The Set-Up: As far as choreographers are concerned, the world of ballet is a male one. But Houston Ballet continues its tradition of celebrating female dance-makers with Women@Art, a mixed-rep program featuring work by Julia Adam, Aszure Barton and the incomparable Twyla Tharp.
Ketubah, Julia Adam's Jewish wedding portrait, is less memorable than what comes later in the program, but in itself the dance is a delight. The dance is a chronicle of Jewish matrimonial traditions, including the bathing of the bride, a party for the groom and his friends, the canopied wedding ceremony, consummation and the immediate thrill of newlywed bliss. Much of the choreography draws from Eastern European social dance, which adds an engaging and playful element to the meditative subject matter. What really brings these piquant scenes to life is the klezmer music performed by The Best Little Klezmer Band in Texas. This raw, full-bodied Jewish tradition is the perfect counterpart to Adam's unvarnished and honest marriage theme.
Enough cannot be said of the world premiere of Aszure Barton's Angular Momentum. It's a fascinating piece, and one that takes some time to digest. Even then, it's a bit difficult to fully grasp its intentions. Contemporary sci-fi ballet may sound a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it might be just as good a description as any.
From the first phrase, it is clear that the audience is viewing visitors from another world. Or more startling, we become visitors to their world, the fun, kinetic and slightly disconcerting mind of Ms. Barton. The dance is characterized by its sharp, birdlike movements and common gestures that one would not expect to see on a world renown stage. Hands wave, shoulders shrug, and torsos shimmy for choreography that is as bizarre as it is stimulating. There are throbbing, palpitating sequences where the dancers take striking Eastern poses and move in hypnotic undulations of the space. All this while in spacesuits.
If the shimmering gold costumes are not suggestive of space travel, then the accompanying composition surely is. At one point in the piece, the audience listens to static followed by NASA communication of the 1965 launch of Gemini 4. In the most awe-inspiring moment of the night, a dancer is lifted across the stage in slow motion, as if her leaps are being stalled by the absence of gravity.
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It may be redundant to fawn over Twyla Tharp's The Brahms-Haydn Variations, but there's a reason why Tharp is a seminal figure in contemporary dance. Just as composers create variations in which themes in their music are repeated, choreographers can create movement motifs with recognizable patterns. Tharp matches Brahms' music with choreography that complements the central melody.
Dancers in creams and soft copper enter and exit the stage in waves of lifts and extensions; men leap and women promenade, at moments in pairs and at others in groups. Tharp has always had a way with large bodies of dancers, and the same is true in Variations. The most gorgeous moments are when the full cast is on stage, the fractured movement becoming a single unit that swells and falls in warm energy. This is ballet for sure, but it's dance that feels of this moment, fresh, relevant and vital.
The Verdict: Three dances, three styles of movement, three reasons why there needs to be more women at the choreographic helm. Women@Art succeeds in showing that women can contribute more to ballet than a pretty line or immaculate feet on pointe. The works by Adams, Barton and Tharp are compelling, insightful and, most importantly, a joy to watch.
Women@Art runs through September 30 at Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.