IMAGE ABOVE: Barbara Bears and Artists of the Houston Ballet in Of Blessed Memory. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Houston Ballet celebrated its leader’s tenth year at the helm by performing three of his works in one evening, a perfect Stanton Welch wonderland and a great way to examine this choreographer’s gifts to ballet. Each ballet showed off a particular strength and thread in his work. With Beatae Memoriae (Of Blessed Memory) we see Welch’s ability as an abstract storyteller, with Maninyas, his strength making robust ballets with a sensual and exotic flair, and, in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, his finesse in creating large group spectacles with a tongue and cheek humor, an exacting musicality and whimsical theatricality.
Of Blessed Memory, Welch’s first professional work, hardly comes across as something that belongs in an “early work” category. In full evidence are all the things we know to be part of Welch canon, the sophistication of moving dancers across the stage, the intricate pas de deux work and the highly refined emotional tonality. It’s all there, in what seems like a complete form. It’s as if he started out of the choreographic gate with a full tool set of invention and nuance.
Of course, it was a great joy to see Barbara Bears in action once again. Bears can make so much of so little, with the tiniest gesture radiating all around her. Whether it’s a slight tilt of her head, or a reaching hand, Bears galvanizes our attention whenever she is on stage. It’s as if she conjures the ballet, wishes it into being, and we see her memories, dreams and reminiscences played out during this luxuriously textured ballet.
Welch’s Blessed Memory is a tribute to mothers, tinged with a bittersweet nostalgia that echoes themes of joy and loss. The ballet contained many astonishing performances besides Bears’ elegant presence. Most notable was the pas de deux between Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh, which demonstrated a magical chemistry and confidence in seamlessly floating throughWelch’s acrobatic feats.
Derek Dunn, who had a remarkable evening, always stands out for his virtuosity and polish. How well he held his own with the always lovely Sara Webb. Allison Miller is like a bolt of sunshine hitting the stage; she energizes the space with her pizazz. Melody Mennite exudes her characteristic mischievous charm and impeccable timing, while Lauren Strongin offers a delicate ephemeral quality. Hiding in the ensemble and one to watch is Rhys Kosakowski. Nicole Heaston’s richly toned soprano, singing Joseph Canteloube’s melancholic Chants d’ Auvergne, added to the depth of the experience.
Maninyas, originally created for the San Francisco Ballet, is considered Welch’s first work in the States. In it we can see the gestural flourishes that grew to be a signature in subsequent works. Jessica Collado proved perfect for the sexy sass of Welch’s earthy choreography. The piece acts like showcase for the company’s finest dancers and a chance to spot up and comers, like Emily Bowen and Rhodes Elliot, who were perfected matched. Each couple added yet another layer of nuance.
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra contained everything a celebratory piece should have, a huge flashy ensemble, a fancy red curtain backdrop, a celebrity narrator in Jaston Williams, and a witty accompaniment to Benjamin Britten’s iconic score. The evening felt perfectly balanced and a wonderful way to honor the genius at the Houston Ballet center, artistic director Stanton Welch.