic beats himself up about what the meaning of the dance is, not seeing the obvious. He creates a thesis, as all critics do, but it's all pomp and circumstance. He sees everything but the dance, and the dancers joyfully inhabiting it.
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I don't mind saying that I think that for all its prettiness and celebration of the classical vocabulary, Serenade is a bit old-fashioned. Or at least it feels as much when compared to the emotional weight of MacMillan's Gloria, which remains interesting to watch with repeated viewings. And it's a bit sad to think that Gloria is still so powerful because the somberness of human conflict is such an indelible part of 21st-century consiousness.
But then there's the fresh, bold sensation that is Cacti, a work that turns the establishment of contemporary dance on its head by being all about the movement and the music and the actual art of it all. It feels daring, not because of Ekman's dismissal of the modern-day critic, but because of his fearlessness in creating concert dance that is first and foremost entertaining.
Houston Ballet's Spring Repertory Program runs through June 5 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit houstonballet.org or call 713-227-2787. $20-$145.