Classical ballet isn't what it used to be. Of course, Houston in 2006 isn't much like Russia in the late 19th century. Both cities birthed versions of Swan Lake: Marius Petipa creating the original in St. Petersburg in 1877 and Houston Artistic Director Stanton Welch crafting his own version this spring, based on Petipa's. But 19th century Russia and its most famous classical ballet choreographer could never have imagined ballet to a synthesized bass beat, nor a ballet set composed of the clean geometry of Piet Mondrian's paintings.
Houston can and does this May with Houston Ballet's "Moby in Motion" program, which includes Welch's Play to the club dance music of Moby, the angular Velocity danced before a stage-filling Mondrian-based set, and Kenneth MacMillan's neoclassical Gloria. A varied group of ballets to be sure, but their link to classical ballet's Russian roots remains clear for Welch.
"They all are based very much on classical technique," he says. "All three come from the same vocabulary."
Dancers turn their legs out; they face the audience as their toes point neatly to opposite sides of the stage. They unfold their legs and arms, constantly reaching upward. Women get a head start in the race towards the vertical, their feet sheathed in pointe shoes that allow them to dance as though hovering above the floor.
The classically technical details may be more apparent in some ballets than others.
Welch created the overtly classical Velocity for The Australian Ballet in 2003.
"I knew I wanted to do a ballet that was very linear, sharp, angled‹something sleeker than what I had done before in the classical world," he says. "An exploration of lines and clarity drew me to the Mondrian paintings. He worked with such basic colors and straight lines to create something so beautiful."
Velocity's emphasis on line, the white tutus worn by the ballet's women and their whirling fouette turns may conjure images from Swan Lake, but the men's sleek black lycra costumes and the choreography's careening dynamics allow Welch to push towards the edges of classical form.
"Velocity is really sharp and fast and extremely dangerous dancing," he says.
While all of today's ballet exists in conversation with long ago predecessors in the Russian royal court, Kenneth MacMillan's Gloria connects Houston to both histories abroad and at home.
MacMillan served as Houston Ballet's artistic associate from 1989 until his death in 1992, bringing much of his neoclassical style with him from his native England. Dance historians generally most closely associate neoclassical ballet with George Balanchine, but MacMillan also tugged and toyed with classical lines, pushing ballerinas to the edge of their pointe shoes and affixing angular twists and turns to reinscribe the linear, symmetrical spatial patterns of classicism. But where Balanchine focused on form for the sake of form, MacMillan used neoclassicism to explore deeply psychologically themes.
Inspired by Testament of Youth Vera Brittain's poignant memoir of life in WWI England, MacMillan built Gloria to Francis Poulenc's choral score, music Welch describes as "divine."
Though MacMillan created Gloria in 1980 for London's Royal Ballet, the work has been a mainstay for Houston since it premiered here in 1989 with a young Barbara Bears in the leading role.
"I love Gloria," says Bears. "It's one of my favorite ballets; it's so spiritual and ethereal. I'm on my fourth pas de deux boy and I never get tired of doing the work."
Where MacMillan uses classical vocabulary to outline the emotional landscape of a particular place and time, Welch's Play leaves atmospheric impressions driven by the club dance beats of Moby, an outspoken musician who licensed all tracks from his 2000 album Play for films and commercials. As a result, even people who have never heard of techno may well have heard Moby's music.
"Even if you weren't 100% sure it was Moby, we hear his music all the time. The Weather Channel plays Moby!" says Welch. "I was drawn to Moby when I was a young adult and it really became the background music to periods of my life."
Recent years have seen the marriage of pop or rock music and classical ballet as a frequent occurrence. Welch, with three other choreographers, created work to former Beatle George Harrison's solo compositions for American Ballet Theatre in 2002. Where choreographing literal responses to rock lyrics restricts many classical artists, Welch interwove the many layers of Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," to physically interpret, not just the lyrics, but the melody and harmonies as well.
Welch says he resisted the lure of lyrics in Play too.
"I took the flavor of what I felt the song was about and then explored my own concepts on top of that," he says.
Exploring new ideas does not necessarily require dispensing with older forms. With their use of classical vocabulary and Houston Ballet's fabulously versatile, but classically trained dancers, Play, Velocity, and Gloria, very much spring from the world of classical ballet.
Clare Croft is a freelance dance writer and a Ph.d. student in the Theater and Dance Department of the University of Texas at Austin.