Houston Ballet Kicks Off An Auspicious Season

For kids, it's back-to-school. For dancers and their fans, it's back to The Wortham. On opening night the members of Houston Ballet looked well-rested and ready to roll, and there's plenty of new blood in the ranks. We found the program, for the most part, exhilarating.

Aside from its solid, classical construction and challenging workout for the dancers, artistic director Stanton Welch's Tu Tu is also a great way to foreshadow the French-inspired "Emeralds" section of upcoming performances of Balanchine's Jewels. Thursday night, fiery Corps de ballet member Nozomi IIjima made the most of her shining moments in the Gold Couple, with none other than seasoned principal Connor Walsh at her side. It was probably Mireille "Mimi" Hassenboehler however, who won the loudest response from the audience at curtain call. On the sidewalk during intermission, devoted fan Angel Castro admitted that he had instigated the cheers. "Oh, Mimi!" he exclaimed, rolling his eyes. Does she know she has such adoring fans?

The fervor over Bruce Beresford's recently-released film Mao's Last Dancer is auspicious, since it happens to coincide with the first performances of new principal dancer Jun Shuang Huang, who hails from Shanghai. Formerly with the Guangzhou Ballet, the stunning young artist has likely never appeared in a ballet by Europe's greatest living choreographer, Jiří Kylián. Opening night, his dancing in Kylián's 1981 masterpiece Forgotten Land was cautious but still on the mark. The Chinese dancer is tall, lithe, highly expressive, and seemingly the perfect partner for Houston's beloved Hassenboehler, who has been with the company since 1992. His presence is invigorating for everyone concerned, not least of all his new audience.

Jun Shuang Huang is going to have to suffer the comparisons to legendary former Houston Ballet dancer Li Cunxin for months to come, maybe years, which seems unfair. After all, we don't expect every dancer from Latvia to look like Mikhail Baryshnikov, do we? Balletomane Dick Evans, however, pointed out during intermission that Mao's Last Dancer gives Houston Ballet fans, especially recent ones, a rare chance to look backwards. "Most of us never knew that wonderful history," he said with enthusiasm.

How disappointing that the thrilling mood established by Welch's Tu Tu and then Kylián's lush Forgotten Land was quickly squashed by a reprise of Welch's 2008 The Core, a painful flop that attempts to celebrate George Gershwin, "the heart of the Big Apple," as he is described in the program. This zealous slice-of-city-life epic feels more like the lead characters from A Streetcar Named Desire stumbled into Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free, but without the irony. And we're not kidding about that, since the characters danced by Simon Ball and Karina Gonzalez are named Stanley and Stella. What was Welch thinking when he choreographed this disaster? The humor and narrative he captured so successfully in Pecos Bill fall flat here, making this dance little more than a busy parade of exhausted archetypes. It was saved only by pianist Katherine Burkwall-Cicson's expert interpretation of the Gershwin Concerto in F, less than an hour after she had played the Ravel Concerto in G major. Now that's worth more than just one "bravo!"

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