Houston Ballet

September 20, 2007

Houston Ballet in The Four Seasons

Wortham Theater Center, Houston, Texas

September 20–30, 2007

Reviewed by Theodore Bale

“If I hear that music again today, I’m going to scream,” my mother said once while we were shopping in a mall for Christmas gifts. She meant Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a score that has become as exhausted in the realm of classical music as The Mona Lisa has become in the art world. So it was with a sense of foreboding that I went to see Stanton Welch’s premiere for Houston Ballet, featured on a program of the same name and including JiÅ™í Kylián’s  Petite Mort (a company premiere) and William Forsythe’s invigorating In the middle, somewhat elevated.  

    This isn’t the first time a ballet choreographer decided to take on Vivaldi’s score. James Kudelka choreographed a narrative version in 1997 for National Ballet of Canada, and Christopher Wheeldon’s 2000 staging for Boston Ballet, also a narrative, was a notorious flop. Welch decided on a narrative as well, and a trite one at that. The curtains open to reveal a huge tree that dominates the stage. Flower petals drift from the proscenium, and predictably they change into autumn leaves and then snowflakes. The action centers on a young woman’s loves and family turmoil: her jubilation in spring, her infidelity in summer, a kind of menopausal autumn, and the wintry death of the man who’s endured it all along with her.

    In the decade that I’ve been watching Stanton Welch’s ballets I’ve come to think of him as a choreographer of great innovation, if not genius. He has an intuitive sense of theatrical magnitude, even if he’s making a simple pièce d’occasion intended to delight rather than enlighten. His recent Play to music by Moby summarized and developed recent trends in European ballet. And his extraordinary Velocity, set to music by Michael Torke, brought neo-classical ballet into the 21st century with a bang. With The Four Seasons, however, Welch is clearly resting on his laurels. Vivaldi’s tidy little phrases are realized as generic crossovers back and forth, filled with plenty of step-hops and far too many turns. Now and then virtuosity emerges in a set of fouettés or pirouettes. In between there is a lot of running and swooning.

    Then there is Welch’s lamentable, misogynist narrative. Why do so many male ballet choreographers continue to punish women on the stage with what always come down to rape? I think of Peter Martin’s Distant Light for Boston Ballet, where a group of men use the prima ballerina as a kind of living vacuum cleaner, and also of the Whore in Wheeldon’s Four Seasons, who satisfies the town’s men while being dragged around in a wooden cart. Welch’s decision to show his heroine in the woods with her summer companions (Her Husband, Her Lover, and the three bare-chested Swimming Men) is the basic conflict in his narrative—Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas transformed into a trashy pulp ballet. When her husband dies in the fourth scene, it’s like he’s atoning for her indiscretion years ago, and as she becomes The Widow her facial expressions tell us she’s still filled with guilt.

    The shortcomings of Welch’s Four Seasons were only magnified by the masterpieces surrounding it. Both the Kylián and Forsythe were given exacting and brilliant staging, and Simon Ball’s solos in the latter were worth sitting through 45 minutes of Welch’s flop.