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Houston Ballet's Director's Choice: American Ingenuity Is a Showcase of Technical Prowess

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The Houston Ballet’s season opener Director’s Choice: American Ingenuity is a very successful exercise in restraint. The mixed repertory program features the company, including Connor Walsh, Karina Gonzalez, Ian Casady and Yuriko Kajiya, in three works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe.

The trio of works, each performed on a bare stage and featuring costumes in muted colors, share a focus on technical perfection. Rather than a dozen fast and furious pirouettes, the dancers execute three flawless ones. Instead of jaw-dropping leaps and lifts, we see moves performed with extraordinary exactness.

The danger of such a program, of course, is for the dancers to deliver robotic rather than robust performances. Happily, the Houston Ballet avoids this particular pitfall by adding a generous amount of sophistication to the sense of control.

The program starts with Theme and Variations, a 1947 work by George Balanchine that's set to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G major, Op. 55. Connor Walsh, Yuriko Kajiya and two dozen company members fill the stage with precise, classical movement. (Jared Matthews and Soo Youn Cho share the lead roles with Walsh and Kajiya.)

The piece is understated in every way; movement is controlled and exact, costumes are muted and the set is bare, with just a few chandeliers hanging overhead. 

Houston Ballet orchestra conductor Ermanno Florio led the musicians in a deceptively complex performance. 

Other Dances showcases Karina Gonzalez and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama in a pas de deux Jerome Robbins created on the celebrated Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976. (Sara Webb and Connor Walsh share the roles.) Robbins seamlessly pairs classical ballet movement with elements of folk dance. Pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, onstage with the dancers, performs Chopin’s romantic score beautifully.

Gonzalez, as usual, manages to infuse the smallest movement with subtle emotion, making her performance a delight to watch. There’s no narrative to Other Dances, but Gonzalez and Yoshiyama charge their performances with personality and bits of humor, making it the most satisfying of the program.  

Other Dances is one of two company premieres (the other is Forsythe’s Artifact Suite) and a lovely addition to the Houston Ballet repertoire.

Artifact Suite, with costume, lighting and stage design as well as choreography by William Forsythe, has a decided sense of cohesiveness. And purpose. The dancers march across the stage directed by Bridget Kuhns as Other Person, a sort of combination entranced ballet master and aircraft ground handler cyborg.

A combination of highlights of Forsythe's four-act Artifact, Artifact Suite has a geometric feel to it, with the dancers capturing angles and straight lines throughout.

Set on a bare stage with lighting towers visible in the wings, Artifact Suite features percussion by the dancers in the way of claps and stomps as they perform. Even the curtain adds a big thump every time it repeatedly closes, bringing an exclamation point to each break in Bach's Chaconne in D-Minor score. It opens each time to a new scene with the dancers rearranged across the stage and different lighting. (One break is slightly longer than the others, allowing for a costume change.)

See Houston Ballet's Director's Choice: American Ingenuity at 7:30 p.m. on September 16 and 17;  2 p.m. on September 18, 2016. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas.  For information call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25 to $195.

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