Things to Do: A Review of Divergence at Houston Ballet

Imagine walking into the Wortham Theater Center for an evening with the Houston Ballet. It is his last program of mixed repertoire, Divergence, and the first thing you see is an enthusiastic ballet (and music) aficionado who rushes to tell a friend that he saw sandpaper and a typewriter in the orchestra pit. If that’s not a clue to the fact that what you’re about to see may stretch the boundaries of what you’d expect to see in ballet, I don’t know what is.

The evening kicks off with Stanton Welch’s “Divergence,” and boy does anyone know how to make an entrance. Impressive and pointy against a deep red background, the dancers look ready to dance to the tune of Georges Bizet. L’Arlesienne Suite No. 1 and 2.

“Divergence” opens sharply and triumphantly, with appropriately sharp Welch choreography, jerky moves from the “March of Kings” from Bizet’s Prélude. The choreography is strong and precise, well emphasized by the bounce of the piece’s signature black plastic mesh tutus designed by the late Vanessa Leyonhjelm. From there, “Divergence” is a playground: playful shapes, spider-crab walks, intentionally exaggerated wobbles, shoulder toss, and self-punches, all paired with plenty of toe work, series of fouettés, and enviable extensions.

Although busy, the work has a fluid, cohesive flow, and although it is very much a company dance, it offers a few opportunities to stand out.

Beckanne Sisk finds sweetness in music and an immediate shift to the sensual, sweeping across the stage with her piercing gaze always on the audience. Yuriko Kajiya adds an emotional and moving element to her performance, making for quite a dramatic section. And then there’s the pas de deux – an acrobatic exercise if ever there was one. But it’s not just the elevators that make it exciting, though they do in a big way, it’s the constant movement that impresses the most.

Equally exciting is the finale, in which the women put their tutus back on only to take them off and dance to the beat of a drum and the crash of cymbals. It’s surprising how fresh the piece feels considering it’s now in its early 20s.

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Houston Ballet performers at Aszure Barton’s angular moment.

Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, courtesy of Houston Ballet

After intermission, Aszure Barton’s “Angular Momentum” returns to the Houston Ballet stage.

Set to the experimental beat of Mason Bates’ “The B-Sides, Five pieces for Orchestra and Electronica,” Barton’s approximately 20-minute work is an ode to exploration and discovery, complete with intrepid explorers (i.e., the audience, likely traveling miles and light-years from our seats) to make contact with extraterrestrial life forms through five short movements, each a sound world of its own. The Houston Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Ermanno Florio and Simon Thew, easily jumps between them. One, for example, is jazz, and there’s that typewriter! – while another features bass lines that momentarily make the Wortham feel like a house party.

Regardless, Barton is a puppeteer in “Angular Momentum”; the stylized choreography is demanding and the dancers move as if someone else is pulling their strings. Dancers bow, shake, wave and walk the catwalk along the futuristic romp. Although there is no discernible narrative, it does not mean that the work does not have moments of reflection.

Bates once said that “The B-Sides” originated from a desire to “set a spacewalk to music,” and in the third movement, titled “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” Melody Mennite is the lucky dancer from take that walk. It’s a powerful moment, as with Connor Walsh doing the lift, Mennite is able to fly, traversing the stage in a seemingly weightless, slow-motion mimicking walk.

Burke Brown contributes the set, a towering orthogonal structure and many bold, theatrical lighting options (including hot pink illuminated dancers), and Fritz Masten provides the costumes, most notably for the three astronauts, decked out as resplendent C-3POs. For example, the droid was designed to the specifications of David Bowie or Elton John.

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Houston Ballet Directors Jessica Collado and Connor Walsh with Houston Ballet Artists at Justin Peck’s under the folding sky.

Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, courtesy of Houston Ballet

Another intermission, and finally the premiere of Justin Peck’s “Under the Folding Sky.”

Borrowing the magnificently haunting and hypnotically repetitive music from Act III of Philip Glass’s Eadweard Muybridge-inspired chamber opera, The photographerPeck uses the score, which I assume is an intentional callback from Glass to Muybridge’s stop-action animations, to show the gradation.

Brandon Stirling Baker’s careful lighting selections open the piece with intent, illuminating as the dancers meticulously move, slowly bowing and gradually extending. Reflecting the choreography is the Karl Jensen set, a monument in itself, and one of the most direct references to Peck’s inspiration, the work of James Turrell. twilight epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. The industrial piece grows, rising above the stage as the piece also comes together and gains momentum.

And yet…

At its best, “Under the Folding Sky” is a victim of its placement on the show. It lacks the bite of Welch’s “Divergence” and the sheer weirdness of Barton’s “Angular Momentum.” So despite concluding on a seeming moment of elevation, the charming but aimless work can only disappoint after the other two pieces.

Peck issued a challenge in terms of group work. A word like demand only hints at the challenge in front of the dancers and while they performed well, particularly Harper Watters, who made the most of every moment on stage, including coming in and going out, it got a little tricky towards the end. The movements were rushed and left incomplete, particularly during a section in which the dancers came into formation by throwing themselves through each other’s arms. But even when the performance was captivatingly in sync, the costumes did the dancers no favors. By Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, they were practical in white and fuzzy in gray bathing suits.

That being said, all three apples fell from the same boundary-pushing innovative tree. Though mostly successful, it’s worth mentioning that even when it stumbles, it’s a step into the future, a taste of what we can and should see on the ballet stage.