Istvšn Mšrta's A Doll's House Story For Percussion Ensemble struck a chord with choreographer Stanton Welch at first listen some 18 years ago. "I knew immediately I wanted to do the ballet," remembers Welch. "I felt very connected to the music as well." After Welch read the Hungarian composer's captivating synopsis about a war between the dolls that breaks out in a toy store when the owner leaves for the evening, his choreographic imagination went to work. The ultimate tragedy and uselessness of war resonated as a timely theme with Welch, who came of age during the nuclear build up of the 1980s. "The era of doom definitely stayed with me," admits Welch.
Mšrta's high-octane score blends metal sounds, like gongs and triangles and metal plates, all different types of drums including timpani, and several pitched percussion instruments like the xylophone and marimba. Christina Carroll, principal percussionist for Houston Ballet Orchestra, finds the variety of sounds key to the composition's vitality. "A lot of these instruments are normally used as a part of the orchestra. They provide color and texture in a group with strings, winds and brass instruments," says Carroll. "In A Doll's House Story, the percussion instruments will stand on their own to accompany the dance, and I think that experience will be exciting and fresh for the audience. At its heart, this is a piece about drumming. The rhythms are driving and the pace of most of the piece is energetic, building to a breakneck climax."
Welch imagines the ballet working on two simultaneous levels, one for children, and another for adults, much like a Pixar film. "There's an element that's very cartoon-like," he says. "And another more sinister level going on as well, concerning the futility of war." In the end, the dolls end up using an "ultimate" weapon, from which no one survives. The choreographer also drew from the visceral energy of graphic novels. "I loved Frank Miller's Sin City," admits Welch.
The eleven-minute ballet is structured for nine men and ten women, but it's not a battle of the sexes. The brittle and abrupt movements of dolls, along with a touch of Kung Fu and the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira, inform Welch's vocabulary. "I find combat really interesting to choreograph," he says. Known for his ability to tell a story, Welch takes an entirely new track in this ballet in both the type of acting and the style of storytelling. "The acting will involve more sarcasm," says the choreographer, who relishes the opportunity to push his troupe of actor/dancers to new theatrical heights. "It's definitely going to involve a more in-your-face style."
A Doll's House marks the first time Welch has used an in-house design team. Costume designs by Travis Halsey and Monica Guerra blend craft and creativity in their whimsical yet punchy costumes. Thrilled about the opportunity, Halsey and Guerra have developed an artistic process that thrives on their unique chemistry. "We have each designed separately but add final touches to each other's work," says Guerra. "It's been an incredibly fluid process." Halsey has designed for Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, while Guerra's fashion designs have been spotted at Edin, one of Houston's most trendy boutiques. "Travis and Monica are two very talented people," boasts Welch. Inspired by Japanese Anime, Manga, and American superheros, the team came up with a delicious mix of 19 characters with curious names like "Concussion" and "Miley High." The team drew from iconic figures yet added their own distinct touches to make them truly original. "We started with no perimeters, the sky's the limit," remembers Halsey, 27, who is approaching his second year at Houston Ballet. "Some of the designs needed to be wilder, while others needed to be tamed down." Guerra, famous for her hand-dyed and painted fabric, has been with the ballet for ten years. Each character comes complete with head gear and, for selected characters, eyewear, some of which are so complicated that prototypes needed to be made for rehearsal purposes. This is also the first time the pair has designed weapons. "We have spent as much time at the hardware store as the fabric store," quips Halsey, about the extraordinary collection of materials the team used in the process. Bold outlines will serve as an edge, making the characters pop out like true cartoon characters.
Welch sees the piece as relevant without being overtly political. At the end of A Doll's House an ultimate weapon is used. "We have been living with this threat for a very long time. It would be amiss of us not to reflect what we are thinking and talking about," he says. "The message does not represent one political opinion, but a more global message. Some wars are simply not worth fighting and often there is no winner."
Nancy Wozny is a frequent contributor to The Houston Chronicle, Artshouston, Dance Source Houston, and Dance Magazine.