Aaron Sharratt, Mackenzie Richter, Linnar Looris and Melody Walsh in Oliver Halkowich’s Life is All We Are, as part of REACH, June 30 & July 1, 2017 at Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance.
Photos by Amitava Sarkar.

Hayden Stark and Tyler Donatelli in Stark’s Yet to Come.

Entering the lobby at Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance for Project REACH on balmy Saturday night felt like going to a club where all of the city’s A-lister dance folks had gathered for something big and important. The Prosecco and St. Arnold were flowing, while people were pumped by the Amaya coffee and Matt Johns’s beats. This was a one fine dance mob, so much so that every available space was taken in the Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab.

REACH is a project dreamed up by balletrepreneurs Houston Ballet principals Melody Mennite Walsh and Connor Walsh and soloist Oliver Halkowich. All three of them have done many cool projects outside of their Houston Ballet lives, and were mostly recently seen in Dinolion’s immersive theater event Red House.

The idea behind REACH is three fold: to raise funds for Houston Ballet’s X3, a free educational program for Houston’s 3rd -5th graders, to give Houston Ballet’s dancers a chance to stretch their choreographic wings, and to figure out how to put on a show from top to bottom. And that they did, with a tremendous amount of can do spirit, audience enthusiasm and overall polish. A pre-REACH event with an entirely different program occurred earlier this month at White Oak Music Hall as well. All that after a intense season, which included a lavish new Nutcracker, a German tour, and a season that ended with a set of double full lengths, The Tempest and La Bayadere. You would think this gang would need a rest.

Linnar Looris in his solo, Life Sheet.

The work generally fell into two categories: quirky and Justin Peck-y. (Peck’s Year of the Rabbit proved a total highlight of the season!) Hayden Stark and Tyler Donatelli were wonderfully paired in Stark’s smart and sassy duet Yet to Come. Surprising shapes and intricate gestures brought a tight focus to their performance. Donatelli is so “On the Rise,” and I mean that quite literally, she is the subject of my On the Rise story in August’s Dance Magazine.

Melody Walsh’s Lose Count had a fun vibe, with balls, dancers losing or trying to keep count, and a great cast, including Mackenzie Richter, Chandler Dalton, Allison Miller and Jenna Gooden. The tone changed toward the serious as the dancers stripped down to black shorts and nude tops. Richter and Dalton’s pas de deux was lovely, and they are two dancers that should be on your radar for next season.

There was nothing quirky or Peck-ish about Linnar Looris’s poignant solo, Life Sheet, which proved to be the most somber dance on the program. Shu Kinouchi Buoyant lived up to the title, especially with Katy Harvey, Dalton and Stark doing the buoyant dancing. Kinuchi has a natural musicality and gift for moving dancers across the stage in intricate patterns. Also in the dance-y groove was Chris Gray’s Loose Ends, a lovely romp set to Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 4 in D minor.

Two films made for a welcome visual interlude: David Rivera’s introduction to Houston Ballet’s X3 program, and, I process by Dinolion, a collaborative effort by Melody Walsh, with help from her REACH team and filmmakers James Templeton and Jeromy Barber. Melody Walsh’s poem offered a glimpse inside her creative process and the life of a working artist.

Mackenzie Richter and Chandler Dalton in Melody Walsh’s Lose Count.

With the dancers dressed as an irreverent gang of punk pierrots, Halkowich’ s Life is All We Are made a fitting and sweet ending to a spirited evening. Aaron Sharratt and Richter were just adorable in their pas de deux that kept coming and going from the wings. All in all, REACH was a rousing evening of dance, choreography and good old fashioned showmanship. Let’s hope this ambitious trio of dancers/choreographers/producers keep this tradition going.