Houston Ballet 2000

October 21, 1999

Fernando Moraga on point, Mauricio Canete, and Ian Casady in Houston Ballet’s world premiere of Dominic Walsh’s (The Illusion of Separation.) Photo by Geoff Winningham/Courtesy of Houston Ballet.

Houston Ballet: Cullen Contemproary Series

Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
Houston, Texas

October 21-24, 1999

Reviewed by Margaret Putnam

The wildcatters have long ago vanished from Houston, leaving the skyscrapers to Texaco and Exxon. But their spirit surfaces occasionally, in the zoning laws (none), the flamboyant parties, and come October, even at the ballet. Houston Ballet’s annual Cullen Contemporary Series gambles on three young and untested choreographers, though this year’s David Roussève hardly counts as untested. Some years the Cullen hits pay dirt. This was not one of them.

Sentiment threatened to swamp the first two-thirds of the program, with angels and a dying old woman remembering the racism that marred a long-ago high school dance (1975!). Call me heartless, but angels raise my hackles. I’m not keen on old ladies either.

The Cullen Series is meant to encourage risk. Dominic Walsh puts nearly naked men in toe shoes for his Illusion of Separation. Roussève, in Simple Gifts, has a John Travolta look-alike gyrating to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Timothy O’Keefe’s Fascinating Evening, slick as a whistle, dares to use Gershwin songs identified with Balanchine’s Who Cares?

The company looked ravishing in Illusion; polished in Fascinating Evening; and like not much of anything in Simple Gifts where, asked to do little but hustle and frug with a couple of balletic solos thrown in for the leads, the dancers all but disappeared behind their outlandish 1970s getups.

Walsh and O’Keefe, both Houston Ballet principal dancers, obviously relished showing off the company’s prowess. Walsh wanted more than show, and he loaded his ballet with meaning; not all of it was very clear. Illusion opens with recumbent figures hidden in gauzy cocoons. One by one, they come out of their wrappings, dazed and solemn. Are they angels, or newborns? They seem to struggle, stretching out and scrabbling on the floor. In later sections, it’s clear who is an angel and who isn’t. The angels have their own sphere; the angels sweep across the front of the stage in waves, leaping and spinning and disappearing in a flash. Five human couples, dressed in shades of green, brown, ochre, and slate blue, stake out the middle ground. There they dance in pairs, with an expansive lyricism that makes much use of spiraling turns and arcing renversés.

Set to several Bach works (including the well-known Adagio used in Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco), Illusions suffers from a surfeit of ideas.

Roussève’s Simple Gifts is much more succinct. Staged as a flashback, Gifts opens with a palsied old woman sitting at the edge of the stage. “I can no longer control my memories,” speaks a disembodied voice. What she remembers is the pain of exclusion. Roussève, who graduated from the predominantly white Bellaire High School in Houston in 1977, recreates his high school prom‹complete with “kickers,” dopers, and cheerleaders?and a racial divide. Lauren Anderson, her face shining with eagerness, sits alone while everyone else pairs off. She’s black, everyone else is white, and she doesn’t fit in. Anderson is a fine actress, but the lack of anything interesting to dance blunts her effectiveness.

There’s no such problem in Fascinating Evening. Dressed to the nines, dancers linger around a piano, a vocalist wanders among dancers, and everyone exudes sophistication. Mireille Hassenboehler, in amber dress, floats from man to man in “Someone to Watch over Me.” Anderson, in silver, is slinky and bold in “The Man I Love,” balancing coolly at one moment and rending the air with split jetés the next.