After a steady diet of story ballets ranging from Swan Lake to Cinderella, Texas Ballet Theater offered a much welcome change Friday night at Bass Hall with a programed called Mixed Repertoire.
The three works ranged in mood and substance, but all packed a wallop.
The somber mood of Ben Stevenson’s Four Last Songs is established immediately as dancers in fresh-colored unitards slowly emerge in silence. The subject is death, parting and loss, but conveyed with a sense of calm and acceptance. High overhead, scalloped white silk parachutes hang, and as the dance proceeds, the silk lifts and curls. Richard Strauss’s music for orchestra and soprano solo, with its soaring melodies, bathes the air with the sense of poignant loss.
Dancers hold hands and intertwine, branch out for a more impassioned solo, but always rejoin the group. Most of the dance is slow and gentle, becoming more excitable in the third (“Going to sleep”). It ends on a somber note, with men coming back, still carrying the still form of Carolyn Judson on high, and gently laying her on the ground. One by one, all fall backward, as the silk fabric drops to the ground to envelop them in a giant shroud.
Love Always Remains was a treat partly because it was created by company member Peter Zweifel, who has discovered that less is better. Just as serious as Songs, it is much more energetic and modern. It, too, begins with nothing but a walk—this time tiny, tentative steps as the dancers move closer to stare up at a golden light. The light represents a distant star perhaps, far out of reach but always beckoning and tantalizing.
And like Songs, the dance consists of four moments, but set to music that varies from grating (MGMT) to mesmerizing (Arvo Part). In simple baggy t-shirts and shorts, men and women tear around the stage, with the men particularly aggressive. There is a lot of running, as well as off-balance turns, explosive leaps, and short combats where a man pulls a woman back into his grasp, or lets her fall listlessly to the ground. She wakes up, sleepy and disoriented. Everyone is impetuous and reckless, but also keenly aware of the need for companionship.
At the end, Lucas Priolo beckons everyone forward, again in tiny, tentative steps as they stare up at the light. The light goes off and shatters. They gasp, and the space turns to darkness. The scattershot movement of Love perfectly suits this paean to youth and hope.
If ever we have misgivings about the role of royalty, they drop immediately upon our first glimpse of Theme and Variations, surely one of Balanchine’s greatest ballets. Created for Ballet Theatre in 1947, it exemplifies everything that is elegant and regal. The audience gasps when the curtain rises to reveal rows of dancers in tiaras and crimson tutus and three large crystal chandeliers.
Like Ballet Imperial (created for American Ballet Theatre in 1941), it evokes that great period of classical ballet when Russian ballet flourished with the aid of Tchaikovsky’s music. Theme drops the story of The Sleeping Beauty, another of Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces, but distills its essence—its sweep and lightness, devilishly difficult steps, and constant shifts of patterns. Featuring a lead female and male in muted mustard costume, four female demi-soloists, and a corps of 16, the dance starts off simply and builds in tension. It reaches its crescendo when groups of men join the women. The men leap sideways between the women as the women pirouette, forming a long chain that circles the stage. Each makes three smart steps forward, the women pirouette, and the walk continues.
Balanchine was famous for challenging dancers with impossibly difficult feats. As the lead couple, Leticia Oliveira and Eddy Tovar are given fiendishly difficult steps, like gargouillades (a scissor-like sideways lead) for her, and endless tours en l’air for him. But each step is carved like the facet of a diamond, isolated and pure. Even Tovar’s simple two steps forward and then back as he pivots 45-degrees conveys everything that is regal and magnificent about ballet—and that with just a walk.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
The program repeats March 4 and 6 at Winspear Opera House; the March 5 performance is "A Taste of Dance, an abridged 40-minute program designed to interest first-time patrons in dance.