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New York City Ballet

Farewell to Kipling Houston: 'Symphony in Three Movements, ' 'Vespro,' and 'Fancy Free'

by Kate Snedeker

January 8, 2003 -- Farewell to Kipling Houston

When the final curtain at the New York State Theater came down on January 8th, an era at NYCB came to end. With the retirement of 27-year NYCB veteran, soloist Kipling Houston, the company said goodbye to its last Balanchine trained male dancer. (Peter Boal was coached by Balanchine as a child, but Balanchine was too ill to do much by the time Boal joined the company in 1983). Houston obviously touched many people through his dancing at New York City Ballet, as many family, friends and former & current dancers crowded in to see his farewell performance.

Houston made his first appearance of the evening in an uneven performance of Balanchine's "Symphony in Three Movements," danced to Stravinsky's unmistakable music. While the principal and demi-soloists were solid, the very corps seemed rather underrehearsed. In the opening and final poses, arms and heads were held in a variety of poses, and in several sections the patterns appeared crooked.

Of the principals, Wendy Whelan & Jock Soto stood out for their dancing in the long middle section pas de deux. Though quite different in body type, Soto & Whelan have developed a very solid partnership and exude a confidence and ease with the music and movement. Whelan's angular body is also well suited to the unique shapes of Balanchine's choreography. Kipling Houston, with his long, clean lines looked especially elegant in the simple costumes, and was clearly savoring every moment in this ballet.

Mauro Bigonzetti's "Vespro" is one of the best ballets to come out of the most recent Diamond Project. Set to a haunting composition commissioned by the New York City Ballet from Bruno Moretti, the ballet takes place on a dimly lit stage (lighting by Mark Stanley). Led by Benjamin Millepied, the cast clusters around the onstage piano, watching the musicians (pianist Bruno Moretti, Countertenor Steven Rickards and Soprano Saxaphonist Albert Regni) when not dancing. Millepied clearly controls the music and the dance, pounding on the piano and showing off his hyperkinetic dancing ability.

The real highlight of this ballet was the performances of Maria Kowroski & Jason Fowler and Alexandra Ansanelli & Sebastian Marcovici. It was especially pleasing to see Fowler, a senior member of the corps, in a principal role. He is tall enough to partner Kowroski with ease, and the two had no problems with Moretti's technically challenging choreography.

Moretti's ballet is full of distinct shapes and quick stops and starts, and the dancers must make it look crisp, but all in one flowing phrase. In this the four soloist were excellent. One striking section involved Marcovici lifting Ansanelli by her crossed legs. Jules Lumsden's geometrically patterned costumes were appropriate to the choreography, but the short-shorts were rather unflattering on some of the men, in particular Millepied and Marcovici.

The evening concluded with a surprisingly flat performance of Jerome Robbin's "Fancy Free." This is not a young cast, and as this was the only performance of this particular trio of sailors, it probably did not get much rehearsal -- and it showed in the group sections. This was a performance that was better up close, with an emphasis on facial expressions and little details, something that is not ideal in a large theater.

That said, the individual performances were a delight. Tom Gold put his all into the bravura solo, but looked a little rusty (he hasn't done the ballet in a while) and Damian Woetzel was delightfully campy in the rhumba -- both clearly putting on all stops for Houston's farewell.

Houston was wonderfully endearing as the second, soft-hearted sailor. Deanna McBrearty was a bit distant as the first lady, lacking some oomph in her mime, but came alive when Pascale van Kipnis joined her. The ballet ended on an unintentionally amusing note when Woetzel, the last to flick his gum wrapper, managed to flick his wrapper back over his shoulder. The puzzled Woetzel was informed by his amused co-stars as to his unusual aim, and shrugged as if to say, "Oh well."

As a final note, these three dancers are some of the best in the classic "Fancy Free" group "lean," leaving one amazed as to how then go so far without falling over. After the group curtain calls, the three sailors returned, with Woetzel and Gold doffing their caps to Houston, who received a standing ovation. In the final curtain call, the two guys jokingly tackled Houston, and then presented him for one final bow.

I will miss Kipling Houston, and was sad not to be able to see him in one last performance of Tchaikovksy's Third Symphony --that to me was one of his finest roles, along with his wonderful Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Best wishes to him in his post-NYCB life.

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