Rite Fine

The looming premiere of the Houston Ballet's Dracula has all but overshadowed the company's spring repertory concert. But, as is usually the case with this spirited company, when the chips are on the table, the dancers come through. The downplayed program opened last Thursday night with performances fiery enough to answer the implied challenge from Dracula with a "beat that" bravado. The presentation may have featured the work of two English choreographers -- Glen Tetley's The Rite of Spring and Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations -- but the evening belonged entirely to principal dancer Carlos Acosta and The Rite of Spring's stomping, leaping male corps.

Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of Acosta's recent bouquet of adoring reviews from New York critics; perhaps the evening was well served by a slight Dracula-inspired inferiority complex. Whatever the case, Acosta danced more beautifully than he has yet this season. With a riveting blend of sweeping port-de-bras and, of course, leaps, Acosta danced the character of the Chosen One like a shaman conjuring visions out of smoke. As the coppery body glitter applied to Acosta's bare thighs caught the light, a woman seated next to me whispered: "A bronze god." Indeed.

Tetley's angular, ritualistic choreography tells the story of the Chosen One's mythic passage from adulation to sacrifice and rebirth, a tribe of dancers moving two by two around and past him as he summons spirits from the ground. Using fast turns with flexed ankles, swirling leaps and squarish pony kicks, the corps builds into a frenzy. Finally, halfway through the ballet, the Chosen One is sacrificed, his body offered up to the gods.

Rite of Spring's brutality offers the Ballet's males the chance to dance like, well, men. As in fiercely violent men. There's nothing delicate in Tetley's choreography; even the partnering has a terseness that will be unfamiliar to audiences who have become accustomed to the gentle pas de deux of most story ballets. Watching the well-muscled forms pound out this violent dance is a bit like watching a swarm of leaf-cutter ants devour a giant palm frond -- they're determined, swift and fairly ruthless.

Lauren Anderson and Phillip Broomhead handled the secondary roles ably, offering a buffer between the frenzy of the male corps and the Chosen One. What the audience waits for, however, is Acosta's post-sacrificial return to the stage, which is both explosive and technically amazing: He hangs in the air during jumps, he stops his turns effortlessly and, perhaps most important, he acts the role with the kind of wild abandon the Chosen One deserves.

Given that showstopping performance, it's not entirely surprising that the second half of the program seems a little sleepy. MacMillan's Elite Syncopations is a ragtime dance contest played out with English reserve -- if you're hoping for the flash and narrative that the Joffrey Ballet provides such choreography, you're out of luck. Instead, Elite Syncopations features a number of gentle character vignettes, the most memorable being Dawn Scannell's sassy carnival gal and Susan Bryant and Steven Casteel's comic waltz. Tripping over his too-tall girl, Casteel improvises lifts, while Bryant plays the coquette from under the brim of a frilly pink hat.

Elite Syncopations is a bit of confection after the main course, and it serves its purpose fairly well. Still, opening night belonged to those often sidelined performers -- the male corps -- and to Acosta, whose maturity as a performer is beginning to reach dizzying heights.

-- Megan Halverson

The Rite of Spring and Elite Syncopations play through March 9 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 227-

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Megan Halverson