Monday, February 23, 2015

Houston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet: A (P)review

[Design sketches by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.]

Last Friday I attended a tech rehearsal of Houston Ballet's world premiere production of Romeo and Juliet. Before then, I didn't even know what a "tech rehearsal" was, but it's the first time the dancers take the rehearsal from their studio to the performance stage with full scenery, in part to ensure that what they've blocked out fits the way they think it will. Artistic Director Stanton Welch, who has created this new production to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, stopped and started the rehearsal at intervals to make small corrections. Ballet Mistress Louise Lester, costume and set designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, and several others observed and assisted as well.

I've gotten ahead of myself, though. Before the rehearsal, we were treated to a tour of the Houston Ballet's Center for Dance, which is connected to the Wortham Center via a skywalk. The building was opened in 2011 but this was my first time beyond the ground-floor auditorium, where I've attended a few dance talks. The building is airy and modern, with two-story sprung-floor rehearsal studios (one as large as the Wortham stage), an impressive weight/physical therapy room, administrative offices, and even dorm rooms for some of the international and underage dancers. I've also since learned that the building is qualified for LEED certification as a "green" building.

One of the fun stops on the tour was the "shoe room," where each company member has a basket with his or her name containing many pairs of shoes. We learned that a single pair of pointe shoes costs between $60 and $105 (they are custom made for each dancer), and a dancer can wear out a pair in a single performance -- so it's no wonder that the shoe budget for the company dancers is $150,000 per year! Dancers are responsible for sewing on their own laces (sometimes using dental floss because it's particularly strong), and they have elaborate rituals for breaking in their shoes before they even put them on -- this is a scene you see in a lot of dance movies for the sake of versimilitude: ballerinas bang the shoes against doors jambs, run them under water, hold lighter flames to them, and so on.

Next, we saw the costume shop, which is a huge, warehouse-like space with shelves of fabric bolts, sewing machines, bulletin boards with sketches and schedules, and even a sign reminding the wardrobe staff that because casting is sensitive, it is not to be discussed with the dancers. When the casting is announced, by the way, a very complicated grid is put up on bulletin boards outside the main rehearsal studio. I only had a second to glance at it; I would have needed a lot more time to figure out how to read it!

(And one more interesting costume tidbit before I move on: if there is not enough time to properly clean a costume between performances, they spray them with vodka to absorb odor!)

As is often the case with major ballet and opera companies, the Houston Ballet creates original productions and eventually rents them out, but also rents from other companies when necessary. For instance, the costumes for their September 2014 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review here) were rented, because even back then the Houston Ballet costume shop was fully occupied with Romeo and Juliet. I have to imagine that the costumes and sets from this production will be in high demand from other companies over the next several years. And, as was the case when I went on a backstage tour of the Houston Grand Opera a year or two ago, I was overwhelmed thinking about all of the logistics that go into planning a season.

After the tour, we walked across the skyway over to the Wortham Center. It's not entirely closed to the elements, but it does keep out the rain, and allows the dancers to move across without having to put on street clothes or traverse the busy intersection below.

Then came the rehearsal, at which the dancers were accompanied by a single piano. Having been a subscriber to the Houston Ballet for seven or eight years, I'm never disappointed in the choreography, but in this case the company has really gone all out on sets and costumes. I have to wonder if it's unusual for the same person to design both -- it seems to me they are related yet quite distinct skill sets -- but the results in this case are spectacular. The "En Pointe with Houston Ballet" blog has a terrific post about the process of costume creation for this production here that is well worth reading. I won't go into the details myself, except to say that sets are lavish and the costumes are actually luscious. Seriously, they were like the visual equivalent of raspberry sorbet -- I wanted to eat them.

