On 9 March Houston Ballet premieres Michael Daugherty’s Summer & Smoke, choreographed by Cathy Marston, in a run of six performances. Marston’s ballet is an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 drama of sexual and spiritual transformation in early twentieth-century Mississippi.  Alma, a religious minister’s daughter, is associated with a spiritual world of the soul, while John is a flirtatious young doctor associated with the physical world of the body. These roles are eventually reversed and transformed as their relationship deepens.

Summer & Smoke was commissioned by Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theater. It is Daugherty’s second ballet score, following Labyrinth of Love (2012), co-commissioned by Rambert. Summer & Smoke reflects a longstanding preoccupation of Daugherty’s music with iconic aspects of American cultural history, which have also had choreographic treatments. In 2000 Rambert toured his Le Tombeau de Liberace, choreographed by Javier de Frutos; in 2001 de Frutos also choreographed his Niagara Falls for the Linbury Studio at London’s Royal Opera House. 2014 saw the premiere of the Northern Ballet’s Dracula, which included Daugherty’s Red Cape Tango from Metropolis Symphony, choreographed by David Nixon.

Daugherty’s 60-minute score for Summer & Smoke draws on a host of American musical traditions: there is carnival music, a marching band, and a Baptist hymn that returns, transfigured each time, as the piece unfolds. The central tension between the two principal characters is reflected in Daugherty’s music clashing tonal and atonal idioms.