Full-Fledged Frolics

It's unusual for a Houston Ballet opening night, one with a local Paul Taylor premiere, to have so many empty seats. But it's also unusual for a new Taylor piece to be the weakest in the Spring Repertory Program.

Don't get the idea that modern master Taylor's new work for HB, In the Beginning, is bad. It isn't. But the company looks so stellar in the other two pieces, Ghost Dances and Etudes, that by the end of the evening you're having a hard time remembering what all the Taylor buzz was about.

In the Beginning, which the company first performed at the Kennedy Center in April, doesn't look to become the timeless masterpiece that the company's other Taylor work, Company B, is. Nonetheless, it's a frolicking, frothy look at creation through Taylor's freewheeling movement and wry sense of humor. Jehovah begets Adam and Eve, who beget Cain and Abel, and multiple Adams and Eves, who mirror the rise and fall and rise of the original couple. Principal Dominic Walsh as Jehovah is an angry god, stamping and spinning and banishing the Adams and Eves to the desert until he relents and brings them back to the fold in a rather bland, if accurate, ending to the biblical tale.

Flashes of Taylor genius appear in the Genesis tale in Walsh's Jehovah moves and in the birthing sequences where the original Eve shakes and protrudes her tummy before spreading her legs so the offspring come tumbling through her legs. Partnering sequences, such as the Adams dragging their Eves through the desert, are also quite good. Stellar are the strange Hasidic-chic costumes and lunar sets by Santo Loquasto and lighting by Jennifer Tipton.

As good as In the Beginning is, it's just the beginning of the evening. Ghost Dances, by company associate choreographer Christopher Bruce, looks, if possible, even better than in previous years. The new crop of dancers, still led by Walsh, who trades in his Jehovah prayer outfit for the painted face and loincloth of the ghost dancer, takes to Bruce's choreography like ducks to water. In this haunting ode to Chile's 1973 revolt, Bruce moves dancers across the stage in ways both athletic and engaging. The realistic mountain backdrop, the eerie lighting designed by Nick Chelton and the costumes by Belinda Scarlett are just icing on the cake of choreography here. The movements, from the smallest poses of the tribal ghost dancers to the ghostly ensemble's folk dance/zombie moves to the frenzied patterns in the finale section, are nothing short of brilliant.

Barbara Bears, post-baby, is now back with the company and makes an appearance looking smashing as one of the peasant ghosts, and Nicholas Leschke is stunning as a more urbane ghost in a suit, whose "Thriller"-esque moves end in a final slow-motion walk as the ghost dancers lift him into the air, and into death. The haunting South American music of Inti-Illimani is, at turns, breathtaking, eerie and frantic. Ghost Dances is one of those perfect pieces that moves you on multiple levels: emotional, artistic and technical. It has been in the company's rep since 1988 and is still one of the best contemporary works Houston Ballet does.

Another surprise of the evening was the chestnut Etudes, Danish choreographer Harald Lander's tribute to true classical dance. In the repertory of major companies around the world since 1948, Etudes is a ballet about ballet. From the simplest basic positions -- done at barres à la classroom exercises -- to full-fledged pas de deux, amazing male solos and nonstop corps work, this dance takes you on a rollicking ride through classical ballet. Images of sylphs, swans and sugar plumlike fairies dance through all the classical vocabulary. It comprises layer upon layer of pirouette parties, barrel-turn patterns and plate-tutued piqué turns that will make your head spin in delight. Technically and endurance-wise this is a very demanding ballet. And while there are a few just-shy-of-completed turns and an occasional thank-God-I-made-it landings, overall the company performs with intense line, fine attack and clear uniformity. Precise arms in port de bras and legs lifted in battements are not exactly the signature of this company, but they get it amazingly correct in this ballet.

Kudos go to the crystalline Mireille Hassenboehler and the two male leads, Zdenek Konvalina and Leschke.

Artistic director Ben Stevenson has put together a tasty sampling of three very different styles of dance, and his company has shown that it can chew them all with equal relish. Sans past megastars like Carlos Acosta and Nina Ananiashvili, as well as on-maternity-leave Lauren Anderson, this company is proving that the ensemble is the star in some pretty heavy-hitting choreography.

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Marene Gustin