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Bach and Tennessee Williams Shine in Houston Ballet's Summer & Smoke

Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Clear.
Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Clear. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
I can’t help but think of Houston Ballet’s latest mixed repertory program, Summer & Smoke, as Bach two ways with a side of Tennessee Williams.

It’s a simplistic way to look at what proved to be an exceptionally rendered program – featuring George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Stanton Welch’s Clear and the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke, but at least it hints that the genius you encounter throughout its roughly two-and-a-half-hour-long length.

The program leads off with George Balanchine’s 1941 work, Concerto Barocco, the curtain rising on a bright, sky blue backdrop and eight dancers, costumed in unobtrusive white leotards and skirts. You quickly see that the costumes allow you to appreciate the sophistication of Balanchine’s choreography – the technical precision required, the intricate patterns and formations, the delicate spacing and synchronicity, and – above all – the musicality of the piece.

Concerto Barocco is all music-inspired movement, Yuriko Kajiya and Jacquelyn Long personifying the violins so expertly played by Denise Tarrant and Natalie Gaynor; the corps embodying the rest of the ensemble. Though there’s no narrative to speak of, the power of Concerto Barocco is in its ability to hold rapt your attention in its beauty, both of the dance and of Johann Sebastian Bach's music.

In particular, the partnering between Kajiya and Harper Watters in the second movement is superb, absolutely elegant with seemingly effortless lifts and grace. Watters, the only male in the piece, is a strong presence and an interesting counterpoint to the women of the piece. Though Kajiya and Long are the headliners here (especially wowing in the third movement with their turn-taking, look-what-I-can-do exchanges), it’s the eight dancers that support them that deserve a medal. They never stop moving, flitting about the stage and ensuring a crucial dynamism to the piece.
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Houston Ballet Principal Yuriko Kajiya and First Soloist Harper Watters in Concerto Barocco. Choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Stanton Welch’s Clear followed, and it’s hard not to first notice the similarities to Concerto Barocco. Both are set to Bach, both opt for unobtrusive costuming, and both are a pleasure to view. But other than that, the pieces are like an inverse of each other; where Concerto Barocco is feminine, Clear is unabashedly masculine.

Connor Walsh is the main man of the piece, the six other male dancers reflections of him, parts of him that in turns take over the stage, crowd the stage, and (eventually) fall away. Though the dance vocabulary is unmistakably classical, Welch has incorporated creatively inspired movement at every point possible, not to mention plenty of power moves – high jumps, wide leaps, and dizzying spins. Naazir Muhammad is commanding, Harper Watters is crisp, and the trio of Simone Acri, Eric Best and Song Teng are undoubtedly the athletic highlight of the piece.

The unrelenting energy of Clear eventually gives way to a moving pas de deux between Kajiya and Walsh. After the aggressive demonstrations of the human (male) body in motion, their touching connection, lit under a single spotlight, proves to be an unexpectedly aww-inducing end.

Finally, the program closes with the premiere of Marston’s Summer and Smoke.

Inspired by Williams’s 1948 play about the relationship between a virginal minister’s daughter and the playboy doctor next door, Marston’s Summer and Smoke is a welcome take on a not too often seen melodrama. It’s very much a ballet for dancers who can act which, luckily, the Houston Ballet has in abundance.
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Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado as Alma and Chase O’Connell as John in Cathy Marston’s Summer and Smoke.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox (2023), Courtesy of Houston Ballet.
Jessica Collado’s Alma is repression personified; her emotions bubbling up and spilling out in bursts of nervous energy – fluttering hands, fidgety postures, and psychosomatic ailments. She is visibly conflicted, tortured even, and it stands in stark contrast to Chase O’Connell’s John. As the prodigal son of the piece, he’s uncertain but certainly more self-possessed. Together, you can’t take your eyes off of them; the contrast between them is compelling and well exemplified in their partnering.

There is great fluidity to Marston’s choreography and it pairs well with Michael Daugherty’s score, itself cinematically epic and atmospheric. Collado and O’Connell’s partnering overflows with longing and desire. It’s sensual, peppered with sweeping lifts and repetition that underscores the push and pull between the characters. There are many effective choices – the meaningful extension of a leg, the way O’Connell scrabbles toward Collado, and their final pas de deux, an overwhelming picture of great desperation.

Though the relationship between John and Alma is at the story’s core, Marston has really fleshed out the world around them. This includes Patrick Kinmonth’s period-evoking costumes and almost industrial set design and the strength of the supporting characters, especially Connor Walsh, Bridget Kuhns, Melody Mennite, and the portrayers of the young John and Alma, Eli Go and Justine Marcov.

Much like Williams revised and reworked Summer and Smoke – a quarter of a century’s worth of tinkering that eventually resulted in Eccentricities of a Nightingale – Marston has re-envisioned some elements, too. The symbol of Alma’s faith, a statue of an angel, is embodied and beautifully danced by a waif-like Mackenzie Richter. By taking a more active role, seemingly trying to play matchmaker between Alma and John, the angel becomes more than merely a stone symbol, but at least Alma retains the symbol of her faith. By stripping John of the anatomy chart that symbolizes his worldview in the play, and replacing it with just a stethoscope, the deeper philosophical conflict between the two characters is lost. Telling us in the program that it’s there does not make it so. John’s character, like the story itself, has also lost its bite, evidenced by Marston’s choice to end on a downright optimistic note, one decidedly absent (and opposite) Williams’s intended ending.

That said, maybe it’s best not to approach Marston’s Summer and Smoke from some kind of purist angle. It’s a distraction from what is otherwise a compelling bit of dance buoyed by excellent performances. It’s a strong ending to a program of even strong works that thematically connect. The beauty of Balanchine, the potency of Clear, and the prowess of Summer and Smoke make this mixed rep a program not to be missed.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Through March 19. 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.