Since its inauguration in 1970, the Houston Ballet has developed an ensemble of excellent dancers whose artistry is a joy to watch. The Artistic Director (since 2003), Australian Stanton Welch AM, has been credited with leading the company to become America’s fifth-largest ballet company, and one to be admired for the quality of its performances. From October 24 through October 26, 2019, Houston Ballet and New York City Center co-presented a program of three ballets by the top-level choreographers Mark Morris, Aszure Barton and Justin Peck at New York City Center.
The first piece on the program was the most successful of the three: Mark Morris’ “The Letter V”. (There was no mention of any specific meaning of the title.) The classical music composition “Symphony No. 88 in G Major” by Joseph Haydn provided a substantial underpinning for the choreography because Morris had a beautifully uncanny way of making the movement seem to rise up from the music. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by David Briskin, provided the fine, live, performance. Morris, in fact, always insists on live music, and that added so much to the experience.
The dancers of the Houston Ballet worked well as a group, each well trained in classical ballet (pointe shoes) and able to move with a lovely ease and lightness – like the chiffon of some of the costumes.
The attractively unusual and distinct costumes by Maile Okamura were mostly lime green, some with broad stripes, some with a gingham pattern. Because Morris used techniques from various dance idioms, the sequence which referred to square dancing gave the gingham pattern a hint of resonance, without being literal.
Nicole Pearce’s lighting design presented the entire piece brightly.
Along with folk dances and classical ballet, Morris also used some modern vocabulary. The most innovative and surprising move was one in which the women seemed to fall to the floor and were twirled back up by their partners. It may have been devilishly difficult, but appeared quite casual and simple in the way these dancers accomplished it.
Somehow, all the different kinds of techniques coalesced in a natural manner. It felt as if it couldn’t have been otherwise. Even the moments of drama seemed to rise up from the music, paralleled in the movement, casually surprising, and never overly done. The whole ballet was such a deep pleasure that it would have been wonderful to see it repeated all over again immediately. (Should you wish to travel to see “The Letter V”, the program mentioned that there are upcoming performances at The Brown Theatre at Wortham Theater Center in Houston, Texas in May, 2020.)
Next on the program was “Come In”, choreographed by Aszure Barton. It had its world premiere in 2006, originally for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hell’s Kitchen Dance in Buffalo, New York.
The music by Vladimir Martynov was generally solemn or meditative, with an occasional accent on wooden blocks. Again, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by David Briskin, provided the live musical performance, with the fine violinist Jesse Mills highlighted.
The form-fitted, one-piece leotard-like costumes were designed by Aszure Barton, and Leo Janks designed effective, dramatic changes with his lighting.
The strong, all-male ensemble danced in interesting patterns, with small gestures, unexpected moves, unbalanced stances, and isolated muscle twitches. The dancers were limber and flexible, and the ballet was fascinating for a while. But unfortunately, the patterns and movements became repetitious despite the addition of folding chairs that created a kind of set halfway through. Was this a political meeting? If so, what did it have to do with what came before? It was difficult to determine if the piece was about something. It just didn’t continue to hold one’s interest.
The last piece on the program was “Reflections” choreographed by Justin Peck, the popular New York City Ballet dancer/choreographer who recently won a Tony for his work on Broadway’s “Carousel”. “Reflections” was commissioned by the Houston Ballet and had its world premiere on March 21, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
The lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker provided some drama, and the costumes by Barbara Bears (pleasantly colored, rehearsal-like clothes) showed off the fine physiques of the dancers.
Sufjan Stevens, a favorite of Peck, composed the music, which was played by two onstage pianists, Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon and Yi-Chiu Rachel Chao, who appeared to be very committed to the generally difficult music. Although the music did have its moments of interest, it lacked the kind of rhythm that might motivate dance moves. Perhaps it could have been a counter balance to the dance, but the music and the choreography just went their separate ways. Frankly, it was more interesting watching the two pianists than the dancers. So, even though the dancers worked hard and did their best, the ballet seemed completely arbitrary and unfocused. It was a disappointing ending to the program.
Too bad that Mark Morris’ “The Letter V” couldn’t have just been repeated.
Houston Ballet (October 24 – 26, 2019)
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call CITYTIX at 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours with two intermissions