For much of the past decade, Houston Ballet was a company of fresh-spirited exuberance.
They still have it, but many of the dancers have matured with signature works like Stanton Welch’s Clear and Madame Butterfly, which opened the season Thursday.
When choreography sinks deeper into their bones like that, it adds a layer of virtuosity that makes watching them a richer experience.
It’s not just sure-footedness, abundantly evident in Clear, Nuances play out in bodies that aren’t afraid to luxuriate in the music. Welch created Clear for American Ballet Theatre in the fall of 2001, shortly after the tragedies of 9/11. Now it looks made for Houston Ballet.
Although there’s a female figure in a prime role, Clear shows off the men’s prowess. They’ve never looked sharper, and the audience noticed, applauding flashy moments of dazzling tours and fouettes.
Clear is also a ballet of contrasts, pitting leaps that almost freeze in mid-air against weighty poses. In the past, the effort has shown. Not this time.
The dancers also easily kept pace with Johann Sebastian Bach’s busy Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor. Violinist Denise Tarrant and oboist Elizabeth Priestly Siffert, with conductor Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra, gave the score a soulful ride.
Connor Walsh was the smooth front man. Joseph Walsh and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama brought dynamic energy to the second movement, and Christopher Gray was mesmerizingly strong in a brief trio section. Mireille Hassenboehler, looking fantastic after last year’s maternity leave, gave the woman’s role a good mix of strength and poignant grace.
Amy Fote, who is retiring this season, seemed to relish every step as Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly. Previously, she’s danced the tragic role of the geisha who abandons her culture for an American officer who betrays her with more vulnerability. She’s still winsome but is also more authoritative, a woman who makes her own decisions even though they’re not the right ones.
James Gotesky seems to have modeled his Pinkerton after Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” It’s a gutsy, one-dimensional characterization. This guy is menacing, abrasive and not conflicted about the heartbreak he’s causing. It’s clear he doesn’t really care about Cio-Cio San or his American fiancé.
Joseph Walsh, even disguised in a heavy make-up and wig, makes the marriage broker Goro a slick sensation. Jessica Collado, charming as the maid Suzuki, and Linnar Lorris, a good-hearted Sharpless, are the ballet’s most sympathetic and likeable characters.
I had forgotten how funny some of the big scenes are, but the exaggerated stereotypes make me cringe. I never tire of Giacomo Puccini’s glorious score. The stagecraft also engages, including huge wings that fly apart, held by unlit dancer, and a tender shadow dance behind screens with a cherry blossom motif. The choreography’s subtly fluttering arms often suggest butterflies, and here, it happens with fans, magically.
Several casts rotate in the leads of both ballets.
Houston Ballet performs Madame Butterfly and Clear
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sept. 14-15; 2 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 16
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Tickets: $19-$180 at 713-227-2787 or houstonballet.org