Isn't Ballet Great?

Dance season is back, and Houston Ballet is renewing 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 drama. 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 forest, and lanterns illuminate the gnarled branches. Long, romantic tutus and sparkling fascinators complement the men's vested jackets and little snowball caps.


Return of the Masters

Through September 18.

Tickets start at $18.

The rink is 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 à la seconde turn.) 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?

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. The third couple is the most torrid. The woman, danced by Amy Fote, hesitates as her lover (James Gotesky) 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. The other two couples run onstage to join them, and 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 sprint to 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 and most personal contribution, following the death of his daughter, his firing from the Vienna Opera and his diagnosis with a fatal heart problem, according to Houston Ballet director Ermanno Florio. 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 the Messenger of Death (danced gorgeously by Connor Walsh), a character embodied by a male dancer dressed in all black, lurks at every turn in the life of The Man (Linnar Looris), whose time has clearly come. Death's spidery arms are ready to snatch him away from the very beginning, but The Man holds out until he falls in love with The Woman (Danielle Rowe). 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.

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