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Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal Dances the Classic and the Folk

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The Set-Up: On February 1 and 2, Houston Ballet presented Les Grands Ballets Canadiens De Montréal at the Wortham Theater Center as part of its Cullen Series. The company, which made its second Houston appearance this past weekend, performed two works choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti.

The Execution: The verve and cleverness of Bigonzetti's choreography is immediately felt in Four Seasons, the first of the program's two pieces, as the rising curtain reveals a landscape of serpentine bodies twisting and reaching in every direction. Bigonzetti's greatest achievement is making relevant one of the most familiar compositions in the classical music canon. Vivaldi's Four Seasons is so widely used, it's almost banal. But the dance here suggests otherwise. The movement is punctuated by stomps and audible beats of flesh, which keeps the audience focused on the dancers and their lines. With a piece such as Vivaldi's, it is easy to choreograph the dance to the notes, to make the dance submissive to the music. However, Bigonzetti's choreography, though musically inclined, is independent and at times even rebellious. This is the perfect example of Martha Graham's theory that music should not inform dance, but offer a setting for it to exist.

But the music's newfound relevance comes with a disturbing undertone. For example, there's no mistaking the volatility of the Winter duet. This is a man and a woman who are at the limits of their sanity and patience for one another, as their mock blows suggest. Pretty choreography is never an excuse for men to abuse women or women to abuse men (or any combination thereof for that matter) without coming to a decisive conclusion in favor of the dissolution of the relationship. In Four Seasons, however, moments of malicious intensity are used for aesthetic effect, which is problematic at the least.

There's also plenty of roughhousing (but of the good-natured, communal kind) in Cantata, a sharp contrast to the classical beauty of Four Seasons. In Cantata, the dance style approaches the folkloric as the company dances to the live music of Gruppo Musicale Assurd. The contribution of the all-female quartet cannot be emphasized enough, as their raw, earth-goddess vocals create the backdrop of traditional Southern Italian culture that the dance is based on.

Bigonzetti's choreography makes wonderful use of social dance conventions in its formations and lifts. The duets smolder, and the corps work burns even deeper with the travails and pleasures of living. Dressed in commoners' garb, the dance gives the impression of a village celebration. A celebration of what, exactly, is not clear, but one assumes that the inhabitants of Tuscany rarely need a reason to sing, dance and rejoice in the miracle of their own pulses. Comedic beats permeate Cantata, but the most enjoyable facet is the sheer joy of performing that is clearly displayed. Even the curtain call is a rousing affair.

The Verdict: The juxtaposition of Bigonzetti's two works creates an insightful program that showcases the richness of aristocratic and working-class Italian culture. The company is a strong one, with the high technical virtuosity needed for Four Seasons and the robust, almost bestial energy for the free-for-all that is Cantata. Here's to hoping that Les Grands make it back to Houston for a third round.

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