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First Soloist Oliver Halkowich, Principals Connor Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama with artists of the Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free.
First Soloist Oliver Halkowich, Principals Connor Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama with artists of the Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free.
Photo by Lawrence Knox

Want to Show a Sailor a Good Time? Celebrate Jerome Robbins' Legacy at Houston Ballet.

Dance the premiere Stanton Welch choreography of Sylvia at night. Rehearse in the afternoon for the Jerome Robbins Centennial celebration. Oh and rehearse too for the next one: Premieres, a mixed rep program. Houston Ballet is getting its money's worth out of its talented dancers these days.

Principal Connor Walsh is, of course, right in the thick of things. He'll be Sailor No. 2 in the classic Fancy Free ballet about three sailors from small towns out in the big city for one day. He says he tries to imagine himself as someone from rural Kansas or Idaho with a straw in his mouth. But unsophisticated doesn't mean simple.

"It’s a fun ballet once you get it. It’s a tricky ballet because the music is so dynamic. It's tricky for us, the count. But once you learn the score it’s in your body," Walsh says. "It’s all about the dynamics between the three sailors. It's a ballet so much about the chemistry of those sailors in creating the three different personalities."

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This will be at least the third time Walsh has done this. He's danced it before with the Houston Ballet and also on a tour with a cast of dancers from New York City Ballet. He says he's learned from each experience, but this time, he says: "I'm with a great group of guys, Oliver Halkowich on one side and Charle-Louis Yoshiyama on the other. We've got the guys. We've got the personalities and the women who are also in the ballet are fantastic."

"Fancy Free" is one of three ballets to be performed as part of ROBBINS:  A Centennial Celebration in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the renowned choreographer's work.  Dance companies throughout the United States are putting on special programs in honor of the anniversary.

"Over the whole program what you'll really notice is Jerome Robbins' range as a choreographer," Walsh says. "Jerome Robbins was a master at theater. We were just lucky that he was also a dancer."

Besides "Fancy Free," Houston Ballet will be dancing "The Cage" with a score by Igor Stravinsky. Female dancers become a troupe of abstract and insect-like creatures who go on the hunt. Their prey? The male dancers. And for the crescendo ending: "The Concert (Perils of Everybody)" with music by Frédéric Chopin. The setting is a classical music event and the dance focuses on some eccentric members of the audience.

Each piece is distinctive and comes with its own challenges.

"'Fancy Free' that has a lot of soft shoe tapping," Walsh says. "There's a lot of shuffling which is not very easy for a ballet dancer because we usually work with so much energy in our feet. To relax our foot in the right way is pretty tricky for us."

"'The Cage' has some extreme physicality quite contemporary in some ways. I do know that particularly for the women it's very physical and demanding on their bodies. The shapes they have to make to portray the insects that they are trying to be. They contort themselves in all sorts of strange positions. All their necks are pretty sore after every go."

"The Concert" is much more about creating characters than physically demanding, not that it doesn't have its difficult moments, he says.

The music from "The Cage" will probably be the least recognizable to the general audience, he says. "It has this dark intensity." The Chopin in "The Concert" has all sorts of beautiful music, in fact the piece revolves around the piano, he says. "And 'Fancy Free,' if they don't recognize the actual tunes, they'll recognize the energy. They'll be tapping their foot along with it."

Unlike the other two, the music and choreography for "Fancy Free" was a collaborative effort, Walsh says. "The music and the dance fit like a glove. It was designed to perfection because of this."

And, he adds: "I've never seen a person who hasn't laughed their way through 'The Concert.'"

"We’re excited to join  on the Robbins centennial," Walsh says. "Many choreographers have been influenced by his work. It's incredible to celebrate a legendary choreographer like that."

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25-$200.

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