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Houston Ballet 28th Season

Houston Ballet previews new works.

HOUSTON: When one returns to school after summer, there is much reacquainting and inquiring of how the break was spent as well as anticipation of what the new season holds. And so too, do audiences greet the new fall season of dance. With Houston Ballet's return to the the Brown Theater of The Wortham Theater Center for its 28th season, audiences had an inkling that artistic director Ben Stevenson took a break from making modern masterpieces--but were consoled by the improved level of dancing and the the hint of great things to come.

Stevenson had said his new work, "Eclipse," was a breather from last season's premiere of the dark and tangled full-length Dracula before he tackles next spring's much-anticipated "The Snow Maiden" for ballet superstar Nina Ananiashvilla. That may have been an understatement, but after 22 years of creating masterpieces, both here and abroad, one should be allowed a little breather. The world premiere of "Eclipse," September 4, was not as monumental as the real thing--particularly when sandwiched on a bill with the crystal sharpness of Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments" and Jiri Kylian's majestic celebration, "Sinfonietta." "Eclipse," to Frederick Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, is a light, frothy work, by Stevenson's own admission a "dancy, romantic ballet." It is also a tad busy in the first movement, seven couples depicting some sort of celestial happy peasants with too much arm throwing and a nod to the tradition Hungarian folk dance step csardas. Of main note here is the darkly handsome and newly acquired David Makhateli, who stands out even in the complicated mix.

The second movement, a pas de duex for Tiekka Schofield and Phillip Broomhead, is much more sparkling. With some very interesting choreography, Broomhead is allowed to really dance, instead of just strutting his princely partnering, and Stevenson makes good use of Schofield's elegant extensions and delicately supple feet. Although we could probably do without the part where he mimes scooping up the moon set--based on a metal sculpture by John Kerr Smithers--and hands it to her.

But an eclipse is only a momentary obscuring of the sun and the company came back in full force to brilliantly dance George Balanchine's "The Four Temperaments." The sharpness of movement the company gives to the 51-year-old 4Ts is amazing. (Yes, it's long been called that by insiders) Star principal Lauren Anderson brings her exuberant strength to Choleric and Christopher Veljovic (who came from Balanchine's School of American Ballet) looks positively born to dance the male solo in the Phlegmatic section.

Capping off the evening was a splendid performance of Jiri Kylian's 1978 "Sinfonietta," which the company indeed turned into a celebration of the human spirit. Corps member Shirley Sastre filled in beautifully for the injured Barbara Bears and the Houston Ballet Orchestra, under the direction of the very gifted Ermmano Florio, made inspirational work of Leos Janacek's score to send the audience home on a high note.

Missing from the evening was superstar Carlos Acosta, just returned from guesting in Buenos Aires, but the really impressive thing is that his bravuro dancing was not missed. Nor was Anderson's charisma and strong technique overpowering the rest of the company., which looks even better than last spring. As season openers go, this one did very well; inspiring the audience while whetting its appetite for what else Stevenson has in store.

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