Houston Ballet's Mixed Rep Program is a Delight

Maybe it was just so damn nice to get out after Ike, but Houston Ballet's rescheduled opening of the Classically Modern mixed rep program last Friday was a sheer delight. The short program of four dances (in an air-conditioned theater, no less!) showcased the talented troupe and some wonderful modern-day choreographic takes on classical ballet movement.

A last-minute change had the program open with Artistic Director Stanton Welch's world premiere of Mediæval Bæbes, a celestial celebration of life and Mother Nature — just what the audience needed. The dance used the music of the UK group Mediæval Bæbes, which sorta sounds like the Pussycat Dolls singing Early Music, and it gave the women in the company full rein for flirty, earthy movements. Lisa Pinkham created a sky of starlight and fog for the show, and Welch designed the costumes of fitted blue bodices with flowing, slit-to-there skirts that the women worked furiously, looking like ancient goddesses at play in the universe. Opening night, Sara Webb worked that skirt and strutted her stuff, and the result was a round of applause and bravas.

Lest the boys feel left out, the second dance (which was supposed to open the program but, frankly, worked out better in this order) was the company premier of Hans van Manen's Solo, which is actually three solos in one. Randy Herrera, Connor Walsh and Oliver Halkowich all took turns in the spotlight, thoroughly enjoying the amusingly athletic choreography danced to Bach's Suite for Violin in D Minor. It was wonderful to see the guys whipping out turns and leaping like nobody's business.

Also a company premiere, added to the repertory in celebration of choreographer Jerome Robbins's 90th birthday, was the modern-day classic revamp of Afternoon of a Faun. Robbins's 1953 version has little in common with the Nijinsky dance from 1912, other than the use of the same score, Claude Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune, which the Houston Ballet Orchestra reveled in playing. It has nothing to do with wildlife, unless you count the kind that goes on in the rehearsal room — it features a simple practice room with barres and a sleepy lone male. Ian Casady did stretch his legs and torso like a wild thing as he awoke from a needed nap, but he reverted to human as he spied a delicate female dancer. Casady was definitely smoldering as he partnered the almost ethereal Amy Foote in a sensually slow pas de deux. But in a wry comment on dancers, Robbins's choreography had the young lovers more interested in their own reflections in the mirror than in igniting an amorous flame.

Welch is certainly a world-renowned modern choreographer, as is van Manen, and Robbins is a recognized genius in dancemaking. But when it comes to classically modern movement, it's George Balanchine who still rules. The works of the man who reinvented ballet and made it truly American can still bring even ballet neophytes almost to tears of rapture, and his iconic Symphony in C is no exception. It's a big-scale tutu ballet on 'roids, with the entire company raging through classical ballet steps at lightning speed. The sound of the full orchestra inspired dancers and audience members alike with George Bizet's rushing strings and eloquent slow passages, with the women's blindingly white plate tutus and the simple lighting design by Christina Giannelli dazzling over it all. This Balanchine ballet is all about long legs, from the unison footwork of the large corps to the heavenly extensions of the lead dancers. And though the stage was mostly a sea of tutus and pointe shoes, there were eight men who partnered the four lead and four secondary ballerinas, and they were no slouches either. The once-again dazzling Sara Webb got extra star power by pairing with the exuberant Connor Walsh; the lyrical Mireille Hassenboehler hooked up with the princely Simon Ball; petite Hitomi Takeda danced with the up-and-coming (or is he already here?) Randy Herrera; and Foote and Casady gave it another whirl as partners, this time much more into each other.

Symphony in C is a celebration of dance, a celebration of life. Despite canceled performances, dancers without power shacking up with other dancers (one kind soul took in at least a dozen other performers post-Ike), not to mention war, politics and financial crisis, somehow watching a company that really gets classically modern dance — and loves it — makes everything seem almost right with the world.

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Marene Gustin