My friend and I watched the rehearsal up through the Capulet masquerade with the primary cast, and then the balcony scene with both sets of Romeos and Juliets. And now I can't wait to see the actual performance, when choreography, costumes, set, and orchestral music will be truly integrated. It's going to be lovely. If you want to see a hint, there's a 30-second television promo spot of this ballet, filmed at St. Paul's United Methodist Church here in Houston. And tickets are available here.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Top Chef Finale (Episode 15) - Mano a Mano

This was a terrific finale, and again, it was like that coin being tossed in the air, because I realized as it went on that I really, really wanted Mei to win even though I really, really (how's that for being articulate?) like Gregory too and admire his talent. I loved that they gave them two sous chefs each, I loved that it happened to end up boys against girls, and I loved that they gave them five hours to cook. And I thought neither chef played it safe.

Mae served her meal first at Cent'Anni. Her first course was octopus with a fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree, and herbs. Gail thought it was a stunningly beautiful plate, and the judges thought the flavors were big and bold; the only problem was that they found the octopus itself a little tough and dry.

The second course was a congee (essentially a peasant rice porridge) with carnitas, scallion puree, homemade hot sauce, peanuts, and an egg yolk. This looked pretty amazing, and Tom said it was delicious with great balance. I also loved that it took a classic Asian dish and mixed in some flavors of Mexico.

Mei's third course was duck with braised lettuce, kimchi jicama, and huitlacocche. Gail felt that everything went well together, but Hugh said he wasn't sold on the way the fat was rendered.

Finally, the fourth course was dessert. I couldn't believe when Tom said to the other judges, prior to the course being served, that if he was a chef that didn't normally do sweet desserts, he wouldn't do one now; he would do savory. I was surprised to hear him say that, but I suspect he was worried that a terrific meal might be ended with a medicore dessert, like a chocolate lava cake or something. Well, the dish was one of the two stars of the evening. It was strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble with bee pollen, and yogurt lime ice. Disaster threatened when Mei and her sous chefs, Melissa and Rebecca, realized that things were too sweet, but Mei was able to add more of the tart lime ice to balance it out. Tom admitted at the table that he'd been wrong, and it was the best dessert he'd ever had on Top Chef. Later, at Judges' Table, he said it was one of the best desserts he'd had in his life, and you could tell that Mei was blown away by that. Tom is generally fair but not easy to please -- did you notice the other judges' faces as they waited to find out what Tom thought of the dessert?

The judges then traveled to a restaurant called "The Restaurant" (!) for Gregory's meal. Assisted by Doug and George, Gregory also served octopus for his first course. Specifically, his dish was grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle, passion fruit, and cashew milk. Padma called it sublime, while Tom said it was a "powerhouse" dish, and it was clear they preferred it to Mei's octopus.

Gregory's second course was a shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales, and crispy shrimp heads. One of the guest judges thought it ate like a Mexican gumbo, and they seemed to like it, but the shrimp heads were a little too coarse. They often like some texture like that, but apparently this felt more like having shells in the broth, which they found slightly unpleasant.

The third course was a striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, and tomatillo. Gregory realized that he'd forgotten to add sugar and vinegar to the carrot sauce at the right time, and tried to remedy it by adding sugar at the last minute. Then it was too sweet, so he added salt. But that wasn't enough to compensate, and Tom said that the dish was sweeter than Mei's dessert. He also felt that the fish was not the center of the dish as it should have been.

And finally, another stunning last course: red mole with short ribs and agave sweet potato. Padma kept remarking on the tenderness of the short ribs, and Hugh called the dish spectacular. They definitely all felt it was Gregory's best dish.

By this time, I thought it was fairly straightforward that Gregory took the first course, and Mei the second and the third. So, since both fourth courses were so spectacular, I thought that Mei had the edge. I feel like the judges wanted us to feel more suspense, though, because even though they had earlier remarked on the sweetness of Gregory's third course, and Tom said he preferred Mei's duck to Gregory's fish, which a guest judge noted "felt like a dish from a different chef," they still said that maybe it all came down to the final course, implying that the third course had also been a tie.

In the end, though, they did give it to Mei, which pleased me to no end. Gregory was a strong competitor, and he knows his flavors, but I think the reason I was rooting for Mei so strongly at this point is partly because I thought she would be devastated far more than Gregory by not winning. That's not really a reason to root for someone, but I do also feel like Mei has a shade more technique and refinement than Gregory does.

This was a good season overall.

