"It reminded me of a Maxfield Parish painting," my companion said as we sipped plastic glasses of red wine during the first intermission of last night's Houston Ballet performance. He was referring to the world premiere of Artistic Director Stanton Welch's "Tapestry" -- a comparison that fits not only due to the work's name, but also because of the first word I'd written in my notebook to describe the ballet: ethereal.
We're at the Wortham Center as music fans, not necessarily ballet fans -- I'm mainly there to see "Rooster," the ballet set to the music of the Rolling Stones -- but even without a proper dance background, I think I can see the two stories taking place onstage during "Tapestry." In one movement, three dancers in pale blue move fluidly to Mozart, giving the impression of something intangible. In the next, a group of dancers in red thrash about, catching poses simultaneously graceful and harsh. The two groups are almost never onstage together, save for a few brief moments, but in the background, other characters creep in the shadows, tiptoeing ominously to the violin concerto. It makes me think of fire and ice, magnetic opposites.
Of the three parts in Rock, Roll & Tutus, "Tapestry" is the most traditional. Welch himself has called it "subtle, pastel and romantic." What sets it apart, though, is the stage setup. The backdrop is a series of taut vertical ropes reaching all the way to the rafters, creating evenly spaced columns which from the side look like the wires of a piano. This provides a sense of tension, as shadowy figures weave through them or stand perfectly still, voyeuristic.
Christopher Bruce's "Rooster," which debuted in Geneva in 1991, starts off strong with its namesake number (you can see a video on Art Attack's sister blog Rocks Off). It's not much of a leap to associate the cocksure Mick Jagger with a rooster preening, but there's a little bit of meta-nostalgia going on here with a performance written in the '90s harkening back to the sexual revolution of the early 1960s using moves the musician coined in the 1970s. Oh well. Predictably, "Rooster" is best when the music is best -- numbers like "Paint It Black" and "Ruby Tuesday" really stretch the soft-shoe ballet to its limits. But for most of the songs the dance is too literal, with the performers acting out the lyrics to songs. It feels more like West Side Story than Singing London.
By far the most impressive performance of the night was Welch's Divergence, a ballet set to Georges Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suites that challenges both the dancers and the audience. The ballerinas' stiff tutus, made from air conditioning filters (really), almost act as scenery, obstacles for the dancers to work around. The movements here are downright gymnastic, and the costumes cobbled from industrial materials are the perfect metaphor for the strength displayed by the dancers. It's amazing that a ballet 20 years old can look so modern.
Here's what Welch has to say about that:
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"Divergence reveals the mechanics of ballet. So much of classical ballet is about making hard things look easy, so I let the dancers make the hard things look hard -- and then made them harder."
In 2008 I saw Houston Ballet's Gershwin Glam, a similarly spirited program featuring "Swansong," a modernist work by Christopher Bruce and a performance called "The Core," dreamed up by Stanton Welch as a tribute to the legendary composer. Maybe the difference was that Gershwin's tunes were performed live by an orchestra, while the last night the Stones were pumped in via badly mixed audio. But "The Core" was much more fun, a lot less cheesy, and provided the right balance of pop music and traditional ballet.
Last night, Divergence won me over. It certainly out-rocked the rock-and-roll portion of the show.
Rock, Roll & Tutus runs through March 18 at the Wortham Center. More information at http://www.houstonballet.org/.