Fort Worth — It was a smart move for Texas Ballet Theater to place Seven Sonatas in the first act of their recent offering at Bass Performance Hall over the weekend. The buildup to Carl Coomer’s Henry VIII created a palpable buzz in Fort Worth, as patrons anxiously waited for his biggest endeavor yet. As the saying goes, save the best for last.
It’s not that Seven Sonatas deserves less attention. Alexei Ratmansky’s 2009 creation (staged by Nancy Raffa and Betsy Erickson) fit stunningly well on TBT’s dancers and provided the element of live music that the dance community desperately craves.
The company partners with The Cliburn and pianist Sean Chen, who took home third place in the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, to play seven selections from Domenico Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas. As always, when live music pairs with moving bodies, the result is a sensory experience in which one almost can’t tell the two apart.
The opening segment features all six dancers clad in simple cream and white costume floating effortlessly around the stage. Delivering superb timing dynamics and a delicious use of suspension, they execute Ratmansky’s maneuvers with precision and uniformity yet still maintain their own individual styles. Gentlemen display control with a succession of pirouettes ending in arabesques, while the ladies offer a dream-like quality to the pristine picture.
Subsequent sections allow dancers to shine individually and in pairs. Andre Silva goes wild and free with his solo, while Jiyan Dai appears more earthy and mysterious. Nicole Von Enck demonstrates a lively, spunky variation, and Carolyn Judson exudes passion with the quick choreography.
Alexander Kotelenets and Paige Nyman shift to a serious mood with an emotional duet of struggle and searching, while finding comfort and strength with each other. It’s a nice change from the previous sections with a sense of heaviness and honesty. More fun and games arise with duets, a pas de trois, and ensemble work, but the piece curiously returns back to somber in closing.
The first act feels like an appetizer, with the main course arriving in Act II. Opening with a foreboding rumble, the curtain rises to reveal flickering chandeliers behind the scrim and a dissatisfied Henry VIII (Silva) with his first wife Catherine of Aragon (Michelle Taylor), who has yet to give him a male heir. That discontent leads to a political struggle and a parade of wives, each with her own distinct circumstances—perfect material for choreographic and character exploration. Coomer opts for Gustav Holst’s The Planets as the soundtrack, a solid choice that would’ve been better played live. Each segment closely aligns with the seven movements, and “Jupiter” sets the opening scene.
Ian Loveall provides an impressive scenic design, which includes a collection of textured gold rectangular columns and matching intricate arches. Various pieces of furniture complete the setting, as it moves from the court to Henry’s bedchamber to his office. Projections and animations courtesy of Mike Cacanower and Scott Stanley assist with the transitions, although some technical difficulties likely hindered its full effect on opening night. Costumes deliver another thrilling design element, and Aaron Kubacak’s creations contain rich detail, varied colors, and assorted styles.
Production aspects lend a classical ballet feel, as well as Coomer’s use of dramatic gestures to further the story. Vocabulary consists of an intriguing blend of classical and neo-classical patterns, with some maneuvers looking quite similar to those found in Ratmansky’s piece.
He takes a bold move outside his comfort zone, however, for the battle scene at the beginning, set to “Mars.” An ensemble of men dressed in minimal costumes with a fascinating level of detail release classical technique for a primal aura and choreography more akin to traditional modern dance. Joamanuel Velazquez especially shines in this section.
Coomer’s casting choices for each of the wives prove successful. The dark and dramatic Taylor pulls off the first wife beautifully, although it would’ve been nice to see more dancing from her. Katelyn Clenaghan displays a beguiling Anne Boleyn (“Uranus”), and although she finds a tragic end, Coomer handles her beheading quite creatively.
A sweet and soft Judson deftly portrays Jane Seymour (appropriately, “Venus”), the only one Henry said he loved. Dressed in a goddess-like white dress that opens in the front, she floats alongside an attentive Silva for a stunning duet, full of innocent sensuality. Although she produces a male heir, she sadly dies after childbirth.
Anne of Cleves (“Neptune”) only receives that doting attention in Henry’s dreams, with Samantha Pille dancing the imagined Anne with a swirling ensemble of shimmering, wispy temptresses, full of captivating mystery. If only the real Anne evoked such emotion.
The vivacious Catherine Howard (Alexandra Farber, dancing to “Mercury”) finds the same fate as Anne Boleyn, but not before a sprightly sequence with playful partnering and a flirtatious Farber. Amanda Fairweather as Catherine of Parr (“Saturn”) has more of an acting role as Henry’s final wife before his death. His final moments find him in a vision with the spirits of his former wives in a scene reminiscent of Romantic ballet’s supernatural moments.
Coomer’s creative choice to let the music drive the choreography and its progression seems to be a hindrance in certain areas. The ballet has some rough pacing moments that might have seen some continuity with a different piece of music or at least a different arrangement. The content itself also lends to that choppiness, as it delivers the narrative through character exploration and spans decades. The segments themselves, however, each display a lovely clarity, so that one would not need as close a read of the program or have prior knowledge of British monarchs to understand the general progression.
Overall, it’s an impressive feat, given that Coomer is also principal dancer. One can only imagine the complexity and intensity involved in this undertaking, and considering his previous works, he’s on his way up.