Category Archives: Houston Ballet

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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Teacher’s Wisdom: Claudio Munoz

Claudio Muñoz doesn’t mind throwing in a little physics lecture during barre if it proves his point. Known for his humor and honesty, Muñoz, ballet master of Houston Ballet II, has been shaping bodies and minds at HB’s Ben Stevenson Academy since 1999. As a dancer with Chile’s Ballet de Santiago, he performed principal roles in works by John Cranko, Balanchine, Ivan Nagy, and Ronald Hynd, partnering Natalia Makarova in Hynd’s Rosalinda. He taught at Ballet Nacional Chileno, Ballet de Santiago, and Ballet Nacional del Perú before coming to Houston. Recently his students have placed in the top ranks at the Prix de Lausanne (including Emanuel Amuchastegui, who won first place as well as the “Audience Favorite” award this year). Nancy Wozny observed Muñoz’s class at BSA in March.

The barre seems like a good place to start. What’s your philosophy? Ballet happens with the entire body; the barre needs to reflect that. Also, whatever I do in the center I prepare at the barre. It’s like being a good cook. You can’t be chopping fish and making filet mignon. You have to make the connection.

Can you talk about the relationship between stamina and technique? Without stamina, no one sees your wonderful technique. When Emanuel was getting ready for the Prix this year, we did the diagonal phrase in La Sylphide every day for three weeks. He could not understand why at first. You need to make the steps look easy, so no one realizes that you are dying.

What’s the biggest technical issue for students today? Port de bras. I work on it all day every day. Dancers are too focused on their legs. Putting the legs before the upper body is like a fly on top of a beautiful cake.

Holding props, like a water bottle, helps students bring awareness to their arms; sometimes they pass the water bottle between hands during turns. With some weight on an arm, they can better sense what they’re doing.

Finding their center is another challenge. Sometimes I have them balance on a stool, so that staying centered actually feels easier once they get back to the floor. They need to understand the physics of dancing—where our energy and force need to go. Once they have a concrete experience with that, they get it.

You are so amusing in class. How is humor a useful teaching tool? When my students relax, they begin to listen and get out of their own way. In this demanding profession, where the brain works so hard, humor helps you to let go of that, to see a problem from outside yourself. I am still the teacher; students respect that. Yet I never want them to feel like they can’t ask a question. A sense of humor reminds them I am approachable.

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Who influenced your teaching style? Ben Stevenson had a way of approaching dancers so they would relax. From him, I learned to never scare a student. From Ivan Nagy, I learned the discipline it takes to dance. It is a vocation more than a profession—like being a priest.

HB II dancers look so at ease in artistic director Stanton Welch’s intricate partnering. Do you enjoy teaching pas de deux? I love it. It’s such a central ingredient in ballet, like a conversation—two bodies, one breath. We start teaching partnering in level five, so by the time students get to HB II, which is level eight, they can do complex contemporary lifts as well as classical work.

Do you see more boys interested in ballet these days? Absolutely. It used to be that every mother wanted her child to be a doctor or lawyer. Now we have all these dance TV shows and YouTube. Boys see that being a dancer can be a great profession.

HB II is like the United Nations right now, with students from all over the world. How do you deal with cultural differences? It’s hard sometimes because cultural habits differ vastly. For example, Japanese dancers have a different relationship to authority, so they are less likely to ask a question, while Latino cultures are more open. Everyone brings something from their country into their dancing. To truly cross cultural divides it comes down to coaching. We work so personally with each student here.

Your classes are a final polish for HB II students before they embark on professional careers. What do you hope they’ll accomplish by the time they leave your nest? There’s a thin line between academy student and professional. Yet it’s also a big cliff. We try to make HB II exactly like being in a company, to ease the transition. We give our dancers many performance experiences, and we work on their emotional maturity as performers. They have to know how to create the illusion of a story, or the audience will never buy another ticket. The audience has to have a spiritual break from the busy world. Any HB II dancer should be able to make that happen.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy Houston Ballet

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

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Review: Houston Ballet American at Heart

Ballet: Hush
Choreographer: Christopher Bruce
Dancer(s): Nicholas Leschke, Kelly Myernick
Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Shhhhh! The marvel that is Christopher Bruce’s Hush is still playing on my inner youtube channel. Performed as part of Houston Ballet’s American at Heart, Hush reached to even deeper heights of dance-making glory than I recall from its premiere in 2006. Bruce brings us into the life of a traveling theatrical family. Perhaps they are stopping on their way to their next show, and we are glad they did. Original cast members Kelly Myernick (mother) and Nicholas Leschke (father) and Melody Herrera (youngest daughter), Jessica Collado (older sister), Ian Casady (older brother) and Ilya Kozadayev (younger brother) make a perfect if not odd family.

Each adheres to Bruce’s idiosyncratic off-kilter style, while adding their own personal spin. Bruce mines every possible permutation in the ecology of the family, letting its subtle dynamics play out in solos, duets and rousing group dances. There isn’t an un-thought through second in this ballet. Bruce even ends each variation with tender stage pictures, allowing emotional and visual rests. Set to Bobbin McFerrin’s collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma’s score, also named Hush, the ballet oscillates between public and private moments that occur within the safe confines of the family.

Myernick tackles her solo, set to the Gounod/Bach Ave Maria, with the soul of a mother, running after little ones, washing the floor, doing the endless things mothers do automatically. She so elegantly captures the relentlessness of motherhood, it’s raw instinct and never ending purposefulness. Leschke, moving with a weighted grace, catches her at the solo’s finale, bouncing her back and forth to a resting normalcy. Herrera eats her little brother’s fly, bounces like a frog on dad’s back, dancing up a firestorm of lil’ sis energy. Collado’s spirals her wrists in sensual curves, embracing a young woman’s discovery of self. Her dancing is voluptuous and self-absorbed as it should be. She concludes with an awkward strut back to her place in the hierarchy. Casady embodies the restrained demeanor of a male adolescent, while Kozadayev is all curiosity in his bug-chasing solo.

At the end, the mysterious clan turns toward the star cloth and continues down their path. And don’t we just want to follow them there? It was simply a breathtaking performance of a breathtaking ballet. Christina Giannelli’s lighting design added to the magic, myth and delight, nicely delineating the inner from the communal moments.

It’s always a wonder to ponder Balachine’s work, and Houston Ballet did not disappoint with his 1928 pinnacle of modernism, Apollo. It’s a role built for Connor Walsh’s considerable cluster of talents; his clear, exacting lines and pointed attack matched Balanchine’s spare use of effort, shape and form. Amy Fote (Calliope), Sara Webb (Terpsichore) and Myernick (Polyhymnia) made sparkling muses, each their own distinct radiance.

The program took another step back in time with Jerome Robbins’ 1944 Fancy Free, a fun romp about three sailors on shore leave, and the precursor to his Broadway musical On the Town. It’s a time capsule of a ballet, capturing wartime patriotism at its height. Casady, Jame Gotesky and Oliver Halkowich delivered robust performances, full of boy charm. Gotesky was a hoot in his hip swiveling rumba, while Casady’s rough and tumble quality rang authentic. Halkowich’s quick-footed spunk completed the trio. Fote and Collado bestowed the passers-by with a sexy polish.

All in all, it was a night of dance history meeting dance magic. Not a bad week for a company that just topped their new digs with its final steel beam.