Aug. 31--Debuting four new works at once would be ambitious any time of year, but Houston Ballet is on overdrive as it prepares to open its 44th season Thursday with "Four Premieres."
Associate choreographer Christopher Bruce has brought the American premiere of "Intimate Pages," a 1984 work sprung from Leo Janacek's String Quartet No. 2; while Canadian James Kudelka has made his new "Passion" to the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's Concerto for Piano in D, Op. 61a
Artistic director Stanton Welch also invited former company members Garrett Smith and Melissa Hough to create their first prime-time dances. Hough's piece, "...the third kind [is] useless," moves to Gabriel Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 1; while Smith's "Return" riffs on John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and "Harmonielehre Part III."
We asked each choreographer, "Why this piece, at this time, for this company?" A surprising theme emerged: Each of them started with another plan.
Come Thursday, the "what ifs" will be well behind them -- until next time.
"It should have been a new piece, to music by Leonard Cohen. I just didn't get the music rights in time. 'Intimate Pages.' is the first work of mine Stanton ever saw, and he's always been very fond of it.
"Luckily, there was this very good television piece with about 90 percent of it. I have a wonderful assistant, Steven Brett. I gave him the video -- he learned it.
"I've remade a few minutes here and there, mostly in the material of the four spirit-angel-children figures. I was never 100-percent satisfied with the way I dealt with the music in the fourth movement. There's never ever one way of making a piece. It's quite boring for me if I don't do any choreographing.
"Maybe you could term this as one of my more classical pieces, but modern dance is the basis of everything I do. I've always stolen from every language -- contemporary, classical, folk and social, also commedia dell'arte. There were no barriers for me.
"The music wasn't written until the late 1920s, but the folk influence goes back centuries. The nature of the string quartet reminded me of the 18th century. I love Janacek. It seemed to express so much of the ecstasy and the pain of existence. He was expressing his feelings for Kamila St sslova, who was 40 years his junior and his muse for many years. They were both married to others- him unhappily. He lost two of his children -- his daughter was 7, his son 19 or 20. This was written in the last year of his life, and he died as a result of a chill he caught when he went out looking for a son of Kamila's who got lost in the woods.
"Although I see it with more life experience now, this piece is purely a response to the music. I like for an audience to be able to read it on their own terms.
"Some of the dancers I'm working with are totally new to me. I've seen the beginning and the end of so many careers here, wonderful dancers, from 1988 to today. And still it goes on, the same wonderful standard, the same serious work ethic, which I think Ben Stevenson instilled all those years ago and Stanton has kept going. It's a very good company to work with."
"I had different music planned, then ended up picking Gabriel Prokofiev's 'Violin Concerto No. 1' on a whim. This music is really sophisticated. It goes all over the place, drops off the earth and comes back to this crazy rhythm.
"One of my early ideas was really similar to 'Intimate Pages,' about a relationship through the years. It's a good thing I didn't go there.
"The dance is about one person's fear of being abandoned and the mental agony he puts himself through. He ultimately ends up fighting himself and losing the battle. I read Machiavelli.
"The music is dark and mocking; there's a feeling of an omen, especially in the third movement.
"There are 13 dancers and a quartet on stage. There are no sets, but Lisa Pinkham has designed a lot of lighting. She's also lighting Garrett's piece. Monica Guerra is designing the costumes. They're black, with a lot of mesh and leather. It almost sounds Michael Jackson-esque. Without going there, it's sexy and has a lot of texture.
"It's different when you're at the front of the room (as opposed to dancing); you don't know how the dancers are going to react. My goal was to create an open environment and good energy in the studio. These dancers will do anything you ask, which is good and bad. You want to know when it's not working.
"I hope I manage to mold the dancers' movements into something that gets conveyed to the audience in an interesting way."
"I had a piece of music that was longer and much more complicated, but I knew I only had a three-week span of time to create the new piece. I've known Beethoven's violin concerto since I was a child. I had always wanted to choreograph it. There are 13 dancers in it, which I hadn't planned for any particular reason.
"There's a certain amount of process that goes into making the stage look full -- choosing odd numbers of people and different kinds of groupings -- and how you extend that over 25 minutes and make sure the picture is still changing.
"It's challenging for dancers to be on stage for 20 or 25 minutes. One couple stays on the whole time, and there's a group of five women that are there for more than three-quarters of it, and there's another group that comes in and out. I think I can successfully get variations on the stage with that. That's the fun part -- figuring all that out.
"I'm working with lighting designer Michael Mazzola. He creates a very contemporary stage picture. There's no scenery. It's really two dances going on simultaneously: one is classical, one is contemporary. When you put the two together you end up getting what is in the score.
"This concerto is known for not having a tortured narrative compared to other Beethoven works; it's a sunny piece in a way. But at the same time, there is a beautiful drive; he's always pushing forward, always using his themes to develop the emotional, expressionist aspects of his music.
"I experimented once before with having two different things going on at the same time. It works quite well, particularly with early music, which tends to have a formal nature but still something emotional going on. If you have something to represent the emotional content, it's kind of interesting to see what happens.
"This is the third piece in a trilogy. I did a piece for San Francisco called 'The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful.' Then I did a work for Joffrey called 'Pretty BALLET.' These three ballets, done together, would be an interesting statement. They all have different composers.
"My ballets tend to be about ballet. They celebrate the muse. They also try to celebrate something about the human condition in some way.
"Contemporary choreography demands achievement of a lot of things all the time, but it doesn't necessarily allow you to do things with any texture. When you get older, you begin to see the value in what you know."
"I have a huge playlist of music and many pieces I've planned for the future. One piece I've been planning is 'Degrees of Glory.' I started it in the choreographic workshop here. I wanted to elaborate on that with sets. It was going to take place in a Catholic church; very decorative, Gothic style, morphing from black to gray to white, with choral music. Then Stanton said maybe save that idea for another time.
"YouTube and iTunes are my sources of finding music. John Adams is like the cousin of music to Philip Glass. I went to the 'Earbox' album, a compilation. 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' came on, and I was listening to that in my big living room, dancing, and ideas flooded my head immediately.
"I saw people's faces, and I got this sort of excitement. The music is like a movie soundtrack. If you've ever seen the 1959 film 'Journey to the Center of the Earth,' that's very much where I'm going
"It's about a group of teenagers who venture off into unfamiliar territory and find a place. For me, the place is a cave they end up discovering.
"On Google I saw cool pictures of men -- way back in the day -- rock climbing. That inspired costume ideas. Travis Halsey is designing them. That cave element also gave so many ideas for underground lighting.
"For me to come back to Houston is such a big deal. It was hard to leave here. After six years, to start a life over from scratch. It took me a year to get over the sacrifice I made to be fulfilled artistically. The title, 'Return,' also symbolizes that."
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