Men in Tights

Balanchine said that ballet is woman, but it's the men of Houston Ballet who are eye-catching in the company's winter repertory program. As yet there is no one to wear the crown of Carlos "Air" Acosta, but longtime company member Dominic Walsh comes closest with his charismatic dancing. Among the younger crop, Lucas Priolo shines, Ian Casady partners perfectly, Mauricio Cañete makes it look fun, and corps member Peter Gleeson turns on the charm. And principal Phillip Broomhead, of whom we haven't seen enough lately, reminds us what good dancing is. Unfortunately, not even this crew can pull off George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.

Not to say that the program's opening number is bad; it isn't. But Balanchine's brilliance was not only in the steps he choreographed but in the way he made his dancers perform them. The legendary fleet footwork of the New York City Ballet dancers is missing in Houston Ballet's performance, as is unity in the corps parts. The sharpness of attack, the arms in perfect unison, the rapid-fire beats so fast you can hardly count them (was that an entrechat quatre or cinq?), are all part of the magic of a Balanchine ballet. At the Wortham Theater Center, we have to settle for some game efforts instead of the real deal. Walsh is not known for his fast footwork, but he's almost dazzling enough that you can overlook it. And Priolo's upper-body flexibility and strength makes the third variation stand out.

Much more appealing is the crowd-pleasing Company B. This high-octane number was made for the company by modern master Paul Taylor, and it fits the troupe like a second skin. Who knew dancing to the Andrews Sisters could look so good? The theme of '40s-era teens frolicking as soldiers go off to die may seem even more poignant in light of current events, but it doesn't put a damper on the dance. Priolo kicks it up a notch in the electrifying "Tico-Tico" solo, as does Cañete in the "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B)" solo. Broomhead partners with class in his duets with Tyann Clement (the haunting "There Will Never Be Another You") and Kim Wagman ("I Can Dream, Can't I?"). Gleeson turns in a spiffy ladies' man performance in "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!" And, lest you forget there are women in the ballet, Melody Mennite, another member of the corps, does a fine "Rum and Coca-Cola."

Sandwiched between the good and not so good are two pas de deux by artistic director Ben Stevenson. The comic Harlequinade showcases Walsh's sense of timing and pratfalls while still letting him whip out fabulous fouettes. It may be that Walsh has hit his prime, or perhaps his newly launched troupe, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, is inspiring him. Either way, Walsh is the guy to watch this season and next. His partner, the lovely Leticia Oliveira, hits some rock-hard balances and looks particularly sweet in her piqués.

The second pas de deux, Twilight, is dedicated to the space shuttle Columbia's lost seven. Made for Sara Webb and Ian Casady for last year's International Ballet Competition, this duet is arguably one of Stevenson's finest. It's smooth and fluid as water, yet modern in its patterns and one-armed lifts. Webb melts into her partner, then pulls away before flinging herself into his chest. She curls into a ball, which opens like a flower as he lifts her and she spreads her arms and legs into wonderful extensions. If love could move, it would look like this.

Overall the company is looking good, but this is a transition year as Stevenson prepares to step down in June. The next artistic director, Australian choreographer Stanton Welsh, was in attendance opening night, getting a good look at what he is about to inherit. Also in the seats was pregnant principal Lauren Anderson. Both will be on the other side of the curtain next season, when audiences will see what the future of Houston Ballet looks like.

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Marene Gustin