33. Molecules That Melt : Review of HOUSTON BALLET’s Winter Mixed Rep, 2016

I’m not going to go into the particulars and definitions of contemporary ballet in this post;  I do that enough on a day-to-day basis, plus I know you guys know. I do want to go into the actual research and reaction of this Winter Mixed Rep. And I won’t be featuring West Side Story Suite here cause it’s been heavily and successfully marketed. But it’s time to let Dyad 1929 and Wings of Wax shine. This post will be lengthy, again.

Ah, Winter in the TX Spring/Summer of March. This year at HB our Winter Mixed Rep fell on a chaotic period after two mammoth classical ballets, Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, and far past the actual season of Winter. But at least that means we have another Mixed Rep to look forward to–the Spring Mixed Rep down the line in May/June before our last 2015-2016 program, a new production of Giselle.

So I began my research for this rep with Jerome Robbins for my Playbill piece. I had to refresh myself since I avoided musical theater during my undergrad. I found a surprising interest in Robbins as a choreographer (I still can’t stand musical theater though; WSSS is kinda pushing it for my personal pleasure). In relation to Kylián and McGregor, Robbins is in good company as a self expressed “outsider” and acknowledged master of movement. He’s got a very relatable chutzpah in his choreography.

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Artists of Houston Ballet. Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

There are a few people who are looking at this mixed rep with confusion cause two of the ballets are more similar than this one. But they are only looking at the complete program from the outside. Once you dig deep you can see the reasoning behind a Robbins/Kylián/McGregor bill. It’s not the most cohesive choice in works (Based purely on the movement and plot, Robbins’ The Cage would have found a much more inclusive home for the evening), but it does work on an internal level in terms of the choreographers. (I will say, the entire cast of WSSS have done a very brave and bold job with this ballet; of note, the sass and vocal range of Alyssa Springer as Anita.)

Then that evolved into research about Jiří Kylián, though not by much since I’ve been studying him for years in deep admiration of his vast collection of work (Petite Mort and Bella Figura are complete masterpieces and my personal favorites). My attachment to him stems from the start of my dance life in higher education at San Jac. Petite Mort was the first contemporary work I saw after years training in the ballet bubble and obsessively watching ballets via DVD (my “other” dance form research was strictly textual).

Since then I’ve seen 3 live Kylián works–all of them have made me cry big, emotional tears, and yes Wings of Wax has joined that group. I hope to one day complete my collection of viewing all of his works live. (I became very attached to seeing Brigitte Martin walk in each morning with a delightful energy, then watch overhead as she rehearsed in socks with the two casts.)

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Brigitte Martin at Dress Rehearsal with Artists of Houston Ballet. Jirí Kylián’s Wings of Wax. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

Just last week I reached peak Wayne McGregor research mode, the youngest of the featured choreographers. And he just so happened to be here in HTX. (Yes, I fangirled and introduced myself like a teenager… I restrained myself from any further fangirl moments with him around the building.) As I peeked overhead numerous times during the afternoon rehearsals with him and his super charming stager, Antoine Vereeken, McGregor, clad in a cozy black outfit and black sneakers as usual, would mostly talking to his cast before starting any movement. TALKING and LAUGHING. (Brigitte Martin did this too, but on a softer note and with more time since she was around for a few more weeks beforehand.)

This is the side of choreography that rarely gets to be seen. Most people assume that in ballet, it’s all a bunch of yelling and commanding as seen in Red Shoes or Black Swan (ATTACK IT, ATTACK IT! lol). But with McGregor–the actual living breathing choreographer of this work–in the studio, a lot of honest explanation and exchange of ideas about the movement can be shared. True contemporary choreography is collaboration at its purest.

