Holiday offerings by the Houston Ballet go far beyond their venerable Nutcracker performances. The company's Jubilee of Dance has established a festive annual tradition: an exciting gala performance that offers the audience a sample of everything from its widely eclectic range of repertoire. "From the audience perspective, it's like a buffet: and everyone loves a buffet," says artistic director Stanton Welch. "You get to see everybody and you are reminded of the strength and size of the company. It's like an adult Christmas program."
A delicious example of ballet of that order is Welch's Punctilious, a ten-minute romp choreographed to Dvorak's Carnival Overture.The piece comprises a series of solos and ensemble work for 12 women and eight men that reflect the vivacious and exuberant quality of the score. In his own description, the Czech composer wanted to create an atmosphere of a jubilant carnival. "On every side is heard the clangor of instruments, mingled with shouts of joy and the unrestrained hilarity of people giving vent to their feelings in the songs and dance tunes," wrote Dvorak. Welch also balances the music's energy with, as the title suggests, the precision of classical ballet vocabulary.
George Balanchine possessed the rare talent of being able to condense the grandeur of a full-length ballet into a repertory piece. His neoclassical masterpiece Symphony in C, set to George Bizet's wonderfully orchestrated work in four movements, utilizes a full company of dancers and evokes the splendor of ballet on a large scale. The gala includes the fourth movement of Symphony in C, an allegro finale that allows the entire troupe to shine. As the climax to the ballet, the ballerinas, their partners, and the full corps de ballet take part in one of ballet's greatest masterpieces of architectural choreography. Dancing Symphony in C is a test for the stature of any company, and Houston Ballet always proves that it can handle it with aplomb.
In 2008, Canadian choreographer James Kudelka created Little Dancer, an exquisitely moving ballet that combines smooth lyricism with rich vitality. Although the inspiration came from Edgar Degas's 19th-century sculpture La Petite Danseuse de Quatorz Ans (The Little Dancer Aged 14), Kudelka used Philip Glass's Symphony No. 8 for its hypnotic, pulsating rhythms. The men, dressed in kilts, with the women in flowing dresses and pointe shoes, engage in inventive partnering sequences. The gala will include the final movement of Little Dancer, a pas de deux that astoundingly never leaves the ground. The effect of the duet, nonetheless, conjures up simultaneous feelings of sensuality and other worldliness. "I love James Kudelka's construction, his unique way of building a ballet. He has his own perspective and point of view," says Welch.
Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux highlights the soulful and bravura elements of Tchaikovsky's music. The adagio choreography from Welch's production of Swan Lake brings to life the fateful meeting of Odile, the Swan Queen, and Prince Siegfried. Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, on the other hand, was choreographed by Balanchine to music that was omitted from the original Russian production of Swan Lake; it serves as a rousing showstopper with its scintillating musical phrasing and daredevil moves.
Further excerpts from several ballets also accentuate the versatility of Houston Ballet's dancers. Hans van Manen's ballet Solo, a study of refined athleticism, is actually a trio choreographed for three male dancers and set to Bach's Partita for solo violin. Mediaeval Baebes, choreographed by Welch for an all-female cast to music by the singing group of the same name, makes full use of the inventive take on an updated version of music from a bygone era.
The Jubilee of Dance includes one of Welch's most popular pieces, Divergence, set to Bizet's L'Arlesienne. The ballet is a wonderful example of Welch's ability to take classical ballet and use it to full effect for today's dancers without discarding the integrity of the art form. "It is a work of no literal meaning," says Welch. "Rather, I have suggested a collage of emotions and situations."
"What we and the dancers like is to take the whole power of the company and lay it on the table," says Welch. "The Jubilee of Dance is really exciting and makes you proud of whom you are with and where you belong. I think watching each of these dancers come out to get their time on stage is terrific. It's a company-oriented event that the community loves."
For tickets and more information on the Dec. 5 Jubilee of Dance, visit the Houston Ballet Website.
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine and is the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).