You have to love the way Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch puts together a repertory evening. It's like a fine meal. At the recent Gershwin Glam rep, which opened last Thursday night at the Wortham, audiences feasted on a delightful appetizer, George Balanchine's Serenade; a brilliant, meaty entrée, Christopher Bruce's dark tour-de-force Swansong; and a decadent dessert, the Stanton Welch world premiere of The Core.
The Core is a soufflé of sound and sight set to George Gershwin's Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, played with polish by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Ermanno Florio. On opening night, pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon sparkled, bringing Gershwin's New York City of the 1940s to life.
Welch has peopled this world with characters called Stella and Stanley, Skip and Velma, although some could have been named "Dave the Dude" and "Harry the Horse." It's a delightful parade of sailors on leave, chorus girls, tourists, beat cops, bored women, waiters, schoolgirls, streetwalkers and, well, just about any character you'd find in a Damon Runyon novel or a '40s Busby Berkeley musical. It calls to mind the Gene Kelly solo "Gotta Dance!" from Singin' in the Rain, only there's no central character or plot, just a wild, voyeuristic view into Big Apple nightlife. The way the dancers spin in and out of this world without colliding with each other is sheer choreographic magic.
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, 713-227-2787.
Through March 2. Tickets start at $17.
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Holly Hynes's costumes are both authentic and slightly cartoonish (the gangster's moll's lime-green dress, slit to here, would have been perfect for Jessica Rabbit), and Thomas Boyd has created an ever-changing streetscape of New York buildings, fire escapes, lampposts and brightly painted taxicabs.
Just as The Core is a great way to top things off, Balanchine's 20th-century classic Serenade adds stunning romance to the start of the evening. Big and beautiful, this ballet features fluid, neo-classical movement that's just as fresh today as it was more than 80 years ago. And while Houston Ballet dancers may not have the perfect Balanchine arms waving in Rockette unison, they do have the fleet footwork and the icy energy to pull off this masterpiece, which celebrates the sheer beauty of dance. It's hard to mention only a few of the 26 dancers, but on opening night Mireille Hassenboehler was her usual elegant self; she was partnered by Linnar Looris, whose dancing more than explained why he has just been promoted to soloist.
Lest you get the idea that this is no thinking man's ballet program, there's plenty of dark meat to chew on in Associate Choreographer Christopher Bruce's Swansong. Has it really been 16 years since Houston has seen this comic/tragic ballet for three about a political prisoner and military interrogators? Swansong's American premiere was here with Houston Ballet in 1991; Bruce created the work in 1987, but it could be a comment on recent headlines from Gitmo or Abu Ghraib. On a bare stage lit by David Mohr, a man in jeans and red T-shirt slumps in a wooden chair as two khaki-clothed interrogators attempt to alternately cajole and brutalize him.
Principal Connor Walsh danced the detainee opening night with such anguish and explosive movement, you could feel his pain and his longing for freedom. Nicholas Leschke and Ian Cassady used syncopated tap moves echoed by Walsh as a sort of question-and-answer dialogue before resorting to fierce movements, tossing their prisoner onto the ground, kicking and rolling him, then throwing him through the air. In a grotesque comedy sequence, they also resort to ballroom dancing and a vaudeville dance with canes. In the end, the prisoner wins freedom through death. Swansong is pretty intense, and sandwiched between the romance of Serenade and the sheer spectacle of The Core, it sure is satisfying.