HOUSTON BALLET LAUNCHES THE 2011-2012 SEASON WITH RETURN OF THE MASTERS
Program Features Three Rarely Seen Masterworks by Three of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Choreographers
Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Epic Song of the Earth Returns to Houston Ballet’s Repertoire for the First Time in 23 Years
HOUSTON, TEXAS – From September 8-18, 2011, Houston Ballet launches its 2011-2012 season with a mixed repertory program entitled Return of the Masters, featuring Sir Frederick Ashton’s winter wonderland Les Patineurs, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s poetic Song of the Earth, and Jerome Robbins’s In the Night, an emotional look at relationships. Houston Ballet will give six performances of Return of the Masters in the Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center in downtown Houston. Tickets may be purchased by calling 713 227 2787 or by visitng www.houstonballet.org.
“Return of the Masters features treasures from Houston Ballet’s past, masterworks in our repertoire that the company has not performed in at least a decade,” states Mr. Welch, “All three works are significant in ballet history.”
Sir Frederick Ashton’s charming and lighthearted Les Patineurs is a one-act divertissement, which transforms dancers into skaters, who on a crisp winter evening, waltz on an ice-covered pond. The stage is full with a party of joyous ice skaters, couples romantically skating hand-in-hand, a teenager showing off his skating ability to the crowd, and beginners struggling not to fall on the ice. The wintery atmosphere is complete with falling snow and fur lined costumes. Les Patineurs showcases the wit and warmth of Ashton’s style for which The New York Times enthuses: “Les Patineurs simply dazzled by its prettiness.”
Set to music by Giacomo Meyerbeer, selections from the opera Le Prophete and L’Etoile du nord, arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert, Les Patineurs was an instant success at its Sadler’s Wells Theatre premiere in London on February 16, 1937. The 27 minute ballet’s scenic and costume designs are by William Chappell, with lighting design by Christina R. Giannelli. Les Patineurs received its company premiere in 1989, and was last performed in Houston in 2000.
Born in Ecuador in 1904 and raised in Peru, Sir Frederick Ashton was founder choreographer of The Royal Ballet and served as director of that company from 1963-1970, creating a body of 80 major works that have become the cornerstone of the British ballet repertory, including Symphonic Variations (1946), Cinderella (1948), La Fille mal gardée (1960), and A Month in the Country (1976). He lifted English ballet to a worldwide reputation by helping to shape and define “the English style:” a soft, fluid, lyrical, musically sensitive classicism. The English critic Alastair Macaulay has written, “The ballet style shown in Ashton’s ballets is a particularly intricate one, with upper and lower body maintaining a lively activity, and many internal embellishments of head, arms, épaulement and footwork.” Ashton was also the founding choreographer of another seminal British dance troupe, Ballet Rambert, now known as Rambert Dance Company, Britain’s oldest professional dance ensemble. He died on August 18, 1988, in Sussex, England. Along with George Balanchine, Ashton is regarded as one of two greatest ballet choreographers of the twentieth century. Houston Ballet has three works by Ashton in its repertoire: La Fille mal gardée, Façade, and Les Patineurs.
Rarely performed in America, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is a symphonic masterpiece of music and dance, inspired by an ancient Chinese poem from the 8th century T’ang Dynasty. MacMillan described Song of the Earth succinctly: “A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.”
“During the 1980s, Sir Kenneth had a very significant influence on the company when he served as artistic associate and gave Houston Ballet five of his works,” remarks Mr. Welch. “Performing only one of the three leading roles in Song of the Earth is a great achievement for any dancer, both artistically and technically.”
Gustav Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) is an orchestral masterpiece epitomizing the very spirit of late Romanticism, featuring a large scale orchestra with 63 players, a solo tenor and a solo mezzo-soprano. The piece expresses a dualism of feeling – ecstatic pleasure shadowed by dark foreboding – and the performance of this work serves as the crowning musical achievement of the Houston Ballet Orchestra and music director Ermanno Florio. The text of the songs, in German, from ancient Chinese poems is bitter-sweet reflections on human joys, concluding with a farewell to the world.
