The Setup: Houston Ballet's spring mixed rep, Modern Masters, is an annual program that sees the company perform seminal works by the best choreographers of the 20th Century and today. This year saw Houston Ballet shine in works by George Balanchine, Nacho Duato, and Harald Lander.
The Execution: By now it is customary to see Houston Ballet in fine form when it comes to performing the many Balanchine pieces in its repertory. Balanchine, a Russian emigre who founded the New York City Ballet in 1948 and transformed ballet from an antiquated exercise into a commanding art form, created dances at a startlingly prolific pace. His choreography is characterized by an adherence to classical vocabulary with a specific stylization that completely subverts the Imperial tradition. Ballo Della Regina is an enjoyable confection compared to his esteemed masterworks, a vehicle for his obsession of the female form, but Houston Ballet's skilled corps was able to make the choreography substantive through its fine attention to detail and highly tuned petit allegro.
Soloist Allison Miller made for a beautiful centerpiece in last night's opening performance. Balanchine's dance showcased the fluidity and lightness of her dance, not to mention her notable musicality.
Ballo Della Regina is a nice program opener, but nothing quite prepares and audience for the guttural punch of Nacho Duato's Jardi Tancat, which still feels like a revelation thirty-two years after its world premiere. The title of the ballet means "walled garden" and is set to Catalan folk songs performed by Maria del Mar Bonet. Their is a primal quality, almost ritualistic magnetism generated by the powerful shapes created by the three couples. This is very much Modern dance with its Graham-based technique and beautiful contraction, and the dancers handled the grounded, rooted choreography with special dignity for its subject matter. These are Spaniards praying for rain and their very livelihoods are dependent on the outcome of their supplication. Everything is on the line, and the dancers are aware of this every step (and high release) of the way.
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The audience seemed to really enjoy Harald Lander's 1948 ballet, Etudes. It's been more than ten years since the company performed the work, but it's also a charming look at the progression of ballet movement. And for those who've never taken a ballet class, some might say it's insightful. Etudes begins at the barre, with simple, yet, refined tendu, degage, ronde de jambe, and grand battement exercises. Once the bars are moved away, the dance develops to the center and then gradually moves across-the-floor. There's some turn practice, small jumps, and then finally the movement reaches the grand allegro sequences.
Interspersed throughout the "class" are sections of a neoclassical ballet-within-a-ballet, which draws attention to four key figured, danced on opening night by Karina Gonzalez, Jared Matthews, Connor Walsh, and Ian Casady. We are reminded that all of the large, romantic tropes typically conveyed in ballet start with the minute and carefully articulated exercises in class. The five positions of the feet and the standard passage of port de bras are the basis for every grand sequence on the stage. Etudes is a fun divertissement if not much more.
The Verdict: Come for the Balanchine and the novelty of Etudes, but stay for the Nacho Duato. It's not just a dance to admire, but to cherish.
Modern Masters runs through March 22 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For more information, visit HB's website or call 713-227-2787.