I don't even know if they did a fan favorite this season, but I would have a tough time picking. It would be between Melissa, Doug, and (!) George -- there's something likeable about him.

And the dish I most wanted to taste: that dessert! I see the Top Chef website has posted the recipe, but I know that it isn't something I could attempt in my wildest dreams. It's funny, I've pretty much lost my sweet tooth as I've grown older; I like one bite of dessert and then I'm done, so I never order it. But that looked amazing. The second dish I would most like to taste is Gregory's mole with short ribs.

Until next season!


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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

This movie was more fun than you can shake a stick at. It's gorgeous, it's sprawling, but most of all it's just fun. I'd been told not to expect too much from the plot, and I did think it was a little bit convoluted, but the actual explanation for why Jupiter (Mila Kunis) was considered so special was more creative and interesting than I expected. Oh, and before I forget to mention it: this is definitely worth seeing on the big screen (and we also enjoyed seeing it in 3-D).

The premise of this movie is that Jupiter Jones, a Russian immigrant whose father was killed during her mother's pregnancy, is chafing against her unglamorous life, which consists of cleaning rich people's houses along with her extended family. She's shocked to learn that several different extraterrestrial factions are pursuing her because she is somehow royalty, and she has to learn quickly how to maneuver among some very experienced manipulators. Then there's action and ships flying around and blowing up and love brewing, and that's about it. It was plenty.

(Spoilers below)


Some of the elements I enjoyed in particular:
  • The fact that the main character is named Jupiter Jones, because that's the name of the main character in the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series books I read as a kid.

  • The bees. When Caine (Channing Tatum) goes to find Stinger, I assumed the hundreds of beehives were there because Stinger was trying to help with our environmental bee crisis, but instead the bees actually served a purpose within the plot.

  • The costumes, oh my lord, the costumes! Jupiter's gowns are slightly less theatrical (aside from that wedding headpiece) but at least as beautiful as Queen Amidala's. I was also taken with the idea of a wedding where the guests wear white and the bride and groom wear white and blood red. (I don't think that could happen in the U.S. very easily since men rarely own white clothes, but I could see a wedding where the female guests wear white and the men wear black, and the bride and groom wear red.)

  • Sean Bean as Stinger Apini. Because... Sean Bean.

  • The fact that when Jupiter is attracted to Caine, she pursues it instead of just waiting for him -- yet she doesn't try and use her position to force him if he's not into her.

  • The aliens because they actually looked alien -- especially the reptilian creatures with wings.

  • Nikki Amuka-Bird as the kick-ass Captain Diomika Tsing. We need more female characters like this in science fiction, where it's taken for granted that they belong in positions of power too.

  • The fact that there's a refinery inside the planet Jupiter's atomsphere unbeknownst to us, and that the extraterrestrials open a shielded vortex through the Great Red Spot to get there.

  • James D'Arcy, also known as Jarvis from Marvel's Agent Carter, as Jupiter's father. I love him as Jarvis, but that character is so upright and serious that the actor seems older than he is; here, we get to see his gorgeous smile and some energy, and it makes him young and appealing.

  • Did I mention Sean Bean? He's pretty much Han Solo in this film -- I almost expected him to go swooping into the Great Red Spot after Caine at the last moment. But that would have been too obviously Han Solo, so right call, I think.

  • The fact that for no reason except that it's fun, the galactic bureaucracy that is the Title Claims Office operates in funky steampunk mode rather than using the shiny high-tech that is apparent everywhere else.

Things I Might Have Changed:
  • I feel pretty strongly that Mila Kunis should have gotten top billing over Channing Tatum.

  • I expected more explanation for Caine's checkered history -- I assumed the entitled he attacked was one of the Abrasax family, but I don't think that was confirmed.

  • I thought that Balem's part was overacted a bit, but I attribute that to direction rather than to the actor. I liked the wispy voice, but the sudden shouting seemed a little too Gary-Oldman-over-the-top to me. That said, Eddie Redmayne did a great job in the part.

