Cecil B. DeMille and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will forgive me if I resort to hyperbole to describe Houston Ballet's Jubilee of Dance, but, really, there's no better way to say it.
In its sixth year, the festive annual gala has become the hottest ticket in town. By now, dance fans know what to expect: a fast-paced evening of remembrances of performances past, tantalizing highlights from the season yet to come, and, usually, a grand finale showstopper featuring the entire company that deservedly brings down the house. To celebrate Houston Ballet's fortieth anniversary, the December 4 Jubilee promises to be as exotically vibrant as its commemorative stone, the ruby.
Houston Ballet's artistic director Stanton Welch, an alumnus of The Australian Ballet, fondly remembers the galas he used to dance in Sydney and Melbourne. Because "all principals and leading dancers of the company have their featured moment," the audience sees the dancers "up close and personal," as it were. The jubilee shows them off. Everyone connects across the footlights. Stanton wanted that special feeling in Houston, too, and he instituted the jubilee the second year he assumed directorship.
"We're honoring Barb this year. Tell them how special she is. I want to acknowledge that."
Barb, of course, is principal Barbara Bears, a stalwart, invaluable member of the company since 1988, whose retirement will be celebrated at the Jubilee. I don't have to tell you how special she is. Just watch her and you'll know at first glance. Look for those exceptional feet and legs, you can't miss her. Watch for the intensity and focus inherent in her dramatic portrayals, marvel at the geometric precision and musicality that radiate in modern plotless works. She's always been a dancer's dancer. Uniquely one of HB's crown jewels, she chills with a white-hot passion.
No wonder Sir Kenneth MacMillan picked her out of the corps at age seventeen to dance the lead in his rapturous Gloria. She excelled as a willful, hedonistic Manon in MacMillan's Manon, an achingly romantic Tatiana in John Cranko's Onegin, and an innocent swooning Svetlana in Ben Stevenson's Dracula. But there's also a surprisingly funny side, a rich vein of comedic timing that had remained untapped until Stanton revealed it in the "Crazy" section from Cline Time, where Barb played a deliriously boozy cowgirl, manhandled overhead by a line of cowboys. By the time the song ends, she's been returned to earth without realizing it, and a quiet ladylike belch propels her off the dance floor.
"Act I would be like we always do," Stanton explained, "divertissements from ballets we've done and divertissements from upcoming ballets. I think we'll do a bit of Solo, probably a bit of Falling, and the whole of Vertiginous Thrill, because they're all things that we're going to take on tour."
Solo is a cheeky, virtuosic three-guy romp by Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen, one of the grand old men of modern ballet. Introduced into the Houston Ballet repertoire in 2008, the work's an instant crowd-pleaser for its bad-boy, showy humor. Falling, created by Stanton for San Francisco Ballet in 2005, is a romantic series of variations for five couples, set to Mozart's Salzburg Symphonies. Like love, the couplings are both complex and tricky. The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude: could that title come from anyway but Europe?: is contempo master dancemaker William Forsythe's edgy, off- kilter work set to Schubert's "Symphony No. 9." Like most other Forsythe pieces, it's prickly, challenging, and somewhat off-putting, which makes it very popular among the dance modernistas.
"And probably Manon pas [de deux] featuring Joe Walsh, since he's just won the Princess Grace."
Walsh, a corps member, recently received a prestigious 2009 Princess Grace Award. The foundation bestows grants on emerging talents in theater, dance, and film. Young Walsh, who danced his first leading role last season as Lensky in Onegin, joins former Houston Ballet recipients Yin Le, Carlos Acosta, Tiekka Schofield, Li Cunxin, and Martha Butler.
"And, for sure," Stanton adds enthusiastically, "we're going to do Dying Swan for Barb."
Swan is Michel Fokine's 1905 signature work for legendary Anna Pavlova, set to Saint-Saens' evocative and highly romantic Le Cygne from his Carnival of the Animals. This short work, always a hit at any gala, is such a part of ballet lore that even if you've never seen it, it's part of your consciousness, thanks to its influence on pop culture, figure skaters, drag queens, and anytime a ballerina puts on a feathery tutu and undulates her arms pretending she's a bird. Stanton's mother, Marilyn Jones, former prima ballerina and artistic director of The Australian Ballet, will coach Barbara in the role.
"For Act II, I think we'll open with Tu Tu, second movement, which is Barb and the rest of the company. Then we bring in a video and slide tribute about her, and I might make up something for her, and she'll finish the act with that. If not, maybe a pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet or Indigo? Something she wants to do.
"Then I'd like to finish the evening with a big full ballet."
Perhaps Stanton will create another socko boffo finale, like his Bolero from the 2004 gala. Does he have time?
"A gala piece you can do pretty quick because it's not intellectual as much as it is a showcase. And I do have several pieces of music that I've been wanting to use for another finale like that."
And that's how you program a greatest show on earth.
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Recipient of two Lone Star Press Awards for his Arts & Entertainment reviews, D.L. Groover writes on the arts for Houston Press, OutSmart Magazine and Dance Source Houston. His book Skeletons from the Opera Closet, co-written with C.C. Conner, is in its fourth printing.