Houston Theater District's Open House and Our Theater Awards Issue

Photo by Marie Noelle Robert
For entry level opera-goers: Sweeney Todd
Besides the ballet, the theater companies and the symphony, this year's 21st Annual Theater District Open House will feature food trucks in Jones Plaza, tango lessons from the Society for the Performing Arts and has expanded to include Bayou City Music Center and Bayou Place (known rather more for their rock music than classical works).

And even though Alley Theatre has moved to a temporary home at the University of Houston where its first show of the season The Old Friends opens Wednesday, its personnel will still be on hand to show visitors through its production rooms to plumb the mysteries of costumes and wigs and rehearsal halls.

Perryn Leech, acting board chair of the Houston Downtown Alliance and Houston Grand Opera's managing director, says this year as always gives visitors an up-close-and personal (and free!) look at the Houston arts scene with the added benefit of being able to sign up for discounted subscriptions. "There are good bargains to be had," he says.

Tying in to all the occasion, the Houston Press this week presents its annual Houston Press Arts Guide as well as the third year of our Houston Theater Awards, in which we draw attention to what we believe were the outstanding theatrical performances in our city during the 2013-14 season.

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Houston Ballet Dazzles With Stanton Welch's Version of Swan Lake

Categories: Ballet

Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Sara Webb as the White Swan.
The Setup:
Few ballets are as well-known as Swan Lake the Russian ballet made famous by Marius Petipa's and Lev Ivanov's 1895 revival. Stanton Welch staged his version with Houston Ballet in 2006; inspired by John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallott, his Swan Lake takes its aesthetic from the fairy tale valence of pre-Raphaelite painting. Houston Ballet closes its 2013-2014 season with this Tchaikovsky-fueled classic.

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Houston Ballet Performs Work by Modern Masters

Categories: Ballet

Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Connor Walsh and Nozomi Iijima in William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated.
The Setup:
Houston Ballet is in the middle of its run of Modern Masters, a mix-rep program that features work by Balanchine, Jiří Kylián, and William Forsythe. Last Thursday night's opening performance featured some of the company's finest dancing in recent memory, including standout bits danced by Karina Gonzalez, Connor Walsh, Katharine Precourt, Nozomi Iijima, and Derek Dunn.

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Houston Ballet's Academy Spring Showcase Shows Off Its Youngest Stars

Categories: Ballet

Photo courtesy of Houston Ballet
Mallory Mehaffey and Joel Woellner in Houston Ballet's Sleeping Beauty
Mallory Mehaffey ran track in high school and just wanted a summer experience with the Houston Ballet's Academy for younger ballet students.

"By the time the summer program was over I wanted nothing more than to be here and train at the school so I joined as a student and trained for one year. Then I was offered a position in Houston Ballet II, the second company where I'm about to graduate from there and join the main company," the young star from Richmond, Texas told Art Attack.

This Friday, 18-year-old Mehaffey,will dance the role of the Waltz Girl in George Balanchine's Serenade and will also perform in Stanton Welch's Studies as one of about 20 young performers in the Houston Ballet's annual Academy Spring Showcase.

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Stanton Welch Celebrates 10 Years at the Houston Ballet

Categories: Ballet

Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Artists of Houston Ballet in The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

The Setup:
Houston Ballet's Stanton Welch is celebrating ten years as artistic director of one of the country's most respected ballet companies. To commemorate his decade of dance, Houston Ballet presents a mixed repertory of Welch choreography, including the world premiere of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, set to Benjamin Britten's seminal composition of the same name.

The Execution:

The program opens with Of Blessed Memory (1991), Welch's first professional commission for The Australian Ballet. It's a deeply personal meditation of the mother role as benevolent prime mover, as the giver of life and moral compass of youth and impressionable posterity. Danced to Joseph Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne and the heavenly vocal accompaniment of soprano Nicole Heaston, the dance is successful in capturing the emotional and spiritual bond between mother and child that goes beyond mere maternal responsibility.

