Monday, March 02, 2009

Marie: An Incomparable Ballet

On Saturday night, Michael and I attended the Houston Ballet's production of a brand-new ballet: Marie. Choreographed by Stanton Welch, the HB's artistic director since Ben Stevenson retired, Marie is a stunning production the caliber of Cleopatra.

I began attending the Houston Ballet in 1992 with my friend and co-worker Irene Duke. Daughter Alexandra joined us somewhere along the line, then Irene got busy and dropped out of our season ticket group. Alex and I attended together for many years, but eventually she too found it hard to fit into her schedule. For a while I bought two tickets and invited one of my friends to join me so I wouldn't be alone. I really tried to get Michael interested, but he resisted.

Occasionally, when there was a fabulous ballet, I could get him to attend with me and we developed an accord about attending performances. Each season, we go through the schedule and select four of the contemporary, mixed program type performances to attend on a mini-subscription. Michael doesn't care for the story ballets and, over 18 years, I have seen most of them more than once, so I can take them or leave them. But the contemporary programs, which often feature new work, give you three different experiences in one evening. They are often cutting-edge in terms of costuming and stylization, and they are frequently set to music no one associates with ballet, such as Moby or The Kronos Quartet.

So, for the last couple of years, Michael and I have enjoyed our four performances per season of the Houston Ballet, making a date of it on Saturday night instead of attending on Sunday afternoons like I used to. This year's contemporary performances have been outstanding. In addition, we attended the performance of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal as well as the Jubilee of Dance, an annual, one-evening extravaganza featuring the best of everything from the Houston Ballet.

We picked Marie for this year's tickets because it was a world premiere. Welch's new works showcased in the contemporary performances have been excellent and we wanted to see what he would do with this story. The run-up hype for the show referenced the recent movie about Marie Antoinette, but we hadn't seen that, so we really had no other concept of Marie Antoinette than the "let them eat bread" stuff that always portrayed her as an uncaring, unenlightened snob.

The Saturday morning Chronicle review of the opening night performance gave us our first clue that the story would take a different tack and portray the queen in a sympathetic way. We arrived early enough to attend the regular pre-show dance talk, which Nancy Wozny, an old friend of mine, gave. Nancy had as her guest one of the costuming department's top people. They discussed the intricacies of crafting this ballet and demonstrated the lengths Welch and his team went to to get all the details just right by displaying a huge book of notes and sketches just for the character of Marie. Nancy also informed us about some of the little known history of Marie Antoinette. Reading the performance notes in the program put the icing on the cake. By the time the curtain rose, I had already been convinced that everything I knew about Marie Antoinette was biased and libelous.

Moments into the performance, I no longer cared about any of that. I became totally engrossed in the story unfolding before my eyes - and my ears, for that matter. The use of Shostakovich to score the dance was perfect. The music lacked the signals that the "made-for-ballet" compositions include to elicit knee-jerk reactions from the audience. Shostakovich's music blended subtly with the dance, partnered it rather than leading it.

And the dance itself - simply exquisite. From the confusion of two sheltered youths who had not a clue how to consummate their marriage to the raucous excesses of a libertine court to the terror of the revolution and the pathos of the royal family's deaths, the choreography could not have matched more perfectly. We had the privilege of seeing Melody Herrera dance the lead role. She performed with an understated command of the role, capturing and reflecting back to the audience the myriad qualities that made up this complex girl/woman. We saw her as a joyful child Marie; as an overwhelmed and frightened maiden Marie; as a madcap libertine Marie, and as a womanly Marie with a lover. We saw her terror, then her fortitude, when the revolution swept her family into danger and prison. But most of all, we saw HER with compassion and sorrow.

I have never attended a ballet that left me weeping until I went to Marie. I have been awed, as in the pas de deux in Don Quixote. I have been baffled and put off, as by the ballet Cruel Garden about Frederico Lorca. I have laughed at the antics in Coppelia and marveled at the staging in Cleopatra. But Marie simply reduced me to tears and I couldn't stop leaking them for quite a long time after the curtain closed. I went to the Green Room to congratulate Ms. Herrera and barely got the words out without losing it again.

Why did this ballet affect me so much? I think that the combination of choreography and music, plus the authentic and heartfelt performance of Melody Herrera, put this ballet over the top into a world-class category. I imagine it will be performed over and over as the years go by because it is just that good. And I will be pleased to be one of those who saw it during it's debut run.

If you like dance, then you must go see this ballet now. I suspectshows are going to sell out as word gets around - if they haven't already. So don't dawdle, balletophiles. Buy your tickets now. Buy the best seats you an afford and if they aren't up close and personal, bring your opera glasses along. There are subtleties in this ballet that you won't want to miss!


P.S. My next blog will be about the First International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Woman and Progressive Woman of Faith.

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