Houston Ballet Combines Rock, Roll & Tutus in Mixed Rep

Soo Youn Cho and Connor Walsh in Trey McIntyre's In Dreams.
Soo Youn Cho and Connor Walsh in Trey McIntyre's In Dreams. Photo by Amitava Sarkar

Elvis Presley once said, "Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can't help but move to it.” While only one of the works on the Houston Ballet’s Rock, Roll & Tutus mixed repertory program used what could be considered rock music, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, with all its unrestrained emotion and risk-taking, thrums through each piece, commanding movement from four choreographers with an undeniable ferocity.

Rock, Roll & Tutus opens with the Houston premiere of In Dreams, an otherworldly, impressionistic dance created by Trey McIntyre to the music of Roy Orbison, a man whose voice Dwight Yoakam once described as the “cry of an angel falling backward through an open window.” Indeed, Orbison sets a mood of unapologetic emotional angst, providing a space for McIntyre to play with traditional balletic movement and to incorporate squats, skip steps, broken lines and flat feet to great effect.

McIntyre’s choreography is grounded, reminiscent at times of eccentric dance (complete with what looked like an Elvis-style leg shake from Charles-Louis Yoshiyama). His five dancers, clad in black and denim blue, appear in every configuration, from solo to quintet, but it’s Jessica Collado’s solo to the piece’s title song that really stands out. Through sweeping gestures, an undulating body, and a fit of starts and stops, Collado is able to emote so much longing, hesitation and resignation under her single spotlight that you’d think Orbison himself would be proud.

Unfortunately, in addition to six Orbison songs, McIntyre includes an excerpt from an interview that momentarily halts the momentum of the piece, though it was able to build right back up for a rousing conclusion danced to one of Orbison’s best and most famous songs, “Crying.”

Following In Dreams is the local premiere of Artistic Director Stanton Welch's La Cathedrale Engloutie, a pas de deux choreographed to one of Claude Debussy’s preludes. Like Debussy’s “Sunken Cathedral,” which refers to a legend of a cathedral hidden under the sea that occasionally rises at sunrise to reveal itself to a special few, the relationship built between the dancers in La Cathedrale Engloutie builds slowly, burns brightly and fades away from the audience, all under a warm, golden (sun)light.

Though in the shortest work of the evening, and one more subtle than its program mates, Nozomi Iijima and Chun Wai Chan paint an intimate portrait together, coming together and moving apart to music brilliantly brought to life by pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon. The union between Welch’s choreography and Debussy is a powerful one that elevates the dance to an impassioned, and touching, level.

click to enlarge The Artists of Houston Ballet in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR
The Artists of Houston Ballet in Tim Harbour's Filigree and Shadow.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Following a 25-minute intermission, the curtain opened on the highlight of the evening, the Houston premiere of Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow.

Filigree and Shadow is predatory and unmistakably animalistic, 12 dancers moving as both individual threats composed of precise, sharp angles and quick action, and as a synchronized, pulsating mass. Harbour sets an unrelenting pace and marries it beautifully with a score from Munich-based duo Siegfried Rössert and Ulrich Müller, known as 48nord.

Rössert and Müller have created something utterly gripping, as menacing as Harbour’s choreography. It evokes a confrontation in the wild, a killer on the loose, walls closing in, time running out, a heartbeat. Coupled with Kelvin Ho’s set design and Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting design, which create a cold, sterile environment that still allows space to loom in the shadows, Filigree and Shadow is an almost cinematic experience that builds to a frenetic climax.

Closing the program is the return of Alexander Ekman's Cacti, which made its Houston Ballet premiere to much fanfare in 2016. Cacti is a welcome return (and necessary, as the previously announced Tulle, also from Ekman, had to be scrapped post-Harvey) and it proved to still be as funny and incisive on second viewing.

After the angst and anger of the first three-quarters of the program, Cacti is a strong note to end on. Sixteen dancers start on their own individual square tile, and from there pose, cavort, double as percussionists – generally execute Ekman’s choreography, which is precise in its play, serious in its whimsy. It is over the top, and performed to a backdrop of Schubert, Haydn and Beethoven (some played with the Apollo Chamber Players on stage) and a couple of voiceovers, one from the perspective of two dancers and from a critic waxing on about meaning and hitting the keywords of pretention, like “postmodern,” “subtext” and “interdisciplinary.”

You don’t have to be overly familiar with dance or the world of criticism that it mocks to understand the humor; Cacti is accessible in its deconstruction, which is probably why it plays so well.

All in all, the work on display in Rock, Roll & Tutus is the future. It threatens the traditional, white tutu-ed landscape with something a little bit modern, a little bit edgy and every bit as dangerous to some as Elvis and his gyrating hips were back in the 1950s. But really, everyone wants to be an early adopter, so that’s just all the more reason to see it right here, right now.

Performances are scheduled through March 4 at 7:30 p.m. March 2 and 3 and 2 p.m. March 3 and 4 at Resilience Theater, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $30 to $40.
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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.