The Setup: Houston Ballet's Stanton Welch is celebrating ten years as artistic director of one of the country's most respected ballet companies. To commemorate his decade of dance, Houston Ballet presents a mixed repertory of Welch choreography, including the world premiere of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, set to Benjamin Britten's seminal composition of the same name. The Execution: The program opens with Of Blessed Memory (1991), Welch's first professional commission for The Australian Ballet. It's a deeply personal meditation of the mother role as benevolent prime mover, as the giver of life and moral compass of youth and impressionable posterity. Danced to Joseph Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne and the heavenly vocal accompaniment of soprano Nicole Heaston, the dance is successful in capturing the emotional and spiritual bond between mother and child that goes beyond mere maternal responsibility.
The mother, danced with exquisite intuitive powers by guest artist and former principal dancer Barbara Bears, walks into a garden of striking inverted friezes that come to life as they fall to the floor and grow to standing positions. These are her children, and she stands amazed as they whirl into sentient beings that dash on and off stage in gorgeous flocking masses. She observes as they write the chapters of their own lives, test the waters of romance, navigate their fears and apprehensions, and search for destinies not yet created. It's a beautiful dance, lovingly created, and one that predicts the musicality and partnering of his later work.
There is a struggle that is evident, though, a struggle between Welch's classical training and his curiosity of a more modern, weighted vocabulary. There are many moments when the roundness of the dance's traditional shapes are broken by sharper, angular forms, particularly in the many lifts in the second half. The breaks are not seamless, and I think there is an overabundance of lifts in general, as well as a difficulty in sustaining the dance's lovely quality for its duration. But it's still a wonderful tribute to his mother, Marilyn Jones, and all mothers who have created, loved, and nurtured.
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Welch's sophisticated partnering is seen the next work, Maninyas (1996), a milestone in his career in that it was his first commissioned piece outside of The Australian Ballet. Danced by five couples, each woman dressed in a gorgeous jewel tone skirt and each man in corresponding bottoms, Maninyas reveals the simultaneously aggressive and vulnerable states of inhabiting a romantic relationship. The opening imagery is striking, with the women thrusting their arms into the air and their wrists flailing like broken wings. The abrasiveness of the movement continues throughout the dance, with the dancers returning to a deep second position, a place of power and confrontation. But tension seems to be the natural state of lovers, and despite the sauciness and all that fun skirt play, there is genuine empathy and care at the core of each interaction.
The world premiere of Welch's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra concludes the program, and at 20 minutes, it's a funny, feel-good ballet that's anything but lightweight. The dance begins before it really begins; as representations of the instruments of the orchestra, the dancers prepare themselves onstage while the orchestra settles its cacophony during the intermission. Sharply dressed in white and black, groups of dancers are introduced as each of the sections that make up the orchestra: winds, brass, strings, and percussion.
It's a whole lot of fun, but more so when the company comes together to represent the orchestra as a whole. Welch certainly knows how to move large bodies of dancers, and the company is fine form here, with cutting precision and careful attention to patterns and formation. It's a wholly edifying entertainment, complete with a burst of golden glitter that plays just as well to the adults as it does the younger audience members.
The Verdict: Watching these three dances from three different eras of Stanton Welch's career, it's clear that he's always been a dancer's choreographer. His dancers always move, and move in tandem with the music. And as a dancer's choreographer, he's also firmly on the side of the audience, for the audience always knows when the dancers onstage truly love the work they've been given to breathe life into. Whether he's being introspective or entertaining, Welch creates dances that are not just beautiful, but feel important and necessary. I'm more than ready to see what decade number two has in store. The Younger Person's Guide to the Orchestra runs through March 16 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit the ballet's website.