It was to be the last of the three selections performed by the Houston Ballet on Friday night at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, but the ballet “Fancy Free” could have very well replaced the actual title for that entire evening of elegant dance: “Three For the Ages.” A large and appreciative crowd took advantage of the free mezzanine and lawn seating that is now standard practice for the Celebrate the Arts series, thanks to the Pavilion’s generous assortment of sponsors. Best of all, the lovely summer night cooperated following several prior weather-related cancellations of scheduled Houston Ballet performances at the Pavilion. And even before curtain time, visitors were treated to free admission for special dance performances in the Pavilion’s new air-conditioned House of Blues Hospitality Tent. Students of the local Payne Academy of Performing Arts displayed their talents in selections from such dance classics as, “Sleeping Beauty,” “La Bayadère,”and “Swan Lake.”
Then it was on to the main arena for the first major work of the evening, “Apollo,” with handsome Connor Walsh in the title role for this ballet featuring the music of Igor Stravinsky and choreography of George Balanchine. A dramatic black staircase focuses our attention on the otherwise empty stage, and the birth of Apollo is suggested by the graceful awakening of his mother, Leto (Jessica Collado) high atop the staircase. Apollo himself enters the scene full of the wonder of discovery at entering this new world. Attended by two graceful nymphs (Jordan Reed and Natalie Varnum), Apollo’s magic touch seems to have power to ignite the dance designs and interwoven patterns of the nymphs as they dance together splendidly. Next, three muses visit him. The first is Calioppe, the muse of poetry, with Amy Fote displaying a prancing delicacy in the role. The second is Polyhymnia, the muse of mime, with Michelle Carpenter delivering a gay, whispering frolic in the role. Finally, Lauren Ciobanu portrayed the muse of dance and song, Terpsichore, with seductive grace. Sleek and grand one moment, delicately flighty the next, Walsh showed the versatility of his dancing throughout. There was romantic drama in striking poses from pairs dancers that seemed like still photography, and there was a memorable scene that evoked a graceful underwater swim. At last came a literally golden moment (lighting by Christina Giannelli) as our stars dramatically ascend the staircase heavenward and the curtain falls.
The evening’s second ballet, “Falling,” had the choreography of Houston Ballet’s Artistic Director, Stanton Welch, and the charming costumes of Holly Hynes. Featuring five dancing couples, the piece is nicely set to Mozart’s “Salzburg Symphonies.” The choreography displays a gay and whimsical reflection of the music itself as couples rotate in taking center stage. There are bits of mischievous dance humor and some thrilling ensemble dancing, soaring one moment, and delicately cascading the next. Soft, rose-pink lighting (designer, Lisa J. Pinkham) added to the glow. It was a showcase for the countless graceful ways to extend dance design.
Finally, the aforementioned, “Fancy Free” began amid some jazzy blues from the music of Leonard Bernstein. This work featured choreography from Jerome Robbins that would not look surprising to those familiar with his triumphs in “West Side Story,” and “On the Town.” The latter seems clearly derived from this ballet’s tale of three sailors (Ilya Kozadayev, Christopher Coomer, and once again, Connor Walsh), who find themselves briefly on leave in New York City. The angular and eye-catching set design of Oliver Smith gives us an attractive neighborhood bar that features Christina Giannelli’s recreation of the original amber lighting designs of Ronald Bates, and has an overall look of something we might find in an Edward Hopper painting. There is explosive gaiety in the dancing as the three handsome and swaggering sailors burst upon the New York scene full of curiosity at the new world they discover. As the boys settle in for a drink at the bar (bartender, Robert Arold, could leave his dancing shoes home), things get a bit more complicated when some sexy city women enter the picture. (Jessica Collado, Melody Herrera, and Aria Alekzander). The guys and gals do some seductive dancing together, and the fellows do some wonderful solo dancing in contrasting styles, taking turns to impress the first two gals who arrive. The dance flirtations and horseplay are great fun until a barroom brawl between the guys sends the girls scurrying. But all ends well, a new gal enters the picture, and a rousing ovation from the crowd suggested this might be the most popular work of the evening.
Broadyway Showstoppers will be the next event in the Pavilion’s “Celebrate the Arts” series. Featuring the Houston Symphony and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Houston, the performance will be on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 8 pm. For tickets and information call (281) 363-3300 or visit the website at www.woodlandscenter.org.