Opening night of Houston Ballet’s mixed-rep program, Morris, Welch, & Kylián, saw two world premieres, including Artistic Director Stanton Welch's much-anticipated Zodiac, a ballet in 12 movements based on the astrological signs. The second, The Letter V, was choreographed by the groundbreaking Mark Morris; it holds the distinction of being the first Morris world premiere set on the company.
The program opened with the enchanting Zodiac, a work that has punch to both those well-versed in the astrological signs and those who are not. Building on a commissioned score by Australian composer Edward Ross, Welch mines the temperaments and attributes of each mystical personality. Designer Eduardo Sicango’s costumes lend Zodiac a universal sense of exoticism and Eastern flair, with a base set somewhere in Greek antiquity.
The signs are revealed one by one in a series of duets, trios and larger groups. Opening-night highlights include the majestic energy of Gemini (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Aaron Sharratt), the austere elegance of Cancer (Christopher Coomer and Yuriko Kajiya), and the sprightly grace of Aquarius (Derek Dunn, Elise Elliott, Nozomi Iijima, Katelyn May, Jim Nowakowski and Hayden Stark). The real jewel, though, was the Capricorn duet danced by Simon Ball and Jessica Collado. Full of earthy weight, Ball and Collado conjured the full wisdom and pragmatic nature of the self-confident and ambitious Capricorn.
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The program’s second piece, Jiri Kylián’s Svadebka, was last performed by Houston Ballet in 2007. Spare in subject matter but monumental in execution, Svadebka is an abstract rendering of a Russian peasant wedding. Danced to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, it's striking in its aggressive relationship between movement and music. Stravinsky’s cantata is stark and dramatic, and Kylián’s choreography reflects that, but not in a classical sense. His shapes face the audience and are kept flat in the sagittal plane, creating a severe two-dimensional dance-scape that is utterly compelling to watch. Heads are flung from side to side, torsos contract in unusual C-curves, and feet patter in frantic energy to Stravinsky’s disharmonious music. Svadebka is so visceral that the narrative, a wedding ceremony, becomes a relative footnote to the vitality of the choreography.
The final piece on the program, Mark Morris’s The Letter V, proved to be quite a bit less impressive. Set to Joseph Haydn’s beautiful Symphony No. 88, the ballet is composed of piquant motifs that create a charming sense of place and personality. The dancers perform with an ever-present glow and smile on their faces, but I can’t imagine it’s because of their unflattering green striped costumes. Morris likes to blend styles, which makes him one of the most interesting choreographers working today, and The Letter V reflects that signature in its quicksilver use of pointe work and folk elements. The footwork here is tricky, but I had the feeling that too much work was involved for a dance with very little payoff. Two ladies took unfortunate tumbles in the process. The Letter V moves beautifully. It’s weightless and airy, but so is its aftertaste.
Welch’s Zodiac is another success for Houston Ballet’s artistic director. Entertaining, creative and gorgeously crafted, the piece begs for a second viewing. Unfortunately, the Morris world premiere did not contribute the same sense of wonder or imagination to the program. For all of its lithe and agile musicality, it also could not muster up the weight or gravitas of Kylián’s bold and sharp Svadebka.
Morris, Welch & Kylián runs through June 7 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For more information, visit HB’s Web site.