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Houston Ballet's Just is a Gut Punch Through Cyberspace

Jessica Collado with Christopher Coomer at Jacob’s Pillow in Stanton Welch’s Just.
Jessica Collado with Christopher Coomer at Jacob’s Pillow in Stanton Welch’s Just. Photo by Noor Eemaan
Let’s go out on a limb and say there’s probably no other historic landmark and renowned dance festival with as interesting a name as Jacob’s Pillow.

The homestead in the Berkshires is a “hub and mecca of dancing,” a designation that it’s deserved since dance legend Ted Shawn opened the doors to his little Western Massachusetts farm with a biblically inspired name to dancemakers, artists, and enthusiasts almost 90 years ago. Jacob’s Pillow is many things, but to Houstonians it’s really been one thing for the past couple of years: the only place lucky enough to see Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s three-movement ballet Just.

But this weekend, in an attempt to make lemonade out of the abundance of lemons coronavirus has left at our doors, Houston Ballet has opened their season – digital for at least the rest of the year – with A Night at Jacob's Pillow. And yes, the on-demand program, available now, features exclusive performance footage of Just.

The ballet, commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow for the Houston Ballet’s return to the festival in 2018 after a shocking 39 year absence, tells the story of a couple’s relationship with the music of Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang. If that sounds vague, it is, because for this one, it’s hard to succinctly describe the way Welch takes audiences across an emotional terrain seismically shifting in ways that would measure on the Richter scale. You’re just going to have to keep reading.

The first movement, set to Lang’s “Gravity (for Piano 4-hands),” begins with a man and a woman – Christopher Coomer and Jessica Collado – standing inches from one another under a tight spotlight. Though dressed by costume designer Holly Hynes to blend in with a strolling crowd on a sunny summer’s day, with Coomer in a dress shirt and slacks and Collado in capris and an unexpected pair of chunky heels, the battle they’re locked in is hardly pedestrian.

Welch quickly establishes a brutal dynamic between the pair, a push and pull marked by emphatic finger-pointing and beseeching motion. The choreography is clear and deliberate, and in lighting designer Lisa Pinkham’s hands, it’s a shadowy affair, one that demands the audience’s rapt attention to catch every move. Even traveling within a widened spotlight, some of Coomer and Collado’s most intriguing lines are the ones they display on the edge of darkness.

Coomer and Collado are evenly matched, meeting each new accusatory finger with one of their own, and yet separating and coming back together as if magnetized. Welch has gifted the dancers in all three movements a number of creative lifts and holds to express their relationship, but Coomer has effortlessness down to a science. Collado rests on his back, his shoulders, his chest; Coomer lifts her up, holds her high, cradles her in his arms. Theirs is a pas de deux of passion and drama, and a reliance that may cross the line into codependence. It is a relationship in free fall, and so well-acted that Collado’s pained expression in particular will linger long after Lang’s piano piece fades out.

In the moment, however, you won’t have much time to process it unless you hit the pause button, because the second movement hits hard and fast like an assault. (Tip: Don’t hit the pause button.)

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow in Stanton Welch’s Just. - PHOTO BY NOOR EEMAAN
Artists of Houston Ballet at Jacob’s Pillow in Stanton Welch’s Just.
Photo by Noor Eemaan
To the “ominous funk” of Lang’s “Cheating, Lying, Stealing (for Six Players),” the emotional landscape of Just takes a sinister turn in the second movement. Charles Louis Yoshiyama appears on stage alone, launching into a series of sharp, expansive gestures – body stretched wide, arms windmilled, legs kicked out. Identically dressed men appear, a chorus that will eventually include Yoshiyama, Harper Watters, Oliver Halkowich, Christopher Gray, Shu Kinouchi, Aaron Daniel Sharratt and Andrew Vecseri.

Throughout this movement, they jolt and jerk, writhe on the floor, move stealthily across the stage. It’s a captivating scene on its own, but it’s not until the couple (danced now by Mackenzie Richter and Brian Waldrep) are established that the true dynamic of the second movement emerges.

Waldrep appears on stage waging a war against his own body as Richter gravitates around him, circling, her orbit narrowing until she’s close enough to grab him by his wrists to momentarily still him. It’s here that it becomes apparent that we’re getting a look at the conflict within Waldrep’s id, with Yoshiyama and co. representing the conflicting impulses – primal and instinctive, ugly and near violent – that are breaking down this relationship.

In a poignant moment, the chorus seems to become of one mind and gathers behind Waldrep. First two, and then three, four, five, six and seven, until Richter physically separates them. Though the chorus makes a brief retreat, Waldrep soon rejoins the men and Richter runs away. Yoshiyama emerges again at the center, body seemingly manipulated by an invisible puppeteer to each rhythmic pulse of Lang’s unforgiving, unrelenting score before he’s left alone and the movement ends. Hardly a happy ending.

It should be said that though outnumbered by the boys, Richter holds her own piece of the spotlight with an iron fist while showing off some lovely pointe work, long extensions and supreme control. And late in the movement, we catch a glimpse of one particularly interesting aspect of Hynes’s costume design: fishnets that appear beneath Richter’s pinstripe pants. For a section so seemingly focused on the inner workings of Waldrep’s character, those stockings – along with Richter’s constantly clenched fists – are a clever reminder of what is hinted at and hidden away in her character, too.

click to enlarge Nozomi Iijima and Chun Wai Chan at Jacob’s Pillow in Stanton Welch’s Just. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN
Nozomi Iijima and Chun Wai Chan at Jacob’s Pillow in Stanton Welch’s Just.
Photo by Christopher Duggan
The final movement plays like a lament, where the couple, now played by Nozomi Iijima and Chun Wai Chan, move with, around, and on each other in a way reminiscent of love in its purest form. And in setting their pas de deux to Lang’s “Just (after Song of Songs)” – a composition that features mostly nouns and pronouns borrowed from the Old Testament and coupled with the word “just” – Welch has something especially haunting and hypnotic on his hands. It’s also noticeably repetitive, which has the surprising effect of both elevating the nature of love and relationships to its most transcendental, spiritual plane while also reminding of its mundanity.

Here, Welch’s choreography exudes sensuality, clearly matching Lang’s original source material, and his dancers bleed emotion. Iijima in particular exhibits such longing and anguish that it’s physically palpable through a computer screen. The dance vocabulary Welch establishes throughout Just pays off well through the third movement, as do the choreographic threads he wove through all three. Returning again to a chorus, this time of women dancers (Tyler Donatelli, Bridget Kuhns, Alyssa Springer, Jacquelyn Long, Aoi Fujiwara, Mónica Gómez, Gabrielle Johnson, Kathryn McDonald, Natalie Varnum and Chae Eun Yang) further reinforce the meaning of the words being harmonized in Lang’s score and the vocabulary Welch is beautifully emphasizing.

With each movement telling the story of the same couple, though from different times and perspectives, the completion of the third movement lends Just the kind of tragedy usually reserved for reverse narratives, where we only see at the end exactly what was lost at the beginning.

So, is it better than sitting down in the Wortham and experiencing live ballet? Of course not. But is it a provocative, electrifying treat – one we may not have been given until who knows when? Absolutely. Even through a screen, Just packs quite the wallop. In fact, you might not mind taking this emotional gut punch in the privacy of your own home.

A Night at Jacob’s Pillow is available now. The $20 single ticket will gain buyers access to a viewing room, where viewers can find their digital program and the ballet from October 9 through 18. Season subscribers will have access for 30 days with exclusive bonus content, such as in-depth conversations and a behind the scenes tour.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.