The Houston Ballet Brings Paris to Its Feet

Unless they're on strike or, maybe, charging the barricades in protest, French audiences don't stand up. It's just not in their genes. In the theater, they can bestow riotous applause, but a standing ovation is as rare as a fat Parisian. Houston Ballet's dreamy co-production with international pianist Lang Lang, the Lang Lang Dance Project, subtitled Sons de l'âme ("Sounds of the Soul"), premiered at Paris's famed Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, October 31 through November 4. The show brought the French to their feet the moment the curtain fell. It was a rapturous, appreciative response to this mesmerizing world premiere from Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's artistic director.

Set to 12 Chopin piano pieces, played live by one of the world's pre-eminent musicians and danced by 16 of Houston Ballet's finest, the evening was one of rare collaboration between music, movement and even audience. There were times when the dazzling virtuosity of Lang, which is as prodigious as touted, took your breath away with the nuanced shading of a phrase or the sheer technical facility, which seems quite out of this world. But the connections the dancers made to his playing were just as sparkling and resonant. He watched them closely, phrasing along with them. Of the two shows I saw, he played differently each night. Some pieces had more rapture; some were drawn out with that special Chopin rubato; some were played as fast as his fingers could go — and they go at supersonic speed — yet he always seemed to intuit what the dancers needed. They were on the same level, feeding off each other, romping together or plumbing the depths of a fragrant pas de deux, so that we, too, were caught up in the dance-as-music, music-as-dance theme of the program. If Lang Lang delayed a note or took a pause, no matter how fleeting, so did we. If he and the dancers raced along presto vivace, we, too, panted quicker. We felt it. He and the dancers held us spellbound and breathless.

Chopin is an easy composer to dance to since most of his work is based on waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and polonaises. Europe was dance-crazy in the 19th century, and Chopin, perhaps the first international superstar pianist/composer, knew exactly what his audience clamored for. His concert works not only showcased his technical brilliance but also supplied the romantic era with a unique background score. You can't listen to Chopin and not be swept dreamily into gaslight, carriages, Victor Hugo and opera capes.

His ballades drip with reverie and haze, his sparkling marches militaires spur you to take up arms, his wispy nocturnes whisper moonlight and forbidden trysts. Chopin's patented musical filigree and chromatic melodies — supplemented by swelling fioratura and virtuosic ornamentation, like so many crystal drops on a chandelier — make for some truly gorgeous dance music. Chopin, forever after, transformed the piano into its own orchestra; he made it sing, sigh and boom. His elegant music was a revelation in its time and continues to inspire today. His appeal is universal, unabated in its emotional wallop, beloved for its timeless melody.

Michel Fokine might not have been the first choreographer to use Chopin as source music, but his plotless Les Sylphides (1909) set the standard: a dreamy poet in a moonlit wood, surrounded by ethereal females. It's all mood and chiffon. Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering (1969) is plotless, too, but more of a family affair as a group of energetic young men and women express more basic relationships. Robbins gave Chopin sex.

Welch's new ballet is a bit of both worlds, dreamy yet strongly of the earth. The flesh-­colored costumes — bandeaux and tight pants for the women, bare chests and tight pants for the men — strip away any story and lay forth the muscles, sweat and line. The drab, less-is-more look isn't exactly eye-catching or beautiful, but you immediately focus on the dance. There's no set, either, just Lisa Pinkham's mood lighting to pinpoint the dancers and give each movement its special feel. Nothing distracts: Sons is all essence.

Welch has pared his distinctive choreography to match the refined music. The overall mood is clean and elegant, technically brilliant and powerfully emotive. Is there another contemporary choreographer who can move dancers on and off stage with such proficiency and know-how? The classical vocabulary he uses doesn't only express the music but also illuminates. He makes us see Chopin. The view is hypnotic.

Sons is plotless, full of mood and terribly expressive. The nine men and seven women, who start off as a group and formally bow to the knee at Lang Lang's presence, might pair up for a pas de deux, but they're just as likely to dance with someone new the next time we see them, or to form a trio later on. Seven out of 12 dances are duets, so we're dealing with some sort of ­romance, except for the animated, high-­stepping comic fifth movement, the famous "Valse Brillante," as Oliver Halkowich and Jim Nowakowski compete for the title of anything-you-can-dance, I-can-dance-faster. Full of panache and male bravura, these guys whiz around the stage in blurring chaînés turns and aerodynamic leaps. It's a full-frontal, perpetual-mobile assault, jaw-dropping and, as the French might say, très charmant.

In contrast, immediately after, we get the startlingly simple "Nocturne in F," a profoundly affecting pas de deux with Ian Casady and Jessica Collado. Gem-like, the dance is a little novella as gestures as easy as a hand put out to the side by the elfin Collado and then mirrored by masculine Casady speak mysteriously of love newly discovered. Without bravura but with deceptive plainness, the two meet as equals: ethereal and down-to-earth. Later, the rugged James Gotesky and lithe Melody Mennite, as more experienced lovers perhaps, acrobatically enhance "Etude No. 3" with spiral lifts and daring twists around his neck. He holds her high, recumbent like an odalisque, but as she is brought down she melts in a glance so perfectly timed and executed that we've gone beyond dance, gesture and music into pure expressiveness.

For all the musicality on prodigious display, the evening provided the best chance to see HB dancers not often showcased. Everyone shines. Corps members Derek Dunn, a multiple prize winner in international competitions for young dancers, and Brian Waldrep are revelations. In his thrilling solo to "Ballade No. 1," Dunn, compact and fluid, displays flawless technique within a silky, flowing line. He expands onstage. Tall and regal, Waldrep is definitely a prince-in-training, commanding the stage with presence. His partnering of the radiant Katharine Precourt — she of the six-o'clock arabesque — in "Etude No. 7" is replete with masculine grace and unalloyed star power. Demi soloists Nozomi Iijima, with her chic pixy look and immaculate technique, and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, full of youthful ardor and facility, blaze together in total sync in "Ballade No. 2." After complementing each other, it's a sad surprise when she twirls into the wings, leaving him bereft. Soloist Lauren Strongin, partnered by the ever-amazing Connor Walsh in "Andante spianato," exudes an almost seamless liquidity in her extensive bourrées prior to becoming weightless in his arms. Demi soloist Allison Miller could easily be one of the ancient Three Graces with her heavenly detailed and nuanced performances in the moonlit-tinged, dramatic "Ballade No. 4" and the pyrotechnical "Grande Polonaise."

Emitting effortless charm, Joseph Walsh waltzes solo to "Waltz No. 19" while he glints and sets off soft Hussar sparks, like a gallant soldier on leave.

Recently promoted principal Karina Gonzalez awes with expansive, emotional dancing in "Nocturne in C minor." Partnered lovingly by Casady, who's incapable of making a non-virile move, she is swept into the music's haunting melancholy. In the final lift, she stretches her arm up and up, reaching out for benediction or into the infinite. The couple wafts offstage, slowly adrift on Chopin's rhapsodic melody, elegantly played by Lang Lang and gloriously set into movement by Welch.

The French were on their feet. And the Houstonians, who were fortunate to be there in the audience, wept in gratitude for their magnificent Houston Ballet.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover