Houston Ballet

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Houston Ballet

“Without Boundaries”:
“Falling Angels” (Jiří Kylián)
“Elements” (Stanton Welch)
“In the Upper Room” (Twyla Tharp)
Wortham Theater Center, September 24-October 4, 2009
Performed September 24, 2009

 Houston Ballet, In the Upper Room
In the Upper Room. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

With Jiří Kylián’s “Falling Angels” and Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper
Room” sandwiching a world premier of Houston Ballet artistic director
Stanton Welch’s “Elements,” ecstasy seemed to be the thread woven
through the company’s first mixed rep show of the season, “Without
Boundaries.” By the end of a night that clearly left the company
exhausted and perhaps even dispirited, viewers were left wondering if
they’d experienced more ecstasy than agony.

Angels did indeed fall to the earth to bring to life Kylián’s enigmatic
masterwork “Falling Angels,” which composes one part of his “Black &
White Ballets.” But these were no ethereal presences, beyond the
urgencies of flesh and dream. As the scrim rises silently, eight women
in black unitards slowly advance from upstage, the stage murkily lit and
the women running in slow motion toward the audience. At this point
there was no sound but soon the four snare drums of Steve Reich’s
hypnotic, recursive /Drumming/ (an adequate if not stellar live
performance by members of the Houston Ballet orchestra). Reich’s score,
based on Ghanaian ceremonial drumming, seemed to immediately transform
the dancers from within. For Houston Ballet, performing Kylian is like
breathing; Welch’s dancers really understand the virtuosic
idiosyncrasies of this choreography. Illuminated by sharp rectilinear
swathes of light, the movement of these virtuosic women modulated
radically as the music modulated subtly around them. At times what we
saw seemed like social dance or ritual and at other moments we saw the
utterly private gestures of the self, alone and as if in front of a
mirror as the body carved its own memory in space with its limbs.
“Falling Angels” creates a wonderful tension between unified action, as
if these dancers were all part of the same collective dream, and an
expressive individuality exploding out in from the body in a series of
solos. Young girls whisper secrets, blow kisses, swivel their elbows and
hips, struggle to run, lean, and move in the thickened timescape of the
work as they flirt knowingly with the postures of a children’s game: see
no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It’s hard for the viewers not to
feel like an interloper witnessing the creatures of dream as they behave
in their own habitat and occasionally acknowledge our presence. Kylián’s
audiences must always feel like they are getting away with something,
seeing something not confessional but utterly and privately singular.
The black scrim rises and lowers and it is as if we have, for the price
of a ticket, been allowed into Kylián’s utterly distinctive peep show of
the unconscious. The company, which masterfully performed Kylián’s
“Soldier’s Mass” last spring, continues to expand this repertoire in
Houston. Perhaps we can hope to see them tackle the “Black & White
Ballets” in their entirety.

In some respects, the celestial theme continued with Welch’s “Elements,”
whose ambition, it seems, was to construct a gorgeous and abstract
cosmology just as Balanchine did in “The Four Temperaments” or “Jewels.”
Welch’s creation was more encumbered by apparatus, as mother earth and
her elemental sons played a cast of confusing spirits. Perhaps there was
some desire for innovation in this piece—for long sections, with Mother
Earth in absentia, the four sons played centerpiece to a collection of
adoring ballerinas forcing us to think more about the often-secondary
role of men in ballet and even in much Balanchine. But mostly it seemed
like a work whose main ambition was to be pretty and visually
impressive, bringing it dangerously close to pageantry. All those
elemental colors provided little psychology or drama leaving us with too
many “Ta Da!” moments more akin to Ice Capades than City Ballet.
Mireille Hassenboehler was impressive, as she always is, as a central
Mother Earth, but she seemed to have too little to do. Joseph Walsh,
currently a member of the corps, continues, as he did in /Manon/ (and
did later in “In the Upper Room”) to outshine his peers, even with such
slender material to work with. Perhaps no one could have made a
compelling work set to Hindemith’s bloated and predictable score.
Admittedly, the Houston Ballet Orchestra did not always do justice to
Hindemith. But the most compelling moments happened not with smaller,
static groupings, gesticulating in time to Hindemith’s unsubtle swells
and crashes. Rather, near the end, the cast assembled into interlocking
square patterns filling the stage. The drama of cosmology rests in
structure—not in a cast of overcomplicated personifications. So these
crystalline last moments left us with the memory of Welch’s compelling
“Play.” Although set to radically different music, Moby, “Play”/ /shows
Welch to be deeply aware of how to create a universe with a collectivity
of bodies that break into occasionally independent movement without the
balletic showboating of “Elements.”

“Without Boundaries” began with Kylián’s fascinating fall to earth, and
with a piece of pure ecstasy like Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” it should
have ascended easily to the empyrean reaches of heaven. But everything
kept crashing back to earth. This was, even, literally true as, partway
through the performance, one dancer nearly fell and then, moments later,
did fall. I wouldn’t mention this at all if it seemed to be a product of
the difficult, athletic, off-center pulsing virtuosity of Twarp’s
choreography and Phillip Glass’s hypnotic and irresistible score. This
seemed, instead, an inevitable result of an inadequate and exhausted
performance. Everything seemed off, from where I was sitting: the sound
was alternately tinny and blaring, the fog machine went into overdrive
obscuring the dancers upstage and choking the audience, the performers
looked visibly tired and at times uncomfortable, and the whole affair
had the feeling of an afterthought. To be sure, this is Houston Ballet’s
first time with Tharp, and her mixture of American vernacular styles of
movement—ballet, tap, jogging, boxing, sliding, and bobbing—might have
been too much after an already physically demanding program. We can only
hope that, like the athletic boxing girls of “In the Upper Room,” the
company gears up and wins the good fight to perfect this daring and
difficult work for Houston audiences.

Joseph Campana

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