Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Ballet Pulls Off an Electrifying “Divergence” — There Is Nothing Simple In These Pieces, Including a Dance Master’s World Premiere

A Performing Arts Devotee's First Take Review

BY // 05.31.23

Houston Ballet’s “Divergence” — with performances through this Sunday, June 4th — is a magnificent, electrifying and glamorous show throughout. The three pieces are presented in chronological order, opening with two from the Ballet’s repertory and closing with a much anticipated world premiere from New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck.

This structure allows the audience to see the full range of the company’s outstanding technique, musicality and capacity for lyrical grace, qualities never overwhelmed by the athleticism demanded by the art form.

Houston Ballet soloist Alyssa Springer and artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's Divergence. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet soloist Alyssa Springer and artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Divergence. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Stanton Welch’s Divergence

The opening piece is Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch’s Divergence, which premiered with the Australian Ballet in 1994 and Houston Ballet in 2004. It’s a gorgeous and exciting work with music by Georges Bizet from L’Arlésienne (1872), a play written by Alphonse Daudet. The music uses French Provençal folk tunes and a Provençal drum (tambourin) from the Camargue, a region famous for its eponymous horse breed, cowboys and bullfighting.

Welch brilliantly captures the Camargue expansive spirit and the flavor of a paseo (parade) in Arles before a bullfight.

When the curtain rises on an abstract backdrop of red light, we know we’re in for high drama. The ballerinas on pointe are costumed head-to-toe in black. Most dramatic are their hard mesh, saucer-like black tutus edged in red that recall the traditional bullfighter’s hat (fancifully designed by Vanessa Leyonhjelm for the original Australian production). But wait. . . What are those little horns, cute as horns go, atop the ballerinas’ heads? Are we perhaps in hell?

But then Bizet’s familiar and thumping March of the Kings takes over, the choreographer’s humor peeks through, and we’re in Arles in simpler times of days gone by.

When it comes to movement, however, nothing is simple here. Every dancer performs Welch’s demanding choreography with dazzling precision. Classical footwork is often combined with contemporary upper-body poses, such as flexed hands, a motif taken from modern dance. “Modern” too is Beckanne Sisk’s brilliant crab-like sideways crawl across the stage, displaying her long legs and phenomenal extension. Yuriko Kajiya is exquisite in her grace, pure and doll-like yet never naïve. The several pas de deux mesmerize in their perpetual motion and hypnotic, seemingly effortless fluidity.

And what fun and delight as the ballet concludes to the joyful tune of Bizet’s Suite No. 2. Bound no longer, ballerinas cast off their tutus to the sounds of crashing symbols and a drum.

The curtain falls, the crowd roars with appreciation, and I scribble on my notepad in the dark: “Triumph!”

Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's <em>Divergence</em>. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Divergence. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Angular Momentum

Blasting off from 19th century Arles, we land mid-20th century in America’s intense space exploration program, in which Space City Houston played a historical part. Choreographer Aszure Barton marks these successes in Angular Momentum, debuted by the Houston Ballet in 2012.

Set to Mason Bates’ 2009 score, “The B Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica,” the piece becomes a unique paean to the first American astronauts and invites us to join an imaginary balletic journey inspired by our astronaut pioneers. Punctuated by faint, high-pitched electronic sounds that evoke possible communications from other planets, Bates’ score is an ideal accompaniment for other-worldly events being portrayed onstage.

The sounds varies from crisply syncopated to jazzy to the highly percussive (that’s when the typewriter in the orchestra pit comes into use).

Adding to the piece’s success is the set and lighting design by Burke Brown. His decision to provide an illuminated geometric background with occasionally shifting colors provides an interesting juxtaposition to the spiraling motion implied in the title, always adding to rather than distracting from the movement on stage.

Were we stowed away on Apollo 11? It’s a quick trip to the moon, where we come across alien-like beings outfitted in orange leotards. Strategically-placed stripes disguise whether they are male or female, or human at all for that matter. Their existence, however, is convincing thanks to Fritz Masten’s masterful costumes that allow Barton’s fanciful imagination to run free.

She fashions her creatures with jerky movements and twitches in angles of all kinds. The arrival of three astronauts outfitted in Vulcan-like costumes of glistening gold fascinates the aliens as much as they do us.

The most unforgettable moment in Angular Momentum will remain the spellbinding “Moon Pas de Deux” by Melody Mennite and Connor Walsh, performed to Bates’ third movement, “Gemini in the Solar Wind.”

Never has weightlessness required so much physical strength. We witness Walsh lift his partner, allowing her to soar, walk in slow motion, and rotate above the ground. Transfixed, we are convinced that choreographer Aszure Barton indeed left planet Earth at least a few minutes, along with Mennite and Walsh and the entire company, and taken us with them.

