The Setup: Houston Ballet is in the middle of its run of Modern Masters, a mix-rep program that features work by Balanchine, Jiří Kylián, and William Forsythe. Last Thursday night's opening performance featured some of the company's finest dancing in recent memory, including standout bits danced by Karina Gonzalez, Connor Walsh, Katharine Precourt, Nozomi Iijima, and Derek Dunn.
The Execution: George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments (1946) possesses the symmetrical beauty of a classical work while also embodying the spontaneity and vigor of a thoroughly modern mind. Balanchine's trademark use of a mobile pelvis, and his penchant for inserting handsome gestures into his choreography are both here in abundance, as is his stylistic motif of turning the human body into an abstract shifter. One can look at this ballet and attempt to interpret the four medieval temperaments its title refers to - melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic, and choleric - but I much prefer to observe the choreographer's love of the unorthodox. Those exits are quite memorable, and a feat unto themselves (walking backwards into the wings in a layout position anyone?), but even more impressive is his ability to turn repeated phrases and mass ensemble work into a kaleidoscope of shifting expression. Of noteworthy mention was Connor Walsh's dramatic personification of the melancholic, and Katharine Precourt's striking embodiment of the choleric.
The more sinewy and sensual side of the company was on full display in Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort. This dance has always been, for me, an examination of male and female behavior, how each sects behaves in packs of their own, and the moments when man and woman intersect one another. It begins with six men and their swords, an extension of their maleness and a physical representation of their virility. A later sequence sees six women glide onto the stage pushing enormous wheeled dresses for cheeky prop partnering work that turns the tables on the decorum the fine garments are supposed to represent. The real meat of Kylián's work is his partnering, which is so fluid, and so void of visible labor, the dancers appear to be made of something less concrete than solid matter. With music by Mozart, Petite Mort is a prime opportunity to display one's musicality, and no one does a finer job than Karina Gonzalez, who manages to turn every turn into resplendence.
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William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated (1987) is an impressive feat of athletic artistry. It's supposed to showcase the power and explosiveness that is inherent in the classical ballet vocabulary, and it does so and then some. However, Forsythe's study also seems a bit dated. The monochromatic techno score by Thom Willems does not feel as commanding as it was probably intended to, and Forsythe's banishment of the wings now seems superfluous where it once might have been rendered cutting-edge. But the main focal point here is the skill on display, of which there is much to praise here.
Corps member Derek Dunn in particular is a commanding presence on stage, and the lines he generates from his mid-height frame are as precise as an instrument of measurement. He's one to watch, especially as he matures and develops the theatricality that mark the men of the higher ranks. Equally captivating was Nozomi Iijima, who danced with a force that belied her willowy structure.
The Verdict: Modern Masters is a nice twentieth-century respite before the more traditional behemoth of Swan Lake coming up next. The program represents the best of what ballet can accomplished when it's set on a company of generous and committed dancers.
Modern Masters runs through June 1 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit the ballet's website.