Stage: Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Enrica Guana Tseng and Ronnie Underwood in ‘Five Poems.’
Mixed Signals

Texas Ballet Theater’s recent repertory program is either worthy of our love ... or not.


Conventional dance wisdom says the public wants full-length story ballets, not programs of shorter works, despite the fact that George Balanchine built an empire on repertory evenings with his New York City Ballet, and other companies working in a similar vein have had major success.
But the box office doesn’t lie, and snapshot programs don’t seem to attract audiences as well as blockbuster productions, especially here — at least not without stars, and there aren’t that many big-time draws around. (The old Dallas Civic Ballet went belly-up along that route.)
For Texas Ballet Theater, an even bigger consideration seems to be how to make a company of young dancers — still coming together under the direction of a legend-in-the-making, Ben Stevenson — look good without the trappings of a super show to soften things up. There’s not a blade of grass to hide behind when everything — the scenery, the pageantry, the corps, the plot — is taken away. Dancers must either swim or sink.
TBT usually produces one repertory program per season, around Valentine’s Day, and this year’s work, appropriately called Five of Hearts, was in two of three performances mildly schizophrenic. On opening night, no performer actually went under, though there were many awkward moments; most dancers tried too hard at times, creating tension rather than dramatic entertainment. The next night, however, was more relaxed and enjoyable all around. (Deadline prohibited us from making the third evening.)
Two larger works — Stevenson’s setting of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonk Songs called Five Poems and guest choreographer Bruce Wood’s Rheology — bookended three shorter duets. The Stevenson piece was the last significant ballet he created for the Houston Ballet before leaving the company, and it’s a jewel. The Wagner love songs — inspired by his lover, Mathilde Wesendonk — feature some of the composer’s most ardent musical pieces. Two groups of four dancers each — three men and a woman — match amazing slow-motion lifts and stretches to the elegiac phrasings. One particular spellbinding moment occurred when a male dancer leaned forward on bended knee, his body on the diagonal, while a ballerina, supported under the arms on each side, stepped slowly and gently up his leg and back and out over his head into space. As her supporters hoisted her even higher, she continued to pedal slowly in dreamlike motion with arms outstretched.
Soprano Melissa Givens sang with the orchestra in the pit and on opening night succumbed to the general malaise; her tentative approach made her voice sound anemic, and her pitch wandered during sustained high notes. The next night was a different story. She sang wonderfully.
The Wood piece, Rheology, is the first ballet created for the company by the popular modern dance choreographer. The title translates as the study of the deconstruction — or simplifying — of the flow of matter. His choice of music was the last movement of the Tchaikovsky Third Suite for Orchestra, used in the past by Balanchine for his ballet Theme and Variations. This is the third work Wood has choreographed with music already appropriated by Balanchine. The upstart previously set both the Bach Double Violin Concerto, which Balanchine used for Concerto Barocco, and the Tchaikovsky Third Piano Concerto, on which Balanchine based Allegro Brilliante.
None of Wood’s ballets, including Rheology, duplicate or suggest anything done by Balanchine, however. The master’s Theme and Variations is an homage to old-world pomp and circumstance, while Wood’s ballet is down-to-earth, even folksy. Using eight couples (a luxury denied him with his own company of 10 dancers), Wood follows the music’s development from simple march to waltz to jubilant Polonaise with alternate groupings of two to 16 individuals. The women wore ankle-length dresses with flowing skirts and underskirts of differing colors, everything flaring out in dramatic patterns, and used dance slippers rather than toe shoes. The men sported baggy trousers and jersey tops with what looked like artists’ smocks (they came off in the finale).
It was interesting to see Wood’s modern vocabulary danced by a classical company. Classical dancers train to defy gravity, to soar heavenward in leaps and lifts, and float over the stage on pointed shoes. Modern dancers embrace the stage as Mother Earth, thinking down rather than up. While the TBT dancers may have thought down, enough of their training came through on both evenings to add buoyancy to some of Wood’s familiar movements, giving new dimension to his work.
Of the three smaller works on the program, the Don Quixote pas de deux was the most familiar. Nineteen-year-olds Jayme Autry Griffith and Andre Silva (the two youngest members of the company) serviceably danced the war horse on opening night. Griffith, still concentrating on technique to the detriment of character, ripped off all 32 fouettes smartly in the finale, as well as balancing well on pointe. With more experience, she will flesh out her roles. Silva is already a stage presence to reckon with. He’s not tall, but his technique is formidable, and his energy and vitality blow you away. He generates the kind of charisma that allows him to command each role, and he routinely earns screaming ovations for his solo work. Right now, Silva may be the company star.
Enrica Guana Tseng, dancing Don Quixote the second night, threw in double and triple turns in the fouette sequence and showed a secure attitude in her bravura dancing. Lukas Priolo, a more subdued performer in the danseur noble tradition, was her able partner.
The company returns to full-length ballets with the ever popular Swan Lake, April 8 through the 10th.

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