MacMillan had long contemplated a Song of the Earth ballet but was at first refused permission to stage it by the board of directors of London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, who disapproved of using Mahler’s work for dance. Premiered by Stuttgart Ballet on November 7, 1965, MacMillan’s choreography for Song of the Earth was different from anything he had devised before. He introduced Orientalisms to pointe work, asking the dancers to slide with flat feet, tilt their torsos while bending their arms at the elbows and wrists. In the song Of Youth the women kneel demurely as if by water, later changing to upside-down positions. The central couple in a group of light-hearted young people are blissfully unaware of their own mortality. Der Ewige – the Messenger of Death – is among them with a colorless half-mask over his face.
At the start of the ballet the Messenger shadows the leading man; he is present throughout the ballet briefly at the end of every song. (MacMillan added him in the fourth song in 1990.) The contemplative second song, Autumn Solitude, reveals the leading woman’s loneliness, her fear of death and her longing for a companion. She is the ‘outsider,’ sensing that she does not belong to the group who amuse themselves during the songs that follow. In a long pas de deux she finds a lover, only to lose him to death. In her final solo, she accepts her loss, returns to her isolation and resigns herself to a fate beyond her control: the inevitability of death.
The ballet is set against a plain cyclorama backdrop with colors changing through blues to pale green-yellow. The dancers are adorned in simple tunics, T-shirts and tights in blue-green and purple shades. Der Ewige appears in dark grey with a flesh-coloured half-mask. Writing in International Dictionary of Ballet, critic Noël Goodwin observed, “Kenneth MacMillan’s intensely musical response to Mahler’s song-symphony achieved what is widely regarded as one of his finest ballets and a great work by any standard.” The work went on to enter the repertories of leading companies across the globe, including London’s Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, The Australian Ballet, and National Ballet of Canada.
Houston Ballet last performed Song of the Earth in 1988. The company has five works by MacMillan in its repertoire: the one-act pieces Song of the Earth, Gloria, Elite Syncopations, and Solitaire; and the full-length Manon.
Sir Kenneth MacMillan was born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1929. His strength of purpose can be traced back to the very beginning of his career when he read an advertisement announcing that scholarships for boys were available at Sadler’s Wells (now Royal) Ballet School. He was determined to make his way there and he did. MacMillan completed his dance training at Sadler’s Wells School and in 1946 became a founding member of Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, a new company formed by Ninette de Valois. In 1966, MacMillan received an invitation to direct the ballet company at Deutsche Oper in West Berlin. Encouraged to accept by Dame Ninette, he took over the company and staged his own productions of The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. He also created the one-act ballet Anastasia which was subsequently to become the third act of his full-length Anastasia. MacMillan had proved himself as the natural successor to Ashton as director of The Royal Ballet, a post he assumed (at first in association with John Field) at the beginning of the 1970-1971 season. He received his knighthood in the 1983 Birthday Honors. In 1989, former Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson asked that he serve as Houston Ballet’s artistic associate, a position he held until his death in 1992 at the age of 63.
Famed American choreographer Jerome Robbins’s In the Night is a beautiful and poignant one-act ballet portraying the relationships of three couples evoking moods ranging from romantic serenity to agitation and aggression before the six dancers are united for a final ensemble. Set to Frederic Chopin’s Piano Nocturnes, Opus 27, No. 1; Opus 55, Nos. 1 and 2; and Opus 9, No. 2. New York City Ballet premiered In the Night on January 29, 1970.
