Houston Ballet's Got Chops!

Joyce debut shows off spectacular dancing, solid repertory

In its debut performances this week at the Joyce Theater, the Houston Ballet –– since 2003 under the artistic direction of Australian-born Stanton Welch –– impressed even the notoriously reticent New York opening night audience with pristine technique, immaculate precision, and lightning speed that rival any other ballet company in America.

The concise program, running just over 90 minutes, features a ballet each by Netherlands Dance Theater’s legendary Joni Kalian, Finnish newcomer Jorma Elo, and Houston Ballet’s associate choreographer Christopher Bruce.

In Kylián’s “Falling Angels” (1989), set to the persistent pulse of Steve Reich’s “Drumming,” eight women in black leotards and tan shoes (costumes by Joke Visser) emerge slowly from darkness, walking against the wind in small lunges. Joop Caboort’s minutely orchestrated lighting frames each of them in a square of light for a series of little canonic gestures that fall into and out of unisons. His work throughout is as intricately orchestrated as the dancing.

The long, bare limbs of the dancers etch crisp designs in the black space, framing their heads, pulling on their leotards. All the dancers duet or solo against the group and show their individual personalities within the taut structure of Kylián’s lucid syncopation and adroitly uncluttered counterpoint. Contrasting themes never clash or compete for our focus, although the stage remains constantly alive with motion.

“Angels” gets our attention, and then “ONE/ end/ ONE” rivets it with a barrage of Elo’s fastest, quirkiest, and most technically taxing contemporary ballet lexicon to date. The choreographer’s work in the past has seemed self-consciously inventive, trying too hard to be eccentric, and saddled with injudicious musical choices.

But here, to Mozart’s “Violin Concerto No. 4 in D, K. 218,” performed with brio by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Elo justifies his idiosyncratic style. These sublime dancers attack every move with such reassuring power and conviction that you’re never in doubt they’ll triumph. The cast of eight at times seems like many more, flying on and offstage with soaring jetés and topsy-turvy lifts.

Elo’s super-fast steps reference everything from Balinese to hip-hop, and at times the steel-cored dancing looks like speeded-up animation. Much of the complicated partnering is too swift to analyze, but one recurring lift has the woman jumping from arm’s length of her partner into midair, ending with him holding her waist, her legs split wide. The men flip and spin their partners with such force you’d fear for their survival were they not so strong and supple. And after a torrent of motion, each section ends with a solo balance that’s all the more breathtaking for following such a kinetic deluge.

The ballet represents the inaugural commission of the Rudolf Nureyev Prize for New Dance, which was awarded to the Houston Ballet for this work. The opening night cast sparkled –– Melissa Hough, Lauren Strongin, Nozomi Iijima, Joseph Walsh, Peter Franc, and Garret Smith, with lead couple Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh featured in the central adagio section.

At times, one wishes that Holly Hynes’ elegant black costumes, with gold appliqué, blended in less with the black background so we could better savor each leap, twist, and tumble. Christina R. Giannelli’s dynamic lighting did its best to throw the dancers into relief, but especially upstage, we lost some of the details.

Following the splash in the face from Elo, Bruce’s 2006 quaint Commedia Dell Arte character study “Hush” was a soothing antidote. Against a starry sky, a circus family of six slog toward their next venue, giving us peeks into their souls along the way.

Inspired by the Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma music that backs it, the ballet relies on the fine dance-acting of its cast –– Kelly Myernick, Rhodes Elliott, Ilya Kozadayev, Jessica Collado, James Gotesky, and Melody Mennite –– whose solo and duet essays are by turns poignant and warmly humorous.

Essentials:

HOUSTON BALLET

Joyce Theater

175 Eighth Ave. at 19th St.

Oct. 13-15 at 8 p.m.

Oct. 15-16 at 2 p.m.

$10-$59; joyce.org

Or 212-242-0800

More from Around NYC