Hot Mix

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Joseph Carman talks to Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch about the company's diverse 2005-2006 season.

Question: Where can you find the unlikely mixture of club kids grooving to a funky Moby mix, cowboys with dance hall girls, maidens who turn into swans, a Russian heroine with boyfriend problems, waltzing flowers, flirtatiously saucy Spanish senoritas, and a full range of Australian fauna? No, it's not some misguided reality game show full of misfits who duke it out for a chunk of money. Instead, all of the above will be on view during Houston Ballet's stunningly diverse 2005-2006 season of dance, complete with classical and contemporary ballets.

Stanton Welch, about to begin his third season as artistic director of Houston Ballet, has a specific goal in mind for the upcoming year. He wants to present a wide range of works that both challenges the company's 52 dancers and matches the audience's sophisticated tastes. "I wanted to move the company forward with difficult and interesting work that still presents dance that the audience would find appealing," says Welch. From classical to 21st century neoclassical, from Bach to techno/house music, Houston Ballet's repertory line-up for the upcoming year places it at the forefront of American ballet companies.

Starting the season on September 8th, the company premieres its production of John Cranko's modern classic Onegin, based on the 19th century Pushkin tale of young Tatiana and her arrogant suitor, Eugene Onegin. Set to an emotionally resonant arrangement of Tchaikovsky's glorious music, the full-evening ballet provides the Houston dancers with hearty dramatic dance roles that fit them like perfectly bespoke suits. "Of the modern story ballets, this is the one we all try to emulate," says Welch. "There's no fat in the program, the story always moves forward, and the characters are very deep."

On September 22nd, the fall repertory program, entitled "Mentors and Prodigy" begins with Welch's popular Divergence, laced with athleticism and daredevil duets, and choreographed to music by Georges Bizet. Brian Enos, a Houston Ballet alumnus will also choreograph a world premiere one-act work. And one of Czech choreographer Ji?rì Kylián's greatest masterpieces, Forgotten Land, set to Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, closes the program. Forgotten Land remains a landmark in the landscape of breakthrough choreography; it's one of the reasons that Welch decided to choreograph. "When I first saw it, I was amazed that something that was solely dance could be so emotional," confesses Welch.

On November 11th and 12th, the Cullen Series will sponsor a guest touring company, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens from Montréal. The full-length piece Minus One by the innovative Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin combines dance, text, and singing in a spectacle that is both moving and hilarious. The annual ritual of The Nutcracker begins its month-long run on November 25th. It's hard to imagine Houstonians not celebrating the holidays with this traditional bon bon that always remains fresh and exhilarating.

And don't forget the gala "Jubilee of Dance: A Celebration of Movement" on December 2nd, which includes the company premiere of Welch's Wildlife, set to orchestral music that replicates aboriginal instruments. The work stemmed from Welch's childhood fascination with Sir Richard Attenborough's television nature series about wildlife in the outback, particularly the dance of dominance in mating rituals.

Welch unveils his new production of the beloved classic Swan Lake on February 23rd, with set and costume designs by Kristian Fredrikson. While following a time-honored format, Welch also explores the ballet's original libretto, in which maidens turn into swans at daybreak, under the spell of the ultimate control freak, the magician Von Rothbart.

"Dance the World Round" describes the triple bill beginning on March 9th with a world premiere by the estimable British choreographer Christopher Bruce and a revival of Welch's splendid signature ballet Indigo. Sandwiched in between is George Balanchine's homage to spaghetti westerns, the rousing Western Symphony, set to Hershy Kay's heel-clicking arrangement. And on April 21st, the company's Ben Stevenson Academy presents a student performance showcasing tomorrow's young ballet stars.

"Classical X 3" in May spotlights three viscerally entertaining ballets. Kenneth MacMillan's sensual study of neoclassicism, Gloria, to Francis Poulenc's score, faces off with the Houston Ballet premiere of Play, choreographed by Welch to the music of DJ/house music impresario Moby, and inspired by Welch's observation of New York street life. ("If you sit in a cafe with earphones, the lights, the cars, and the people all become dancers," explains Welch.) The program concludes with Welch's gear-shifting, vertiginously physical Velocity.

The season ends in June with the perennial favorite Don Quixote, the perfect blend of adrenaline and classicism reflected through the antics of the fiery Kitri and her lover Basilio in sunny Seville.

All in all, next year's programming offers a smorgasbord with something for everyone. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if nothing here whets your appetite, you're tired of life.

Joseph Carman is the author of Round About the Ballet, published by Limelight Editions (2004).

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