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Season opener shows Texas Ballet Theater is on the right path

It’s a shame that the Winspear Opera House was not close to full on Friday night as Texas Ballet Theater opened its 2016-17 season. What was seen onstage was a glimpse into the future of this company, and probably other similarly sized classical ballet companies introducing more contemporary work.

The most classical aspect of Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta’s Carmen was that the title itself is of another era, associated most with Bizet’s popular opera. Acosta, a protégé of TBT Artistic Director Ben Stevenson at the Houston Ballet, has stripped down the story to focus on the triangle formed by soldier Don José (Carl Coomer), gypsy Carmen (Leticia Oliveira) and bullfighter Escamillo (Jiyan Dai). (Performers change through the weekend.)

Fate is a motif in the opera (and a theme in Prosper Mérimée’s source novella), and Acosta gives us a character called Fate (Paul Adams), with demon horns, who mostly watches from a stunning circular portal in the back of Tim Hatley’s set, designed for the Royal Ballet in London, where the work debuted. Carmen is a co-production with Australia’s Queensland Ballet and TBT, making this production the American premiere.

You can’t have a strong Carmen without a performer who is fearless, untameable and secure in who she is. Oliveira has all that in spades in a triumphant performance. The dancing is sharp and passionate throughout, and the choreography propulsive — even if defiantly toward death.

Acosta’s ensemble scenes in taverns and public spaces uses the company smartly, as if they each have a definable unnamed character.

Flamenco flair is incorporated, notably with Escamillo (Dai handles it beautifully). Don José is a hefty character, driven by passion and revenge, and Coomer finds the profound sadness there, expressed, as everything in ballet, through movement.

Bizet’s music, adapted by Martin Yates, is thoughtfully played by the Symphony Musicians of Fort Worth (the striking musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra), conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, with perfect balance for the onstage action.

Following Carmen is a very different work, the TBT company premiere of DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse by acclaimed British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, set on the company by répétiteur Christopher Saunders, senior ballet master of the Royal Ballet.

It’s set to a minimalistic, repetitive score by Michael Nyman, commissioned to commemorate the inauguration of the TGV, France’s high-speed rail. The choreography is strikingly repetitive and geometric, always with a sense of forward motion even in the slower-tempo movement.

Four couples (Samantha Pille and Paul Adams, Allisyn Hsieh Caro and Andre Silva, Alexandra Farber and Carl Coomer, and Robin Bangert and Shane Howell) emerge from and disappear into Jean-Marc Puissant’s upstage set piece of curved steel, perhaps from a crashed train. They each have stunning pas de deux, performed with urgency, and eight other couples fall in formation and popcorn in pairs out of snaking chains or individually from group clusters.

This piece achieves a dichotomy of movement that is automated and organic, shifting between both easily, as if either can grow from the wreckage of the other. Puissant’s costumes of silver, gray and muted colors with lines and angles fit the theme.

DGV has plenty of classical movement but feels more modern than any work TBT has yet performed. If this, along with work by Jiri Kylian and Jonathan Watkins in recent seasons, is any indication, Texas Ballet Theater is on the right track. These works can coexist with the big story ballets you know and love — because those aren’t going to be derailed anytime soon.

The program will be repeated Oct. 7-9 at Bass Hall in Fort Worth.

  • Through Sunday at Winspear Opera House, Dallas ($20-$80)
  • Oct. 7-9 at Bass Hall, Fort Worth ($20-$110)
  • 877-828-9200; www.texasballettheater.org

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