Since becoming artistic director 14 years ago, Ben Stevenson has elevated Texas Ballet Theater to a top regional company. Excellent principal dancers, wonderful ensemble work, and an incredible repertory of full-length and smaller ballets make it one of the finest companies in the Southwest.
Last weekend’s repertory program at Bass Performance Hall of three new works –– the world premieres of Garrett Smith’s Imbue and Avichai Scher’s A Full Life, plus the area premiere of Christopher Bruce’s Rooster –– should have been another major achievement for the company. But the curse of amplified sound, which has hit here before, came back with a vengeance.
Imbue opened Saturday night’s performance innocently enough: in pure silence. Dancers entered slowly from up stage through what looked like strips of filmy plastic hanging from above, glittering in the semi-darkness. Moving in, the men, bare to the waist and wearing wool-looking tights, with the women in whimsical round plastic tutus, took their time finding places and waited. Suddenly the battery of loud speakers hanging down each side of the proscenium burst with Phillip Glass’s music, and for me the roof flew off. A solo violin shrieked like fingernails scratching across a black board. It wasn’t just the volume, which was way up, but the quality of sound that got me: high, banging, sharp, with little base resonance to mellow it out. It seems amazing in this high tech age that something so crude can still be in use.
The choreography was classical, with amusing twists and unexpected turns, as well as many lifts. Despite the cacophony, three pas de deux were handsomely danced by Leticia Oliveira and Carl Coomer, Laura Gruener and Joamanuel Valazquez, and Cara Shipman and Andres Silva. Imbue was imaginatively conceived with a small corps and various original dance combinations, which made me long to see it again with more sensitive musical accompaniment.
Scher’s A Full Life was the only piece with live music, a concert grand played onstage by Shields-Collins Bray, who has performed like this before for the company with wonderful results, but the instrument this time was amplified and clattered like an old upright. Bray still accompanied the dancers in music from Bach to Glinka. Four couples danced in classical style, with some interesting variations, but on this program it tended to look like a pallid version of the Smith work.
During intermission I heard someone comment to a friend, “That was a yawny one. Are you going to stay for the last one?”
“Yes,” he said. “It should be more interesting.”
I also noticed across the aisle a young boy around 8 years old leaning against his father’s shoulder fast asleep. A couple of rows down, an older girl was asleep in her mother’s lap. I don’t recall seeing this before at the ballet – and I’ve been going for decades.
Rooster closed the program, and it was rousing, as well as more suited to the overdone sound system. Based on several songs by the Rolling Stones, including “Ruby Tuesday” and “Play with Fire,” five couples danced wonderfully, the women in sleeveless black dresses over black tights and the men in black suits, white shirts, and various colored ties. As the titular character, Jiyan Dai wore a red shirt, bobbing his head and strutting feet a la Mick Jagger. All in good fun.
For TBT’s season-closing performance of Stevenson’s Alice in Wonderland (May 19-21), the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will be in the pit. Hopefully, the sound system will be off.