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Wayne McGregor with Artists of Houston Ballet. Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

So we have have a Robbins/Kylián/McGregor bill. These three men dedicate their lives to dance in the most impress of ways: Robbins donated and supported so much beyond the stage (I love you, NYCPL Robbins Dance Division) and became a beacon of hope for so many struggling artists in the performing arts. Kylián kept the expression of International ballet alive amongst the aftermath of neo-classical ballets and the rise of post-modern/Judson vibes. And McGregor has wrapped dance inside the womb of current technology, once again, hoping that ballet will be birthed anew with more meaningful, lasting tech collaborations.

Sidenote, moving along my research I found a lot of similarities between McGregor and Cunningham. (Also Alwin Nikolais, but just a tiny bit less.) In fact, one might call him the “Generation X Cunningham” for ballet. I know that the two choreographers have their own unique personalities, tastes, traits, and views with dance, but they share many aspects from what I’ve gathered about their creative process and overall design for dance. And I know McGregor isn’t restricted to ballet entirely; see my Nerdist post/attempt at writing about dance for Nerdist.

McGregor’s full-length works are largely commissioned by major ballet companies, while Cunningham’s work sticks to dance-theater venues and the fabulous Compagnie CNDC. And that’s fine! Cunningham keeps appearing and moving in other interesting areas of dance outside of major ballet. (I have yet to see any of his works live, but that would be a HUGE treat.) I digress. Back to the Mixed Rep!


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Melody Mennite and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama of Houston Ballet. Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

In today’s world of 3D printing and drones, we shouldn’t be viewing the same regurgitation of ballet on stage and calling it “new.” (I’ll keep my strong opinions about Peck’s work until I can actually observe and deconstruct it in person next year…) True newness rests in creativity which mimics the changes felt all around. It’s like this in fashion; see Iris van Herpen’s A/W show and Jun Takahashi’s A/W show. It’s like this in music; see Grimes. It’s like this in film; see Robert Egger’s The Witch. And in dance, it’s with dozens of exhilarating companies and choreographers across the world. Three of which are placed on this bill.

McGregor is one of ballet’s contemporary “newness maestro.” He’s not alone in that title, there are thrilling mistresses and maestros all across ballet–mostly Europe–but again, the glass ceiling and racial divides are still intact, making him one of the more prominent (equally well-deserved, though) figures in contemporary ballet. Next to his 2009 creation we have 1997’s Kylián work and then before that 1995/1957 Robbins work. The creation years are important to note–though it gets a touch confusing with WSSS since it has about 4 different dates to its entire creation.

A lot of creative buzz was flittering around during the late ’90s and early ’00s. And while McGregor’s Dyad 1909 and 1929 were directly influenced by the Ballets Russes’ technological and creative reign from 1909-1929, I think we shouldn’t be too quick to overlook the late ’90s and early ’00s in favor for more historic centuries. True, we haven’t past nearly enough time to really look back at the last four decades, but we can still gather that we live in a continuous realm of creation. And I like that Dyad 1929 makes us think about that rationally. We’ve come so far with so many areas of the arts, and it’s great to pair that with tech and science. Even better when we can do this with dance.

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Monica Gomez and Ian Casady of Houston Ballet. Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

So to get to the question of how do these works relate to one another? It’s yet another nicely packaged mixed rep to enjoy and analyze because of the range of Wings of Wax and Dyad 1929 alone. It’s a shame that Dyad 1929 isn’t the “FEATURE” which pulls audiences in. It should be. It’s speaks volumes about how movement has transitions and how far certain dance elements like partnering could go. Plus it’s the first time HB has done a McGregor work; whereas it’s the 9th Kylián work in the growing collection here. In the lens of the bigger world of Western dance, Dyad 1929 is the best current ballet example–along with his other contemporary works–to prove classical movement can be manipulated to represent the multi-dimensional aspects of life.

