October 26, 2019
What a pleasant surprise to sit down and hear a live orchestra warming up in the pit at City Center! This is so rare an occurrence outside of the major NYC resident companies that it put Houston Ballet on a different level from the beginning. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, under the expert baton of David Briskin, sounded wonderful in every piece. And the Houston dancers look like a company with their own individual style and look – a fresh and welcome difference.
The program opened with Mark Morris’ The Letter V (2015), a delightful work to Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 in G major. On display were Morris’ well-known musicality and bright (some striped or gingham) yellow/blue/green combined costumes by Maile Okamura. The Houston dancers looked at home in the balletic vocabulary (lots of pique arabesques and attitudes) with contemporary accents in the arms and torso. A simple, classical structure with symmetrical groupings, repetition, circles, and canons made it easy on the eyes. Quirky surprises, like a couple coming onstage, only to have one person leave, and a goofy group step where they hunched over and kicked forward and back while swinging their arms wildly gave the ballet a fun twist that both dancers and audience clearly enjoyed.
The most riveting work was Aszure Barton’s Come In, originally created for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance in 2006, to music by Vladimir Martynov. The music’s occasional tick-tock sound followed by silence and then a rush of strings repeated several times, anchored us in real time between emotional interludes, solos and an all-male corps that danced impeccably. With a balletic vocabulary that also integrated contemporary movement, this work seemed full of emotional content, and principal Connor Walsh was especially absorbing to watch in his dynamic and moving solos. Seeing a group of men dancing with clarity, strength, and so much to say beyond the usual bravado, trick-laden choreography typically assigned to male ballet dancers is unusual. There was a real beauty and connection between them: men dancing, strongly yet softly, cleanly, and with heart.
The program closed with Justin Peck’s Reflections created for the company in 2019 to a score for two pianos by Sufjan Stevens, played magnificently by Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon and Yi-Chiu Rachel Chao. Peck’s initial sculptural image melts into communal moments where the dancers circle around each other, lifting one woman way above the group then melting into another cascading shape. Playful duets and small groups give a different take on the usual balletic steps; three men take turns “cabrioling” (jumping up and beating the legs together) in opposite directions while giving each other a playful push. Karina Gonzalez and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama’s duet lingered in the mind. But all of the Houston dancers left a positive impression with their clear, crisp technique and elegant charm. They also brought us a fresh look at our own, local, well-known NYC quantities. May they be back soon.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Nicole Duffy Robertson