Locally Grown. World Renowned Shows Houston Ballet at its Finest

Houston Ballet Principals Karina González and Connor Walsh with Artists of Houston Ballet in James Kudelka’s Passion.
Houston Ballet Principals Karina González and Connor Walsh with Artists of Houston Ballet in James Kudelka’s Passion. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
If ever there was a time to throw out the "been there, done that" rule, it's when you turn 50. (If you don't know, that's the rule that prioritizes new experiences over repeating old ones.) In the Houston Ballet's first mixed repertoire program of their golden anniversary season, Locally Grown. World Renowned, they're having their cake and eating it too by re-visiting two past audience favorites and world premiering two new works.

Up first on the program is James Kudelka’s Passion, which Houston Ballet premiered in 2013. Passion is a study in contrast – classic versus modern, romantic fantasy versus lusty reality. On one side, three sweetly dancing couples led by Chandler Dalton and Nozomi Iijima – precise in their movements, controlled and proper, often looking out toward the audience. On the other, Karina González and Connor Walsh circling the stage, eyeing each other and each other only, almost stalking each other as some kind of undeniable inertia seems to pull them into each other’s orbit.

Kudelka allows them to inhabit the periphery, almost encouraging the audience to split their attention between them and the other couples that come and go, along with an ever-present line of dancers, who add a dreamy quality with their romantic tutu skirts and even greater contrast with their port de bras. But González and Walsh are the tension in this piece, raw emotion on display, especially in their red-tinted pas de deux (lighting by Michael Mazzola).

Passion is set to Beethoven's Concerto for Piano in D major, a transcription of one of his most popular works for violin, and I have to say it’s a treat to hear pianist Katherine Ciscon’s virtuosic take on the added cadenza. The growing, rumbling percussive notes under the piano especially enhance the emotionally fraught action on stage.

Where Passion is like the classiest iteration of Dirty Dancing we’ll ever see, Disha Zhang’s world premiere, Elapse (In Meaning of Time Passing By), is a Rorschach test.

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet in Disha Zhang’s Elapse. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR, COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
Artists of Houston Ballet in Disha Zhang’s Elapse.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Elapse, set to the repetitive rhythms and plucked strings of Zeng Xiaogang’s guqin (an ancient Chinese zither), is a strong evocation of the life cycle, from its start to its eventual end. In between, is the passing of time – unavoidable, unpreventable, unstoppable.

An avalanche of sound opens the piece, like something growing that can no longer be contained, and then the dancers emerge one by one from both sides of the stage. Flat on their backs, knees bent at a 90-degree angle, they use their feet to push themselves across the floor. From here, Zhang uses simple, contemporary movement, sharp and fluid, synchronous and staggered, that is all together captivating, until the dancers leave just as they came, with only one remaining, only to disappear himself into the dark, shadowy world designed by Lisa J. Pinkham.

Zhang chose to dress the dancers in loose-fitting shirt dresses (women) and suits (men), but it’s the branches that sit antler-like on their heads that will surely generate the most curiosity. In this design choice, like in the entire piece, Zhang leaves room for interpretation. Eavesdropping, I heard guesses ranging from animals to zombies to try and explain what audience members had just experienced, which was in itself unexpectedly enjoyable.

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet in Oliver Halkowich’s Following. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR, COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
Artists of Houston Ballet in Oliver Halkowich’s Following.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
After a short pause, Following, another world premiere begins, this one from Houston Ballet soloist Oliver Halkowich, his first solo choreographic work for the company.

With a cast of 11 dancers (and one prominently featured disco ball), Following is like an all-too-brief, colorful montage of different but related scenes, tied together by the music of Moondog, a blind, modern-day minstrel who spent around three decades dressing like a Viking and playing music on the streets of New York. (Seriously, Google him.)

Halkowich uses a blend of classical ballet and contemporary movement, from a pas de chat to voguing, to create a dynamic spectacle – and a spectacle it is. Monica Guerra costumed the dancers in leotards and bell bottoms, the colors of which, with glow-stick fluorescence, would make Lisa Frank squeal with delight. But underneath the spectacle – the disco ball, the black fringe, the music panning side to side, the smoke and screen lightly obscuring the action – there’s something weighty and substantive to be found. The protesters that open the piece, the appearance of a phone, the way the dancers relate to each other – abstract statements about the current social and political climate, our 24/7 connectedness, interpersonal relationships.

Edwaard Liang’s Murmuration, which also premiered at Houston Ballet in 2013, closes the program in style. Murmuration takes its name and inspiration from a natural phenomenon found in starlings, which migrate in shifting, swooping, complex patterns. Set to Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, deftly handled by violinist Denise Tarrant, the meat of the piece looks to be the process of finding (and keeping) a mate. Whether or not the dancers are embodying starlings or some similar creature is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that when the dancers are all on stage, pulsating in waves and swirling into tight, fluid formations, it is a sight to behold. Thanks again to Pinkham’s lighting design, because the shadows the dancers cast against the large backdrop not only multiply their numbers, but make the piece all the more dramatic.

Locally Grown. World Renowned is Houston Ballet at its finest, an innovative, risk-taking organization with a long-standing commitment to new works. And a program like this only emphasizes the success that can follow from such a commitment. The best art both evokes an emotional response and sends you home thinking. This program does both. And seriously, any time we can have a serious discussion about whether or not something is a zombie is a good time.

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. Through September 29. For more information, call 713-227-6737 or visit $25 to $200.
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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.