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Houston Ballet News: New Home For Dance

Houston's New Home for Dance Houston Ballet's Center for Dance

by Mitchell J. Shields

At the moment, the property at Smith and Preston, cater-corner to Wortham Theater Center and just south of where an exit from I-10 daily releases a flood of commuters into the city, is just one more of Houston's urban construction zones. A scraped clean oblong of ground tilts forward into a hole being excavated on the north side. Cranes rise upward. Bulldozers rearrange the earth. Atop Wortham Theater Center, a web camera keeps an eye on it all. (www.oxblue.com/pro/open/houstonballet/centerfordance)

In less than two years, though, something notable will rise out of that ground, six levels of glass, stucco, and black granite that will give Houston Ballet something it has never had before - an unmistakable presence in the heart of its home city. It would be an exaggeration to say that the new building, which has been named Houston Ballet Center for Dance, is the future of the nation's fourth largest ballet company. But it would probably not be an exaggeration to say that the building, scheduled to open in Spring 2011, will allow Houston Ballet to have the future that it so eagerly wants.

In general, architecture and dance do not have a great deal in common. They may both be about presenting a pleasant image to the viewer, even about attitude, but architecture in its essence is static. It is built. It stays. Dance, on the other hand, is fluid, ever changing. Even the most familiar works can take on new identities with a shift in emphasis, a rearrangement of tone. Despite that, though, dance can be strongly dependent on architecture.

The most obvious connection can be found in the venues where dance is presented. A first rate theater can't help but enhance the experience of watching a ballet performance. But a ballet company's headquarters may matter just as much. It's not only where a company's dancers take class and rehearse, and where the next generation of performers is schooled, but also in a great way where a company's sense of self is created. It may be a cliché to say home is where the heart is, but sometimes clichés have their genesis in fact.

For the last two and a half decades the heart of Houston Ballet, or at least that part of its heart not seen in performance onstage, has been found in a renovated clothing factory on West Gray. When it opened in the mid-1980s, the West Gray facility was the envy of some other ballet companies. Its 50,000 square feet of space gave Houston Ballet, and in particular its dance academy, room to grow. But it wasn't too long before that growth began to push at the West Gray building's walls. And in the last few years those walls have even begun to bend.

"It's an old building," says Cecil C. Conner Jr., Houston Ballet Managing Director, "and it has all the problems an old building has. When there's a thunderstorm we lose our electricity, our phones, our computers. In some places the walls have started to bulge."

"For rehearsals, for costume fittings, for everything on a daily basis we just don't have enough space," adds artistic director Stanton Welch. "The school, after about 3:30 p.m. every day, could have about ten classes going, and that could last until 9 at night. But if we did that we'd have no space for rehearsals. So we have to reduce rehearsals or school classes. We don't have room for more community dance, like jazz. It's just very limiting in what we're able to do."

More practically, Welch notes, operating in an old factory can be an adventure. "Our West Gray building is very nice, but when it rains, we have buckets throughout the studios," he says. "We dance around wet patches. We can't hear the music when it rains, so we have to stop rehearsing. It's not exactly the best situation."

That's one reason why, when Houston Ballet's board of directors asked Welch and Conner to come up with a wish list of what they wanted, high up on that list was a new building. And not just any new building, but one located downtown within walking distance to Wortham Theater Center.

The building was an easy sell; the downtown location a little less so. But the board soon agreed that the extra cost of a central city address was more than made up for by everything it allowed. As Marshall Strabala, design director at the architectural firm Gensler and the man who ended up with the commission to create Houston Ballet's new headquarters, points out, "Houston Ballet is in the odd situation of having to take to the road to perform in its own hometown. Every time it puts on a new show it has to truck people and costumes in from West Gray to Wortham Theater Center."

So one of the first requirements for the new building was simple: it had to be able to connect directly to Wortham Theater Center's back stage. Houston Ballet wanted its dancers to be able to walk from rehearsal and studio space to performance space. That desire led to the purchase of a square block of land bounded by Smith, Preston, Congress, and Louisiana streets. In the early 1990s, the lot had housed a Bank One drive through, but for years it had been used only for surface parking. Since Houston Ballet really only needed the western half of the block for its purposes, it turned around and sold the eastern half to a developer who also purchased the West Gray facility. The profits from that combined sale ended up paying for ground from which Houston Ballet's new Center for Dance would rise.

