If you’re still under the factually inaccurate impression that Marie Antoinette is just a symbol of excess who once said, "Let them eat cake," well, the Houston Ballet would like to have a word with you.
In Stanton Welch’s Marie, set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and closing the Houston Ballet’s 2018-2019 season, Marie Antoinette begins as Maria Antonia, a strategic, 14-year-old pawn used to form an alliance between Austria and France through her marriage to Dauphin Louis-Auguste, heir to the French throne. Ripped away from her family and Austrian home, she’s taken to France, married off within the day, and spends the next seven years being rejected by her new husband. A problem because the court is desperate for an heir to seal their alliance. Not the best start, and everyone probably knows the end without me even mentioning the word guillotine. But Welch finds and explores so much in between.
In Welch’s hands, the narrative, with its sprawling cast of characters (which necessitated a full-page character guide in the program), is surprisingly clear and easy to follow. His choreography is clever, and contains everything you’d want to see in a ballet — good pointe work, graceful lines, just enough pirouettes, creative lifts and yes, even a surprise appearance by the wave. Welch has also crafted many powerful sequences and “shots,” including the young Maria Antonia being remade as Marie Antoinette; the curtain rising on a colorful, awe-inducing court looking out at the start of Act II; and a brutal assault that ends the same act of an appropriately upsetting note.
In a role literally made for her, Melody Mennite soars through Marie’s arc, hitting each note, from overwhelmed and rejected girl to the center of attention at an endless party, and finally, to loyal wife, mother, and martyr. Much of Marie’s character arc can be viewed through her developing relationships with her husband, Louis XVI, and her other man, Count Axel Fersen.
In her first pas de deux with Ian Casady’s Louis XVI, marked by Louis’s lack of interest, the result is a tortured, distant dance with Mennite falling into Casady’s arms and flinging herself at him, only to be pushed away and avoided. Where Mennite and Casady lack a passionate connection, Mennite and Walsh are wondrously captivated by each other as Marie and Fersen, which leads to a playful, buoyant pas de deux. As the story progresses, Marie’s final dance with Walsh in Act III is labored and despairing, and her final dance with Casady is just as bleak, but shines with devotion, noting her growth.
Casady is perfectly stiff and tightly wound as Louis XVI, but Welch is as careful with his character as he is with the character of Marie. The sympathy extended to him makes his manhandling from Luzemberg Santana’s Joseph II, tasked to get Louis to rise the occasion of heir-making, a bit hard to watch. Despite Welch’s delicate handling of the character, Casady is still the butt of a couple of jokes, such as walking through scenes with his gun with the determination of an Elmer Fudd. It’s a good joke though.
The rest of the cast is great through and through, including Estheysis Menendez, who is composed, and the picture of duty and control as the Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa. That is, until an emotionally wrought solo. The party includes great, fun flashes of dance, including powerful solos from Chun Wai Chan and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama; Karina González’s indulgent, drunken trips across the stage; and Hayden Stark taking a turn with pie goop still on his face. And though not without choreographic flourishes sprinkled throughout, Harper Watters (Count Mercy), Yuriko Kajiya (Comtesse de Noailles), Jessica Collado (Madame du Barry), and Aaron Daniel Sharatt (as the de facto leader of the mob) really impress with their detailed character work.
Ermanno Florio led the Houston Ballet Orchestra through a score he himself arranged from Shostakovich’s oeuvre, pulling from Shostakovich’s ballets, symphonies, operas, concertos, incidental and film works. From the overture, which promises sweetly lyrical melodies and strains of ominous foreboding, and hints at the unstoppable wave of revolution and the joyful ignorance of court life, the score and the orchestra deliver. The pensive, gentle tinkle of the piano is especially eloquent as it accompanies several pas de deux, and is particularly haunting in the second andante movement from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Just as gripping (albeit in a much different way), is the music that denotes the revolutionaries, overwhelming and thunderous during the assault on Princesse de Lamballe and a relentless roar, punctuated with crashing cymbals, opening the third act.
Though Marie is diligent (and successful) in its efforts to create real, flesh and blood people from these imposing historical figures, pulling them off the pages of history books and out of the Vigée Le Brun portraits that now contain them, Kandis Cook’s designs never let their story lose its historical context. The storybook-like illustration of the Hofburg palace that greets the audience as they enter, a scrim that gives way to a golden, Baroque frame, the opposing soldiers within like a painting come to life testify to this fact. This literal framing device appears again in the second act (with columns that flank the action) and can be seen in the three walls that imprison Marie and her family in the third act before returning one last time to that impressive golden, Baroque frame.
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Cook envisions the French court as sparse, with a silvery gray color palette, three tubular chandeliers, and clear plastic chairs when Marie arrives. With the color stripped away, it’s all the more affecting when Marie and company reappear at the start of the second act, decked out in their full pastel glory with pops of color added by way of the seats on those clear plastic chairs.
Though the sets of the French court and the site of the royal family’s imprisonment are stripped down, they are not without their meaningful (and eye-catching) set pieces, such as the giant, golden-backed bed that Marie and Louis share. Not only does it provide space to advance the story of their awkwardly forced but growing relationship, the sheer size emphasizes their youth and serves as a reminder of the purpose, much bigger than themselves, at hand: producing an heir. The walls that open and close, as well as the audience that can be seen behind them, further emphasize the fishbowl quality of court life. And in the third act, where a looming red column of light makes the set almost like a modern art piece, the guillotine looms large.
Completing the look of Marie are Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting designs. Pinkham makes good use of a stark yellow spotlight to emphasize the ballet’s most dramatic moments, including a moving solo performed by Collado, as her Madame du Barry is forced to leave court with only a tenuous grip on her pride. As revolution makes its way to the palace, shadows come to infect Pinkham’s well-lit world, and then the set itself is upended, falling apart, lifting up and swinging, askew, from the rafters as a bedraggled mob storms in.
Speaking of that angry mob, if there’s one criticism of Marie, it’s only a cursory bit of its empathy was spent on the portrayal of that faceless horde and their very valid concerns about starving to death. But admittedly, that’s not what Marie is about. Welch’s Marie serves as a reminder that inside stuffy history books and court portraits, under extravagant dress and an almost four-foot-high pouf, was a woman. One constrained by time, place and position, and sacrificed for it. It’s a moving work on empathy, one that at the very least will make you want to correct the next person you hear claim she once recommended a cake-based diet. And it’s an emotional and glorious end to the Houston Ballet’s 2018-2019 season.
Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. Through June 23. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25 to $200.