Houston Ballet's Return of the Masters: Revived and Resplendent

Dance season is back, and just as the fall renews our cultural spirit (no longer must we spend Saturday matinee-time with barbecues and water guns), Houston Ballet renews three grand works from our cultural past. Return of the Masters features rare jewels from a trio of the twentieth century's greatest choreographers.

Some of the pieces are plucked from times long past, yet all three resonate on the modern stage.

As they're arranged, the pieces escalate in seriousness. First is Sir Frederick Ashton's ballet Les Patineurs, which he created in 1937. Cool blue lights turn the white floor into a sparkling sheet of ice, while choreography heavy on chassés and glissades evokes graceful skating. The ice rink is in the middle of a charming little forest, wouldn't you know, and lanterns illuminate the gnarled branches. It's all very pretty. The girls (I hesitate to call the skaters women, they seem so innocent) sport glittering winter wear of yore. Lavish long, romantic tutus and sparkling fascinators are just adorable next to the boys' vested jackets and cute little snowball caps. It's just all too sweet to handle. The rink is clearly devoted to couples happily in love, until the feisty teenage "Boy in Blue" usurps it to show off his mad skating skills. (And they're mad indeed. Joseph Walsh as the boy whips off flawless triple pirouette after perfectly landed pirouette.) You feel bad for the blue-clad boy, though. He doesn't have a girlfriend and tries to tag along with the couples, who are too entranced with each other to notice. Will he ever find....oh, wait, now he has two girls. Isn't ballet great?

And then, the requisite snow begins to fall. But this is not serious Sugar Plum Fairy snow that seems to dump from the rafters for nearly 20 minutes while stone-faced members of the corps bourrée in place for eternity. No, this snow is light and joyful, and the skaters seem surprised and excited by it. Choreographers have a tendency to forget how real humans would react to events, but Les Patineurs captures the thrill of snowfall beautifully, and you can't help but feel warm by the end. The whole work is simple and elegant.

Emotion ratchets up with Jerome Robbins's 1970 one-act ballet "In the Night." It's a very quiet work, set to Chopin nocturnes sung by a single piano. A velvety black background studded with small bright stars evokes absolute privacy -- a place for couples to express their innermost selves. That's what happens in all three pas de deux, though the results are very different.

One couple is so head over heels for each other that they pack in an inordinate amount of lifts and leaps, as if they cannot find heights high enough to explain how in love they are. They run off, smitten, and on comes a couple that expresses love in a different way. They have a flamenco-esque flair, exuding strength that hides a deep and passionate love. Three bronze chandeliers appear in the night sky, emitting a vague wave from civilization. But in this world, they are utterly alone. The third couple is the most torrid. The woman hesitates as her lover tries to dance with her, as if he's hurt her in a way she's not sure she can forgive. Back and forth, she grabs him and repels him, running off stage at one point only to run back on with equal force. He has his doubts too, and when she kneels face-down on the floor and touches his feet in an ultimate and somewhat disturbing pose of submission, for a second, you don't know what will happen. Then they cling together, tightly, while the other two couples run onstage to join them. We find out that they're all at a party together. And though they exchange pleasantries, their minds are all passionately on their lovers, who they run to suddenly and vigorously in the middle of small talk.

Song of the Earth is the main draw of "Return of the Masters," because it's so rarely performed and so masterful a musical work. Gustav Mahler wrote Song of the Earth as his last great musical work, following the death of his daughter and the knowledge that he too would soon die from a terrible sickness. The piece is dark and ruminates deeply on death, which Sir Kenneth MacMillan incorporated as a central theme in his choreography that premiered in 1965. The work employs five ancient Chinese poems, sung in German by two opera singers with the 63-piece orchestra. Even the large-scale musical production doesn't overshadow the ballet. The choreography is so different and intricate, it's hard to close your eyes to solely enjoy the music. It's all best experienced together.

Song of the Earth shows how death, a character embodied by a male dancer dressed in all black, lurks at every turn in the life of a male dancer whose time has clearly come. Death's spidery arms are ready to snatch him away from the very beginning, but the male lead holds out until he falls in love. Even at his intimate moments, like the joyous pas de deux, death is inseparable. As the piece goes on, death begins to partner the lover as much as the male lead, until finally, they're indistinguishable from each other and the woman finally accepts that her lover is dead.

Like the music, the dance is also inspired by Chinese art. MacMillan brought Orientalism to pointe work, according to a Houston Ballet press release. That style sings through this piece: flat, flexed feet pepper extensions, and lifts are woven into upside-down formations. Bent wrists and statuesque poses show MacMillan's appetite for diverse choreography, and his innovation still excites audiences today.

September 8-18 at the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. 7:30 p.m. on September 8, 10, 16 and 17. 2 p.m. on September 11 and 18. Tickets at www.houstonballet.org or by calling 713-227-2787. $18 and up.

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