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REVIEW: Houston Ballet at the Joyce Theater

Houston Ballet's Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh in ONEendONE Photo Credit Amitava Sarkar

Houston Ballet's Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh in ONE/end/ONE, Photo Credit Amitava Sarkar

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ouston Ballet took their debut spin around the Joyce stage last night with Falling Angels, ONE/end/ONE and HushJiří Kylián‘s Falling Angels, one of the choreographer’s fan favorites, is often selected by  ballet companies to showcase contemporary capabilities. I have seen the piece before, performed by the State Ballet of Georgia, but this time Houston Ballet helps me notice a few new inner-workings. First, a heavy load of unison makes it difficult to choose whether to view the movement as a corps of moving bodies or to single out one individual to more closely study the quick, precise gestures. In this opening section, the movement is clean and minimalist, focused on arm angles correlated with Steve Reich‘s drumbeats. For me, it naturally draws attention to each dancer’s face. Their countenances hint at some sort of sneaky scheme. Soon, as the group splits to make room for breakaway solos, Kylián makes their individuality the focal point. They are an army of “angels” with secrets, inside jokes, agendas. He reveals them to us one by one, and as we are getting to know their quirks and, perhaps, character flaws (hence “falling”) we are also getting to know individual Houston Ballet dancers, apart from the corps.

Kylián’s vocabulary for Fallen Angels is so staccato, so exact that it demands precision. It is built on a foundation of uniformity. It requires a cast of physical perfection. But somehow within the precision it begs for freedom. The hunt for that liberating freedom within a strict frame becomes the theme of my evening with this intriguing company.

The intermission is followed by a New York premiere of ONE/end/ONE, a new ballet by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, funded by the Joyce Theater itself by the inaugural Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance, a grant for creative development. Elo’s ballets have been characterized as divergent and surprising, a test for quick eyes. The trick is pressure-filled musicality with a complex Mozart score that can only be accomplished through flawless technical execution. The contemporary element of the work is the juxtaposition of almost club-inspired body rolls and fast undulations within the context of classical épaulement and steps.

[quote_right] I almost want them to be off count, to witness their spontaneity, to see them live on the edge.[/quote_right]

Once again, Houston Ballet steps up to the challenge with squeaky clean triple turns, landed arabesques, calculated arm gestures, and strong male-female partnering. If I was looking only at their skill, I am satisfied. However, their technique is not accompanied by confidence nor effortlessness. I sense something in between that reads as a nervousness to fit within the music. They are not yet free in the dance, although they are doing it. In the second movement pas de deux, Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh dance in beautiful harmony, but they do it without emotion. Gonzalez’s face never changes; Walsh is wide eyed and only slightly more reactionary. They are too worried about the counts. I feel a classic scene coming on where revered ballet master tells perfect student that true perfection is only achieved in letting go. I would like them to soar through their precision. I want to love the piece, but there is no charm. I almost want them to be off count, to witness their spontaneity, to see them live on the edge.

Maybe the answer to their problems lies in context and character. Hush by Christopher Bruce is the story of a traveling family of mimes, set to an enchanting score by Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. Combined with a whimsical starry set and quirky threads by Marian Bruce, an imaginary world is complete and the charm factor is back.

We catch the travelers mid-journey before they find a place to rest their heads. They traverse the stage entangled, sharing weight so instinctively that we know they know one another by heart. Soon, individual chapters unfold illuminating each character. Each one is so recognizable. Bruce uses motifs straight from our childhood that help us immediately connect to each dancer. There is a romantic pas de deux between the leaders (dare I say mother and father), where finally I can see them breathing. Their connection is electric. The boys are mischievous, they chase after bees, they show off, they tease. In short, they are brothers. There is a lovely young lady– the breathtaking Jessica Collado, who is simple, elegant and carefree. I picture her lying in fields, running through woods. I want to spend the day with her. The  younger and more rebellious girl in a bright red cap is the tomboy. She can hang with the boys. Her movements hint at playfulness and youth. We get a second and more focused look at Kelly Myernick, who dances to McFerrin’s Ave Maria. She mimes housework, cooking, scrubbing floors with a quiet and sometimes sorrowful grace. We recognize this woman as the one who carries the load. The dancers come out of this piece without a hitch. Their movement speaks volumes about their history. As an ensemble, they dance with buoyancy and they look like an entirely different company. I am deeply satisfied with the piece because the dancing serves the greater goal of communication, of imagery. It sets them finally free.

Houston Ballet performs at the Joyce Oct 11-16; Tue-Wed 7:30pm; Thu-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 2pm, Purchase Tickets

Post by Emeri Fetzer

Emeri is Managing Editor of DancePulp.com and a full–time freelance performer. Emeri most recently danced in Punchdrunk's 'Sleep No More' NYC and in original choreography for PITH Dance. Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, with BA’s in Dance Choreography and English from Goucher College, Emeri loves to marry writing with a strong passion for movement. She is also a regular contributor for Theater Development Fund's online magazine TDF Stages.

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