FORT WORTH A Norwegian folk tale about a world-traveling and woman-spurning man that playwright Henrik Ibsen used as the basis for one of his first successful plays -- with a Kierkegaard-influenced bent on death, no less -- doesn't seem like fodder for a grand ballet. And if Edvard Grieg hadn't composed such marvelous and danceable incidental music for it, maybe it wouldn't be.
But that's precisely why Ben Stevenson made it into a ballet of Peer Gynt for the Houston Ballet, which he has revived twice in his 10 years at the Texas Ballet Theater. The latest production opened Friday at Bass Performance Hall, playing through the weekend, and then has four performances next weekend at the Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas.
With lavish scenic design and rich era-spanning costumes (both by Peter Farmer), and a sprawling story that includes scenes among a band of mountain trolls, an Egyptian caravan and an asylum that makes American Horror Story like rather sane, Peer Gynt keeps the audience entertained. That's not something you'd guess from a work inspired by a playwright whose later, more influential plays include Hedda Gabbler and A Doll's House.
The travels of Peer Gynt (played by Lucas Priolo opening night; he performs it in half of the eight performances) after he leaves his mother, Aase (Julie Priolo) and first love, Solveig (a sunny Carolyn Judson) take him all over the world. He becomes a rich man and occasionally returns to Solveig, but he also loves-and-leaves, or is tempted by and left himself, by all kinds of exotic women. As an old man at the end, he is reunited as Solveig in death.
For the performer playing Peer, it requires a lot more acting that many male ballet roles do, and Priolo's Peer is a little nicer and more charming than expected. His dancing, as always, is peerless; it's a marvel that he has the stamina. He's onstage for most of the two acts, with a number of pas de deux, variations and lifts (of women and men).
However, the men here don't get the showiest of dancing, aside from the three peasants at the wedding of Ingrid (Robin Bangert) and Mads Moen (Tim O'Keefe). As usual, Stevenson's crowd scenes are well-done and span the stage, with little bits of action happening everywhere at once, somehow without taking away focus.
It's the women soloists -- such as the Woman in Green (Betsy McBride) and Egyptian chieftain daughter Anitra (Katelyn Clenaghan) and the asylum's Mad Woman (Kelly Kristen Farris) who get to show off, and they're all fascinating to watch. McBride and Clenaghan are leggy and seductive; Farris is controlled in the character's frenetic craziness. All three are peerless.
The most beautifully realized scene is the final path through the forest, with the Button Molder (Carl Coomer) and Peer's look back at his life and his inevitable fate. It's emotionally haunting.
What would have made the whole thing more gripping: live music. Grieg's score, especially the well-known In the Hall of the Mountain King, is instantly recognizable, and hearing it with a live orchestra would have taken it to the next level. Sadly, it feels like the dancers are getting too used to working with recorded, and a sense of spontaneity is lost.
Performers in all of the major roles rotate throughout the run. Priolo plays Peer at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21; and 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27. Carl Coomer is in the role 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20 and 2 p.m. Oct. 27; and Alexander Kotelenets on 2 p.m. Saturday Oct. 20 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28.