  • I actually did like the music (Michael Giacchino) quite a bit, but I felt like it overwhelmed the movie at times, as though it was trying too hard. I want to be aware of film music, but I don't want it to force me to keep noticing it when it's an actual distraction from the story.

  • There were several lines of dialog I simply couldn't understand, and I suspect I'll miss them on a second viewing. I'm glad that DVDs have captions available these days!
On an odd note, this is the first time I have ever seen the following notice in movie credits. It went something like this: "No person or entity associated with this film received payment or anything of value, or entered into any agreement, in connection with the depiction of tobacco products."


Has anyone else ever seen this before? In poking around online, I found this website for "Smoke Free Movies", which discusses the product placement that the tobacco industry has long been known for.


Bravo! I definitely recommended this movie. More of them should be this fun! Read more!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Top Chef Episode 14 - Holy Escamoley


We're almost to the end now.... Doug replaced Melissa by coming back into the competition via Last Chance Kitchen, and Melissa narrowly lost the elimination challenge last week.

Quickfire Challenge

For this episode, Doug, Mei, and Gregory were driven to a beautiful organic farm called Hacienda Purisima de Jalpa, where guest judge Enrique Farjeat and Padma asked them to create two dishes, one savory and one sweet, using chocolate and the fresh ingredients from the farm. I liked this challenge, although I think they should have given them an hour instead of 45 minutes, because it took a full 15 minutes for them to collect their ingredients, which were a not insignificant distance away from the cooking area.

Doug really struggled with this challenge. I don't know how much time he had between his elimination and then flying to Mexico, but since the three original finalists had some time in between, I have to assume he knew that going to Mexico was a distinct possibility for him. So I would have thought that if desserts were a scary prospect for him, he might have spent some time working on that area. I know that if I were going to compete in a cooking challenge in Mexico, I'd try to make sure I learned many different ways to incorporate avocados, chocolate, and jalapenos into my dishes, as well as ways to upscale some traditional items such as tacos. But regardless of where the finale is going to take place, you need to have a couple of desserts down cold, because eventually you will have to make one.

Doug's savory dish looked quite nice, however. He made a seared hen with onions, tomatoes, chocolate, and ancho chilis. His dessert was melted chocolate onto which he poured chocolate mezcal, with white chocolate "cream" on top. Mei served duck with bitter greens and a chocolate mezcal-based sauce, and a chocolate yogurt with nasturtiums and crushed cocoa nibs. Gregory hit a snag when he accidentally started melting cocoa butter instead of the white chocolate he'd intended to pick up, but he bounced back and presented seared lamb with white chocolate ancho sauce and a green chorizo vinaigrette. His dessert was baby carrots with turmeric, dark chocolate, ginger, and rosemary.

Although I think Mei did fine on both of her dishes, I wasn't at all surprised when Gregory won. With chocolate, it's too easy to go for a pudding or a mousse, or in Mei's case, a yogurt, and there isn't much interesting about the texture. Although I'm not a vegetarian, I tend to eat meatless meals more days than not, and one of my biggest complaints with vegetarian dishes is that too many have the consistency of mush. That's how I felt about the chocolate desserts, aside from Gregory's. It was easily the most creative of the three.

As the winner, Gregory got to choose his sous chef for the elimination challenge first, and I was pleased when he chose George -- partly because I wanted Mei to get to choose Melissa, and partly because I think George's skill level and his professionalism mean that he was a good choice. Then Mei got Melissa, and Doug chose Katsuji. I still don't really understand why Doug is willing to put his trust in Katsuji like that, but hey, he's spent a lot more time with him than I have, so he must be seeing something I'm not.


Elimination Challenge

For the Elimination Challenge, the chefs were told to work together on a six-course progressive meal, with each chef responsible for two dishes highlighting one of six classic Mexican ingredients: guava, avocado, Mexican cheeses, poblano peppers, escamole (ant eggs), and huitlacohe (a fungus that grows in ears of corn).

