Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Ballet’s Bespoke Showcases the Power of All-Star Choreographers — Don’t Dare Take Stanton Welch For Granted

A Performing Arts Devotee's Review

BY // 03.14.24

“Dancing is when you tear your heart out and rise out of your body to hang between the worlds. – Rumi, 13th century poet

Bespoke is Houston Ballet’s mixed repertory program (which runs through this Sunday, March 17), showcasing one-act contemporary ballets by three of today’s most esteemed living choreographers: Stanton Welch, Jiří Kylián and Tim Harbour.

Stanton Welch, Hometown Hero

Stanton Welch is celebrating 20 seasons of his dedicated and spectacular work as Houston Ballet’s artistic director. However, his career as a choreographer spans more than 30 years of creating works for major dance companies across the globe.

Anyone tempted to take Welch’s constant, affable and quite stylish presence for granted will be jolted out of complacency by his captivating 2018 Bespoke, which opens the program.

Welch has hitched his wagon to a star by using two of the most beloved and often performed violin concertos by one of music history’s greatest composers: Bach’s violin concertos in E Major and A Minor.

For a choreographer, Bach brings the possibility to explore a variety of rhythmic choices among the complex polyphonic, yet crystalline, patterns. Welch takes full advantage of these opportunities in the joyful Allegro first movement with its opening “tune,” which you’re likely to recognize. And leave the theater humming.

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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If you’re expecting to discover a plot to explain the title Bespoke (defined in the dictionary as “made for a particular customer or user”), you needn’t concern yourself. There is no narrative here per se. You can relax and partake in the merriment as dancers leapfrog onto the stage in a delicious frolic.

Houston Ballet soloist Eric Best in Stanton Welch's "Bespoke." (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet soloist Eric Best in Stanton Welch’s “Bespoke.” (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Welch’s confectionery starbursts of leaps on the downbeat of a phrase are utterly delightful. Think of pinwheels in a gust of wind. What a treat to enjoy a few moments of artistry untinged by irony or combativeness, movement that seems to express the music seamlessly.

Adding especially to the cheer was Harper Watters’ high-wattage energy matched by his big smile. Watters’ growth as an artist over the past couple of seasons has been remarkable, especially in his conveying an understanding of a work and performing equally well solo or as a partner.

Giving way to the springtime-like innocence of the Allegro movement is the wistful poignancy of the famed Adagio, interpreted in an exquisite pas de deux with heart-rending lifts performed by Danbi Kim and Chase O’Connell.

Welch gives the dancers here every opportunity to interpret Bach’s music at its most romantic (sometimes called by critics, Baroque Romanticism). This may be the moment to remember that in Bach’s relatively short life, he experienced many moments of both passion and loss. In two marriages, he fathered 20 children, yet lost 11 of them by the time he died at age 65.

Not to be overlooked are the strong roles Welch has historically given male dancers, moving them beyond 19th century props to lift and carry ballerinas. This was on full display as the work’s spritely sound and speedier Allegro assai tempo returned with impressive dynamism on the part of all the men.

This was especially notable in a series of exuberant turns by Simone Acri, who executed them to the thrill of the audience.

Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow

Houston Ballet first soloist Tyler Donatelli, soloist Eric Best and principal Skylar Campbell in Tim Harbour's <em>Filigree and Shadow.</em> (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet first soloist Tyler Donatelli, soloist Eric Best and principal Skylar Campbell in Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Although third on the Bespoke program, Filigree and Shadow is too sizzlin’ hot to save for last. It has no manners. It jumps the line. So grab your Harley or bucking bronco. We’re going for a ride.

Lights are up. The sound is on. For 21 minutes with Harbour’s 14 dancers, there’s no color, no place, no gender. Where are they? Where are we? Who knows? But it’s no place we’ve ever been.

Dancers are in black. Lighting is dim and gray. The sound is electronic. It’s a space seemingly devoid of humanity, our ability to see color and create art, to hear and create music, to recognize and distinguish each other. But Harbour fills the space and time with what perhaps makes us more human than anything else — Our emotions.

When Harbour created the work in 2015 on the Australian Ballet, he said he wanted to focus on “an extreme of emotion” — aggression, fear, the threat of violence, the sense of danger taken to an intense level.

He achieves this with choreography that is direct dramatic and exciting. It relies on dancers’ athleticism, speed, stamina and clear articulation. All 14 members of the cast fulfilled these requirements to the highest level. Noteworthy as a breakaway from the impressive synchronization that characterizes the work was the voluptuous and unmistakably human pas de deux performed by Mónica Gómez and Connor Walsh.

Houston Ballet first soloist Mónica Gómez and principal Connor Walsh in Tim Harbour's <em>Filigree and Shadow.</em> (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet first soloist Mónica Gómez and principal Connor Walsh in Tim Harbour’s Filigree and Shadow. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Harbour also reaches for emotional intensity with the electro acoustic sound of Ulrich Müller and Siegfried Rössert, known as 48nord. The exciting drum-like clacking syncopation feels hypnotic, pulsating and untamed at the same time. Scribbled in the dark, I discover I wrote: “Aggressive sound like a car chase (in outer space).”

Equally wild are lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne’s nearly blinding white flashes that break through unexpectedly, like search lights in a place you wouldn’t want to find yourself. A dystopic prison perhaps?

Interestingly, it’s very human to try to relate artistic experiences to those we may have had in the past. As Filigree and Shadow opens, you might feel as if you’re watching the introduction to a crime television drama. For me, without the sound and by setting the metronome speed down a notch or two, I could have sworn I was watching an incarnation of Jerome Robbins‘ “Cool” for West Side Story in 1957. The influence of (maybe even a salute to?) to the great Robbins is unmistakable here. All to the good, I say.

Filigree and Shadow is an exhilarating not-to-be-missed performance by one of contemporary ballet’s most dynamic and creative choreographers.

Overgrown Path Shines

Bespoke takes things in another direction.
Artists of Houston Ballet in Jiří Kylián’s Overgrown Path. (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy Houston Ballet) 

Originally premiered in 1980, Overgrown Path is one of the first works of choreographer Jiří Kylián, who has since become influential in bridging between the worlds of classical and contemporary ballet over the past 40 years.

The dance, which runs second in the Bespoke program, is mostly resplendent, with interesting opportunities for pairings and graceful movement. Artists who provided other elements that formed the work – designers of lights, sets and costumes – are luminaries in their field.

The ballet’s sustained theme of grief, loss and death is set to 10 pieces of somber piano music. On an Overgrown Path by Leoš Janáček (1854 to 1928) was composed after the death of his 21-year-old daughter Olga in 1903.

The stolid, repetitive nature of the music, while beautiful, may be better suited to the recital hall than a theatrical stage, and despite the excellent dancing and obvious enormous effort by the Houston Ballet’s dancers, it perhaps needs an arc to vary or lift the expression of moody sorrow.

Although not spinning a story, the movement is largely to do with men disappointing and leaving women. For their part, the women portray sadness or a dejected resistance, oftentimes slipping away to disappear for a while offstage. A bright light, however, was Bridget Allinson-Kuhns and Harper Watters’ pas de deux with its energy and grace.

Overgrown Path is an excellent opportunity to hear some lovely music and see some fine dancing by one of contemporary ballet’s most respected creators of dance.

Houston Ballet’s Bespoke runs through this Sunday, March 17 at the Wortham Theater Center. For more information and tickets, go here.

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