The Setup: Houston Ballet has started its two-weekend run of Journey with the Masters, a mixed-rep program featuring choreographies by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián and Jerome Robbins. From the classic to the comedic, it's a rich cross-section of masterworks from three of the most celebrated names in ballet.
The Execution: The show opener is Balanchine's Ballet Imperial, a piece that harkens back to the grandeur of pre-Revolutionary Russia. Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 is the musical setting for this celebration of classical ballet vocabulary. Repeated phrases showcase the regal elegance of picture perfect technique, made even more stately by the dazzling aqua tutus and the grand chandeliers that hang high overhead. The corps work is spectacular, a Balanchine trademark, and just as pivotal to the choreography as the soloists. The special moments are when the cast moves en masse, the repeated possés and sauté arabesques becoming a river of glittering blue.
Karina Gonzalez is magnetic in Balanchine's work, every turn of the head and flourish of the hand an extension of the music. She's luminescent as the soloist in pink, every tiny gesture a shard of pure beauty.
Jiří Kylián's Sinfonietta is also a study in form, but of a more geometric variety. There is an abundance of symmetry on display, from the even number of dancers onstage at any given moment to the mirror images created by outstretched arms and legs shooting in opposite directions. The beauty of Kylián's piece is the simplicity of its design. So much energy is generated by basic shapes moving through space.
After Sinfonietta, it's hard to look at leaps the same way again. The heavy brass instrumentation of Janáček's music underscores the majesty of that x-shape suspended in air. Dressed in muted earth tones, men and women create a whirlwind of leaps only to come to an abrupt stillness. Backs facing the audience, their arms reach upward as they step into an ambiguous horizon. The dance has the immediacy of the coming of day.
The final piece, Jerome Robbins' The Concert, is a parody that is as hilarious as it is true. The ballet examines the distinct personalities of an audience alternately enraptured and disinterested by a concert pianist. There is the young aesthete genuinely moved by the music of Chopin, there are the ingénues who think the purpose of a cultural event is to attract said aesthete and then there is the temperamental Bohemian girl who has not time for people, only art. As these characters listen to the music, their minds begin to wander and a ballet of the imagination commences.
Robbins doesn't just poke fun at the archetypes his characters are based on; he also has a go at the tropes that are commonly used in the world of ballet. When the women return to the stage in tutus prepared to dance, they bump into one another, lose their timing and fall out of formation even when they look to the next dancer for help. It's laugh-out-loud funny, and a good reminder that nothing, even ballet, should be taken too seriously.
The Verdict: Come for Imperial Ballet, and stay for The Concert. Awe at the beauty, and laugh at the absurdity. Houston Ballet offers a journey worth taking.
Journey with the Masters runs through June 9 at Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center. For information, call 713-227-ARTS or visit HB's website.