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Texas Ballet Theater goes contemporary in memorable mixed rep program

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Posted 12:16pm on Monday, Mar. 06, 2017

There may have been elements of classical and neoclassical ballet in the mixed repertory program that Texas Ballet Theater presented Friday through Sunday at Bass Hall, but this program is the most contemporary that the company has performed.

The trio of one contemporary classic, Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” (1991), and two world premieres by Garrett Smith and Avi Scher, turned out to be a smart programming choice. The performance opened with Smith’s fascinating and mysterious “Imbue” and closed with “Rooster,” rocking the hall with Rolling Stones songs from the 1960s.

In between was Scher’s “A Full Life,” the closest the program came to classicism. Thematically, “A Full Life” covered what the title implies, provided said life has joy, some pain, occasional bouts of wit and even physical comedy. Check.

Scher used piano music by Bach, Mikhail Glinka, Mendelssohn, Liszt and contemporary composer Missy Mazzoli — all played live by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra’s Shields-Collins Bray on a piano upstage right. Costumes by Abigail Mentzer had the men in sheer shirts and the women in flirty dresses as colorful as a box of crayons.

Movement was light and airy with classical technique, and although the ensemble (Parsifal Pittendorfer, Jiyan Dai, Andre Silva, Brett Young, Robin Bangert, Allisyn Hsieh Caro, Alexandra Farber and Ruth Langill in this performance) was a tad messy Friday night, Scher’s ideas came across. Nothing too profound — especially when compared to its bookends — but refreshing.

Opening the program, Smith’s “Imbue” is a work that will invite interpretation for years to come. He has said that it is also about a life journey, but it’s more serious, complex and nebulous than Scher’s work. With costumes by Travis Halsey — the women in plastic pancake tutus over flesh-colored body suits with pronounced markings, the men shirtless and in blue velvet tights — and poetic lighting by Michael Mazzola, “Imbue” — set to Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No. 1 — had an otherworldly feel.

Mazzola also realized Smith’s scenic concept, of a stage framed by panels and a backdrop curtain made of long vinyl strips, like a large meat locker.

The dance was structured with sets of pas de deux, a pas de trois and a pas de quatre, and then ensemble numbers with asymmetrical patterns competing for the eye’s attention — and several sustained and challenging lifts. It was the first dance on the program, and the ensemble (Carl Coomer, Leticia Oliveira, Carolyn Judson, Brett Young, Shane Howell, Laura Gruener, Joamanuel Velazquez, Cara Shipman, Andre Silva, Dara Oda, Alex Danna) danced Smith’s stringent movement with effortless intent.

The work began and ended with movement in silence, with a stunning final sequence. Throughout there was a futuristic vibe, especially with a large scan of white light behind the set — and later when the dancers stood and moved in silhouette behind the vinyl. The lighting scheme moved from white to deeper, darker blues as it faded out.

Unforgettable, it begs for future viewings.

Bruce’s “Rooster,” which got a TBT company debut, is a storied work of contemporary ballet because of the Stones’ music and its battle-of-the-sexes theme and pulsing rhythms, in which the men rarely, if ever, get what they want. Filled with humor and angular limbs — much like Mike Jagger’s swagger — it’s amazing that TBT hasn’t done it before, and it’ll be a surprise if it doesn’t revisit it in a not-so-distant season.

The dancers (Dai, Silva, Coomer, Gruener, Judson, Paul Adams, Drake Humphreys, Katelyn Clenaghan, Michelle Taylor, Paige Nyman) had fun with this one, with the standout being a solo that turned into a pas de quatre in “Ruby Tuesday.”

The first song was distractingly loud for a ballet, but the levels were adjusted for the seven following songs. After the darkness of “Imbue” and the lighthearted “A Full Life,” a raucous, rock ’n’ roll ending seemed fitting.

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