I have to admit, I got slightly annoyed with all three chefs during the discussion/planning phase: Gregory and Mei because they steamrolled Doug into taking on two ingredients he didn't want, and Doug because he let them. I hate fighting and drama on these shows, but if I were him, I would have pointed out that nobody said it was OK to simply shout "shotgun" to get what you want. Doug could have said he would take the least favorite ingredient on the condition that he then get to choose his other one from all the rest, or he could have insisted on drawing straws. But it doesn't do much good to say "I don't want either of these" and then take them, complaining that you got screwed. I also noticed that in the car, Gregory said "I don't want to do dessert" even though he had guava, one of the two logical choices for dessert. Considering that he got both ingredients he wanted, I would have liked to see him a little more willing to compromise.

Sigh....

When the shopping began, I was still a little impatient. If these ingredients are required, they should have been provided. Doug and Katsuji shouldn't have had to spend that much of their shopping time looking for the escamole, or ant eggs. Thank goodness Katsuji speaks Spanish, or it could have been a real problem.

In the end, I thought that the dishes looked amazing. The chefs had decided to try and go lightest dishes to heaviest for courses 1-5, ending with a light dish at the end. Gregory served the first course, a chilled guava soup with bay scallops, habaneras, and roasted guava. The judges found it fresh and balanced, with just the right amount of heat for a perfect starter. Recurring judge Richard Blais noted that making a fruit soup that sophisticated is much harder than people would think.

Mei served the second course, which was centered around avocado. Visually, her dish was a play on a sushi roll; her beautifully sliced avocado was served with xoconostle (remember the prickly pear from last episode?), radish, serrano, and tortilla chips. Unfortunately, most of the judges found the flavors too simple for a Top Chef finale dish. I thought that was a shame, because she really, truly highlighted the Mexican ingredient that they wanted highlighted, and made it look amazing. If she'd gone with a little more xoconostle on the inside, to raise it above just guacamole, that might have made the difference for them.


Doug went third with the escamole course, serving a tortilla EspaƱol with escamoles and escamoli aioli (seasoned mayonnaise). Richard thought going with aioli was brilliant, but one of the guest judges, Eduardo Palazuelos, wanted more escamole flavor, and Tom said that texture and taste-wise, he couldn't tell where the potatoes ended and the escamoles began.

Mei came back for the fourth course, serving a huitlacohe agnolotti (small ravioli) with roasted corn broth and parsley. Eduardo Palazuelos said that the huitlacohe was a little bitter, but later seemed to acknowledge that the sweetness of the corn broth helped balance that.

Gregory served the fifth course, a pork and poblano stew with tomatillos. I first worried that he might get dinged for serving a soup and a stew in the same meal, but the judges loved it, and Tom later called the dish the "star of the show." The guest judges certainly seemed to feel that the dish represented the best of Mexican cuisine, and Tom complimented the stew's texture and earthiness.

Last but not least, Doug served a cheese course as dessert: smoked queso fresco with spiced honey, squash chips, and charred pickles. The judges thought that Doug did a terrific job with a course that was probably the most difficult. As someone who always orders a cheese course in lieu of sweet dessert when that option is available to me, I was dying to taste this dish.

Not surprisingly based on the judges' discussion, Gregory was the clear winner of the challenge. I was glad to see him do well, but again, I felt that Doug was (and allowed himself to be) a little short-changed in this challenge. Mei and Gregory were certainly willing to let the judges get the idea that everyone got the ingredients they wanted, but the judges knew better. I'm glad Doug said it was really a "grab and go" but that they didn't belabor the issue at this point, when it wouldn't do any good.

Nonetheless, I admit I was hoping at this point that Mei would get to stay, partly because I think her guacamole dish was more creative than they gave her credit for; partly because unlike Doug, Mei never went home and had to come back via Last Chance Kitchen; and partly because I think she's extremely talented. I think it's a positive thing that the finale will come down to Mei and Gregory, because now that Gregory has gotten his groove back, I think they probably are the two most talented chefs from this season.

Based on the previews, it looks like the finale will be the Battle of the Sexes, because Gregory will have male sous chefs and Mei will have female sous chefs.

Dish I Most Wanted to Taste: Doug's cheese course, without a doubt. Although Mei's avocado "sushi" was so pretty I wanted to have that too.






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