History of Houston Ballet
Dance: The Early Years In The 1950'S
In 1955, the founding members of Houston Ballet Foundation had a vision for dance in Houston: to create a resident ballet company and to start a school which would train its dancers. Houston Ballet Academy was established that same year under the leadership of Tatiana Semenova, a former dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1969, the professional company was founded, under the direction of Nina Popova, a former dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre.
The Fulfillment of a Goal: "One of America's Best Ballet Companies" - The New York Times
Houston Ballet Foundation has seen the fulfillment of its goals: an internationally acclaimed ballet company which is now America’s fifth largest and an academy which supplies over 60 percent of the company's dancers. The New York Times has hailed Houston Ballet as "one of the nation’s best ballet companies." The company is comprised of 55 dancers, including artists who have won medals at major international ballet competitions.
Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet's Artistic Director: Revitalizing the Dance Company Over the Last Five Years
In July 2003, the acclaimed Australian choreographer Stanton Welch assumed the leadership of Houston Ballet as artistic director. Mr. Welch, who has created ballets for many of the world's leading companies, has choreographed eighteen works especially for Houston Ballet. The Financial Times of London has praised his leadership of Houston Ballet, citing "a strong, invigorated company whose male contingent is particularly impressive, a well drilled corps and an enviable selection of soloists and principals."
Ben Stevenson Transforms the Ballet Company in the 1970's
From 1976-2003, Englishman Ben Stevenson, O.B.E., a former dancer with Britain's Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, served as artistic director of Houston Ballet. He established a core of permanent choreographers whose works have greatly enriched the company’s repertory. In 1989, Sir Kenneth MacMillan joined the company as artistic associate and Christopher Bruce was named resident choreographer. Sir Kenneth worked with the company from 1989 until his death in 1992, setting five of his pieces on Houston Ballet dancers. Mr. Bruce, who currently holds the title of associate choreographer, has set eleven works on the company, including four pieces created especially for Houston Ballet.
A Great Leap Forward for Ballet in the 1980's: A New Houston Theater and a Growing Endowment
In 1987, the company moved into its new performance space, the magnificent Wortham Theater Center, a state-of-the-art facility in which the company currently performs over 75 performances seven months a year. In April 2011, the company took a great leap forward, opening into its $46.6 million, six-story, 115,000-square-foot facility, Houston Ballet Center for Dance. Designed by the internationally acclaimed architecture firm Gensler, it is America's largest professional dance facility, located behind Wortham Theater Center in the heart of Houston's Theater District.
Throughout its extraordinary growth period, Houston Ballet's operating expenses have grown from less than $1 million in 1975 to over $18 million today. In May 1987, the company launched an ambitious endowment drive. Houston Ballet's endowment stands at $54.8 million, as of June 30, 2011, making it one of the largest endowments of any dance company in the United States.
Houston Ballet has also taken the lead in arranging collaborations with major American ballet companies to nurture the creation of new major productions, among them Dracula (1997) with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT); The Snow Maiden (1998) and The Pied Piper (2002) with American Ballet Theatre; Cleopatra (2000) with PBT and Boston Ballet; The Firebird (2001) with the National Ballet of Canada; and Carnival of the Animals (2007) with Pennsylvania Ballet. James Nelson assumed the position of executive director in February 2012, having served as general manager of Houston Ballet for eleven years prior to that.
Houston Ballet Tours to Europe, Asia, Canada, and Cities Across the U.S. to Dance
Through hard work and dedication, Houston Ballet Foundation has ensured Houston Ballet's place as a major cultural asset in the community and as one of the leading ballet companies in the world. The company has toured extensively to critical praise in Europe, the United Kingdom, Asia, Canada, and in cities throughout the United States. In July 1995, Houston Ballet was the first full American ballet company invited by the Chinese government to tour the People's Republic of China. An estimated 500 million people witnessed Houston Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet when the company’s opening night performance was telecast live on Chinese television. Over the last ten years, the company has emerged as one the most effective international ambassadors for the City of Houston, performing in London, New York, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
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Houston Ballet: A Historical Sketch
By Carl Cunningham
Legends abound concerning the first efforts to establish a professional ballet company in Houston. They go back to the storied days when Col. de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (the final reincarnation of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes) annually spent the Christmas season in Houston, regaling audiences with their full touring repertoire for 11 years beginning sometime during the 1930s. The touring company's leading dancers were put up at the Rice Hotel, while less stellar members had to find their own quarters, often housed by friends they made among Houston audiences. It was a happy time for holiday partying and it gave the Ballet Russe dancers a welcome rest from the rigors of train travel and one-night stands.
But the desire among patrons for a resident dance company grew stronger. When Tatiana Semenova, a former Ballet Russe dancer, brought her 4-year-old American Youth Ballet from Baton Rouge to perform at San Jacinto High School (now Houston Community College) in the spring of 1955, Natasha Rawson, a former Russian-trained dancer and president of Houston’s Allied Arts Association, was in attendance and gathered a group to support an invitation to sponsor her here. Semenova accepted and a state charter was obtained to establish a Foundation for Ballet in Houston July 26, 1955, with 34 charter members sponsoring the organization. Rawson lived long enough to see Houston Ballet begin its 40th anniversary season.
