REACH Gives Audiences A Reason To Celebrate

Mackenzie Richter and Chandler Dalton in Melody Walsh’s Lose Count. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo.

By Lawrence Elizabeth Knox

Houston Ballet may have wrapped its latest season in June with the tragic love story “La Bayadère,” but a few of the company members have stayed busy in the studio.    

After only two weeks of rehearsing, they kicked off the second season of REACH, a dancer-led project that culminates in a two-night benefit performance. This year’s show featured six new works by six Houston Ballet dancers, and its proceeds support X3: Explore, Extend, Excel!, one of the company’s educational outreach programs that strives to integrate dance into the lives of school children.  

Hayden Stark and Tyler Donatelli in Hayden Stark’s Yet to Come. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo.

It’s no secret that a career in dance requires an overwhelming amount of passion, but sometimes that passion can be masked by the pure magnitude of a production, or underappreciated, as the demanding daily routine of a dancer often goes unseen.

This was certainly not the case on Friday evening. The spirited energy from the small group of participating dancers and choreographers, who all donate their time and talent, radiated throughout the Margaret Alkek Williams Dance Lab, Houston Ballet’s in-house performance space.

From the preshow gathering to the final bows, the connection between the dancers and the audience felt refreshingly personal, and not just because the smaller theater offered a more intimate environment. The dancers seemed just as supportive of one another as the audience was of them as a whole, and pride in their self-produced show was evident.

In fact, the evening felt more like a celebration of the arts and of collaboration. DJ Ramalama transformed the lobby into quite the party scene where the crowd mingled while sipping on drinks provided by Amaya Roasting Co. and Saint Arnold Brewing Co.

The show opened with an endearing speech by founders and Houston Ballet dancers Oliver Halkowich, Melody Walsh and Connor Walsh, followed by an upbeat duet choreographed by Hayden Stark. In “Yet to Come,” Stark and fellow demi-soloist Tyler Donatelli, who has the ability to capture the audience from the moment she steps foot onstage, moved independently but in sync. The piece was fun and lighthearted, the only complaint being it wasn’t long enough.

Linnar Looris in his solo Life Sheet. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo.

Melody Walsh’s work followed suit, a childlike and playful piece with four dancers set to a fitting remix of youthful noises, such as a child counting, that eventually developed into a more mature pas de deux. The seriousness of the last section transitioned seamlessly into a somber solo titled “Life Sheet,” choreographed and performed by Linnar Looris. His movement, often a literal interpretation to the lyrics, revealed his strengths as an artist in a new light.

Two more choreographers, Shu Kinouchi and Christopher Gray, reignited the optimistic energy with both of their trios that led up to the most complex and artistically far-reaching “Life Is All We Are” by Oliver Halkowich. With clown ruffles around their necks and red lipstick reaching far beyond the corners of their lips, five dancers presented a theatrical finale that defied expectations and the idea of a conventional performance. Melody Walsh smoked a cigarette, Mackenzie Richter chomped on gum, and Linnar Looris, clad in a white lace shirt, sang Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” with Walsh.

Even still, it was the last movement that was most enjoyable. The wings drew back, dramatically exposing the bright sidelights, and the whole cast joined together onstage in a series of explosive choreography to music celebrating the hardships of life.

The program ran as smoothly as possible, and for that, much credit is due to the production team, which includes Houston Ballet’s resident lighting designer Lisa Pinkham. Also of note were the costumes, impressively designed by soloist Allison Miller, who performed in two of the works as well.

Chandler Dalton, Hayden Stark, and Katy Harvey in Shu Kinouchi’s Buoyant. Photo by Jaime Lagdameo.

Alongside the dancing, the show featured two videos, one of which demonstrates the impact of X3. The other, directed by Houston-based Dinolion, promotes REACH and the way in which dancers express their understanding of the world through movement. Written and performed by Melody Walsh, “I Process” ultimately questions what the viewer sees.

The Friday night performance, which followed a successful event at White Oak Music Hall, ended the same way it began with music and drinks in the lobby. However, the excitement in the room was no longer caused by anticipation, but by the pleasure of having watched true artists doing what they love.


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