Last Night: Houston Ballet's Raising the Barre "Arresting"

Last night was an evening of premieres for the Houston Ballet, which debuted their spring mixed rep program Raising the Barre. The packed audience took in three ballets, each new to the company and each as unbelievably wonderful as the last.

Expect to leave the Wortham Center breathless.

The first work, ONE/end/ONE, was a world premiere by famed Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. Set to Mozart's violin concerto, his choreography is distinctly quirky and precise. Imagine videotaping a master LEGOist constructing something from scratch, and then fast-fowarding it. That's what Elo's choreography looks like. Every last move of the dancers is arresting, and absolutely unpredictable. Not anywhere in the work will two dancers engage in a lift from a prescribed position. A soloist will swoop down after an attitude turn, swandiving to pat the floor with her hands; another dancer will swing from a fish to a shoulder sit in a second flat; a male soloist will lay on the floor and partner a woman's thigh in a promenade. Everything is absolutely acrobatic.

The dancers, of course, are breathtaking. One soloist's triple attitude turn literally made me gasp. Despite the stone-cold fact that these dancers are some of the technically best in the world, the charm of the Houston Ballet is their theatricality. They're approachable. Elo adds dashes of humor to ONE/end/ONE, like when a dancer belatedly slides into the spotlight from the other end of the stage. In another charming moment, a group of women pushes a dancer's tutu like it's a spinning wheel on a playground, causing her to bourrée faster and faster.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any better, then comes Christopher Bruce's American premiere of Grinning in Your Face. It's a work that captures the desperation, racism, and hope of the Great Depression, all set to the banjo and slide guitar music of Martin Simpson.

Even though Bruce is English, you can't beat the American soul Bruce puts into this work. From Simpson's covers of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" and Cat Stevens' "The First Cut is the Deepest," this is a work whose natural home is in front of an American audience. And Houston is its first.

Crates are scattered across the stage, and the female dancers are clad in long, worn dresses. They move heavily. Feet pound along with the banjo strums.

Bruce's choreography doesn't romanticize the era. On stumbles a swaggering male dancer, drunk in a wifebeater and jeans, who proceeds to turn the symbiotic partnership that is the pas de deux into a showcase of men's brute strength. He grabs his woman to put her in her place. She puts up a fight by beating her with her fists, but he sweeps her into a violent turn and leads her by kicking the back of her knees. Unfazed, the other women look on wearily.

True to the inequality of the time, the men ooze country charm, while the women mostly play second fiddle. But there are tastes of lightness, like "Little Birdie", the most darling and hopeful dance in the whole show.

Bruce nails it with an interracial pas de deux. Beautiful and sexy, the two dance out their secret love. At the end, she leaves him. As he pines for her, a group of white male dancers take the stage. Through loud, gunshot-like handclaps, Bruce choreographs a chilling, knee-jerk murder. The dancer writhes on the ground and drags himself offstage.

Rush is the program's final work, a company premiere choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. He thankfully saturates the stage with 16 dancers - the more people who get to dance his electric choreography, the better. The sheer magnitude of the production allows him to undertake incredible formations, symmetrical structural marvels that are constantly shifting throughout the piece. But the real meat of Rush is the dark and lovely pas de deux. It features several unsettling moments, like when the black-clad dancer leaves the floor to slowly walk through the air.

There are five more performances of Raising the Barre. Go now, because you may find you want to see it twice before the curtains close for the last time.

May 26 to June 5 at the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 7:30 p.m. on May 26, 28 and June 3, 4. 2 p.m. on May 29 and June 5. Tickets at or by calling 713-227-2787. $18 and up.

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Mandy Oaklander
Contact: Mandy Oaklander