Judging from the applause after their performance, the audience enjoyed the trip tremendously.

Justin Peck’s Under the Folding Sky

The Houston Ballet dancers have proven their mettle in the first two pieces. The focus is now on Justin Peck’s task to meld movement, music, lighting and set design into a new and unique dance, ideally one that will become part of the company repertoire.

A resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet since 2014, Peck has gained celebrity status beyond the dance world for his Tony-award-winning choreography for the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel and work on Stephen Spielberg’s 2022 remake of West Side Story.

Peck’s visit to James Turrell’s art installation, “Twilight Epiphany,” on the Rice University campus was the inspiration for Under the Folding Sky. Turrell uses light design and the shifting of nature’s own light to create a personal experience of time’s advancing over a 40-minute period at dawn or dusk.

Peck terms it “one of the greatest works of art in the world.” With it, he says, comes “a peace and meditative quality” as the Earth’s movement shifts incrementally, and colors and the skyscape change.

Peck’s admiration for Twilight Epiphany might conjure up expectations of a dream-like ballet with an evolution of color unfolding at dawn into sprays of red and yellow, or folding at twilight into a palette of pastels. In fact, nearly the opposite occurs in Under the Folding Sky. Rather than Zen-like contemplation, Peck presents an “organism,” as he calls it, that multiplies from one to 24 dancers in increasingly complex and interesting patterns.

“It’s like watching a kaleidoscope,” Peck says.

However unlike the toy with bright, changing colors that might have captivated you in your childhood, Peck’s kaleidoscope is a monotone of contemporary white and gray minimalism.

Houston Ballet first soloist Harper Watters in Justin Peck's <em>Under the Folding Sky</em>. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet first soloist Harper Watters in Justin Peck’s Under the Folding Sky. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Far from peaceful, the dance is set against the pulsating, increasingly loud and increasingly accelerating music of Philip Glass from Act III of his 1982 opera, The Photographer.

The 40-year old music may hold the key to a sense that the piece is more retro than breakthrough, as Glass has been popular with choreographers for decades.

Jerome Robbins’ vintage 1984 Glass Pieces (music by Glass, of course) comes to mind as a precursor to Under the Folding Sky. Robbins, who was Peck’s choreographic predecessor at NYCB and the original choreographer for West Side Story, opens Glass Pieces with the company speed walking and crisscrossing in what feels like a pedestrian urbanscape. Peck closes Under the Folding Sky with a similar crossing pattern, a now-established device in contemporary dance vocabulary.

Propelled by Glass’ inexorably repetitive music, Peck drives to an increasingly frenetic conclusion. It’s the outstanding technique of the entire company in their controlled perpetual movement that elevates the retro dance vocabulary into something fresh that seemed to have the audience riding with them. Notable was the energy of all the male dancers, with special kudos to Harper Watters who attracts the eye with his unmistakable charisma.

Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado and Connor Walsh with artists of Houston Ballet in Justin Peck's <em>Under the Folding Sky</em>. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet Principals Jessica Collado and Connor Walsh with artists of Houston Ballet in Justin Peck’s Under the Folding Sky. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

With its enormous industrial design of what at first appears to be two metal spikes, Karl Jensen’s set adds a measure of gravitas to the hyper-active ballet taking place on the stage. The spikes become spokes, moving imperceptibly until a number of them fan out like several hands on a clock.

The design reflects Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany in its unperceived but constant movement – and further provides a backdrop that, like the universe, dwarfs the frenzy and ephemeral nature of human passions playing out beneath it. Do we not, as novelist Anthony Powell put it “Dance to the music of time?”

Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung designed the loose-fitting, somewhat translucent, identical crewneck unitards, which recall a time when loose pants rather than tights on ballet dancers felt revolutionary (the loose “pants” in Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1976), choreography by Lucinda Childs, comes to mind). However, they achieve Peck’s goal of a “one organism” genderless look.

A question hovers as to whether the uniform cotton ball white color, despite the fabric’s minimal translucence, sterilizes the atmosphere perhaps beyond what was intended — or perhaps that was exactly the intention.

Peck closes the piece with dancers throwing themselves flat on the stage, spent and finished, as Jensen’s complex geometry looms above. The audience leaps to its feet. Intriguingly, they know that despite attempts to remove humanity from contemporary art in even the most abstract forms, it is created by visionary and very human artists, and we are in their debt.

Houston Ballet’s “Divergence” continues at the Wortham Center’s Brown Theater this week. There are performances this Friday, June 2 and Saturday, June 3 at 7:30 pm, and a 2 pm matinee on Sunday, June 4. For more information and tickets, go here

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