Under the direction of Stanton Welch Houston Ballet has become synonymous with eclecticism and sophisticated stylishness. With a roster of cherished classical ballets and innovative, contemporary repertoire, the company has achieved the goal of serving audiences with both the traditional and the original. The 2008-09 Houston Ballet season reinforces that idea. Everything from Swan Lake to a world premiere set to the music of the Mediaeval Baebes can be seen at the Wortham Theater Center.
The opening ballet in September is a new production of choreographer John Cranko's 20th-century masterpiece, Onegin, based on the poem by Pushkin and featuring the tempestuous music of Tchaikovsky. The story chronicles the impassioned love of the young Russian girl Tatiana for the cool aristocrat Eugene Onegin. The tale takes a turn with Onegin's tragic realization, too late, that he loves Tatiana. Cranko was a master of the pas de deux, and the ballet's duets provide for an enthralling evening of breathtaking emotional texture. Onegin also gives Houston Ballet's principal dancers an exceptional opportunity to show off their pyrotechnical abilities and superior acting skills.
On September 18 the company performs Classically Modern, a mixed repertory program of four ballets of startling versatility. Hans van Manen's Solo is a showstopper for three virtuoso men dancing to Bach's Suite for Violin in D Minor. The individual dancers move from breakneck to legato and end with a rousing group finish. For those not familiar with the Mediaeaval Baebes, the popular all-female group's music sets medieval poems to moving scores composed by the band. Artistic Director Stanton Welch has been inspired by the original troupe and will premiere a new ballet to the music.
The program continues with Jerome Robbins's lyrical Afternoon of a Faun, which poetically details the sensual and enigmatic meeting of two dancers in a rehearsal studio. Balanchine's Symphony in C, set to Bizet's classic in four movements, is a study in the choreographer's genius for musical architecture. A grand ballet for a full company of dancers, Symphony in C sets the bar high for a company to show off its finest neoclassical style. Houston Ballet is capable of that and more.
When the acclaimed Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montr_al visited Houston in 2005, audiences adored the vitality and theatricality of the dancers. This vibrant company is back by popular demand, showcasing acclaimed productions by two dazzling contemporary choreographers, Didy Veldman and Stijin Celis. Veldman's TooT is a brilliantly theatrical circus, with dancers who fling themselves into falls and acrobatic phrases. Celis's Noces is a radical restaging of Nijinska's historic ballet. Set to Stravinsky's riveting score, the ballet features 24 dancers who strut, pose, and brutally challenge each other at a Balkan peasant Wedding. The gala Jubilee of Dance takes place December 5, featuring Houston Ballet's finest dancers in an array of pieces.
Marie Antoinette remains one of the most fascinating players on history's stage. Her compelling personality, both glamorous and tragic, inspired Welch to create a ballet about the French queen. In February, Houston Ballet presents the world premiere of Marie, with sets and costumes by popular designer Kandis Cook. Houston Ballet's Musical Director Ermanno Florio will orchestrate a score from music by Dmitri Shostakovich.
Masters of Movement, a particularly wonderful evening of repertory in March, includes Antony Tudor's The Leaves are Fading, William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and JirÐ Kylišn's Soldier's Mass. Tudor's last great masterwork, The Leaves are Fading, employs Dvoršk's music for strings and evokes a dreamlike world of memories, romance, and playfulness. Forsythe's ballet moves at a frantic pace to music by Franz Schubert and throws every technical trick in the book at the dancers. Bohuslav Martinu's moving Soldier's Mass lays the foundation for JirÐ Kylišn's moving ballet about the mournful loss of war, as danced by Houston Ballet's powerful male contingent.
After the Spring Showcase, which gives the students at Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy the chance to show off their budding prowess, Of An Era, the spring repertory program in May, will feature contemporary pieces by three talented choreographers. Christopher Wheeldon, arguably the hottest name among young choreographers today, has given Houston Ballet the rights to Carousel (A Dance), which references the Rogers and Hammerstein musical in touching fashion. Jardi Tancat, created by the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, relays the tale of men and women praying for rain in a barren land to songs by Maria del Mar Bonet. Nosotros, a popular hit by Welch from 2005 to the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini lets the dancers loose to showcase their talent.
Finishing the year in June is the monumental production of the Tchaikovsky classic Swan Lake in a sumptuous production staged by Stanton Welch with brilliant costumes and sets by Kristian Fredrikson. From swans to scintillating new choreography, Houston Ballet's 2008-09 season promises ballets, stories, and music that everyone can love.
Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.