Review: The Gems of George Balachine at the Houston Ballet
Two scenic masterpieces in one week make my head spin.
The first was that of Lin-Manuel Miranda hamilton via Broadway at the Hobby, then, the following evening, George Balanchine Jewelry (1967) at the Houston Ballet. Nothing else this week and my head is going to explode.
The preeminent choreographer of the 20th century, Balanchine forever changed classical ballet. He made her dance. He associated movement with music like no one before, and almost no one since. Although he created story ballets (Apollo, the Prodigal Son, Massacre on Tenth Avenue, A Midsummer Night’s Dreaman act Swan Act, Nutcracker, Don Quixote), his passion for dance will make the composer the star of the show. His genius as a dance maker was to make music visible through movement. Plots did not interest him, because the music was the story; he just provided the action. He did not create the “abstract ballet”, but he made it a synonym of his name.
At the same time, he refined the sets and superfluous scenic effects. He picked up the pace, quickened the steps, made the ballet athletic, physical and sexy, while keeping it clear and elegant. In its purest form, he adored black and white – tight white t-shirts for men, black tights, white socks (so that the feet were spread apart and clearly visible, he said, like Astaire, his dancer favorite) and elegant leotards for women. But, of course, nothing in his work was ever simple. When he came out all the way, as in The waltz (Maurice Ravel), stars and stripes (Jean-Philippe Sousa), Viennese Waltzes (Johann Strauss II, Franz Lehár, Richard Strauss), the stage images were lovely. These classics are still plotless, but what stories they tell.
Jewelry is an introduction to classical ballet.
In three acts, it is Balanchine’s love letter to the history of dance. The set is a series of recessed pleated curtains, adorned with tassels and framed with a large drape above. That’s it. Legendary designer Karinska’s costumes bring sparkle and color with their jewel-encrusted bodices, tunics and necklaces; but it is Balanchine who gives life, energy and astonishment to the show.
It was performed on her stars at the New York City Ballet and her star-studded ensemble. Past legends Patricia MacBride, Edward Villella, Jacques D’Ambroise, Violette Verdy, Patricia Neary, Suzanne Farrell were presented by Balanchine as if locked away by Tiffany. But fear not, Houston Ballet has its own shining stars, some that dwarf even the original dancers.
“Emeralds”, set to Fauré’s suite of Pelléas et Melisande and incidental music by Shylock, is a tribute to the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, the oldest ballet company in Europe whose origins date back to Louis XIV and at the very beginning of classical ballet technique. But it is also a tribute to Fauré, the most acclaimed French composer of his time, whose music straddles the romantic and the modern. Father of Impressionism, his simple but elegant melodies with subtle notes of dissonance deeply influenced Debussy and Ravel.
Everything here is diaphanous and vaporous, as seen underwater. Two lead couples (Melody Mennite and Aaron Daniel Sharratt, Soo Youn Cho and Harper Watters, all exceptional) team up with a trio (Tyler Donatelli, Chandler Dalton, Allison Miller, bright and spirited) and a female body of ten. They play, switch partners, swirl to the swirling music of Faure’s flute and harp, envelop a partner in a circular arm, but stretch outward as if hoping for someone else. During one segment, Cho and Watters interlock as if they were automatons. Sometimes, one of the women carelessly pulls up the edge of her long, soft tutu (very Paris Ballet). It all seems to be the very breath of youth, mixing and matching, experimenting, living a beautiful chimera.
We can do with it whatever we want. The plot is in our imagination as we watch as Balanchine puts his unique spin on Fauré. It has a glow, an aura of spring, youth and a smell of green. The ballet ends with a patented mystery by Balanchine. The women left the stage. All three men fall to the ground on one knee. They sweep an arm, brushing the floor, before reaching forward, stretching into space, sucking in. Did they dream of these fascinating and playful women?
“Rubies,” set to Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra, is, we imagine, a tribute to the playfulness and sexy energy he found in his new home, America. Balanchine hesitated when asked what he was saying in this ballet. He slyly said that’s how you get to Stravinsky.
True, but this tangy job is filled with the fun and adventure that is the hallmark of our country. There’s a lead couple (Karina Gonzalez and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, both breathtakingly great) and a third lead known as the “kick girl” (Jessica Collado, equally amazing). They race through the score at breakneck speed, clapping their palms, jumping rope, spinning in circles and having fun. They swing their hips – pre-pit – slam the toes of their shoes on the floor and push the air out with outstretched arms. They flex their feet, step on their heels, trot like horses, and curl their arms in gestures that say, Who cares. It’s exuberant, crazy circus crazy.
In Rubyhe most iconic image, Collado (which exudes a wondrous and ironic playfulness) is wielded by its four horsemen. They lift her leg, put it down, lift the other one, turn it over, bend it over, while she smiles at them as if to say, I know what you’re doing…and I like it. Women are in control in this edgy ruby world.
“Diamonds”, on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3, “Le Polonais”, is Balanchine’s tribute to the world of the Imperial Russian ballet, where he was trained, and to the legacy of Marius Petipa, the great choreographer of the 19th century. The work, which echoes all the great “white numbers” of Petipa’s emblematic ballets, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Bayadère. exudes elegance, cool classicism and an ethereal white glow thanks to the superb performances of Yuriko Kajiya and her most attentive partner Connor Walsh.
Kajiya is beautiful. She has always been a special dancer at HB, but here she radiates mastery, majesty, musicality, fluidity, warmth. She seems to expand dancing, taking in the air and flying with it, playing with the music and inspiring it. It stretches time. She sways as if hanging by a thread. I’m not a foot fetishist, but look at those arched feet! Perfection. Fortunately, she has Walsh to back her up. Could you ask for a better prince? He dances with a virile and graceful presence. Is it Balanchine bringing out the best in the best?
During the finale, all 34 dancers dance to Tchaikovsky’s catchy “Polonaise” and fill the stage. The work flashes electrically. But then it’s Balanchine.
Jewelry is quite a job. If you can take your eyes off the main ones, take a look at the background patterns that weave through all three acts. Witness a master at work. The body never stops, a kaleidoscope of depth, variety, invention. It is ballet as a pinnacle. You will never see Fauré, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky quite the same again. Like I said, it’s a masterpiece.
Jewels continues through March 6 at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sunday. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713 227 2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25 – $208.