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The Future is Here in Houston Ballet's Latest Mixed Rep Program

Houston Ballet Soloist Alyssa Springer and Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Divergence.
Houston Ballet Soloist Alyssa Springer and Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Divergence. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Imagine entering the Wortham Theater Center for an evening with the Houston Ballet. It’s their latest mixed repertory program, Divergence, and the first thing you see is an excited ballet (and music) aficionado giddily rushing to tell a friend that he spied sandpaper and a typewriter in the orchestra pit. If that’s not a clue to the fact that what you’re about to see may just stretch the bounds of what you’d expect to see at the ballet, I don’t know what is.

The evening begins with Stanton Welch’s “Divergence” – and boy does someone knows how to make an entrance. Striking and on pointe against a deep red background, the dancers appear ready to dance to Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite No. 1 and 2.

“Divergence” opens crisply and with triumph, with Welch choreography appropriately sharp, snapping movements to the “March of the Kings” from Bizet’s Prélude. The choreography is strong and precise, emphasized well by the bounce of the piece’s signature black plastic mesh tutus designed by the late Vanessa Leyonhjelm. From there, “Divergence” is a playground – fun shapes, spidery crab walks, intentionally exaggerated wobbles, shoulder shimmies and self-smacking all alongside plenty of pointe work, series of fouettés, and enviable extensions.

Though busy, the work has a fluidity to it, a cohesive flow, and though it’s very much a company dance, it does offer some opportunities to stand out.

Beckanne Sisk both finds the sweetness in the music and an immediate shift into the sensual, crawling on stage with her gaze piercing and always out toward the audience. Yuriko Kajiya adds a touching, emotional element in her performance, making for quite the dramatic section. And then there’s the pas de deux – an acrobatic exercise if ever there was one. But it’s not just the lifts that make it exciting – though they very much do – it’s the constant motion that most impresses.

Equally exciting is the finale, which sees the women don the tutus again just to throw them off and dance to the beat of a drum and crash of the cymbals. It’s amazing how fresh the piece feels considering it’s now about 20 years old.
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Artists of Houston Ballet in Aszure Barton’s Angular Momentum.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Following intermission, Aszure Barton's "Angular Momentum" returns to the Houston Ballet stage.

Set to Mason Bates' experimental “The B-Sides, Five pieces for Orchestra and Electronica,” Barton's approximately 20-minute work is an ode to exploration and discovery, complete with intrepid explorers (namely the audience, probably traveling miles and light years from our seats) to make contact with alien-like lifeforms across five short movements – each a sonic world of its own. The Houston Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Ermanno Florio and Simon Thew, hop easily between them. One, for example, is jazzy – and there’s that typewriter! – while another boasts bass lines that momentarily make the Wortham feel like a house party.

Through it all, Barton is a puppeteer in "Angular Momentum"; the stylized choreography is exacting and the dancers move as though someone else is pulling their strings. The dancers tilt, jerk, wave and runway walk throughout the futuristic romp. Though there’s no discernable narrative, it doesn’t mean the work is without its reflective moments.

Bates once said that “The B-Sides” originated from a desire to “set a spacewalk to music,” and in the third movement, titled “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” Melody Mennite is the lucky dancer to take that walk. It’s a powerful moment, as with Connor Walsh doing the lifting, Mennite is able to soar, traversing the stage in a seemingly weightless, slow-motion mimicking trek.

Burke Brown contributes the set, an imposing orthogonal structure, and many a bold, theatrical lighting choice (like dancers illuminated hot pink), and Fritz Masten provides the costumes, most notably those of the three astronauts, decked out like glittery C-3POs if, say, the droid was designed to the specifications of David Bowie or Elton John.
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Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado and Connor Walsh with Artists of Houston Ballet in Justin Peck’s Under the Folding Sky.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Another intermission and finally – the premiere of Justin Peck’s “Under the Folding Sky.”

Borrowing the gorgeously haunting and hypnotically repetitious music from Act III of Philip Glass’ Eadweard Muybridge-inspired chamber opera, The Photographer, Peck utilizes the score – which I’m guessing is Glass’ intentional callback to Muybridge’s stop-action animations – to show gradation.

Brandon Stirling Baker’s careful lighting selections open the piece with intent, brightening as the dancers meticulously move, slowly tilting and gradually extending. Mirroring the choreography is Karl Jensen’s set, a monument in and of itself, and one of the most direct reference to Peck’s inspiration, James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. The industrial piece grows, rising to loom over the stage as the piece too gathers and gains momentum.

And yet…

At best, “Under the Folding Sky” is a victim of its placement in the program. It lacks the bite of Welch’s “Divergence,” and the sheer oddness of Barton’s "Angular Momentum.” So, despite concluding on a seeming moment of uplift, the lovely but aimless work can only underwhelm following the two other pieces.

Peck threw down a gauntlet in terms of group work. A word like demanding only hints at the challenge in front of the dancers and though they acquitted themselves well – particularly Harper Watters, who made the most out of every moment on stage, including entrances and exits – it got a little messy towards the end. Moves were rushed and left incomplete, particularly during a section where the dancers entered into a formation by diving up through each other’s arms. But even when the performance was captivatingly in sync, the costumes didn’t do the dancers any favors. By Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, they were serviceable in white and confusing in gray bathing suit.

That said, all three of these apples fell from the same boundary-pushing, innovative tree. Though mostly successful, it’s worth mentioning that even when it stumbles, it’s a step toward the future, a tease of what we can and should be seeing on the ballet stage.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Through June 4. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25-$210.
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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.