Without Air: Choreography Is King, But Where’s the Star Power?

Photo by Amitava Sarkar Mireille Hassenboehler and Simon Ball in Little Dancer

Trust Canadian choreographer James Kudelka to take the posture of Edgar Degas’s iconic sculpture La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans and impose the little girl’s titled head and hands-clasped-behind-the-back motif onto a bunch of men. That’s so cool.

The world premiere of Kudelka’s Little Dancer last Thursday for Houston Ballet’s “Four Classics, Five Tangos” repertory evening was a typical immersion into this creative choreographer’s mind. Forget Degas’s love of the classical ballerina baby -- this ballet was all about men and contemporary movement and sound. Set to Philip Glass's Symphony No. 8 (with a shout-out to Maestro Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra) this dance for 12 men and five women begins with a 20-minute-long section in which the men pose thoughtfully in fourth position before dashing to and fro across the stage in elegant, yet somehow frantic, patterns. Dressed in Denis Lavoie’s black kilts and knee socks, they are vaguely reminiscent of ballerinas in tutus, yet more powerful, and more self-possessed. When setting this new work, Kudelka mused whether men were the new women in ballet. In this one, they are indeed.

In fact, it’s almost jarring when the five women en pointe join the men in the second section for more traditional partnering. Following the rhythmic score, which gets slower and slower, this section is less frenetic and much shorter, giving way to the final section in which we are treated to a slow, sad duet that unfolds mainly on the floor. Opening night Mireille Hassenboehler (the cast alternates), in a gold and black bikini set, unfurled from the grasp of Simon Ball only to melt back into his torso in a sensual yet serious dance between the sexes. It was a sort of lap-to-lap pas de deux. Overall, the three sections of Little Dancer were fresh, thought-provoking and sublimely executed by the company.

Little Dancer is sandwiched between two other contemporary ballets by modern dance makers: Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch’s Falling, created for the San Francisco Ballet in 2005, and Hans van Manen’s Five Tangos, which premiered with the Dutch National Ballet in 1977. Again, both are very contemporary, grounded works for ensembles.

Falling is a light, lively, almost classical dance of men and women bathed in Holly Hynes pastel costumes and set to Mozart music. It is beautiful to watch the five couples flow and turn with intricate footwork and superb partnering skills. But the delightful, slightly humorous dance is, well, a little tame for Welch.

Which brings us to van Manen’s Five Tangos. Here, we have sexy black-and-red costumes and an abstract Argentine skyline by Jean Paul Vroom. There’s a fine male solo in the piece, set to Astor Piazzolla’s canned tango music, and for the often-controversial van Manen, this is a very “dancey” work. Yet it somehow never achieves the fire of real tango, nor the surreal inventiveness of van Manen works such as Live, in which the dance moves from stage to theater to back room to right out the door, followed by a video camera.

It’s all very wonderful choreography, very well-danced.

But, there’s just something missing in this program. One leaves the theater wondering, along with Peggy Lee, is that all there is? Wasn’t there supposed to be a part when the audience collectively oooohed and ahhhhed, gasped as one, or erupted into a theater-wide belly laugh? There’s no questioning the talent behind the steps or those who execute them. But there is one lingering question: Are there no more virtuoso dancers, or are there no more virtuoso roles?

Having reviewed reviewing Houston Ballet for ten years, I can confirm that the company is at its artistic peak today. But sometimes one longs for the ’90s, when the corps could be uneven and the choreography a little over the top, yet Carlos Acosta was onstage. “Air” Acosta was that rare star who could set fire to a stage, whether in the classical Le Corsair or in Christopher Bruce’s contemporary Rooster. The Cuban wunderkind has just released his autobiography, No Way Home, and it will make Houston dancegoers a little nostalgic for the star power we once saw on a regular basis. Go ahead, look at him dance on YouTube. And then dream what this talented company would be today with a star like that. – Marene Gustin

"Four Classic, Five Tangos" runs through Sunday, June 1, at the Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater, 713-227-2787, www.houstonballet.org.

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