Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Ballet Brings Pure Entertainment With Mixed-Repertory Program That Includes a Powerful Domestic Violence Tackling Premiere

A Performing Arts Devotee's Full Review

BY // 10.10.23

Ballet is important and significant – yes. But first of all it is a pleasure.” – George Balanchine

Entertainment may not be the first word that comes to mind when thinking about ballet, but Houston Ballet’s mixed-repertory program, cleverly titled “Tutu,” equaled pure entertainment from start to finish. A visual and musical parfait of color and mood, the perfectly balanced program assembled works from three of contemporary ballet’s most gifted choreographers: Houston Ballet’s artistic director Stanton Welch, the internationally in-demand Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and arguably the most influential dance figure of the 20th century in George Balanchine.

Once again, Houston Ballet dancers — from soloists to every member of the corps — proved they can handle whatever choreography is put before them. It was hard to determine the greater star of the evening: the virtuosic Houston dancers, or the brilliant music used by each of the choreographers.

In all three works, the music emerged from its not infrequent background position in ballet to take on full partnership with the movement on the stage – and added to the delight.

The audience clearly loved it all, responding after each piece with thunderous applause and three standing Os.

Houston Ballet demi soloist Estheysis Menendez, principals Melody Mennite as Delmira and Connor Walsh as Enrique Reyes with artists of Houston Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s "Delmira." (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet demi soloist Estheysis Menendez, principals Melody Mennite as Delmira and Connor Walsh as Enrique Reyes with artists of Houston Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Delmira.” (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Stunning World Premiere For Houston Ballet

The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of “Delmira” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, one of contemporary ballet’s most acclaimed choreographers of story ballet.

Elizabeth Anthony

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ASSAEL
OLYMPIA LE-TAN
EMILY P. WHEELER
EMILY P. WHEELER
MARIA OLIVER
KATHERINE JETTER
MEREDITH YOUNG
LEIGH MAXWELL
MEREDITH YOUNG
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A story about Delmira Agustini (1886 to 1914), Uruguay’s revered poet of the early 20th century, is a tall order.

Audiences in the United States may not have been familiar with Agustini’s complicated life. Not to mention the astounding intensity and unabashed eroticism of her poetry, rare for its time and place – and even rarer from the pen of a woman. She lived between her fantasy life and the demands of an overbearing mother and restrictions placed on women of the Uruguayan bourgeoisie of which her family was a part.

It’s hardly surprising Agustini’s life unfolded in an unconventional way. In fact, its time to unfold was cut short. At only 27, she was murdered by her ex-husband Enrique Reyes, who then turned the gun on himself.

Hesitant about marrying in the first place, Agustini had separated from Reyes after less than two months and returned to her parents’ home. It’s open to speculation why she continued to meet Reyes clandestinely, evidently wanting to meet as a lover the husband she had divorced.

The star of the show was the music from Grammy-nominee Juan Pablo Acosta. The score is shaded with elements of tango and flamenco, and the evocative sound of castanets. But leading the instrumentation was a bandoneòn, an accordion-type instrument popular for tango in Uruguay and Argentina. In a brilliant stroke, Houston Ballet was able to bring bandoleòn virtuoso Rodolfo Zanetti from New York to play for “Delmira.”

Ochoa chose to focus on the symbolism Agustini uses in her poetry to represent both her real life encounters and the couplings she created in her imagination — the impossibility of them and the physical sublimity she was nevertheless certain they would hold.

To handle all that, Ochoa limits herself to three real-life characters that supposedly formed a love triangle. On opening night, it was dancers Melody Mennite as Delmira, Connor Walsh as ex-husband Reyes and Syvert Lorenz Garcia as love interest and Argentine literary figure Manuel Ugarte. All danced admirably. The two men appeared appropriately handsome – the husband aggressively swashbuckling and Ugarte, the ‘Here I am, your soulmate’ candidate for lover.

It’s possible that Agustini’s carnal drive would have been better understood, and more convincing, if Mennite weren’t costumed in a sweet sixteen knee-length pastel frock with her hair pulled severely back. Perhaps letting her hair flow long would have given a sign of the sensuality repressed within and make it seem more believable she was would meet her ex-husband, as she did, in a rented room.

As the ballet progresses, however, the presence of the less machismo Ugarte fades, leaving the audience with balletic portrayals of a severely dysfunctional marriage. Reyes an abusive, overtly philandering husband. Agustini reduced to the domesticity she never wanted, serving Reyes his meals and helping him on with his coat as he steps out for his activities.

The death scene was an example of Ochoa’s choreography and studio work at its most masterful. Coaxing movement from the dancers for a display of passion and sheer power, showing how life can be extinguished in a matter of moments, Ochoa produced the greatest drama and best dancing of the piece. The audience gripped their seats as Mennite and Walsh’s pas de deux descended into a horrific portrayal of domestic violence.

Walsh fairly throwing and tossing Mennite in a fury because he couldn’t possess her, she demonstrating tremendous technique as Delmira was increasingly overpowered and weakened like a rag doll until . . .  she was still.

Houston Ballet’s TuTu
Houston Ballet principal Connor Walsh as Enrique Reyes and artists of Houston Ballet in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Delmira.” (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

In an interview with PaperCity, Ochoa noted that when the curtain opened, she wanted the scene to appear like a dream-inspired surreal painting, with symbolic objects and figures. Set designer Christopher Ash achieved that to a large extent, most notably with an imposing, ominously-lit bloodred tree, its branches eerily intertwined with leaves intended to represent pages from Agustini’s books.

