Wonderful Life

Maybe it was Oscar fever, but last weekend, a lot of the Houston Ballet repertory program Life and Laughter was reminiscent of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Take the Houston premiere of artistic director Stanton Welch's Tu Tu. Created for San Francisco Ballet in 2003, this is a gorgeous ensemble work drenched in Technicolor lighting and beautiful costumes. Holly Hynes has created glittery, large plate tutus with tiny halter tops for the women and fitted trunks for the men, allowing for the illusion of great Russian ballet costuming but also showing lots of bare skin, which is in line with Welch's neoclassical movements.

This is the kind of nonnarrative ballet that the dancers love, and it shows. They knock out double fouettés en pointe and attack the floor with lightning steps while flexing supple backs and wafting arms in the most amazing port de bras to Ravel's lyrical Piano Concerto in G Major. Both women and men use their arms to sublime effect, with rippling back muscles and long limbs. The ensemble weaves patterns across the floor in a Busby Berkeley-esque wave of nonstop movement, punctuated only by perfect partnering. This could be a dream dance sequence in a Hollywood musical, only it's better danced.

It's unlikely that the work of British associate choreographer Christopher Bruce ever has been compared to a movie musical, but here it is: His 1984 piece Sergeant Early's Dream combines the best of his deeply thought-provoking, moody movement with snatches of comic dances à la Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Set to British, Irish and American folk songs, this brilliantly danced work showcases more grounded movement by the company, as well as some dramatic acting. The almost forlorn seascape backdrop by Walter Nobbe conjures the desolation of pioneers in a new land, but the recurring motif of folk steps -- albeit modern-tinged ones -- brings a sense of home to even the more somber sections, such as "Barbara Allen." The audience's delight at "Will You Marry Me" and "Peggy Gordon" was audible. In the latter, the choreography for the three drunk men a-courtin' Peggy made for some excellent comic dancing.

And finally Houston Ballet offered a classical comic masterpiece with the Houston premiere of beloved American choreographer Jerome Robbins's The Concert. Robbins, of course, actually did choreography for film, including such genius works as West Side Story and On the Town. His intimate knowledge of musical theater and moviemaking infuses this comedic gem about a bunch of offbeat characters watching a piano concert as they're swept away into their own oddball fantasies. Once again, the funny stuff comes from the movement, not from mugging -- a sign of real dancemaking talent. Each member of the onstage audience is distinct, created from the movement and enhanced only by a few flourishes: a jaunty ladies' hat here, thick spectacles there, even a cigar. There's a diva, a henpecked husband and his domineering wife, chattering twins (Paris and Nicole?), a deep thinker, a hot-headed girl, a geek. Robbins pokes fun at classical dance, in one section creating a laugh-a-second dance for the girls (one still in black glasses) that mimics the sylph ensembles of classical ballet. Perfect classical dancing allows the women to miss steps, go in the wrong direction and be carried on and off stage by the men as though they were windup dolls. In a hysterically subtle finale to the movement, they pose in a group with swan-like arms, only one girl in back holding hers in the wrong direction. Slowly, ever so slowly, she moves her arms to the correct side.

At the end of the piece, set to Chopin's "Butterfly Étude," the ensemble "audience" collectively fantasizes dancing as silly butterflies with funny wings. The henpecked husband runs off with the diva, everyone flutters around and the pianist, tired of the absurdity, grabs a giant butterfly net and chases the whole crazy group off into the wings.

Company injuries, including those of Rolando Sarabia and Randy Herrera, kept a few stars offstage in this rep, but the depth of the bench here, to borrow a sports phrase, made it hardly noticeable. Amy Fote in particular looked sublime in her dancing, as did the always strong Barbara Bears, Leticia Oliveira and Simon Ball, looking good coming off the injured list. And Shingo Yoshimoto, a demi soloist, showed fine form and a funny bent in both Sergeant Early's Dream (as one of the drunk suitors) and The Concert.

The Houston Ballet Orchestra was in great form, as always, under the baton of Ermanno Florio. And the piano playing by Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon -- who also showed her own comic bent as the on-stage pianist in The Concert -- was divine.

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Marene Gustin