New York-born choreographer Jerome Robbins, one of the first great American ballet masters, had a wide-ranging career in the fields of both theater and dance – as a performer and choreographer in ballet and musical theater, and as a director and choreographer in theater, movies, television and opera. In a career that spanned five decades, he won four Tony Awards, two Academy Awards, an Emmy, and countless other awards for his achievements. He joined Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) in 1940 and choreographed his first work, Fancy Free, for that company in 1944. This was followed by Interplay (1945) and Facsimile (1946), after which he embarked on a prolific and enormously successful career as a choreographer and later as a director of Broadway musicals and plays. He was simultaneously creating ballets for New York City Ballet, which he joined in 1949 as associate director with George Balanchine. Among his outstanding works for that company were The Guests (1949), The Age of Anxiety (1951), The Cage (1951), The Pied Piper (1951), Afternoon of a Faun (1953), Dances at a Gathering (1969), The Goldberg Variations (1971) and Glass Pieces (1983). Houston Ballet has three works by Jerome Robbins in its repertory: The Concert, which entered the company’s repertory in 2007; Afternoon of a Faun, which received its company premiere in 2008; and In the Night, which the company first performed in 1987.
About Houston Ballet
On February 17, 1969 a troupe of 15 young dancers made its stage debut at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College in Huntsville, Texas. Since that time, Houston Ballet has evolved into a company of 52 dancers with a budget of $19.2 million, a state-of-the-art performance space built especially for the company, Wortham Theater Center, and an endowment of just over $55 million (as of January 2011), making it the United States’ fourth largest ballet company by number of dancers.
Australian choreographer Stanton Welch has served as artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003, raising the level of the company’s classical technique and commissioning many new works from dance makers such as Christopher Bruce, Jorma Elo, James Kudelka, Trey McIntyre, Julia Adam, Natalie Weir and Nicolo Fonte. Under the administrative leadership of managing director C.C. Conner since 1995, the company has maintained a strong financial position.
Houston Ballet has toured extensively both nationally and internationally. Over the last decade, the company has appeared in London at Sadler’s Wells, at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, in six cities in Spain, in Montréal, at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in New York at City Center, and in cities large and small across the United States. Houston Ballet has emerged as a leader in the expensive, labor-intensive task of nurturing the creation and development of new full-length narrative ballets.
Houston Ballet Orchestra was established in the late 1970s and currently consists of 61 professional musicians who play all ballet performances at Wortham Theater Center under music director Ermanno Florio.
Houston Ballet’s Education and Outreach Program has reached over 19,000 Houston area students (as of the 2009-2010 season). Houston Ballet’s Academy has 375 students and has had four academy students win prizes at the prestigious international ballet competition the Prix de Lausanne, with one student winning the overall competition in 2010.
RETURN OF THE MASTERS
WHAT: RETURN OF THE MASTERS (Fall Mixed Repertory Program)
Les Patineurs (1937)
Music by Giacomo Meyerbeer, selections from the opera Le Prophete and L’Etoile du nord
Arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert
Choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton (1904-1988)
Scenic and Costume Designs by William Chappell
Lighting Design by Christina R. Giannelli
In the Night (1970)
Music by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), Piano Nocturnes, Opus 27, No. 1; Opus 55, Nos. 1 and 2; and Opus 9, No. 2
Choreography by Jerome Robbins
Costume Designs by Anthony Dowell
Song of the Earth (1965)
Music by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Choreography by Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1929-1992)
Scenic and Costume Designs by Nicholas Georgiadis
Lighting Design by Tony Tucci
From three of the world’s most esteemed choreographers come three lyrically stunning ballets long absent from Houston Ballet’s repertoire. Sir Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs, with its ice-skating couples, showcases the wit and warmth for which Ashton is known. Set against a starry sky, Jerome Robbins’s In the Night is a beautiful and poignant ballet featuring three pairs of dancing lovers. Rarely performed in America, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is a symphonic masterpiece of music and dance, inspired by an ancient Chinese poem.
WHEN: At 7:30 p.m. on September 8, 10, 16, 17, 2011
At 2:00 p.m. on September 11, 18, 2011
WHERE: Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Avenue in downtown Houston
TICKETS: Start at $18. Call (713) 227 ARTS or 1 800 828 ARTS
Tickets are also available at www.houstonballet.org and
Houston Ballet Box Office at Wortham Theater Center,
501 Texas Ave. (at Smith St.)
INFORMATION: Visit Houston Ballet online at www.houstonballet.org