Ochoa also said that she wanted audiences to use our imaginations to figure out the symbolism for ourselves. She certainly gives them that opportunity.

Twelve Book Ladies (with books on their heads) floated across the stage, bourrée en couru, looking as if they had stepped off of an ancient Greek pottery vase. My imagination told me they were Agustini’s muses. In the program book, Ochoa says they represent Delmira’s inner world multiplied by 12.

And what of the four male swans circling Delmira in her reverie? Was this, I wondered, an attempt by serious ballet to break boundaries? After all, for 100 years, ballerinas have owned swans – a gift from Tchaikovsky and “Swan Lake.” (This is setting aside comedic male swans we’ve seen in Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo and, more recently, in Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.”)

Ochoa says the swans are intended to be the inspiration that made Agustini “fly out of reality.” In that case, they didn’t have to be male, but one can muse: Did even the seemingly liberated Agustini imagine having to depend on a male to liberate her?

Also appearing as symbols were four ravens (not to be confused for black swans), which are often associated in literature with loss and ill omen. In “Delmira,” Ochoa says, “the ravens represent the conservative society and her protective mother.” Did Ochoa choose male ravens to represent the conservative patriarchy of the time?

Another winged creature fluttering onstage was an impressive butterfly on pointe (demi soloist Estheysis Menendez). The butterfly, Ochoa notes, symbolizes Agustini’s longing for freedom. The many yards of white and yellow chiffon forming butterfly wings say we are seeing a happy butterfly and a good omen. But are the enormous wings, hovering so close to Agustini to practically envelope her, festive and portentous at the same time?

Perhaps these are all things that Ochoa wants us to ponder.

Houston Ballet first soloist Tyler Donatelli and Corps de Ballet dancer Eric Best in Stanton Welch’s "Tu Tu." (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet first soloist Tyler Donatelli and Corps de Ballet dancer Eric Best in Stanton Welch’s “Tu Tu.” (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

“Tu Tu” Remains Fresh

Anticipation ran so high for the premiere of Ochoa’s “Delmira” that it might be easy to overlook the opener from Stanton Welch, his 2003 “Tu Tu.” The title hints the overall tone would be light hearted. And it was.

The program book announces “Tu Tu” will be “abstract.” One wonders, will it be another abstract piece of the era that sought to contemporize ballet by adding elements of modern dance technique? In “Tu Tu” we see elements of (Martha) Graham Technique with its “contraction and release” core work. But a closer consideration of the piece reveals it offers much more.

Welch brilliantly wed his choreography to Ravel’s much loved and very approachable Piano Concerto in G major. The Houston Ballet Orchestra played magnificently, and principal pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon shone in her luminous interpretation of the concerto.

If American audiences think they hear familiar American jazz rhythms, and Gershwin-like rhapsody coming from a French composer, they’re right. Ravel was already an admirer of Gershwin and interested in American jazz when he came to the United States in 1928 for a four-month tour.

After a somewhat standard opening with sixteen members of the corps forming kaleidoscopic dance configurations, Welch introduces three pairs of dancers, by the color of each ballerina’s tutu. Costume designer Holly Hynes, inspired by the palette of Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, dressed each couple in gold, blue or red.

Houston Ballet principal Yuriko Kajiya and first soloist Harper Watters in Stanton Welch’s "Tu Tu." (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet.)
Houston Ballet first soloist Harper Watters and soloist Danbi Kim in Stanton Welch’s “Tu Tu.” (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet.)

Gold Couple Tyler Donatelli and Eric Best, Blue Couple Yuriko Kajiya and Harper Watters, and Red Couple Aoi Fujiwara and Naazir Muhammad all demonstrated fine technique, fluidly shifting mood from dreamy to frolicsome, jazzy to sultry.

Kajiya was especially lovely, gliding onto the stage with the same fluttering arms Houston audiences appreciated in her as Odette last June in “Swan Lake.” Not only is Kajiya supremely graceful, but in her exquisite movement you can sense the thoughtfulness and uncanny intelligence she brings to whatever the choreography demands.

The dancing blended splendidly with the music until the final movement. Here the dancers appeared to struggle somewhat with the sharp shift from the stately sarabande in the second Adagio movement to the brisk presto of the conclusion.

That the men were clad only in what looked like designer trim-fit boxer shorts may have seemed out of step with the music and not to everyone’s liking, perhaps this sartorial gambit was part of an effort to draw a contrast between the banality of the male attire and the classic beauty of the fluttering tutus worn by the ballerinas.

Houston Ballet first soloist Tyler Donatelli and principal Connor Walsh with artists of Houston Ballet in "Stars and Stripes." Choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet first soloist Tyler Donatelli and principal Connor Walsh with artists of Houston Ballet in “Stars and Stripes.” Choreography by George Balanchine, © The George Balanchine Trust. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Balanchine’s Spirited “Stars and Stripes”

Closing the evening, was George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes,” a glorious piece of Americana and marching band extravaganza — with the marching on the stage and the band in the pit. What more ideal music could Balanchine have selected than six march themes from John Philip Sousa? Asked about his choice of music, Balanchine simply says: “I like Sousa’s music. It makes me feel good.”

The 32 minutes of joyful spectacle were pure Balanchine, maneuvering five campaigns of dancers strutting their stuff, looking for all the world like a child’s fantasy of a playroom filled with toy soldiers. As the dancers were showing the Radio City Rockettes how it’s done, a gigantic Old Glory was unfurled to cover the entire backdrop of the stage.

The crowd went wild. They understood that three creative artists and dozens of performing artists had shared with them a deep part of themselves, and they had received it. It was a fine night for Houston Ballet, and one to remember.

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