There’s a certain, unavoidable pressure in building new art on top of already established great art. As the name indicates, Houston Ballet’s new mixed repertory program, titled Good Vibrationsincludes a world premiere work from Arthur Pita based on the classic Beach Boys song of the same name.
The 1966 song is pop tune royalty, instantly recognizable and much loved. On top of that, Pita’s work was delayed due to a little worldwide pandemic. So the question going into the program was simple: Could Pita’s Good Vibrations possible live up to not only the song but the last two years’ worth of COVID-caused anticipation?
Of course it can! Have you been watching Pita or the Houston Ballet?
But first, that’s not where the evening began. Before we get to Good Vibrationsthe first work Pita has choreographed on Houston Ballet, let’s talk the two pieces that opened the program, Mark Morris’ The Letter V and Stanton Welch’s Red Earth.
The program starts with Mark Morris’s The Letter V, which premiered back in 2015 and marked the first time Morris choreographed on Houston Ballet. Set to one of Joseph Haydn’s most famous works, the bright Symphony No. 88 in G Major played by the Houston Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Ermanno Florio, it is clear that from the start that Morris’s musicality lends itself to a perfect pairing of choreography and score, as well as a perfect union of modern vocabulary and pointe work .
The Letter V is peppered with repeating motifs, sweeping gestures, and fun (if unclear) choices. For example, the dancers, agile at times are at other times stiff, settling a bit like wind-up toys. Why? Who knows, but it’s enjoyable to watch. As are the little flat-footed jumps and the dramatic lifts and entrances during the largo, as surprising and pleasing as Haydn’s use of trumpet and timpani in the section. During the tea minuet, the 16 dancers circle as if going round a May pole, energetic and almost courtly. The finale is playful and, maybe the best thing about it, is that the dancers look like they are having fun. At the very least, as much fun as the audience watching them. Morris knows how to make a crowd-pleaser, but equally impressive is that his choreography allows every dancer to shine without drawing focus to one. That itself is a feat. Morris also makes good use of the floor, a quality shared with the next work on the bill, Stanton Welch’s Red Earth.
Created in 1996 for an all-Aussie program at Welch’s former home, the Australian Ballet, Red Earth imagines life for the earliest white settlers of Australia. In case you’ve forgotten, Australia was a penal colony, the settlers – British, Irish, and Welsh – sent there as punishment. And punishing it was, as Welch displays in turns both literal and abstract.
At the center of the piece is Jessica Collado, who stands before Kevin “Pro” Hart’s set, a painted backdrop of barren landscape with a recognizable iron-rich rusty reddish hue. (It’s a background that proves to be quite versatile under the lighting of Christina R. Giannelli, recreated from the designs of John Rayment.)
Collado is weary and worn, delivering over the course of about 20 minutes an emotionally wrought performance. She scrounges in the dirt, writhes on the floor and, eventually, rises like a phoenix, battered but a survivor. Maybe most memorable is Welch’s choreography towards the end of the piece, where it appears Collado becomes Australian, a transformation that is painful, the movements rougher, jerkier to match the section of Peter Sculthorpe’s guitar concerto “Nourlangie” (which is masterfully handled by guitarist Adam Holzman). There’s a frantic partnering, before the settlers seemingly give in to the land, almost as if paying tribute to it, acknowledging that this land cannot be tamed, only adapted to.
Although Collado essentially owns Red Earth, here partner, Chase O’Connell deserves much credit. The two manage to create a sense of human connection and intimacy in this brutal terrain. Welch has incorporated plenty of lifts into his choreography, including a move that has Collado resting on O’Connell’s back hands-free. It’s demanding, but the pair makes it look effortless. Eric Best, Chandler Dalton, and Naazir Mohammad also manage to stand out from the crowd, embodying well the rugged, masculine qualities of Welch’s choreography. Red Earth is a stunner, one that leads well into the night’s main event, Arthur Pita’s Good Vibrations.
Good Vibrations opens with the steady beep of a heart rate monitor, revealed to be attached to an older gentleman lying in a hospital bed. Immediately, we anticipate (and dread) the flatline that’s sure to come. But first, the older man, Rian (played by ballet master Steven Woodgate), escapes into memories of a youth spent on the beach. In the foreground, a young Rian (Hayden Babin) and his friends – all Houston Ballet Academy students put to excellent use – run and play, free in a way older Rian no longer is. They hang out together until a young Blossom appears (Alessia Giodano), who catches Rian’s attention and teaches him how to surf in a cute exchange. The two grow and fall in love, with Chandler Dalton and Karina González taking over the roles as the surf-loving pair. And speaking of surfing…
To say that Good Vibrations easily wins best use of a surfboard in a balletic work doesn’t quite convey Pita’s impressive use of the prop (if only because there would be a dearth of nominees in such a category). Rian and Blossom “surf” across the stage, carried atop boards by eight mermen-like Surf Spirits, each costumed by Marco Marco with long hair and green ombré bellbottoms that resemble fins.
(One can only guess that Marco had fun with this assignment – presumably both binging “Frankie and Annette” pictures for the beach goers and cribbing fashion notes from the flower children for others. The Cosmic Sisters, for example, appear in long hair life the Surf Spirits, but adorned in bedlah-like costumes – richly decorated beaded tops and textured bellbottoms instead of haram pants, the occasional pair of finger cymbals, and eye-catching “third eye” belt buckles.)
The movements of the Surf Spirits are fluid. They flow in and out (and on and off the stage) like the tide and lap gently in the background. One of the piece’s highlights is the surfing sequence, with much credit going to the Surf Spirits, as well as Dalton and González’s balance and core strength, for creating such a strong illusion and some almost gravity-defying moves.
But, although the ocean gives, it also takes away. Tragedy strikes, and Christopher Austin’s score comes to the fore, particularly his stellar use and arrangement of percussion to denote both youthful fun and eventual danger.
In addition to the surfboards, Pita expertly uses the few props on stage, like the portable IV stand that Woodgate “dances” on and a billowy curtain that sits in the background. He also maximizes the space, having Dalton step forward in front of the stage’s main red curtain, in order to use it for “crossing over.” It’s at this point that Joey Moro’s psychedelic, lava lamp-like projections briefly appear, hinting at the hippie heaven we’re about to see. For Rian, paradise is a never-ending Summer of Love surrounded by a collection of, well, Heavenly Hippies dancing to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
When the song finally plays, the audience erupts – not only because they’re finally hearing Carl Wilson’s voice and a song they love, but because the moment is cathartic, an emotional release that the audience gratefully runs headfirst into with open arms and loud applause . That the character of Rian evokes such a response owes everything to the acting of Woodgate and Dalton. In particular, the longing Woodgate brings to his character, and the mirroring of motions between himself and his younger counterparts.
Similarly, when the two lovers reunite in death, they dance a pas de deux that is tender and triumphant; there’s a reassurance in each lift, in each stretch of González’s arms (and legs) towards the sky that nothing, not even death, could keep them apart forever. It’s ultimately a life-affirming piece, and just a damn good time. And that can also be said for the program overall: It’s just a damn good time.