This movement is the essence of curiosity with our bodies; the molecules which are always collecting, dispersing, mixing, melting. How do we know that these things even exist in us? Science. We know because of science, and likewise, we can move the body around in jutting, jerking, jumbled ways because of the science of choreography, like McGregor’s. Configurations take place. Arrangements are constant. Pairings are interrupted but also completed. If you watch Dyad 1909 next to Dyad 1929 (which you can, it’s on YouTube; please don’t put off exploring this diptych) you can feel the sense of evolution and exploration in this kind of ensemble work. Yes, there are quite a few obnoxious oversplit kick moments as seen in competition dance, but if we can push our bodies to explore that space alongside the actual artistry of choreography, why not?

Individually, shapes, lines, curves, bends, breaks, everything was hyper-new and hyper-now with Dyad 1929. It’s about the human qualities of movement, while remaining very much about the futuristic qualities of the surrounding tech and musical score involved. The strength of these two HB casts was palpable. (Corps member Monica Gomez was the very vision of surreal mobility! And I’m always so pleased to see the long and limber Soo Youn Cho on stage in fresh contemporary works.) I so enjoyed watching these dancers begin by rehearsing tentatively a few months ago with the aid of Antoine Vereecken, then move on to working with McGregor, laughing and smiling about puffy-ribs and head bonking. Then performing with excitement during dress rehearsals, getting use to the space of dots and lighting vibrations. Then finally performing in earnest with full-bodied curiosity for the future of ballet.

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Artists of Houston Ballet. Jirí Kylián’s Wings of Wax. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

In both of these works, the secondary elements really shine and express the ballet’s development from a creation on stage to an experienced creation. The music is also heavily influential. I think the combination of swooning string sounds in Wings of Wax helped touch my soul when viewing this ballet most–like all his works which involve strings really. And like Dyad 1929, the performance process for Wings of Wax was a thrill to experience here. I just think HB is in general more inclined to glide through a Kylián work cause the dancers come from a very Europeanized dance background. They all intrinsically get it, even if some tricky Kylián movement has to be rehearsed and reworked. (I must note that corps member Tyler Donatelli held her own with such confidence and delight in the movement! I hope to see her in Cacti in May.)

For one thing, Wings of Wax is an entirely atmospheric ballet. It’s a philosophical kind of mournful mood; not at all the kind of sad and haunting mood that most people are comparing it to. It’s like The Witch, feasting on the silence and wide space provided without explaining the whys and hows and whatevers. He’s hoping the audience won’t rely on too many notes or explanations beforehand or afterwards–yes, the myth of Icarus is there, but no, it’s not a narration or characterization. Myths are meant to subtly help us explore our inner humanity; keyword, subtly. The myth of Daedalus and Icarus from Ovid’s Bk VIII:183-235 of The Metamorphosis is there in many cunning ways, presented in very Kyliánesque motifs mainly. Look too hard for too long, and you’ll miss it entirely. A Kylián  ballet isn’t rocket science, but it’s also not a walk in the park.

Kylián strives to resonate with philosophy–the process of thinking and knowing and learning while viewing contemporary ballet. We get wrapped up in a melting world of iconic Kylián wit and drama on stage. And Wings of Wax provides the necessary equipment to unfold your own individual exploration over time. Before, during, after; you’ll leave the theater exploring meaning in movement.

It’s like a poem which has collected the purest feelings of human longing, ambition, and sensitive. Through the range of overcurves and undercurves, we get a precise picture of Kylián’s choreographic breath and sensibility towards human bodies. And through those same morphed overcurves and undercurves, we connect to McGregor’s scientific and mathematical occurances and Robbins’ energetic collection of masculine and feminine reality. They all make sense. And they all matter to the larger sphere of contemporary ballet.

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Artists of Houston Ballet. Jirí Kylián’s Wings of Wax. Photography by Amitava Sarkar. Houston Ballet. 2016.

HOUSTON BALLET’s A Visual Glossary For WINGS OF WAX and DYAD 1929

For more on McGregor:

Wayne McGregor

For more on Kylián:

NDT Jiri Kylian


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