Artists of Houston Ballet in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free.

Dance companies all around the world are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins’ birthday with a variety of performances. The Houston Ballet’s participation is Robbins, a program of three short and spectacular works by the legendary choreographer.

First up is Fancy Free, a whimsical look at three sailors on shore leave in New York City. Set to lush music by Leonard Bernstein (the pair would later make theater history with West Side Story), Fancy Free follows three amorous sailors as they vie for the attention of two young women they meet on the street. The production premiered in 1944 by Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) and it maintains that carefree, optimistic, anything’s possible, post-war attitude. 

For Thursday’s opening night performance, the trio was made up of principal dancers Connor Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, and first soloist Oliver Halkowich. The three take turns showing off for the women, with varying results. 

An incessant snare drum builds up to a solo by Halkowich; his series of barrel turns earned him a round of applause from the audience but didn’t win over any of the ladies on stage. Connor Walsh jumps over bar stools, pulls off several impressive spins, and playfully beckons the women. It's still a no go. Charles-Louis Yoshiyama performs more aggressively, literally pounding his chest at one point, but no, the women resist his charms as well. It’s especially satisfying to see Charles-Louis Yoshiyama, who’s easy to see as a classical hero/prince, perform in a more casual, comedic role.

Second in the program, The Cage, set to the music of Igor Stravinsky, features a group of female insect-like creatures that devour a pair of male intruders. The least-known of the program’s three pieces, The Cage simply sizzles.

Newly promoted principal dancer Nozomi Iijima is mesmerizing as The Novice. She’s an androgynous, fragile and tiny (no, really, really tiny) creature that blossoms into a ruthless aggressor under the guidance of The Queen, Jessica Collado. Iijima finds wonderfully odd angles and lines as The Novice, with lots of straight elbows, locked knees, and bent feet. Precise, graceful, and unrelenting, Iijima clearly demonstrates her promotion is well-deserved. Harper Watters and Ian Casady shine as The Intruders while the corps is excellent as a deadly hive. A series of eerie silent screams by the principals and the corps punctuate the other-worldliness of The Cage. 

The excellent set by Jean Rosenthal is just a few tangled lines hanging high over the stage, echoing a few shreds of a spider’s web. The costumes by Ruth Sobotka are monochrome leotards with a squiggle or two across the front (think intestines) for the woman and briefs for the men. First seen in 1951, The Cage remains absolutely fresh and contemporary.

Principal Karina González and Soloist Christopher Gray with Pianist Katherine Burlwall-Ciscon in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert (or the Perils of Everybody).

The program closes with the comical The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody). This time the music is by Frédéric Chopin. Scenic designer Saul Steinberg provides a wonderfully illustrated scrim showing abstract figures waiting for a concert. It rises to show a grand piano set on an otherwise empty stage. The giggles and guffaws start almost immediately.

Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, the Ballet's principal pianist, appears on stage as the musician. Characters, alone and in pairs, find their way on stage to listen to the concert. But very little listening is actually being done. The characters change seats, flirt with each other, stomp around angrily, smoke cigars, read the newspaper, try to kill each other, close and open umbrellas, march around and then inexplicably turn into butterflies that buzz around. Finally, after being ignored for the whole concert, the musician has had enough and she stomps off stage. She comes back, a huge butterfly net in hand, and chases off her inattentive audience. (A dream of many a musician, no doubt.)

Jean-Pierre Frohlich, who danced under Robbins and then became one of his ballet masters, oversaw the Robbins project for the Houston Ballet. He staged both Fancy Free and The Cage for the company. His participation, no doubt, added to the authenticity of the program. Besides the dancing (impeccable), the music (glorious) and the sets (imaginative), the beauty of Robbins is the mix of pieces. With the theatrical Fancy Free, abstract The Cage, and comical The Concert, the audience sees the depth and range of Jerome Robbins, a rare American choreographer who found success on Broadway, in television, and in ballet. Catch this program while you still can.

Thru March 10. Tickets start at $35. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.

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