Startled by a Flock of Birds: Houston Ballet’s Murmuration

Sometimes we are stunned into silence or provoked into outbursts by an image or a sound. Why does this happen?

© Walter Baxter with CCLicense
© Walter Baxter with CCLicense

This weekend I was excited to attend the Houston Ballet’s performance of The Rite of Spring. I am very familiar with Igor Stravinsky’s primal and evocative music, but had never seen the work choreographed before. When the Ballets Russes premiered The Rite of Spring in Paris one hundred years ago it caused riots and it remains a stunning experience. I was prepared for that. What surprised me was that I was stunned, mesmerized and transported not by this famous piece, but by a new work called Murmuration, choreographed by guest artist Edwaard Liang to Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Esoconcerto.

Video via raisingmaggie on Youtube.

The title, Murmuration, is a reference to the motion of flocks of Starlings, and the dance certainly captures the wonder we feel at the movement of birds in flight. In the beginning, a group of dancers slowly assemble onstage in silence. As the music begins, they move and undulate as they are reflected in shadows upon the stage backdrop, multiplying their numbers, shifting from one direction to another. The beauty and power of Liang’s choreography is that the sinuous and subtle nature of his movements are matched to the details of the music perfectly. He is able to set ostinatos, repeated patterns, and ornamental passages in motion with ease and fluidity, never appearing heavy or belabored.

The middle section features dancers who approach and link together as white confetti rains down, evocative of snow or bird feathers. As couples come together, one partner frequently produces a handful of this substance to cover the other, perhaps enchanting or blinding that one into submission. The motion here is very personal, erotic, but pure, and never crass. I have never seen anything quite like it. At one point, we see a new male come onstage and seduce a female of one of the couples. The moment when she is passed from one male to another elicited a gasp or two from the audience, including my own involuntary outburst. Here is a video of that couple from a bit later in the performance. Note the moment at which he seems to see something in the distance and pulls her behind him. Is this illustrative of jealousy and the fear of death, the fear of losing the beloved?

Video via HoustonBallet on Youtube.

The final section returns us to the larger group and there seems to be something more militaristic or threatening in this section, although it is always handled with a lightness and transparency that keeps it firmly in the realm of beauty. Males and females are more segregated at first, but that seems to slowly melt away as we return to a sense of the unified flock. Ultimately, the flock is one entity.

Liang’s choreography was matched by the dancers performances and the exquisite playing of violinist Denise Tarrant with the Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Ermanno Florio. The work is no longer playing at Houston Ballet, but I would certainly recommend searching out any piece choreographed by Edwaard Liang. I was bowled over by the work, although I didn’t have the urge to riot. Have you ever been surprised like this?

3 thoughts on “Startled by a Flock of Birds: Houston Ballet’s Murmuration

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      You are welcome, divamover! I was so inspired by it and the questions it brought up in my mind. I sat next to a violinist who had come to see it for the second time, so I know I wasn’t the only one.

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