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Houston Ballet Creates Magic With Aladdin

Categories: Ballet

Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Joseph Walsh, Karina Gonzalez, and artists of Houston Ballet in Aladdin.

The Setup:
Aladdin may not be one of Western culture's primary princess fairy tales (i.e., Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), but it might as well be. It's the most famous of the stories that make up Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights, and thanks to Disney's 1992 film, a generation of millennials know the story of the scrappy urchin who wins the heart of a princess with the help of a powerful lamp-entrapped genie. The story has been fashioned into just about every form of entertainment, including ballet. David Bintley's visually evocative interpretation of this storybook classic joins the rich narrative repertoire of Houston Ballet for an action-packed production that doesn't skimp on the dancing.

The Execution:
Like just about every popular version of Aladdin, Bintley's places the narrative in a generic setting somewhere in the Arab world, but what many people don't know is that the original story is set in China. Bintley stays true to this element by making Aladdin, his mother and his two best friends Chinese, a small band of foreigners who are themselves just as enamored of the colorful, textured world onstage as the audience. Otherwise, Bintly's take is similar to most popular versions of the story.

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Connor Walsh Takes on the Role of Aladdin for Houston Ballet & Keeps Up With His Favorite Soccer Team on the Side

Categories: Ballet

Photo by Bill Cooper
Principal dancer Connor Walsh will star in Aladdin
OK there's a dragon, some of the names are a little different and Aladdin is Chinese but other than that, the ballet Aladdinthat the Houston Ballet has planned tracks along the same lines as the story most people came to know growing up, says Connor Walsh, principal dancer for the Houston Ballet, who'll be performing the title role.

"Aladdin being a poor boy who steals food and is always getting into trouble ends up meeting this guy who asks him to go into the cave to get the lamp and then he gets the lamp and there's a Genie."

As Walsh prepares to play the character who will keep him on stage for almost all the three acts of this full-length story ballet, he says he looked forward to the challenge. "It's really great for a dancer to have that much time on stage. The less time we spend in the wings the more honest the character feels and the story feels to us as performers."

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The Top Five 2013 Dance Concerts in Houston

Categories: Ballet, Dance

Photo by Simon Gentry
Up for Air, by Recked Productions

I was filling in my calendar for January and February, making note of the dance concerts I wanted to make sure to cover when I realized it's the start of the final month of the year. 2013 is about to close, which ends another chapter in my book of dance watching. It's been a full one, and the treasures have been plentiful. From Houston Ballet's sumptuous story ballets to the Society of the Performing Arts' megawatt Great American Dance Series to the city's cherished contemporary dance companies, Houston was overflowing with world-class dance. In closing out this year, I went through my notes and compiled a shortlist of concerts that I still find myself talking about from time to time. Here's my personal list of the best dances of 2013.

5. Up for Air, Recked Productions
Any writer compiling a 2013 retrospective of Houston dance would be hard-pressed not to include Erin Reck's enchanting site-specific work Up for Air. The Mary Gibbs and Jesse H. Jones Reflection Pool at Hermann Park is a cherished Houston landmark that belongs to so many of our childhood memories, but in Reck's hands, the site was given a new layer of purpose and meaning.

The wonder of Reck's work rests not so much in the sheer size of the concept or its angelic choreography, but its ability to breathe life into an institution while staying true to its ethos. If the spirit of the Reflection Pool was somehow conjured, Up for Air would be the shape it would take. The dancers, all dressed in life, evoked pulses of nature, from their birdlike perching at water's edge to their flutter of hands in the air amidst falling leaves. In the sun of May, the shimmering imagery approached the fleetingness of an Impressionist painting. Fleeting, but indelibly now a part of the Reflection Pool's memories.

Photo by Margo Stutts Toombs
Purging Honey!, by "there...in the sunlight."

