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Houston Ballet Jubilee of Dance: A Tribute to Cecil C. Conner Jr.

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I've learned that as a general rule with the Houston Ballet, "one-night-only performance" means go, or you'll wish you would have. Jubilee of Dance was every bit the rule.

The performance honored 69-year-old Houston Ballet Managing Director Cecil Conner Jr., who will have been with the company 17 years when he retires in February. There could be no greater tribute to a ballet-phile: The company packed in excerpts from a dozen ballets, along with four stand-alone works, making for nearly three hours of wildly diverse classical dance.

Act One was almost entirely back-to-back pas de deux, from Manon to The Sleeping Beauty to Swan Lake. To see the most renowned declarations of love in the history of ballet -- in one night -- was indeed a rarity. Artistic Director Stanton Welch presented the work in such a way that highlighted the evolution of classical choreography. The pas de deux from Le Corsaire flaunted the impeccable technique, majestic leaps and perfect finger turns of Kelly Myernick and Jun Shuang Huang. Back when this work was created in the 1800's, male leads won over their ladies through total peacockery. Women always seemed to fall straight into the arms of the macho man with the biggest jumps and most turns. Fast-forward to the pas de deux from Jorma Elo's ONE/end/ONE, which premiered last May on the same stage. The choreography, every bit as clean, was much more minutely technical. It seemed to express a more convoluted and intimate love, one where the dancers Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh literally get tangled in each other. Every small movement here is captivating, and Elo comes up with impossible lifts. Far quirkier than its predecessors, this pas de deux is complex contemporary love at its best.

The most fabulous part of the night was the premiere of "C-Sharp Minor," a pas de deux choreographed by Houston Ballet soloist Melissa Hough for herself and James Gotesky. Even the incredibly sexy black mesh costumes came from the company, designed by corps member Allison Miller. Set to Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor, the steamy pas de deux stood out starkly from the rest of the program. Hough's great talent as a choreographer bodes well for the creativity of the company.

Jubilee saw the world premiere of The Gentlemen, a comic all-male work choreographed by Stanton Welch and dedicated to the man of the evening, Cecil Conner Jr. Adopting Conner's typical dress, the men wore bowties and suspenders and stormed the stage with vaudevillian energy. Welch's choreography was a refreshing delight. The night ended with Welch's Bolero, a revival from its debut in 2004. Emerging one by one from the upstage recesses, dancers clad in simple black leotards -- shiny black tights for men -- performed mini solos. As the music slowly swelled, so did the number of dancers on the stage, until it was filled by the entire Houston Ballet and Houston Ballet II. In an epic farewell to 2011 and one of its great talents, Houston Ballet proved that the company is ready for anything.

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