A Leaping Good Time

Houston Ballet Marks 50 Years of Excellence

Jubilee of Dance recalls the company’s storied past and celebrates its bright future.

By Olivia Flores Alvarez December 10, 2019

The Houston Ballet celebrated landmark moments from its 50-year history and peered into the company’s future during the Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance. Sitting in the audience, we could trace out the entire history of Houston's beloved company. The result was a magical night of dance.

The evening opened with ​Barre,​ a short work by company ballet master Claudio Muñoz. The piece was chosen to represent the formation of the Houston Ballet Foundation School, the predecessor for the Houston Ballet, which was established after the city developed a taste for ballet in the 1950s (and representatives persuaded Tatiana Semenova, a former Ballet Russe dancer, to relocate her school to Houston.) This was followed by ​Class, choreographed​ by current artistic director Stanton Welch, a selection intended to symbolize training for the stage and how the ballet company grew from a ballet school to a professional company as the '50s gave way to the '60s.

Giselle, ​a nod to the 1967 performance by the Houston Ballet Foundation which led to the formation of Houston Ballet, was next on the program, although this excerpt didn't harken back to the choreography from that first iteration of the show. Instead, dancers Yuriko Kajiya and Chun Wai Chan performed an excerpt from the second act of Welch’s ​Giselle,​ which premiered in 2016 and was seen earlier this season. It was a short selection during which Giselle’s ghost encounters Albrecht in the forest as he grieves her death. Despite the piece's brevity, Kajiya and Chan delivered an emotional, powerful performance. Giselle​ gave us a chance to again see the beautiful costumes by Roberta Guidi di Bagno; the title character's skirt seemed to have been made of smoke. It swirled around her legs as Kajiya showed off incredible strength performing several slow leg lifts and balances.

Other selections in Act I marked major steps for Houston Ballet's evolution. One of the company’s first performances at Jones Hall was represented by ​Flower Festival at Genzano and​ its first season at Miller Outdoor Theatre by ​Paquita.​ Soloist Tyler Donatelli and first soloist Oliver Halkowich turned in lovely performances in ​Flower Festival, ​while demi soloists Mackenzie Richter and Luzemberg Santana were excellent in ​Paquita​.

Those selections were followed by 1969's ​Three Preludes​—notable because it was previous artistic director Ben Stevenson’s first ballet for the company after he took over in 1976—and ​Esmeralda,​ the work performed in the company’s pursuit for a gold medal at the International Ballet Competition in 1985. Demi soloists Mackenzie Richter and Luzemberg Santana turned in elegant, romantic performances in ​Three Preludes​, the story of two dancers who fall in love in a dance studio, while principal Soo Youn Cho was brilliant in her ​Esmeralda​ solo. Peer Gynt,​ the first original work—both conception and choreography—by Stevenson for the company, was followed by I​ndigo,​ the first original work by Welch choreographed after he took the reins from Stevenson in 2003.

Seeing the two pieces back-to-back allowed some insight to the differences in the two men's artistic visions. Both show strong classical roots and, to varying degrees, a reverence for convention. Still, there are some marked contrasts in their approaches. Stevenson’s work plays as romantic and lyrical, while Welch, in a distinct contrast, incorporated decided contemporary sensibilities into his choreography. Different, yes, but despite this, you can still spot antecedents of Stevenson's work and how his choices directly influenced those of Welch. They're of different eras, but it’s easy to see the direct links between the two.

Representing the company in its present form was a pas de deux from ​Sylvia​, performed by Karina González. As the title character, González is clever and funny in the way she acts out her charming pursuit of a kiss from Connor Walsh's thoroughly reluctant and confused shepherd. The scene has a light touch, so you'd be forgiven if you're too busy chortling over Sylvia's hot pursuit of her rural man to notice the dancing. It was exquisite, of course.  

Then it was the world premiere of Welch’s ​Tarantella​, a look at the future of the company. Projections by ​Wendall Harrington alternately told the history of the Houston Ballet and served as substitutes for set pieces during Act 1. They were nicely matched by Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting.

Act II featured Justin Peck’s ​Reflections ​in its entirety. The work was first seen during the mixed repertory program ​Premieres ​​last March. Standouts included pas de deux by Melody Mennite with Walsh, ​González,​ and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama. Houston Ballet pianist Katherine Burwell-Ciscon and collaborative pianist Yi-Chiu Chao appeared far upstage during the performance and, as they did in March, delivered strong performances integral to the work’s success.

Act III featured Welch’s ​Nosotros,​ a string of 11 sparkling pas de deux. It was a wonderful opportunity to see unusual couplings. Principal dancer Jessica Collado was paired with soloist Harper Watters, first soloist Allison Miller was seen with soloist Hayden Stark, and soloist Tyler Donatelli with demi soloist Ryo Kato. It speaks to the Houston Ballet’s depth of talent that demi soloists are rightly showcased in important pas de deux, and they are up to the task. Walsh and ​González again turned in excellent performances in ​this piece, as did Cho and Chun Wai Chan.

It was a night of breathtaking dancing, with performances that displayed the athleticism, precision, and the sheer artistry of Houston Ballet's roster. It's a long way off, admittedly, but we came away from this show convinced that when the company celebrates its centennial 50 years from now, these performances will be remembered as some of the great achievements of the Ballet's well-accomplished history.

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