San Francisco Ballet was not the only out-of-town troupe performing in New York this week. Thirty blocks down from Lincoln Center, Houston Ballet made a quick visit to the Joyce. Its single program included works by Mark Morris (Pacific), Ben Stevenson (Twilight, a pas de deux), Hans van Manen (Solo), and Stanton Welch, the company’s artistic director, (Play).
The good news is that the dancers are gorgeous: generous, affable, lush movers, unmannered. And also that the company values music – the first two ballets had excellent live accompaniment, which makes such a difference. The repertory is less satisfying.
The only work that really stood out was Morris’s Pacific, set to two movements of a trio for violin, cello and piano by the west coast composer, Lou Harrison. Especially remarkable was the fluidity of upper body (and arms), which curved and floated above the detailed, accented footwork. Morris really knows how to create, and show off, counterpoint between the upper and lower body. For most of the ballet the dancers, ten men and women, all dressed in long white skirts by the late Martin Pakledinaz, share the same steps. The differences in nuance are the result of the natural differences of weight and physique that exist between the sexes, and the fact that the women wear pointe-shoes. It’s a beautiful, contemplative piece, and a glorious introduction to the company.
Stevensons’ Twilight, set to a Rachmaninoff Elegie, turned out to be an overwrought pas de deux in which the man served mainly to hoist his melancholy partner into various impressively-convoluted lifts (upside down, tilted, while flipping her over, behind his back, etc.). Ian Casady and Sara Webb were unfazed by the technical challenges and looked suitably romantic. In contrast, van Manen’s Solo is a trio for three men (Jim Nowakowski, Connor Walsh, and Oliver Halkowich) dancing in relay to a recording of Bach’s first violin partita. Between loveable head-shakes and shrugs, they engage in rapid-fire footwork and jumps. The dancers acquitted themselves admirably, but the piece is gratingly coy.
The closer, Play, by Welch, is the opposite, a primer on the emotional alienation and aggressive relations of contemporary youth, set to atmospheric music by the hipster pop songwriter, Moby. (Here is a sample of the words to one of the songs: “In my dreams I’m dying all the time, when I wake it’s kaleidoscopic mind, I never meant to hurt you, I never meant to lie.” Heavy.) The dancers looked sexy and lithe in their street clothes while tussling convincingly in gender-neutral couplings. The choreography would not look out of place in a musical like Once or Rent. But, after a work like Pacific, it comes as a bit of a letdown.