The rumor that ballet is a dying art has been nipped in the bud by Houston Ballet's Made in America.
The company delivered three ballets about as perfect as a cloudless sky after a rain. Perhaps having the sublime Theme and Variations as a closer did stack the deck, but including Mark Morris' Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes—Morris is best known for his grounded, earthy movement—seemed a bit of a stretch. The wild card, however, was Nicolo Fonte's See(k) with a commissioned score by a composer who had never worked with a ballet company before.
The childlike innocence of Drink to Me Only made a sharp contrast to the edgy intensity of See(k), while Theme and Variations represented the ideal universe of unity and beauty.
The charm of Drink to Me Only comes soon after the pianist Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon—placed at the back of the stage—has finished the first of Virgil Thomson's "13 Études," and a man enters stage right holding a woman high, her arms and body stretched out horizontally and stiff as a board. He continues the walk, and disappears stage left, still carrying her aloft.
He is followed by a group of dancers who move like windup toys, bending very deep, rocking back and forth, and rotating in 90-degree angles. At one point, Connor Walsh rotates with one leg up counterclockwise, as though to define the image carried out by all the dancers of clocks with moving, visible gears.
The light dims in the last section and the music turns to a child's lullaby, and the movement slows. It ends with a touching scene: One dancer lies quietly on her side, arms stretched out, while her friend sits on one knee, posed like a statue. Images like this linger a long time.
See(k) took ballet to a new plane, bold and striking in its phrasing and long, suspended counter-weight holds. On a dark stage with wings visible, light bulbs hang from above, swinging gently, and rising and descending at dramatic moments. The music—lots of brooding oboes and ominous West Side Story-like sounds—contributed to the sense of urban tension.
In simple black shorts and black and white tops, dancers move with coiled up energy, pushing, pulling and leaning on each other, like stretch bands pulled to the limits. Two men manipulate a woman in so many angles that her legs and torso are continually being stretched and rotated, her feet occasionally couching ground. They leave, and a couple appears on the edge of the stage where a light dangles just above. In a long series of moments, they stretch and pull each other, bodies stretched as taut as the wires on a suspension bridge. Finally, they fall in a heap in a sensual embrace as the light bulb moves slowly, slowly down.
See(k) is surely one of the best ballets to keep tension at a high pitch.
As for Balanchine's Theme and Variations, set to Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, in G, it scintillated like the facets of diamonds. It is a ballet that makes your heart leap.
The program runs through June 3 with some changes in cast.
◊ 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.