4. Purging, Honey!, "there ... in the sunlight."
For the record, this spot might have very well have gone to B.L.K. Gurls ~n~ W.H.T. Boiz: Singin' 'bout Gawd! jhon r. stronks and his personal brand of revelatory, dance-from-the-soul movement are so intimate, yet, universal in their truths that the work of "there ... in the sunlight." can only be described as essential viewing. In Purging, Honey!, stronks dives head first into an exploration of maturation, identity, and queerness. What makes a man? And what makes him Miss Understood?

This heartfelt and heartily danced concert answered those questions and then some. Gender isn't a static label. It's a continuously morphing form of self-expression. And it's also to be celebrated in whatever shape it manifests itself. The movement of Honey! is of the dance party variety, with a street-savvy attention to rhythm and beat. In a stronks show, the hips and torso move in abundance; it's dance that really grooves. I don't think there was another dance concert this year that had so much to say, and had so much fun saying it.

This story continues on the next page.

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Our Annual Thanks to the Houston Arts Scene

Photo by Jann Whaley
Venus in Fur with Nicole Rodenburg as Vanda and Michael Bakkensen was just one of many endeavors that fired up the Houston arts scene in the past year

It's become a tradition to ask our Art Attack bloggers what they are thankful for in the Houston arts scene this year. Here's this year's reaction:

Think of our performing arts scene as a grand banquet, a great groaning board full of savory dishes. Just since the official opening of the current season, look upon the entrees we've already tasted: classic fare like Main Street's The Real Thing; Houston Ballet's The Merry Widow; the Alley's You Can't Take It With You; Houston Grand Opera's Aida; A.D. Players' Arsenic and Old Lace, all prepared by the finest of chefs.

Then there were the mouth-watering side dishes, like TUTS new underground series that began with the grunge musical Lizzie; GEXA on Broadway's Peter and the Starcatcher and Chicago; and the Alley's Venus in Fur, the flavors were tantalizing. And let's not forget the highly spiced appetizers: Music Box Musicals' Avenue Q; Mildred's Umbrella's Carnival Round; Catastrophic's The Pine, Bayou City Concert Musicals' The Pajama Game. The food never stops, it's finely served, and just makes you hungry for more.

Not satisfied yet, just wait. Look what's in store for the next seating: 50 Shades of Grey; Wagner's Das Rheingold; Other Desert Cities, Aladdin, The Diary of Anne Frank, Vera Stark, American Idiot. The banquet in Houston never stops. Go gorge yourself, giving thanks all the while for Houston's performing arts bounty which is, as we all know, food fit for the gods. - D.L. Groover

I've written several Creatives profiles this year and I am so grateful to see so many people in Houston making a living (or at least a go) at a lifestyle that does not require sitting inside a cubicle. It gives me immense confidence in the creative diversity of this city. It's also so inspiring on a personal level to talk to people who are overwhelmingly passionate about what they do. That makes me want to be a better writer. - Brittanie Shey

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Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker Sees New Sugar Plum Fairy

Categories: Ballet

Photo by Amitava Sarkar
Soloist Allison Miller as Clara in The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker isn't just a holiday spectacle; for many children, it's their introduction to ballet. For a few, it is the start of a lifelong love affair with all things dance. It's a Christmas story, but one that has lasting appeal beyond the holiday season. The Yuletide setting is really just a backdrop for a story that spans the fantastical realms of childhood imagination. All of the best fairy tale elements can be found in The Nutcracker, including a dashing prince, an enchanted queen (of the more benevolent variety), magical landscapes, and a plucky heroine that goes on the adventure of her life.

The story appeals to every kid who loves Christmas, but in the world of dance, The Nutcracker means getting the opportunity to watch classical ballet in its finest form. There are no filler scenes in Ben Stevenson's celebrated version, and the two-act ballet is nonstop dance from start to finish. For the dancers of Houston Ballet, the annual production allows them to polish their technique in the production's familiar and beloved roles.

When it comes to beloved roles, none is quite as coveted among ballerinas as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Clara may be the central character, but it's the Sugar Plum Fairy who gets to dance with the Nutcracker Prince in that wonderful final pas de deux. Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker opens this Friday, and this year, recently promoted soloist Allison Miller will take on the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time.

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