Houston Ballet is Footloose and Fancy Free in ROBBINS: A Centennial Celebration

(L-R) Principal Karina Gonzalez, First Soloist Oliver Halkowich  and Principals Connor Walsh and  Charles-Louis Yoshiyama in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free.
(L-R) Principal Karina Gonzalez, First Soloist Oliver Halkowich and Principals Connor Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Though the Houston Ballet chose to honor the great Jerome Robbins’s centennial with a program called, simply, ROBBINS: A Centennial Celebration, the crowd-pleasing, diverse program could easily be titled ROBBINS: The First, The Funniest, and The WTF. But let’s start at the beginning, with both the first dance work on the program and the first ballet Robbins ever choreographed, “Fancy Free.”

As not only Robbins’s first ballet, but his first collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, 1944’s “Fancy Free” can be filed under “… and the rest is history.” The inspiration for the hit musical On the Town, “Fancy Free” is quintessential Robbins – and Bernstein, for that matter – with its premise, score and choreography all born from their very specific moment in time. Unsurprising from a man who by all accounts loved ballet, but jokingly complained, "I never seemed to get out of boots, Russian bloomers, and a peasant wig."

The premise is simple: Three sailors (Oliver Halkowich, Connor Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama) on leave look (and compete) for female companionship. Robbins cleverly melds flashes of everyday movement and modern dance styles with flashes of classical vocabulary, all set to Bernstein’s equally rangy score, performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra led by Jonathan McPhee.

From their cartwheeling entrance and quickly established jocularity, and eyes as wide as their smiles, Halkowich, Walsh and Yoshiyama easily embody these three clearly defined and drawn characters. Halkowich really puts on a show, delighting the crowd with smaller flourishes, like a Chaplin-esque walk, and impressing with his verticality, flexibility and athleticism. This includes multiple splits, including one from a leap off Oliver Smith’s bar set piece; somersaults; and a dizzying trip around the stage. Walsh charms, playing up his character’s “aww shucks” energy to great effect in his solo. Though he holds his own joking and fighting with the boys, it’s his flirty, earnest pas de deux with Melody Mennite that really stands out. Not to be outdone, Yoshiyama steals the spotlight as the odd man out who sets in motion the competition and in-fighting. His solo, full of crisp moves, plenty of hip action and eyebrow wagging swagger, is as fun as it is skillful.

Though the solos are each their own highlight, also of note are the early pas de trois (and perfectly executed midair catches), Karina González’s introductory strut, and the piece’s overall charm. Despite very much being a product of a time and place, “Fancy Free” feels timeless. The mating ritual it dramatizes may seem a little out of place today – yes, the behavior of the sailors is easily spotted and defined now as street harassment – but González and Mennite always appear in control, holding their own and participating until they decide they don’t want to anymore and run out, leaving the boys to make up with each other. That is until Mackenzie Richter saunters in, and the cycle (presumably) starts over.

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR
Artists of Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
From one kind of mating ritual to another, albeit more deadly one, the program then moves to Robbins’s disturbingly captivating piece, “The Cage,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D.

The curtain rises on a dark, shadowy world, designed by Jean Rosenthal with lighting by Jennifer Tipton (recreated by Perry Silvey), as a colorful rope web rises up toward the rafters. Transported to an underworld community of all-female, insect-like creatures, the audience bears witness to the birth of the Novice, danced by Nozomi Iijima, who emerges from some kind of chrysalis like something out of a horror movie. Curled and folded in on herself, Iijima’s Novice comes to life, testing her limbs, flicking her hand, twitching her head and dancing an unsteady solo en pointe that quickly grows more confident. Her first order of business? To kill a male intruder, played by Harper Watters. Quickly dispatched and rolled away, the Novice is left alone, as another male intruder enters, played by Ian Casady. This time, however, the two show interest in each other, dancing a pas de deux that perfectly exemplifies an awkward grace that’s not pretty, as it’s occasionally punctuated with their faces turned to the audience, contorted in silent screams. But alas, there’s no happy ending the couple, as group think and instinct take over.

“The Cage” is violent and sexual (and, fun fact, was briefly banned in the Netherlands for being “pornographic”). It’s also just a bit inscrutable. What doesn’t require much thought, however, is the skill with which the dancers and musicians bring to life Robbins’s most unusual piece. Ermanno Florio leads the orchestra, with violinist Denise Tarrant particularly shining as she navigates Stravinsky’s harsh and unpredictable violin part. Iijima is mesmerizing as the Novice, creating indelible images alone (like when her arms curve, mimicking pedipalps, and she appears to stab the sides of the second intruder) and with her unlucky mates and the group that surrounds her, led by the Queen (Jessica Collado). As a collective, the group’s choreography is aggressive, lending the piece a tribal, and menacing, feel, both of which are enhanced by Ruth Sobotka’s abstract costumes.

click to enlarge Artists of Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody). - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR
Artists of Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody).
Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Closing the program is “The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody),” and it also opens on quite the sight – a beautifully designed expressionist show curtain of a concert hall from Saul Steinberg. It raises up to reveal a big, open space and a piano, where pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon luxuriates in preparing herself to play and glaring at the audience over her shoulder. Special recognition goes to Burkwall-Ciscon, not only for masterfully tackling Frédéric Chopin, along with the orchestra under Florio, but for stellar acting throughout the piece. From here, the audience of caricatures enter, including a henpecked husband and shrewish wife, an angry woman, a shy boy, and a young lady so enraptured that she doesn’t realize she’s sitting on no chair.

“The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody)” is relentless zaniness in the form of connected vignettes, and the less said about those vignettes the better, as not to step on the jokes, of which there are many. Generally though, the so-called “Mistake Waltz” is a hoot, as is Ian Casady’s turn as the cartoonishly menacing husband and one gag about a hand with no owner that you (if you didn’t know better) would probably guess came from Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker.

You may notice that there’s little to be said about the dance which, in this case, is not a bad thing. The piece is still dynamic, it’s just that dance isn’t one of the main reasons to watch or even enjoy. Watch for the dusty piano, for the way Karina González perks up and deflates as she considers hats, the way Harper Watters’s usher character facilitates an all too familiar game of musical seats. Watch for Irene Sharaff’s pale blue costumes and colorful butterfly wings, and because Robbins pointedly, but affectionately, took the piss out of audiences everywhere. But mainly watch because it’s funny as hell.

Though “The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody)” is a riff on the way audiences’ minds wander during a classical recital, but don’t be mistaken – there will be no minds wandering during the Houston Ballet’s Robbins program. There’s just too much to look at and think about here, coming at you at a brisk pace, to do anything but be completely present during a wonderful evening of dance.

Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-227-2787 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.