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Rian (Houston Ballet soloist Chandler Dalton) envisions a host of heavenly hippies in one of the breakout moments of Arthur Pita's 'Good Vibrations.'
Houston Ballet soloist Chandler Dalton, right, brings the past to life as a vision of the dying man Old Rian (Steven Woodgate) in Arthur Pita's 'Good Vibrations.'
Yuriko Kajiya and Connor Walsh in one of the blissful moments of Mark Morris’ breezy “The Letter V.”
Jessica Collado (partnered by Chase O’Connell) evokes the gutsy, primitive soul of Australia in Stanton Welch’s dramatic “Red Earth.” Photo by Amitava Sarkar/Houston Ballet
“Good Vibrations,” Arthur Pita’s new dance for Houston Ballet, rides waves of nostalgia but never quite finds its balance. Thursday’s premiere wasn’t a total wipeout – parts of it are an entertaining '60s fever dream -- but it did leave me wondering what, exactly, has washed up on the Wortham Theater’s biggest stage. An odd duck, for sure.
Does a ballet inspired by a Beach Boys song really need to be anything more than entertaining? “Good Vibrations” aims to be profound with a narrative about a dying man, Rian (maybe his name nods to the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson?). He is about to enter hippie heaven and reunite with his first love, a fresh and fearless girl aptly named Blossom.
He’s remembering how they met as adolescents; how she taught him to surf; and how he lost her, tragically, when they were teens -- she was tossed and swallowed by a monster wave after losing her footing. Rian’s final reverie, aided by a morphine drip, also gets him up out of bed to wander through a starry sky full of sexy, magical-mystical Cosmic Sisters who swish around with wrist bells.
It’s a simple premise, clearly told through the choreography; the lush score arranged by Christopher Austin; splashy costumes by Marco Marco; vivid lighting by Lisa J. Pinkham and stunning, watery wall-to-wall projections by Joey Moro.
When: 2 p.m. Sept. 25 and Oct. 2; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24, 30 and Oct. 1
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas
Details: $25-$210; 713-227-2787, houstonballet.org
No question that the London-based Pita, who brings a reputation as the David Lynch of dance, has a great theatrical sensibility. The first jolt of “Good Vibrations” occurs as the curtain opens: A beeping noise the audience has been hearing is not a backstage equipment malfunction. It’s the sound of a pulse oximeter next to the old Rian’s hospital bed, which seems to be floating in a vast sea of silver-white light.
Pita’s best choreographic sleight of hand appears with the fluid movements of the eight male Surf Spirits who "power" the surfboards that carry the younger Rians and Blossoms, also evoking the powerful, seductive pulse of ocean waves. Through them, we understand the exhilaration surfers must feel – that sensation of being at one with a roiling ocean. Still, I don’t need to see ballet dancers tasked with balancing on surf boards again, feet planted and butts out, no matter how athletic they are. It seems that a choreographer with Pita’s imagination could conjure a less literal way to present the story. But hey, it’s something different.
The printed program explains that Austin’s score draws orchestral textures from the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” I couldn’t decipher them. But Pita delivers his niftiest trick of all when the full song finally crashes through. It’s absurd, but also strangely welcome – an ascension moment full of youthful exuberance and hippie angels in white. The ballet could end there, but Pita tacks on a final, kind of unspectacular pas de deux to more of Austin’s lovely music.
Company soloist Chandler Dalton and principal Karina González, as the teen Rian and Blossom, danced flawlessly on Thursday. But even when their feet were on the ground, or closer to it, their characters felt one-dimensional. As the old Rian, Steven Woodgate could dial his acting back a touch. Houston Ballet Academy students Haden Babin and Alessia Giordano gamely portrayed the young Rian and Blossom.
Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra found a good flow in the current of Austin’s score, also firing up the kinetic energy of the triple bill’s other two ballets. On one level, this is a show about the elements. Before the watery rush of “Good Vibrations,” there’s air aplenty in the breezy formality of Mark Morris’ “The Letter V” and earthy primitivism in Stanton Welch’s melodramatic “Red Earth.”
“The Letter V” captures the blithe spirit of Josef Haydn’s four-movement Symphony No. 88 in G major. The ballet takes its name from an era when letters of the alphabet were used to catalog some of Haydn’s symphonies. Remember, Morris is a music man. All he asks of us with this ballet is that you sit back and enjoy the sunshine as 16 dancers frolic through several simple repeated motifs. His choreography references the fairies and court dancers of classical ballet but modernizes and humanizes them, occasionally dropping in a sturdy plié to keep things grounded. In the seven years since Morris created “The Letter V” on the company, they’ve learned to wear it like a second skin – a joy to watch.
“Red Earth,” Welch’s fierce ode to his Australian homeland, takes some of its cues from the barren, boneyard-like landscape of a beautiful backdrop by Pro Hart and the often ominous strings of Peter Sculthorpe’s score. One scene calls to mind the sacrifice of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Moments featuring classical guitarist Adam Holzman have a gentler, salt-of-the-earth vibe. The entire cast is excellent, led with deep expressiveness by Jessica Collado and her partner, Chase O’Connell.
Molly Glentzer is a Houston-based writer.