Summer & Smoke Mixed Rep Continues the Season at Houston Ballet

Choreographer Cathy Marston in rehearsal with Houston Ballet Principal dancer Jessica Collado for  Summer and Smoke.
Choreographer Cathy Marston in rehearsal with Houston Ballet Principal dancer Jessica Collado for Summer and Smoke. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

A many-layered and lesser known Tennessee Williams play written in 1948 and set in Mississippi from the turn of the century through 1916 makes for a good ballet?

That's what Houston Ballet believes as it presents the world premiere of Summer and Smoke by choreographer Cathy Marston in a co-production with American Ballet Theatre. It's part of the 2022-23 season — a mixed rep program carrying the similar title of Summer & Smoke.

Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch's Clear makes as reappearance and George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco completes the program. Both are set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach but while Welch's Clear features seven men and one woman, Balanchine's work has a corps of women with only one male dancer.

In Summer and Smoke, inspired by the original play, Principal dancer Jessica Collado is Alma Winemiller, an unmarried minister's daughter who lives next door to John Buchanan (Principal dancer Chase O'Connell), a doctor and wild young man. There's attraction, but their world views are 180 degrees apart.

"It's a simple love story but yet very complex in its emotions," Collado says. "The layers and textures between the two leading characters. It does have heartbreak and turmoil in it but it ends in a beautiful optimistic way for Almas. So I think it is perhaps a bit brighter than his other forays in theater."

Speaking of her character, Collado says: "Alma, she lives a kind of religious-focused life. She's a bit nervous; she's a bit of an anxious girl. Her mom is mentally unwell so I think she was forced to grow up and take care of her mother at a very young age. Which probably made her a very responsible girl but she never really had that time in her life to be free, to have fun and play around.

"She has grown up living next door to John Buchanan who's the complete opposite in personality. He’s playful; he's teasing. When you see him as an adult he is a bit of a gambler; he stays up late partying.  They live completely different lives but have this attraction towards each other. And through that relationship they try to convince the other that these things are more important in your life whether it's spirituality or whether it's sensuality . I think as they learn to see more eye to eye they end up having a complete 180 in their views on the world.  And Alma ends up a changed woman because of it. She's shed a lot of her  anxiousness and she's more comfortable in her body and has a bright look to the future."

Cathy Marston the choreographer is known for being a storyteller, Collado says. "She takes  all these narratives, these plays and changes them into ballets in such a beautiful way. The very first rehearsal she sits you down and gives you this long list of personality traits for your character.

The next step is, working together, to come up with ballet steps that emulate those characteristics, Collado says.

O'Connell and she have six pas de deux within the hour ballet. "It was very important to [Marston] that each time we meet our relationship is building and changing. That the arc of the story is clear because that's such an important part of her process."

Being part of a premiere is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling processes for a dancer, Collado says. "Especially with Cathy because she was so open to our  interpretations and it was very collaborative. You feel this character becomes so personal to you. As you're peeling away these layers of onions to really get to the root of who Alma is and what motivates her,."

"You create this beautiful work of art and you kind of have a little stamp on it."

The ballet's score by Grammy Award- winning composer Michael Daugherty is a brand new score commissioned for this piece. Collado describes it as "very grand, very epic, all of the pas de deaux music is very beautiful. It just grows and grows and grows as the piece goes on. It puts you in this romantic story grandeur.

Composer Michael Daugherty (he's one of the ten most performed American composers of concert music) worked closely with Marston in developing his music (both tonal and atonal)  for the ballet, Collado says. "Along the process of Cathy creating it, she'll come to a roadblock and was like 'I need more time. I need more time to get this scene, to get this thought across.'" She would then go to Daugherty for the adjustments. "It's been a really cool process to watch that happen," Collado says.

And just as Marston was careful to delineate characteristics of the leading dancers, Daugherty did the same with his music. Lead dancers are accompanied by specific instruments, for instance: Alma is a flute, John a clarinet. The angel is a harp. 

Reflecting the era they're depicting, O'Connell wears a wool three-piece suit with a collared shirt. while  Alma is in a yellow frock with some lace trimming. But they aren't alone on stage by any means. In all there are 30 dancers portraying 78 characters in the ballet.

"I have a mom and a dad and Chase has a dad. There’s also an angel," Collado says, adding that the angel in the play is a fountain where Alma goes every day to pray and ask for guidance in her life but Marston wanted the angel to be a dancer, a living, moving being that follows the story between Alma and John.

Why should Houston Ballet keep taking on new compositions?

"I think new works help the company grow," Collado says. "They increase our foundation and our history.  I think they also are a wonderful opportunity for the dancers to grow as artists because they get to be a part of this collaborative growth. It's really important for the legacy of the company that it continues to make these new works. Especially beautiful stories like this. Even though the story is old, it's a very timeless message that still resonates." 

Performances are scheduled for March 9-19 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.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.
Contact: Margaret Downing