A Partial Eclipse

You have to give Ben Stevenson points for courage. In premiering his new short ballet Eclipse, he could have stacked the program in its favor, scheduling some weaker pieces to go along with it so that his would shine in comparison. Instead, in the mixed repertory performance now being offered up by his Houston Ballet, artistic director Stevenson has placed Eclipse on the same bill with George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments and Jiri Kylian's Sinfonietta, two of the stronger works in the company's catalog.

But then, you also have to give Stevenson points for savvy showmanship, since he doesn't end the evening with his ballet -- so that the audience can compare it to what they've just seen -- but instead offers it up at the very beginning, when the crowd is fresh and ready to be pleased. Last Thursday, had he used Eclipse to cap the production rather than kick it off, it's unlikely it would have received as much applause as it did. Because interesting as Eclipse may be, it just doesn't stack up to the competition. The Four Temperaments is one of the most fascinating dances Balanchine ever choreographed, which is, of course, saying a considerable lot; Sinfonietta is Kylian's masterpiece, and a piece that seems almost genetically designed to play to the Ballet's strengths; Eclipse, in contrast, is one-third of a successful work.

That third comes in the middle of three movements that were, Stevenson has said, inspired by TV reports of NASA's Mars probe. "Inspired" is the operative word here; anyone looking for a space-themed ballet is going to be disappointed. If anything, Eclipse is suggestive of any number of what might be called earth ritual dances, in which adoration of things natural is the point. Here the objects of adoration are the moon and the sun, which, as the title suggests, cross paths. In the first movement, 14 dancers celebrate the celestial bodies pre-eclipse; the second movement is a pas de deux during the eclipse; and the third movement is a celebration by the full company post-eclipse.

That's a literal reading of a non-literal dance, and the specifics of a story line don't really matter here. What matters is that when the full contingent of dancers is on-stage, there's little cohesion to what they're doing. The corps work appears jumbled, in part because Stevenson doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what he's after, and in part because the corps itself isn't quite up to the standards the Ballet has set in recent years. Though most of the attention over the last two seasons has been focused on the loss of a few of the Ballet's star performers, just as crucial has been the influx of new dancers who are still learning to jell with the company. One of the Ballet's greatest strengths has been not just its depth of talent, but how well the talent worked together. And at the moment, some of that complementary skill appears gone.

Not that it would have saved the opening and closing of Eclipse. Rather, what saves the piece is the central pas de deux, danced on opening night by Tiekka Schofield and Phillip Broomhead. I've never been a particular fan of Schofield, who's always struck me as being a dancer who's strong on movement and weak on meaning, but on opening night she turned in a bravura performance that had me going through everything I've seen her do and wondering what it was that I had missed. She was exquisite, both strong and yielding, precise and lyrical. Broomhead partnered her well, but it was Schofield's show.

The credit is not purely hers, of course; much of it belongs to Stevenson, who's created here one of his finer two-person pieces. It's sweetly romantic, but also has humor and more than a touch of knowingness. Set free from its clumsy first and third movement siblings -- which it doesn't really need -- it would be truly marvelous.

Whether it could stand up in the company of The Four Temperaments and Sinfonietta, though, is another question altogether. Temperaments, created in 1946, is a watershed piece for Balanchine, one that heralded the modernist masterpieces to come. It made clear what would come to be known as the Balanchine style: the rapidity of technique, the sharpness of movement, the angularity of line, the intense drive. Though created a half-century ago, it still looks astoundingly modern, and retains its power to astonish, especially when done by a company in sync with Balanchine's rhythms.

The Houston Ballet is such a company -- most of the time. Their take on Temperaments is a fine one, marred only occasionally by a fluid movement when an abrupt one is called for. Principals Dominic Walsh, Dawn Scannell and Lauren Anderson in particular proved themselves up to the demanding choreography.

But if to dance Balanchine properly the Ballet has to go somewhat against type, to dance Kylian's Sinfonietta all they have to do is play to their lyrical strength. Sinfonietta isn't challenging to the viewer in the manner of a Balanchine piece; it's just beautiful, and embraces beauty not as a means to an end, but an end in itself. From start to finish it moves like a wave, and the trick is to keep the wave flowing, which the Ballet does exquisitely. It's a gorgeous piece of work, and a perfect capper to the evening. When it's over, the viewer doesn't want to go anywhere else. Except, perhaps, happily home.

Eclipse, The Four Temperaments and Sinfonietta will play through September 14 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas. 227-2787.