Merry Window Dressing

This past year hasn't been particularly kind to America's best known ballet companies. The New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theater and the Joffrey Ballet, among others, have struggled to meet their payroll, with the Joffrey going so far as to pull up roots and move to Chicago in search of more appreciative, and more ticket buying, fans.

Historically, the Houston Ballet has been a bit less desperate than its peers. But at the end of last season reality hit home here as well, with the Ballet trimming back in order to avoid going deep into debt. The Ballet has also had to give serious thought to what it needs to do to fill the seats of the Brown Theater. Though the Ballet's runs tend to be relatively brief -- two weeks, six performances on average -- they're rarely sellouts. The question has been, how do you draw people who think dance in general, and ballet in particular, is a high-class bore inside long enough to find out that they're wrong?

It must be a particularly frustrating question for the Ballet's Artistic Director Ben Stevenson, who has some of the most finely tuned showman's instincts in American ballet. Where some dance company directors are content to stick with the already committed dance crowd, Stevenson has shown a tendency to go after a wider audience. His inclusion of broad, basically slapstick, comedy in last season's Cinderella is just one example of how concerned he is with appealing to people who have no idea of the difference between a jete and fouette and, frankly, have little interest in learning. It's hard to argue with this inclusive approach; most of the arts that have been ceded to an elite have tended to wither away from a lack of oxygen. But at the same time, there's always a risk that by trying to expand ballet's appeal, the core of the art, the actual steps themselves, may get lost in the process.

As a case in point, all one has to do is look at The Nutcracker, which has metastasized over the years to become the monster that has all but swallowed American ballet. Though The Nutcracker can be entertaining and can be done well, it's unlikely many dance companies delude themselves into thinking that the reason crowds flock to this one ballet over all others is that they really, really like the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Crowds come to The Nutcracker for the spectacle, and to judge the popularity of ballet by this event is as misleading as judging the popularity of mainline Christianity by the crowds that show up at church on Easter.

These thoughts are prompted by the Houston Ballet's season opener, The Merry Widow, which is glamorous, spectacular, stunning -- and a particularly mediocre ballet. Much has been made of the cost of putting on the work; in 1986, when the sets that back up the current production were built, the price tag was $1.2 million. To build something comparable today would likely cost closer to $2 million. And it's easy to see where the money went. The sets are a marvel, replicating an embassy ballroom, an outdoor garden and a high-toned restaurant in Paris shortly after the turn of the century. The costumes are likewise resplendent. When the dancers promenade out to stand beneath a glistening chandelier in the embassy ballroom or a wall of mirrors in Chez Maxim, they're an amazing sight. But when they start to move, there are problems.

Part of that comes from the fact that the sets are so ornate that there's not always much room for dance. When the full company is on-stage, the place is so crowded that it's all they can do to avoid bumping into one another. And the women's outfits, glorious as they may be, aren't particularly well designed for ballet. Full dresses, even if they're open in front, don't do much to show the movement of a leg or the careful placement of a foot. And frilly trains are an invitation to disaster; on opening night, one member of the corps caught her foot in a part of her dress that hadn't quite moved out of the way and fell. The amazing thing is that she was the only one to hit the floor. It's a testimony to the skill of the corps' women that they were able to compensate for all the fabric they had to drag behind them. But it's hard to imagine doing your best when you have to keep one eye out for the hazards posed by your costume.

Similarly, the story of The Merry Widow is a complicated one to try and tell through movement alone. There are past histories to understand, mistaken identities, nuances of narrative ... it's revealing when, between acts, the audience has to rifle through their programs to find notes explaining what it was they just saw happen.

Still, for all its problems, The Merry Widow is far from a disaster. As is the case with The Nutcracker, some actual dance is occasionally allowed to peek through all the posturing, and when it does, it's worth the wait. Twice in particular -- in a peasant dance in the garden of Hanna Glawari, the eponymous merry widow, and in a cancan number at Chez Maxim -- the sets, costumes, movements and company all come together in an vastly entertaining whole, making the stage seem less crowded than simply filled as full as it should be. More particularly, on the occasions when the stage is all but emptied, with only a few dancers lingering behind, The Merry Widow approaches some of the depth of feeling it's obviously after.

The most notable of these occasions, and the emotional highlight of the evening, comes in the second scene of Act One, when Hanna -- danced on opening night by Janie Parker -- drifts off into memory of her earlier life as a peasant girl, when she first met and was then left behind by Danilo, her suitor to be. Here, Parker shows why she's been a mainstay of the Ballet for so long, capturing both the young Hanna's innocence and delight in her relationship with Danilo as well as the devastation she suffers when Danilo accedes to his aristocratic parents' demands and breaks off his relationship with her. Phillip Broomhead, as Danilo, does a fine enough job in a role that allows him little chance to do more than look confused and provide Parker a body to lean against.

Almost as enchanting is a later encounter between two other lovers, Camille and Valencienne -- the former danced on opening night by Carlos Acosta, the latter by Rachel Beard. Here, despite quite good work by Beard, the standout is Acosta, who continues to show himself to be a star in the making. The surety of his movements, the crispness of his line and the sheer personality he radiates are the sorts of things of which standout careers are made.

Were there more opportunities for the dancers to exhibit their stuff, and less glitz, The Merry Widow would be a considerably greater success. Still, one has to give Stevenson and company credit for trying something different -- and also credit for wringing more out of this ballet than is actually there. This season is being hyped as the 20th anniversary of Stevenson's and Parker's coming to the Ballet (with more emphasis being put on the latter, since last year's 25th anniversary season of the ballet itself was focused on Stevenson). The Merry Widow, unfortunately, doesn't show either one at their best. It does, however, show us enough to be a reminder of why they're valuable to have around.

The Merry Widow continues through September 17 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue. 227-

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Mitchell J. Shields