In preparing to watch the opening night of Houston Ballet’s Winter Mixed Repertory Program, the excitement centered expectedly on Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite. As far as dance musicals go, it’s hard to beat West Side Story, with Robbins’ athletic, electrically charged choreography just as potent as the music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, respectively. In this musical, dance is elevated to prime mover of narrative and character development, and not just a snazzy accessory to a score of catchy songs. This particular suite was created in 1995 on the New York City Ballet and compiles the musical’s most iconic choreographic sequences.
But at the end of the evening, I wasn’t thinking about the program’s headliner. My thoughts were centered on Wayne McGregor’s fascinating Dyad 1929 and Ji?i Kylián’s eerie-gorgeous Wings of Wax. McGregor’s study of contrasts opened the evening with a burst of neon and fluorescent light, the Cullen stage turned into a white box that magnified every line and shape created by the six pairs of dancers.
Moritz Junge’s costumes created the foundation for McGregor’s play on geometry by using simple patterns using a three-color coding system consisting of black, white, and cream. Pairs of dancers moved in contrasting styles, some in hard angular shapes and others in sinewy isolations.And then there were moments when the contrast occurred between partners, the bodies then becoming opposing forces to each other.
The partnering was beautiful to watch; the dancers achieved a fluid, almost liquid quality despite the demanding elements that had to be executed at an accelerated tempo. Dyad is a technically challenging dance, but McGregor also seemed to be interested in pushing the musicality of his choreography. Steve Reich’s Double Sextet creates a tempestuous landscape to dance in, but the opening night cast on March 10 handled it wonderfully.
With 12 paired dancers, McGregor’s composition gives the impression of a larger number of bodies. Bodies enter and exit the stage at sudden moments, creating any number of variations of the cast. A duet becomes a quartet then becomes a trio before expanding to a quintet and so on. It’s like McGregor is solving an equation and making sure that every stop of the process is clearly delineated and made clear to the audience. The costumes, the music, and Lucy Carter’s harsh science-fiction lighting is all very modern, but rather than feeling cold and removed, I found myself committed to the work and invested this spellbinding tangle of physical matrixes.
If McGregor’s work was arresting on an aesthetic level, then Ji?i Kylián’s Wings of Wax resonated on a more human plane of experience. The dance takes its inspiration from the mythology of Icarus, but I found more interest in the visual imagery, and the narratives that imagery suggest, the piece created. A giant tree hangs suspended over the stage, its roots notably also visible. A spotlight circles the tree, and beneath them the dance takes place.
Wings is for a cast of eight, but unlike in Dryad, the partnering is not a lesson in technical agility. The dancers are creators of a human experience, and maneuver one another with tenderness and thoughtful sensitivity. There are sequences of disjointed movement juxtaposed with smooth, large-bodied phrases that glide across the stage, as if these figures are indeed beings not of this world. Similar to McGregor’s piece, the ensemble arranges and rearranges itself into a variety of configurations, but rather than exiting and entering in abrupt fits, the dancers move in and out of the blackened foreground.
Trees and light have a host of connotative meanings, but I found Wings to be about the fragility of life and the inherent beauty of that fragility. That large, looming tree might very well be life as we know it, the moving orb the passing of time eternal. And there’s always people coming in and out of that confluence, whether alone or partnered or in communities. This piece has the air of a universal concept, but it’s been made with the eye to the personal. And this particular cast, especially Karina Gonzalez, Jessica Collado, and Connor Walsh emit a sensitivity that appeals to the emotional intellect.
The final piece on the program was, of course, Robbins’ Suite. West Side Story is not just a feat of dance; it also requires strong vocal ability. For this truncated 34-minute ballet version, singing is also involved, which means casting is made throughout the ranks of the company. (On opening night, all of the featured parts were sung, except for Tony’s “Something’s Coming” solo, danced by Connor Walsh.) Rhodes Elliott made for a winning Riff, keeping his voice steady through all of “Cool”’s stylized choreography. And Melody Mennite and Karina Gonzalez did “American” justice as Anita and Rosalia, two Latina teenagers comparing notes on the virtues of the islands of Puerto Rico and Manhattan.
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The mambo clash at the school gym is included in the suite, as is the mood setter prologue where the Jets and the Sharks stake their territory. It’s always easy to forget that these characters are teenagers considering the Romeo and Juliet drama that’s involved, but Robbins’ choreography is convincingly hot-blooded and virile. His vocabulary is low and weighted to the ground, yet has the bounding electricity of youth in love and competition.
The suite privileges the pivotal dance scenes over the larger narrative, so one isn’t quite as invested in Tony and Maria as they probably should be. But the scenes that did make it in are exhilarating as dance goes. However, I’ve always thought the “Somewhere Ballet” was a bit too sentimental for such a bold and vibrant opus such as West Side Story, and I still think the same. It’s a nice bit of dreamy dancing, but the characters and conflict of the narrative’s strongest choreography seem to be distilled into a wispy sense of hope that seems like wishful thinking.
Robbins’ choreography is still dynamic and fun, and rounds out a diverse winter program. But I would guess it’s the powerful visual imagery created by McGregor and Kylián that will have a lasting impact.
Performances continue through March 20 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays and 2 pm.. Sundays at the . Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit houstonballet.org or call 713-227-2787. $20- $168.