I moved to Manhattan two years ago for many reasons, not least of which is the almost daily availability of great dance performance. But today I visited Jacob’s Pillow for the first time and I’m ready to move to The Berkshires, and just take in every program that this idyllic collection of dancers and dance facilities have to offer.
On the main stage at the Pillow’s Ted Shawn Theatre this weekend, as part of the 86th annual dance festival here, is Houston Ballet. The company, though not widely familiar outside of the dance crowd, has a long history and a consistently stellar reputation. Born of an appetite for ballet that annual visits from the historic Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo instilled in Texans throughout the early twentieth century, Houston Ballet solidified as an American dance institution under Ben Stevenson’s direction from 1976 to 2003. Misty Copeland’s rise at American Ballet Theatre – and in the public consciousness – has brought Lauren Anderson’s name into the spotlight. Anderson was the first African-American principal of a major American ballet company, namely the Houston Ballet, which also made a star of the famous Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.
Houston Ballet First Soloist Soo Youn Cho and Principal Connor Walshin Trey McIntyre’s In Dreams. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2018).
Today Houston Ballet employs sixty dancers, making it the fifth largest classical ballet company in the country, which is appropriate for a state that prides itself on size. What’s truly remarkable about this company are the quality and range of its dancers and the repertoire they perform. The program at the Pillow features three works by current artistic director Stanton Welch, including a world premiere, and one Trey McIntyre piece. Despite the depleting effects of Hurricane Harvey on the company’s resources, including the destruction and temporary closure of its Houston home, the Wortham Center, the company presents as spectacularly as ever.
In a last-minute change to the order of the program, Welch’s new piece, “Just,” which Jacob’s Pillow commissioned for its 2018 festival, kicked off the show. Nozomi Iijima and Chun Wai Chan were so outstanding in the pas de deux during the third and final section that the strong first and second sections promptly faded from memory. The couple moved so seamlessly and passionately together, that I even ceased to rage internally over the repetitive music accompanying them.
The second piece was the standout of the program. These three excerpts from Welch’s 2013 “Sons De L’âme” were accompanied by live piano to Chopin. So no complaints about the score in this case. And the choreography, gorgeously executed by three couples, was ballet perfection. Sans tutus, “Sons” is everything that made me fall in love with classical ballet. Although I’m loathe to let anyone off the hook after just one ballet encounter, it might be safe to say that, if you don’t enjoy this piece, ballet is truly not your thing.
“Sons” proved an impossible act to follow for me, though the audience was enthusiastic about Trey McIntyre’s, “In Dreams.” McIntyre, a popular and acclaimed young choreographer, launched his career at Houston Ballet as Choreographic Associate from 1928 – 2008. “Sons” is a lively, though I felt derivative, romp set to a medley of Roy Orbison songs.
The performance concluded with a lovely Welch piece set to music by Bach. Again, it’s hard not to enjoy any presentation when Bach is playing. The challenge is always to create dance that remotely reflects the beauty of the score. Welch’s work was mostly successful. “Clear,” created for the company in 2007, showcases the men in the company. Both their strength and their finesse are on display.
Though it’s too late to catch Houston Ballet at the Pillow this season, there’s a week remaining of this year’s summer dance festival and I can’t recommend it enough. Whether it’s a day trip from the city or a longer escape from the city, there’s nothing quite as refreshingly restful as an experience at Jacob’s Pillow. It’s enough to renew my patience for Manhattan, to which I’m headed home tomorrow.
Article Featured Image: Houston Ballet Principal Jessica Collado and Ian Casady in Stanton Welch’s Sons de L’âme. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.