THE HOUSTON BALLET spent all last week dancing the classic tale of "Swan Lake." This week it has other tales to tell, each set in a different time and place, each with its own distinctive atmosphere and cast of characters.
"Peer Gynt" -- artistic director Ben Stevenson's evening-length ballet based on Ibsen's play of the same name -- concerns a 19th-century Norwegian rake's passage from youthful recklessness to embittered old age, and his last-minute salvation from death by his first, forgiving love.
During the course of this action- packed journey, "Peer" dances his way through a wedding, a trolls' convention, an Egyptian desert oasis, an insane asylum and a violent storm and shipwreck. Stevenson has choreographed it all in a spectacular, if conventional style, but Edvard Grieg's musical score, the lavish production values and the high-caliber performances turn "Peer" into a captivating excursion.
Houston's program of mixed fare presents two storytelling ballets. Joe Layton's "The Grand Tour" takes place aboard a '30s luxury ship whose passengers include a host of celebrities -- among them, George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Gertrude Stein -- a pair of gypsy stowaways and a lonely American woman who is awed and transformed by her shipboard experience. Set to Hershy Kay's orchestration of breezy Coward songs, "Tour" makes for a sprightly romp.
Far less engaging, however, is Stevenson's "The Miraculous Mandarin," the tale of a San Francisco prostitute's encounter with a sinister and indomitable Chinese character. Bartok's eerie score turns out to be the best thing about this leaden, repetitive ballet.
HOUSTON BALLET -- Mixed bill, Friday at 8; "Peer Gynt," Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 1:30 p.m.; at the Kennedy Center Opera House.