A Justin Peck Premiere Tops Off Houston Ballet's Mixed Rep Program Divergence

Houston Ballet Soloist Mackenzie Richter and First Soloist Harper Watters with Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Divergence.
Houston Ballet Soloist Mackenzie Richter and First Soloist Harper Watters with Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Divergence. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2021), Courtesy of Houston Ballet

As you stand in a line, start by leaning to the right, and imagine you're leaving a space ship to explore a new world — that's the instructions acclaimed choreographer Justin Peck gave to the four featured dancers in his new work Under the Folding Sky about to have its world premiere with Houston Ballet.

First Soloist Harper Watters will be part of that line, charged with building the intensity of the ballet set to Philip Glass music and inspired in part by James Turrell's Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. A pas de deaux by two of the company's principal dancers will follow the featured dancers' solos, he said.

Peck's ballet is among three works that will be presented by the Houston Ballet in its mixed rep program Divergence beginning on May 25. The other two ballets are Angular Momentum by choreographer Aszure Barton with music by Mason Bates and Stanton Welch's Divergence done to the music of Georges Bizet.

"Divergence by Stanton Welch — it's  such a gem of a ballet. It’s so hard but so good and the music is so captivating. There's a reason that it keeps coming back into rep and that we do it so often," Watters said. "I look at Divergence like a really beautiful special sacred piece of art. It's a Houston treasure and part of our history that audiences love and know and want to see again.

" And Angular Momentum — this is the second time we'll be doing it. It's so transformative. It takes you to another world. It has elements of outer space and NASA. It's going to be an incredible evening."

A return to Houston by Justin Peck (West Side Story), resident choreographer with New York City Ballet, was exciting for the whole company, Watters said,

"He has this energy especially now that is different in his approach in the studio.  He comes in with these incredible visions and he has it set up in his mind but when he's choreographing, he himself is bolting around the studio and running through space. He has this energy and I want to match that as a dancer."

This is the third time Peck (Reflections) has worked with Houston Ballet. "I feel like he is getting to know the company and find his voice within our dancers," Watters said.

"This time, the ballet, what's so special about it is that it is inspired by not just our company but the city of Houston. He came in with this clear concept about how the exhibit with light,  how it slowly moves and how it catches and makes shapes and how it builds and grows, It's just really exciting to have his perspective and his point of view be inspired by Houston and the dancers."

When we spoke to Watters, who was knee deep in rehearsals, he said Peck hadn't finished the ballet yet and was on his way back to polish it.  "But what he's made so far for me is probably one of the most exciting ballets that's entered our rep. It's a full company piece. It's a large cast."

"It's a lot of high, intense, exciting dancing with beautiful formations and incredible partnering," Watters said. "I've been in the company for 12 seasons and there’s something so fresh about it. There are new concepts. There are news and innovative ways he’s moving the dancers allowing us to speak through his choreography."

The music by Philip Glass (The Photographer) follows his usual pattern of repetition, Watter said. A voice repeats itself, building up in momentum and in combination with the choreography creates what Watters calls "a visual heartbeat on stage."

"I’ve been very fortunate to have found Houston Ballet as not just a place for me as a dancer but me as a person. It's really rare for someone to say they're been with one company for as long as I have. With that love and support my dancing becomes better and I gain more confidence with what I'm doing and how I present myself on stage.

"I remember when I first was in the second company here as a student training, I had my idea of what I thought a ballet dancer was. I thought it was high legs, a lot of turns and gorgeous, gorgeous feet and of course all those things help make a beautiful dancer.

"But when you see Romeo and Juliet when you see their love, the pas de deaux, you're not looking for how high her leg is, you're looking for them to tell a story, for a connection. Those moments don't just come from the technical aspect, they come from the artistic aspect."

Watters said he feels honored to be part of creating this ballet. "For him to say I trust you with my vision and my movement, it's a huge honor and something that I don't take lightly.

"He gives us stuff that yes, we can look in and we can do, but also that pushes us. It's a challenge. And that's what's so special about our company that we are hungry for elevating ourselves as artists and dancers  and we always will rise to what's given to us. Justin's choreography allows us to do that. "

Divergence performances are scheduled for May 25 through June 4 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas. For more information,  call 713-227-2787 or visit $25 -$210.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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