It might seem that the next logical step would have been for the architect to decide the look of the building. But according to Strabala, something else needed to be done first: determine what the building should do. Rather than being designed from the outside in, he says, Houston Ballet's new home to be was created from the inside out. "Buildings are nothing more than containers for people," Strabala says. "If you understand what people are going to do in a building, and make it a place where they want to be and can function well, and then use that as an expression of what's going on, you not only get more original buildings, but buildings where the people inside are happier."

Gensler sponsored what is known as a visioning session, in which the different groups that would be housed in the building were brought together and asked what they wanted Houston Ballet's Center for Dance to do. Some of the desires were obvious, some less so. Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy, wanted room for more dance classes and the space and facilities to carry out an ever-expanding program of community outreach. But she also wanted to make sure that parents would feel comfortable when dropping their children off and that there would be easy access for school buses. The administrative staff wanted offices where the systems weren't always threatening to break down, but they also wanted to be less isolated from the artistic side of Houston Ballet. Stanton Welch wanted more and better studio space, but he also wanted a dance laboratory that could house choreographer workshops allowing Houston Ballet to experiment with different types of dance.

What everyone agreed on, however, was for the need to have the building be an advertisement for dance. They wanted it to be clear to anyone passing by that the structure at Congress, Smith, and Preston was home to a ballet company. The result is an 115,000 square-feet, six-story mid-rise whose north and west faces will be filled with sheets of glass. Studios - there will be nine in all, three more than there are at West Gray - will be placed on the outer edge of the building, both to take advantage of the natural light and so that anyone driving or walking by could see dancers honing their craft. On the first floor will be a dance laboratory that can seat 200. On the top floor will be dormitory rooms for upper level academy students. The flow of the building is laid out to bring company members, students at the ballet academy, and administrators together on a regular basis. "The whole gist of the building," says Strabala, "was to try to create connections between all the people who make up the ballet."

There is also that connection to Wortham Theater Center, an aerial walkway angled across Smith and Preston that ties into Wortham Theater Center's northeast corner. The walkway's façade will display images of dance, yet one more advertisement for the dual purpose of the buildings it brings together. At one point there was some thought given to using red brick on Houston Ballet's Center for Dance to echo the look of Wortham Theater Center. But it was decided early on that the building needed it's own identity, one that would complement Wortham Theater Center, but make it clear that Houston Ballet's Center for Dance had its own distinct purpose. "So we chose to have a façade of black granite, because dance is about contrast and drama, light and dark, black and white," says Strabala. "So the whole idea of the building is to reinforce the nature of surprise, interest, lighting, and movement."

Accomplishing all of this, of course, doesn't come cheap. While the $53 million estimated cost of Houston Ballet's Center for Dance isn't particularly extravagant as buildings go, it's still a considerable amount to raise, particularly in times of economic uncertainty. According to managing director Conner, the building is already 70 percent pledged. Houston Ballet's board is passionately committed to this project and believes Houston Ballet can realistically raise the remainder of funds needed to complete the building.

Then will come funding for all the extended services and activities the building will help make possible. Ultimately, Houston Ballet hopes to increase its endowment by another $40 million. It's an ambitious goal, Conner admits. But without a strong dose of ambition, few noteworthy goals are ever met.

And the goals Houston Ballet has for the future are, if nothing else, noteworthy. Shelly Power is hoping to increase the outreach to students from Houston schools from a total of 13,000 in 2000 to 30,000 in 2015. Dormitory space would also help Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy expand its recruiting of international ballet students. And the downtown location, easily reachable by a growing network of light rail trains, would aid in making the students the academy attracts as diverse as the city of Houston itself.

Welch notes that the dance laboratory will also give Houston Ballet options it has never had before. Such spaces are becoming common in Europe, he says, but are still rare in the US. "When you try to make ballets, you want to be on the front line of creation," says Welch. "And when you're doing a big commercial venture you have to be safer in your guesses sometimes. I think that the dance laboratory will help us do our explorations on our own terms." The laboratory could also, he notes, become a main venue for many of Houston's smaller dance companies, helping to keep the entire dance community more closely connected.

But perhaps most important, Welch says, the new Center for Dance will both be a physical expression of the artistic level Houston Ballet has reached, and bring it up to date with other major companies across America. "I think we're behind," says Welch. "Houston Ballet has been for a long time a world power dance company. It's not a regional company. Yet our facility is semi-regional. We're overdue for something better, and to have a place to advertise ourselves constantly downtown will be great. It's a place where visiting dancers, visiting choreographers, students, potential donors, and audience members can walk in and say, wow, this city really does support the ballet. That's a reaction you can build on."