No loss for words: Houston Ballet warriors explain the moves that make them move

Joseph Walsh and Karina Gonzalez in “Rush,” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Photo by Amitava Sarkar

In classical ballet most of the movements have names, just like an alphabet. In contemporary dance, the terrain gets trickier when it comes to putting words to the usual moves of such leading dance makers as Christopher Bruce, Jorma Elo and Christopher Wheeldon, whose works graceHouston Ballet’s Raising the Barre mixed repertory program Thursday-June 5.

Nothing says weakling in the dance writing biz like saying, “It’s hard to explain,” so I popped into the Center for Dance to watch a program rehearsal. Sure, I have my own ideas on what makes each choreographer’s movement engine tick, yet enough about what I think, let’s hear from the dancers who bring these works to life.

It’s a myth that dancers would rather dance than talk. Read on and you will see that nothing is hard to explain for these ballet warriors. They get it in their bodies and can easily tell us how it feels.

Danielle Rowe’s grace is a match for Wheedlon’s Rush

Wheeldon’s Rush is his third work for the company. Like Carnival of the Animals and Carousel, there’s an understated elegance to all his work. InRush, shape holds a potency that’s anything but stagnant. Wheeldon’s sculptural forms arrest the moment, lending a visual excitement. New soloist Danielle Rowe, a total natural for Wheedlon’s choreographic temperament, brings us inside the beating heart of Rush.

“The first and third movements contain symmetry and precise formations resulting in a structured blur of activity that complements the urgency of the music,” says Rowe, who moved here from Australia in January.  “The second movement contrasts with the vibrant quality of the other movements, with the inclusion of an elegant yet haunting pas de deux that suggests a feeling of longing.”

According to Rowe, shape goes beyond its dimensions. “The challenge lies not so much in achieving the shapes required in Wheeldon’s movement, but highlighting those shapes appropriately. It is important to make each transition seamless so that the beauty of individual shapes can be emphasized and appreciated.”

Rowe’s pristine dancing fits Wheedlon’s minimalist tenancies. “Wheeldon’s choreography invites me to pare back any affectations I might have in my dancing,” she says. “It does not need any emotional embellishment. By refining my movement quality and allowing the choreography to speak for itself, my dancing feels honest, calm and pure.”

Samantha Lynch completely undertands Bruce’s Americana homage in Grinning in Your Face

Bruce is more of a chameleon, inventing a new language for each piece.Grinning in Your Face draws from social, contemporary and everyday human gestures. Lynch recently spotted as “On the Rise” in Dance Magazine by yours truly, looks in her element in Bruce’s feisty piece.

Grinning in your Face has many contrasting layers, beginning and ending powerfully with a message of strength and a sense of community. Within the ballet there are moments of tenderness, love, joy and subtle sadness. All of these qualities are shown through Chris’ movement that completely speaks for itself,” says Lynch, who is known for her contemporary work. “I love to dance this ballet because it has a real sense of togetherness and pride. It’s extremely challenging and I feel the choreography allows me to tell a story with my body using my full range of movement and musicality.”

Lynch relates to the story-telling aspect of the ballet. “This piece is a great portrayal of how people deal with war and devastation. Even though I’m not an American, I can still have an emotional connection to this piece. This is my fifth year in the U.S., and the more I learn about this country the more I find similarities with my own country Australia,” she says. “The sense of pride people have here about America is definitely something  I can relate to. War is still very present all over the world and I know that people will connect very easily to this piece.”

Garrett Smith goes for broke in Elo’s ONE/end/ONE 

Elo’s signature may be the most distinct of the three. Quirky breaks in the action, strategically placed squiggles and abrupt shifts of ballet business-as-usual characterize his work. It’s a joy to watch Smith navigate Elo’s surprising switchbacks. Smith owns this wild ride of a ballet. Thrilled to be cast in Elo’s piece, Smith, a budding choreographer himself, had much to say.

“Elo gives us ultimate artistic freedom. We, as dancers, get to put  the movement to the music. You feel like you are creating with him, as opposed to just being told  what to do,” says Smith, who choreographed a ballet for Houston Ballet’s last Jubilee (the annual showcase held every December). “I do feel like I have some insight into his vocabulary. I feel most at home with Jorma’s genre of  movement. It’s been lots of fun being a part of the making process, because I can relate with him. I feel that I grasp, and understand the dynamics, and quirky moments.”

Smith had no trouble describing Elo’s mark. “It’s got a classical line, fused with funky, wavy, magnetic moments of energy.”

Joseph Walsh raises his own barre by dancing all three ballets

There’s nothing quite like dancing three ballets in a row to understand the differences between each, which is exactly what soloist Walsh will be doing. Part of a rare breed of do-it-all dancers, Walsh is ready for the task. He sees the experience as a chance to deepen his versatality.

“Each piece brings its own set of challenges to conquer. Grinning in Your Face is my first opportunity to dance a work by Bruce. His choreography pushes me to be more grounded and controlled while still staying true to the character development he has provided us with, a Great Depression kind of vibe,” says Walsh. “His movement is extremely satisfying to dance once you have a grasp on where your center of gravity is. I have the feeling my torso is constantly orbiting in opposing directions from my legs throughout Grinning.”

Walsh dances with Venezuelan wonder Karina Gonzalez in Rush. “While much more classically based than GrinningRush is equally as difficult to tune my body to. For me it’s about the precision of extremely classical shapes, paired with an exciting energy and musicality usually found in a more contemporary ballet,” he says. “While the Bruce piece is more about controlling the lower half of the body and letting the top half go, Wheeldon’s is on the opposite end of the spectrum, showing precision in the upper body, while pushing the lower half to surpass normal classical technique.”

The soloist finds Elo’s work completely original. “I have always been an enormous fan of his work, and the only way I can think to describe it is ‘ballet break dancing.’ Being part of the creation process has really been a treat. We are able to learn the movement first hand from the choreographer, while having artistic input at the same time. Jorma combines a funky pop and locking technique with extremely challenging classical ballet tricks and turns,” he says. “It will really push us to a new level of contemporary ballet. “
And who said dancers are nonverbal? Next time I’m at a loss for dance-describing words I know exactly where to go for help.
Reprinted from Culturemap.
A Tiny bit of Jorma Elo’s ONE/end/One with Melissa Hough and Joseph Walsh.
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