Sitting in the Music Hall at Fair Park, Edvard Grieg's overture awakens one of the senses, hoping to hint at the spectacle to come. The first visual for Ben Stevenson's Peer Gynt, however, is highly unexpected. A curtain-sized, crudely-drawn face, like one you'd find in the insane asylum, greets the audience suggesting not only events to come, but the general nature of the performance from Texas Ballet Theater. This is not a normal classical ballet.
For starters, the story is much more complex with a large variety of settings each with its own plot and set of characters. A glance at the program synopsis is enough to make your head spin, and a larger portion of the work is spent fleshing out the story than we typically see in a narrative ballet. The long dancing parts are few and far between, as Stevenson seems to favor inserting smaller snippets of ballet vocabulary amidst the plethora of gestures and pantomime.
The opening scene with Peer (Carl Coomer) and his mother Aase at their farm sets the stage for the tale about an idle, immature daydreamer, whose penchant for procrastination and instant gratification send his life into a downward spiral. Coomer, last seen as the controlled and even-tempered Apollo at the close of the previous season, releases his inner teenager as he exasperates his loving but patient mother and flirts with not one, but two young ladies visiting his home with their parents.
Heather Kotelenets beautifully pulls off a timid, quietly passionate Solveig, who captures Peer's affections, and Jordan Carter is endearing as her giddy younger sister, Helga. Everyone is headed to celebrate the nuptials of Ingrid (Katelyn Clenaghan) and Mads Moen, an awkward merchant played brilliantly by Thomas Kilps. Peer crashes the party and manages to convince the bride to run away with him.
The impromptu and scandalous exit turns out to be less than satisfactory for our boy and leaves Ingrid, as the rest of the town tries to pursue him. He sprints deeper into the forest where he meets three beguiling strangers, and the audience encounters one of the most recognizable classical pieces, "In the Hall of the Mountain King."
For the best scene of the entire ballet, a very green and very creepy Alexander Kotelenets introduces Peer to his domain, his subjects, and most importantly his daughter, the Woman in Green (Lainey Logan). In a swirling viridian chaos (which almost needs a content rating), the trolls, goblins and whores seductively draw Peer further into their world, culminating in a union with the daughter and him almost being crowned prince. But true to character, Peer skips out, probably a little horrified at what his fate might have been.
Peer begins to make a life for himself deep in the woods and is joined by Solveig, who declares her love. Just as they're about to begin a happily-ever-after, Helga brings news of Aase's illness. Peer rushes to his mother, and in a heart-breaking moment holds her until her last breath.
The ballet takes a downward turn after intermission. Instead of returning to Solveig, Peer has yet again left a woman. In the previous retreats, we're at least given a reason for the split, but here we're left to inadequately assume that it's in his nature and wonder how the heck he got to where we find him now—which is in Egypt, dressed not in the peasant clothes we saw him last but in a fine suit. Coomer's performance here also loses its playfulness, depth and luster. From here on out, he seems to fade into the background (even though he's still very much the focus of the ballet) and other characters take the forefront.
First is Angela Kenny as Anitra. When Peer and his entourage of ladies wander into the tent of a desert chieftain, it's the chieftan's daughter Anitra who succeeds not only in enticing him away from his lady friend but in robbing and leaving him for dead. In this Egyptian-inspired take on ballet choreography, Kenny enthrallingly maneuvers through suspended poses, flexed hands and intricate legwork, although some transitions look a tad rough.
Second is Carolyn Judson as the madwoman in Peer's next stop, the insane asylum. The role is oddly similar to her solo in last season's Image, so seeing her deviate from the elegantly fragile characters she typically dances is not so much a wonder this time as it is a confirmation of her extending range of abilities.
Probably the most mesmerizing character is the curiously named Button Moulder (Alexander Kotelenets), who acts as the embodiment of death in the unnecessarily long final scene. Remaining completely motionless, Kotelenets manages to draw more attention with his stare than Coomer in most of the second act, which ends happily but with little satisfaction.
While the performance is well-produced, well-danced (what little dancing parts there are), and mostly well-acted, the ballet overall is still just mediocre for TBT and somewhat disappointing. However, I have high hopes for their new Nutcracker opening next month.
◊ Click here to see our first review of Peer Gynt with Lucas Priolo in the title role.