Houston Ballet's Fall Mixed Rep Truly Is Poetry in Motion

Mackenzie Richter and Chun Wai Chan in Stanton Welch's Powder.
Mackenzie Richter and Chun Wai Chan in Stanton Welch's Powder. Photo by Amitava Sarkar/Courtesy of Houston Ballet
If the purpose of a mixed-repertory program is to offer the balletic equivalent of the samples passed out in a supermarket – something bite-size and a little different offered in the hopes you’ll come back for more – then the Houston Ballet got it right with Poetry in Motion. With a program featuring Stanton Welch’s Powder, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance) and George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, they’re guaranteeing you’ll want to come back by offering something “old,” something new (to Houston), something borrowed (from Broadway) and a little blue (but we’ll get to that).

Poetry in Motion opens with the Houston premiere of Powder, a Stanton Welch-choreographed romp through ancient Greece set to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major. Premiered at the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1998, Powder is all bold choreography; creative port de bras, well-incorporated lifts, wiggling jumps and flurries of movement in every conceivable combination – solos, duets, trios and groups – bathed in warm light, designed by Mark Jonathan.

A playful sensuality characterizes Powder, with Mozart’s music, played by the Houston Ballet Orchestra led by Jonathan McPhee, providing a beautiful framework for the piece. And, in fact, clarinetist Richie Hawley steals the show, tackling the virtuosity required with a seeming ease. Mozart’s first and third movements are decidedly upbeat and bouncy; the second is contemplative and melancholy, which Welch has punctuated with three lovely pas de deux. It’s a tonal shift that is not at all jarring; in fact, it adds depth to a work that some may feel lacks it.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel (A Dance) follows and, to be clear, you certainly don’t have to be familiar with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical (or the 1956 film) to enjoy it. Though if you are, the recognizable melodies of “If I Loved You,” “Carousel Waltz” and “Soliloquy” will ping your sense memory in the best possible way.

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Sara Webb and Connor Walsh in Christopher Wheeldon's Carousel (A Dance).
Photo by Amitava Sarkar/Courtesy of Houston Ballet
The piece opens with a circle of dancers under strings of multi-colored lights, and a boy and a girl, played by Connor Walsh and Sara Webb, finding each other through the crowd. Whether they are Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan, destined for an ill-fated romance, is ultimately irrelevant. Carousel (A Dance) is just a fleeting peek at two people falling in love, burgeoning romance in the midst of a carnival. Webb and Walsh are positively charming, excelling at capturing a hopeful mood through pointe work, spins, clean lines and graceful extensions.

But it was the carnival trick up Wheeldon’s sleeve that elicited an audible gasp from the crowd. Dancers fell into place, each woman hoisted up on the shoulder of her partner, leg crooked, elbow pointed, pole in hand – a merry-go-round taking shape before our eyes and to everyone’s delight.

Closing the program is George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, the curtain opening to blindingly white tutus against a simple blue background and an endeared sigh from the audience.

Symphony in C premiered in 1947 at the Paris Opera Ballet, but Balanchine “reimagined” it the following year for its New York opening, where it debuted in its recognizable form with its most defining characteristics (like the black and white color scheme). The four-movement dance work set to Georges Bizet’s only symphony is a perfect union, evoking traditional 19th-century form and technique, while picking up the pace with series of dizzying pirouettes, fluttering entrechats, the fanciest of footwork in general, and daunting repetition – most of which must be completed in unison.

All of the dancers (of which there are many; this work truly showcases the company) dance with elegance and exuberance, but special mentions to the grace of Yuriko Kajiya in the second movement, and in the third, Allison Miller and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, for handling with ease Bizet’s energetic minuet. The corps provide Symphony in C’s through line, and their work can most be appreciated when the non-stop vigor of the finale brings everyone on stage. It’s truly a finale designed to send everyone home smiling.

Poetry in Motion feels like a modern love letter to ballet – one written carefully in Petrarchan rhyme scheme with a quill, but presented with the excitement of successfully passing a note behind your teacher’s back. All in all, it’s a shame that Poetry in Motion will only be performed twice. What’s not a shame is that you still have one chance to see it.

Only one more performance of Poetry in Motion is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. October 27 at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $30-$135.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.