The setup: Houston Ballet presents Artistic Director Stanton Welch's dance interpretation of the iconic Puccini opera, Madame Butterfly, a tragic tale of betrayal set in nineteenth century Japan. The program also includes Clear, a one-act ballet that showcases the company's deep field of talented danseurs.
The Execution: As his first full-length ballet, Madame Butterfly is Welch's calling card. Taking its cue from the famous opera, which in turn was inspired by the popular fictional narrative by John Luther Long, the ballet tells the story of the beautiful geisha Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly. Forced into her vocation by the impoverishment of her family, she enters into a marriage arrangement with Lieutenant Pinkerton, a wily naval officer who is already betrothed to a girl on American soil. After the contract is consummated, Pinkerton returns to America, leaving Butterfly alone and bereft. Having been disowned by her family for converting to Christianity, her situation is pitiable; her longing becomes the audience's longing for justice on her behalf.
Butterfly is a sumptuous story ballet, yes, but what makes this work such an essential piece of dance art is its striking images. Take for instance, Cio-Cio San's character introduction in the opening wedding scene. Geisha after beautiful geisha materializes from a sea of fog, a fan demurely hiding each face and wrapped in white kimonos suggesting the ethereal. In like manner, Cio-Cio San bursts out of nothingness, placed onto the stage as if she is a spirit gracing the world of mere mortals. From the moment we see her, the audience knows Butterfly is not of this earth.
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It is obvious that Welch understands the power of images. The production is more than old-fashioned Orientalist confection. There's strong implications in the visuals, particularly in the concluding moment of Act I. Concluding a ravishing pas de deux, the reserved Butterfly gives herself over to Pinkerton. He leads her to their marriage bed and places her beneath him, her hand reaching towards the stars in both hopeful anticipation uncertainty. Butterfly is thus conquered over a shrine to the United States, complete with an American flag and a naval officer's cap. In this way, Welch's ballet becomes a scathing post-colonial critique.
Of course, none of these moments would be anything without the dancers and their movement. Sunday's matinee performance featured soloist Nao Kusuzaki in the lead role, and what was so special about her portrayal was her acute awareness of the character's nuances. Butterfly is not a cypher, but a multi-layered heroine. She is a woman who is ruled by the world around her, but is always in control of her destiny. Kusuzaki plays her with reckless abandon, and the audience feels every emotional strain. By the time Butterfly is forced to give up her child and meet her tragic end, the audience can only feel privileged to have been a witness to the life of an extraordinary woman.
A note must be made of Clear, which is performed before the main attraction. Welch's ballet for seven men and one woman is an exhilarating piece that explores the majesty of the male body in dance. Filled with baroque movements and classical shapes, highlights from the Sunday performance include Joseph Walsh, who has the uncanny ability of filling out every note in the music, almost elongating his limbs and spine to match each flourish of the familiar Bach score. Corps member Chun Wai Chan was also a nice revelation; in the adagio segment, his developpes were wondrous, creating lines that can only be achieved on a male body. In an art form that is all too often the realm of the leading lady, Clear is a nice departure from the standard repertoire.
The Verdict: Stanton Welch has choreographed a program that highlights the masculine/feminine duality of ballet. Clear showcases the strength, agility and showmanship of the male dancer, while Madame Butterfly is a testament to the grace and resilience of the female spirit. It doesn't matter which ethos takes center stage because in the end this double bill is thing of beauty. Madame Butterfly runs through September 16 at Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.