Classical ballet was born in the royal courts of Old Europe. Every performance today contains at least traces of a lost world of courtiers, etiquette and aristocratic graces, even if the subject matter is magic swans or vampire bats.
One king in particular, Louis XIV of France, was key to the art form’s early development — he studied daily with a personal ballet master and relished taking the central role in lavish productions.
England’s Henry VIII had no role in this history. But his eventful life may be ideal for a 21st-century ballet treatment.
This weekend, Texas Ballet Theater will premiere "Henry VIII," a dance drama about the king and his six wives. It was created by Carl Coomer, a TBT principal dancer who is making his fourth foray into choreography for the company.
On the other half of the program, TBT will present "Seven Sonatas," its first piece by one of the world’s most highly regarded contemporary choreographers, the Russian-born Alexei Ratmansky. Ratmansky is a past director of the Bolshoi Ballet, but is now a big presence on the American scene, as artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre.
The contrasts on this program seem designed to delight balletomanes: A famous contemporary choreographer whose work will be seen in Fort Worth for the first time is paired with a homegrown talent who (as yet) hasn’t made a big splash beyond DFW. And one piece is a narrative ballet with sets and period costumes, the other more of a pure-dance pleasure.
Dancing With the Planets
Henry VIII is a big leap forward for Carl Coomer, who had previously created 20- or 25-minute pieces for the company. This one is closer to an hour, and with a real-life story to tell — plus a full set design and a large number of costumes — it’s bigger in every way. (The production was underwritten by Terri and Greg Sexton.)
Coomer, a Brit who speaks with the accent of his native Liverpool, had been thinking about Henry and all those wives for a while. It’s an old story but one that has contemporary appeal.
“That’s one of the reasons why I chose to do it — the public interest in it with 'The Tudors' and 'Wolf Hall,' things like that. I think people are attracted to the story,” he says.
The most startling thing may be Coomer’s unexpected choice of music: Gustav Holst’s "The Planets." "It’s a piece that I’ve always loved. It was one of the first pieces of classical music that I was exposed to … especially Mars, the war movement, which was just so powerful. I’d always wanted to choreograph something to it.”
At some point Coomer realized that each section of Holst’s music, each planet, had a different personality and so he hit on the idea of trying to pair them with Henry VIII’s wives. “And it just fit perfectly. I had to rearrange [the movements] to suit what I wanted to do with the storyline, but the music fits perfectly once you see the ballet. It’s almost like it was written for this story — it’s pretty incredible.”
"The Planets" has seven movements representing planets Mercury through Neptune, skipping Earth (Pluto had not been discovered when Holst was composing). Holst ordered by their distance from Earth, so he started with Mars, but the work was inspired more by astrology than astronomy. It’s about characteristics of the human psyche, and the movements have titles like “Mars: The Bringer of War” and “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity.”
Because there are seven planets in the score but only six wives, Coomer decided Mars, with the most warlike sounds, should be the leftover one. “I chose to do Mars as Henry’s split from the Catholic Church, his battle with the northern rebels. I chose that to show his divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn.”
He begins with the majestic, poignant Jupiter movement, for Catherine of Aragon. Then comes Mars and the first divorce, followed by “Uranus: The Magician” for Anne Boleyn. “That definitely describes Anne Boleyn’s personality, because he was bewitched by her. And Jane Seymour is ‘Venus, The Bringer of Peace’ — that’s what peace is for him. It’s pretty amazing how it really just fit each of them.”
Andre Silva and Paul Adams will alternate in the role of Henry, and but Coomer is using “pretty much the whole company” in other roles, including historical figures whom PBS watchers are quite familiar with, such as Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey. Two young dancers from the company’s ballet school will play the future Elizabeth I and Edward VI as children.
The colorful Tudor-inspired costumes were created by an MFA student at the University of Texas at Austin. Six students from the school’s theater program created proposed full designs for the ballet, and Coomer chose one. But he’s staying in touch with some of the other students, too, as possible future collaborators.
“I wanted to take this next step — challenging myself to work with other people, work with a costume designer, work with a set designer.” He says it’s been a big leap from what he’s done before largely because of all that collaboration.
“We’re super proud of Carl,” says Tim O’Keefe, TBT’s associate artistic director and right-hand man to artistic director Ben Stevenson, an acknowledged master of the story ballet. “It’s amazing the kind of story he’s been able to communicate in a short amount of time in a one-act.”
Stevenson has yielded his stage to other fledgling choreographers in the company, too. “That’s what Ben wants,” O’Keefe says. “A choreographer from the company knows the dancers so much better. He can really use them to the best of their abilities.
“And Ben wants our own repertoire. He wants pieces that nobody else has. He wants the face of Texas Ballet Theater to be different from other companies. Promoting choreographers within the company — all the big companies do that. It’s great that we have these pieces now.”
A Russian and a Cliburn star
The other piece on this weekend’s program, Ratmansky’s "Seven Sonatas" (2009), is a so-called piano ballet, with a piano and pianist ontage with the dancers, and just a few pairs of dancers in a plotless procession of numbers that show off intricate, original choreography.
In a first, it’s a collaboration with the Cliburn — 2013 Cliburn bronze medalist Sean Chen will perform seven sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti as dancers perform near him. The project was helped along by Dana Porter, who serves on the Cliburn board and is also underwriting "Seven Sonatas" with her husband, David.
“I think [Sean has] really had a good time looking at the dancers and looking at the music in a completely different way,” O’Keefe says. “He’s playing off of the dancers — they’ll come up to the piano at different times. He’s not just onstage playing the piano, he’s part of the work, which I think is exciting for him.”
The work is considered difficult for the dancers. “Stamina-wise it’s challenging, emotionally it’s very challenging,” according to O’Keefe. “These are the kind of works you want for your dancers. All of the dancers say they feel they’ve grown as performers working on this piece.”
He emphasizes that Ratmansky works are a big deal in the global ballet world. “It’s a wonderful testament to Ben, what he’s created here with the company, that we have the talent to be able to do one of his pieces. When you have a piece of his in your rep, it means you’ve hit a certain level.”
Texas Ballet Theater: Henry VIII and Seven Sonatas
- 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
- Bass Hall
- Fort Worth
- 877-828-9200; www.texasballettheater.org