Brilliant Houston Ballet Opening Saves Least ’til Last

Dancer(s): Karina Gonzalez, Joseph Walsh, Artists of Houston Ballet PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

No doubt about it, it was an evening of stunning dance as the Houston Ballet opened its season with, “Return of the Masters,” last Thursday night at the Brown Theatre of the Wortham Center. In part at least, the program offered one of the most exquisitely memorable ballet offerings that I have ever seen. I should begin with that sequence as it was the first ballet of the three on the bill, but I hope readers would bear with me as I feel the company erred in the ordering of its program. I will save best things for last, and truthfully, I wish Houston Ballet had done the same. Allow me then to describe the program in reverse order of presentation.

Gustav Mahler’s symphony, Song of the Earth (“Das Lied von der Erde”), was composed during 1908-09 and first publicly performed in Munich in 1911. A half century later Kenneth MacMillan proposed choreographing the piece for The Royal Ballet, but finally had his opportunity to do so with the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965. That is the work with which Houston Ballet is closing this current three-part program. Mahler’s music needs no endorsement from this critic to assure its status as a classic, but it is not for the lighthearted listener with its somewhat heavy and serious aspects perhaps more suited to equally serious followers of classical music. The symphony, beautifully performed here
by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Ermanno Florio, is enriched by Mahler’s inclusion of two soloists. In this case we have the impressive talents of mezzo-soprano, Susanne Mentzer, and tenor, Russell Thomas. Singing from opposite sides of the stage in the original German, they alternately accompany the dancers as Mahler’s six songs tell the story of what MacMillan described as, “A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.” The performance I attended featured Danielle Rowe as The Woman,
Linnar Looris as The Man, and Connor Walsh as the masked Messenger of Death. All danced superbly with wonderful support from the fine ballet company (Repetiteur: Grant Coyle), but it is understandable why noted dance critic, Jann Parry recently reflected in Playbill that the choreography was at first, “…awkward for the Stuttgart dancers, until they adjusted to the parallel positions, flat-footed steps and tilted torsos. The women’s arms are often angled at the elbows and wrists…” Audiences should be prepared to adjust as well, as this is certainly not the type of grace one associates with more traditional ballets. Also problematic are the essentially bare stage and colorless costumes consisting of dance rehearsal tights and T-shirts for the men and basic tunics for the women, and all this in a work that runs more than an hour. The experience of tedium will be a possibility for some viewers. Upon leaving the theatre, a delightful elderly couple joined my guest and I in the
parking lot elevator. “Mahler makes me so tired,” she said. “Too long, and too slow,” he replied. Perhaps that was why an enormous portion of the audience stood up rudely during the curtain call and headed for the exits.

Sara Webb & Connor Walsh PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

The ballet’s second offering, In the Night, was beautifully set to the music of Chopin’s Piano Nocturnes, Opus 27, No.1; Opus 55, Nos.1 and 2; and Opus 9, No.2. (Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon was pianist). Aptly described in the program as, “…portraying the relationships of three couples evoking moods ranging from romantic serenity to agitation and aggression,” the work featured the brilliant dance pairs of Sara Webb & Connor Walsh, Melissa Hough & Simon Ball, and Amy Fote & James Gotesky.

Melissa Hough & Simon Ball PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

Amid the soft lighting design of Jennifer Tipton (recreated here by Nicole Pearce), and with the airy and colorful costumes of designer, Anthony Dowell, all danced divinely.

Finally, in the view of this critic, the piece de resistance for the evening was the marvelous 1937 ballet, Les Patineurs, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, to the music of Giacomo Meyerbeer, with the original Constant Lambert arrangements and orchestrations conducted here for the Houston Ballet Orchestra by Ermanno Florio. The charming scenic and colorful costume designs of William Chappell, the gay lighting designs of Christina R. Giannelli, and the magnificent staging of Hilary Cartwright all combined to capture a lovely winter scene surrounding an ice pond amid a snowy forest.

Amy Fote, Jun Shuang Huang PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

The resulting vision made this a picture perfect offering that will linger long in memory, and I would suggest the ballet become a holiday perennial right alongside The Nutcracker. Better still was the exquisite dancing of the members of this large cast in a ballet that depicts them all as ice skaters gliding on the pond. Joseph Walsh beamed with playful joy and a commanding talent in the central role of the skating Boy in Blue. Each of the several vignettes was a delight with Karina Gonzalez & Allison Miller portraying the Girls in Blue, Amy Fote & Jun Shuang Huang as The Lovers, and Kelly Meyernick & Jessica Collado as The Friends.

Joseph Walsh, Artists of the Houston Ballet PHOTO: Amitava Sarkar

A cheerful cast of four skating couples looked a bit like gaily decorated gingerbread cookies in their pretty rust brown costumes, and those dancers included Aria Alekzander, Madison Morris, Jordan Reed, Natalie Varnum, William Newton, Aaron Sharratt, Garrett Smith and Brian Waldrep. As a very convincing onstage snowstorm concluded the piece, the audience appeared to be beaming with joy as much as the talented performers. This was the big finish— or it should have been!

HOUSTON BALLET’S “Return of the Masters” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on September 16th & 17th, 2011 and at 2:00 p.m. on September 18, 2011 with all performances in the Brown Theater at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston. TICKETS: Start at $18. Call (713) 227 ARTS or 1 800 828 ARTS. Tickets are also available at

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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