Stevenson's Cleo Sails

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STEVENSON'S CLEO SAILS HOUSTON BALLET BROWN THEATER, WORTH THEATER CENTER HOUSTON, TEXAS MARCH 9-19

An old friend--or perhaps friendly adversary would be more apt--the late Julian Brunswig, a founder of what is now the English National Ballet, once told me that if any choreographer came to him with a plan to make a ballet out of Oliver Twist he would instantly say yes. "People know the name, you see," he argued. I wonder how much similar name-recognition played in Ben Stevenson's choice of Cleopatra for his new full-evening ballet. Certainly that Serpent of the Nile had already attracted such cinematic divas as Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh--and Stevenson's hot-tub-steamy ballet spectacular had a definite Hollywood glitter. It was glitter glinting through its lush John Lanchbery score culled from Rimsky-Korsakov, through those monumental settings by Thomas Boyd that would surely have reheated the heart of Cecil B. DeMille, and through its costuming by Judanna Lynn that was ornate enough to startle Tinseltown's legendary costumer, Edith Head.

And imperiously crowned and gowned at the world premiere amidst all this movie-style grandeur was, happily, an authentic star, Houston's ballet princess, its own Cleopatra, the superb, stunning Lauren Anderson. Stevenson's ballet was given with three alternating casts in all the major and minor roles, but let's make no mistake about it, the red carpet for this Cleopatra was really rolled out for the passions of Anderson, and it proved quite a role.

The cost of this Cleopatra--said to be a mere $1.2 million--seems cutting-room-floor small potatoes to the $40 million of Twentieth Century Fox money Joseph Mankiewicz lavished on his Taylor/Richard Burton epic. But by ballet standards it's really big potatoes, and straight off let us admit that Stevenson has given terrific value for money. While we are on the subject of hard cash, it is significant to note that, like Stevenson's earlier full-evening ventures to Lanchbery-contrived scores (Dracula and The Snow Maiden) this Cleopatra was a joint venture with other U.S. companies, in Cleo's case with the Boston Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. This partnering is becoming a practicable way of life for American classic companies, made the more practicable and attractive by the fact that companies do not tour as much as they did, and more than one company can share the cost of elaborate scenery and costumes.

This Cleopatra is a carefully crafted old-fashioned piece, highlighted with such visual climaxes as the Colbert-inspired bath, the Taylor-inspired grand entrance into Rome, or, essential to any proper Cleopatra, the huge barge rowed imperially down the Nile, the last being a wonderfully imagined and conceived piece of stagecraft.

Of course, this is not the first ballet Cleopatra. I still recall with some affection a full-evening Cleopatra created, almost astonishingly, by Murray Louis for the Royal Danish Ballet! …