it’s two months into the New Year, and we’re still looking for a diversion from all the layoffs and bailouts and general bad news. Luckily, the Houston Ballet is sending in the queen. Artistic director Stanton Welch’s lavish new ballet, Marie, about the glam-to-guillotine life of Marie Antoinette, is just the sort of frothy distraction we’ve been needing. In fact, the three-act narrative, which is the company’s first original full-length work since 2004’s Tales of Texas, is so tinged with excess—affairs, heartbreak, frippery—that it’s essentially The Real Housewives of Versailles en pointe.
Balletomanes who love the grandeur of classics like Swan Lake and A Midsummer Night’s Dream will swoon over Marie’s sumptuous staging. Welch, who has led the Houston Ballet since 2003, enlisted London-based costume designer Kandis Cook to outfit the sizable cast, which includes 55 company members, as well as academy trainees and local children. That’s a lot of powdered wigs—and corsets and panniers and braided waistcoats—so to perfect the late-eighteenth-century look, Cook pored over aristocratic portraits and even traveled to Versailles. The set has its adornments too: a baroque picture frame that takes up nearly the entire stage, twinkling chandeliers, and a bed canopied in white silk.
After staging Cinderella as a romantic comedy last spring, Welch was eager to delve into the darker undercurrents of Marie, which is set to the brooding music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Longtime music director Ermanno Florio arranged the score—an assemblage of the Russian composer’s solo piano pieces, film scores, and ballet suites, in addition to his Symphony No. 10—to complement the dramatic character arc. “From young princess to spoiled queen to mother to revolutionary victim—that gives me a lot of material to work with,” says Welch, who became fascinated with Antoinette after watching several PBS documentaries that cast doubt on her playgirl image.
But it’s the contemporary resonance of Antoinette’s rise and fall that makes Marie particularly enthralling. “I was intrigued by the way all the gossip and scrutiny of [her] life mirrors our society, how we become fixated on some pretty girl and how through gossip and tabloids we create a distorted image of someone,” he says. Although we’re all familiar with the young socialite’s tragic end, Welch purposely blurs the line between fact and hype so audiences can draw their own conclusions. Principal ballerina Melody Herrera will dance the lead on the first night, with several other company members sharing the role during the rest of the six-performance run.
Pure escapism like this is such a refreshing antidote to these uncertain times that it’s hardly surprising to learn that the Houston Ballet is sending Marie to New Orleans next month to celebrate the newly renovated Mahalia Jackson Theatre, which is the city’s first major performing arts venue to reopen since Hurricane Katrina. The presentation also triumphantly marks the company’s thirtieth anniversary of touring to New Orleans. It’s a welcome reminder that no matter how unpleasant our realities, at least we have our heads. From February 26 to March 8; 713-227-2787, houstonballet.org
Pieces of Glass
after an eighteen-month renovation, the University of Texas at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall is looking like itself, only better. A $14.7 million face-lift—which includes a new glass facade, more-spacious lobbies, a cafe, and a top-floor terrace overlooking the city—brings the 27-year-old, 2,900-seat venue into compliance with the demands of modern-day theatergoers. And while additional restrooms are appreciated, it’s the acoustics upgrade that will wow audiences—especially this month, when they settle in for the long-awaited Austin debut of “Book of Longing,” an intimate concert work co-commissioned by UT’s Performing Arts Center.
The approximately ninety-minute song cycle is a rarefied collaboration between two artistic legends. Composer Philip Glass, the king of modern classical music, has written a fresh score for 22 poems penned by the prolific troubadour and novelist Leonard Cohen. Performed by an ensemble of four singers and about a dozen musicians, including Glass himself on keyboard, “Book of Longing” is studded with Glass’ signature arpeggios and spare arrangements. Cohen’s fans will likewise recognize the songwriter’s characteristic candor: His poems, taken from a 2006 collection, are confessional autobiographies that ruminate on the desires and losses of days past. Recordings of Cohen reading some of his verses are incorporated throughout, and his sketches (doodles of naked women, bad self-portraits) are projected onto a backdrop onstage. Now that the Bass has reopened its doors, Austinites can size up the creative pairing for themselves. What better way to test those new acoustics? On February 21; 512-477-6060, utpac.org
to follow the arc of artist Marcia Gygli King’s forty-year career, you’ll need to know your way around San Antonio, because her first retrospective spans not one but three local art institutions. King, who is known for her stylized landscapes and elaborate Styrofoam frames, is neither a native Texan (she was born in Cleveland, in 1931) nor a full-time resident (she splits her time between San Antonio and New York), but she has been rooted here since the sixties. After a stint as the art critic for the San Antonio Express-News, she earned a master’s degree in painting from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1980.
And it’s with works from this incubatory period that “Marcia Gygli King: Forty Years” begins at the Southwest School of Art and Craft. You can see in these early acrylics and pastels on paper the emergence of one of her signature motifs: dots. Inspired by the markings on Day of the Dead figures, King blankets many of her paintings with spots to represent the stimuli of the world. At the San Antonio Museum of Art, this fuzzy sort of pointillism clearly carries over to her later botanical paintings (carline thistle, trumpet vine, and yes, the yellow rose). Each of these outsized oils (some as large as eight feet tall by six feet wide) is filled with hundreds of white brushstrokes that just barely allow the black-green background to peek through. King’s glorification of color is further heightened in the exhibit’s final installment, at the UTSA Art Gallery.