Washington got its first look at the Houston Ballet, or part thereof, this past weekend, and the experience proved to be both tantalizing and frustrating.
What we saw was a group of exceptionally comely, vivacious and skilled young dancers, in a program that, for the most part, had the consistency of cotton candy and about as much lasting nutritional value. Granted, this fulfilled the traditional summertime craving for lightweight fare, and seemed pleasing enough to a variegated crowd of some 3,000 spectators. But it also left one itching to discover how much more these promising artists might have to offer in ballets of less meager substance.
Still, we are better off with half the Houston loaf, especially since we came pretty close to having none - the scheduled Friday night opening was rained out at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre. The size of the touring contingent - 10 soloists - that we finally saw in the first of two programs Staurday night was no doubt dictated by economic necessity, rather than esthetic principle. The opening program, moreover, was obviously designed as a showcase for the 10 as individuals and in various ensemble configurations.
Despite the limitations, Ben Stevenson, Houston's artistic director and once of Washington's National Ballet, managed to assemble a collection of pieces not only flattering to his dancers but also satisfyingly diverse in character. And as slight as most of the selections were, none was less than tasteful.
Stevenson himself, moreover, was responsible for the most rewarding (as well as the longest) of the seven program entries - his brand new "Tchaikovsky Variations," using lesser known musical excerpts from the composer's "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" scores, and serving in effect as a "flash finish" for all 10 soloists.
The choreography, like the costumes, effectively mimics the Russian Imperial style, and in places like a saraband involving all five couples exhibits a gracious, classic symmetry. The best part of all is a poignant adagio, set to the exquite violin solo entr'acte from Act II of "Beauty," and much abetted in Saturday night's performance by the sweet legato of ballerina Jennifer Holmes.
The rest of the program, mostly flashy or gushing pas de deux, highlighted primarily the gifts of Holmes, the lucid and mercurial Janie Parker, and the strong, crisp Suzanne Longley. Our appetite's been whetted, what's needed now as a sequel is a return engagement by the full company, in a program of apt dimension.