Put Houston Ballet's Premieres on Your To-Do List For This Weekend

Principal Connor Walsh in Aszure Barton's Come In. Dancing with abandon.
Principal Connor Walsh in Aszure Barton's Come In. Dancing with abandon. Photo by Amitava Sarkar/ Courtesy of Houston Ballet
It starts with one dancer. Then another and another enter the stage, all dressed in dark colors with the lighting behind them barely more illuminated then that. To the sounds of sweet melancholy music highlighted by the superb Denise Tarrant on violin, the dancers are alone, in pairs, en masse as they fill the stage in Come In, the first piece in last night’s Houston Ballet’s Premieres mixed-rep program.

There were lifts and tosses and mirrored dances. The special hook, of course, was that these weren't the usual male-female pairings. In keeping with choreographer Aszure Barton’s vision, all 13 dancers performing to Vladimir Martynov’s music were male. Technically precise, emotionally compelling, it was so well done that the audience stood and cheered for several rounds of bows at the end.

In an evening designed to crescendo with the world premiere of Reflections, a work by New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck commissioned by Houston Ballet, it was the earlier pieces that caught more sustained audience attention.

In Come In, Principal Connor Walsh taking a highlighted role. danced with abandon, with leaps across the stage and straight up jumps that landed with impossible lightness. Periodically, clopping sounds (almost like a horse’s hooves on pavement) punctuated the melodious score, providing emphasis to the motion on stage. There were what seemed like confrontations from time to time, then the participants would slip away from each other before anything violent happened.

The only props were chairs brought in further in the piece, with seated and standing dancers somehow mirroring each other as they bent and stretched. The images created were striking and memorable.

Dream Time choreographed by Jiri Kylian, making its Houston Ballet debut, was the second piece, also embracing a dark color scheme. Three women stand in a line – we see their profiles – all in long dark dresses. There is no sound for the longest time (other than from the cell phone in the purse of a woman in the ninth row center last night). Are these frontier women? Priestesses of some cult? Modern day Christian fundamentalists dressing in this dour fashion?

Walsh enters bare-chested to the sound of discordant music by Toru Takemitsu and begins a series of intricate entanglements with recently promoted Principal Nozomi Iijima. Perhaps it’s the music but as the piece goes on with Principals Jessica Collado and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Soloist Alyssa Springer, the encounters between and among the members of the small group seem almost menacing and filled with tension. Or perhaps everyone is just bewildered about what the others want.

At different times the female dancers appear to be puppets manipulated by the men, trying to escape and then caught; their arms, legs and heads set in place by Walsh or Yoshiyama. In the background projection there are water, bushes and a building – the darkness occasionally pierced by lights going on in what may be a house or barn.
click to enlarge (L-R) Principals Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, Jessica Collado and Connor Walsh in Jiri Kylian's Dream Time. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR/ COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
(L-R) Principals Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, Jessica Collado and Connor Walsh in Jiri Kylian's Dream Time.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar/ Courtesy of Houston Ballet

Toward the end there is a breath-taking power move in which Yoshiyama and Walsh with Collado in the middle support their whole group pose with only the men's outside legs. At the end, it is the three women who are left alone on stage, just as at the beginning.

Reflections is a seven-section piece some of whose parts tended to blend one into each other. When the curtains opened someone in audience remarked “Finally some light.” The stage was blazingly lit and the dancers were in bright colors of orange, powder blue, lime, rust, evergreen – in marked contrast to the two earlier sets and costuming.

Onstage, silhouetted in the background were pianists Katherine Burkwall-Siscon and Yi-Chiu Rachel Chao who played Sufjan Stevens’ music, a mixture with both classical and contemporary influences. Deservedly, they received some of the biggest applause of the evening.

click to enlarge (Top to bottom) Soloist Harper Watters, Principal Jessica Collado and Principal Chun Wai Chan in Justin Peck's Reflections. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR/ COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
(Top to bottom) Soloist Harper Watters, Principal Jessica Collado and Principal Chun Wai Chan in Justin Peck's Reflections.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar/ Courtesy of Houston Ballet

At its best, as when Collado danced with Principal Chun Wai Chan and soloist Harper Watters, the Reflections choreography is mesmerizing. Chan and Watters mirror each other with eye-catching arm movements. They are absorbed in each other, inseparably intertwined. Then Collado comes on stage and at first they don’t acknowledge her. But she persists.

Watters throws Collado to Chan who catches her with no effort but Watters, not waiting for a return exchange, runs to the opposite side of the stage. Collado dances alone like a ballerina on top of a jewelry box with endless twirls. Eventually the men allow her to join them again and the ending moments with them all gathered in together is a vision both beautiful and affecting.

The other standout section was the dance by Principal Karina Gonzalez and Chan. They are both beautiful and graceful dancers, and in this case were aided by the music entering a more striking phase as it built in intensity. It was impossible not to lean in and be caught up in their pas de deux.

Premieres is only on for this weekend, which is disappointing considering the great work by so many that has gone into this. The supposed rule is that full-length ballets with their stories are what Houston audiences turn out to see and the shorter, more abstract pieces just don’t catch their attention as much.

Which is a shame because if there are stories people want, there were plenty going on stage at the Wortham last night. They may not have been as delineated down to the nth degree as story ballets with their liner notes telling audience members exactly what is happening. But they are stories all the same.

And with room for interpretation, watching these, you can write your own story. And really, no one can say that you are wrong.

Performances continue through March 24 at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Wortham Theater, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25-$200.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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