Semenova was born July 17, 1920, in St. Petersburg but moved to Paris at age 5, where she studied with the former Russian Imperial prima ballerina assoluta, Mathilda Kschessinska. She joined Basil’s troupe at age 12, later joined the Paris Opera Ballet and formed the Foxhole Ballet during World War II, entertaining the troops in Europe and Africa. Her performing career ended when she fell through a bomb-damaged stage in Rome, injuring her left knee and right arm.
Semenova began teaching in the fall of 1955, in a dance studio Bolton had designed for her by raising the ceiling, providing a proper dance floor and generally renovating a garage at 813 Lovett Blvd., adjoining his architectural offices. It was the first of five locations where the foundation’s dancers have trained. By March 21, 1956, she presented 12 student dancers (six girls, six boys) in her first dance recital, Esquisse de Ballet. Similar programs, demonstrations, open rehearsals and lectures were given frequently throughout the next decade at the Academy, and at schools, religious institutions, convention and community halls and touring venues, including Bryan and Palestine.
Most importantly, the Foundation for Ballet reached out to underprivileged students, establishing a scholarship program with the Neighborhood Centers Association to train students at Ripley House in Houston's East End, later advancing selected students into the Academy. Academy students performed dance sequences in seven annual Houston Grand Opera productions, from Rossini’s La cenerentola in 1957 through the production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette in February 1965.
Semenova’s first big production, "Enigma," received its world premiere at the Music Hall (now Hobby Center) February 23, 1959, with the Houston Symphony performing selections by Elgar under the baton of Robert Irving, principal conductor of the New York City Ballet. Act One told how the Goddess of Happiness overcame the evil spell of wicked Oberlin and returned the captured Princess Aurelia to her forlorn lover, the Welsh king, Artus. The second-act divertissements found bowers of dancing Flowers replacing a corps of overgrown Weeds from the first act scenario, and a latterly-reformed Oberlin joining in the wedding festivities for Aurelia and Artus.
Act Two was repeated in 1960, sharing the bill with Semenova’s choreography of Dvořák’s Serenade in E and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. In May, 1964, her final venture occurred in the smaller Fine Arts Center auditorium of St. John’s School on Westheimer St. Sound and Motion began with contemporary chamber music played by Houston Symphony musicians, followed by her choreography of Francis Poulenc’s wind/piano sextet, with a scenario set in a Venetian palace.
Six months before that performance, a confluence of events initiated a gradual parting of the ways between the foundation’s board and Semenova. In December 1963, the Ford Foundation awarded the Foundation for Ballet in Houston a $173,750 grant, to be matched dollar-for-dollar over five years. Because of Semenova’s high artistic standards, which impressed Ford Foundation officer McNeil Lowery, the grant hinged upon her continuing as artistic director.
However, the board felt Semenova’s productions had never risen much above the dance recital level and the goal of a true professional ensemble had not been achieved, even after a decade. And Semenova’s fine artistic discipline was periodically accompanied by sarcastic scolding and harsh treatment of her students. These temperamental outbursts became a matter of increasing concern to the board, which issued repeated warnings to her. The matter came to a head in May 1966, when Semenova was asked to resign as artistic director but remain as a teacher, while board member Bennett Black was named executive director of the Academy. She declined, left her position and formed her own teaching studio, remaining in Houston until her death September 24, 1996. As a consequence, the unmatched portion of the Ford Foundation grant was lost.
Left rudderless almost on the eve of an October 1966 arts festival inaugurating the new Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, the (now re-named) Houston Ballet Foundation regrouped with astounding speed, suddenly engaging and sponsoring the Houston debut of the young, new Joffrey Ballet as its exciting contribution to that festival. Holgar Linden, a young dancer/teacher from Philadelphia who had applied for a position as an assistant to Semenova, took over teaching duties at the Academy as an interim artistic director, while a new artistic director, Nina Popova from New York’s High School for the Arts, was engaged to begin her tenure February 1, 1967.
By mid-December 1967, Popova had trained a corps of students to perform in an elegant full-length production of Giselle, featuring Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn, two of the greatest superstars on the international ballet scene. If ever one wanted to believe the tale of the phoenix bird rising from its ashes, Houston Ballet Foundation was making it happen right on the Jones Hall stage.
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The Fledgling Years: 1967-1976
When Nina Popova began selecting and training dancers for a professional company in the spring of 1968, Houston Ballet and its Academy were occupying their third rented quarters. In 1963, they briefly exchanged their original Lovett Blvd. studio in a renovated garage for a second-floor studio at 5115 Westheimer, in what is now the Galleria area. In 1964, they moved to a more centrally located second-story location at 2018 West Gray, with two studios and a small office. There, the student academy, and later the fledgling company, operated for 12 years of amazing though turbulent growth under four different artistic directors and four different business managers.
Russian-born, Paris-trained Popova succeeded Tatiana Semenova after a 10-year career dancing in two Ballet Russe companies and Ballet Theatre, plus a 12-year teaching career at New York's High School for the Arts and in Mexico. During her eight years here, she hired Michael Lland, Nicholas Polajenko, James Clouser and Eugene Tanner in successive long-term positions as teachers, choreographers or ballet masters for the young company.
Auditions for dancers were held in Houston, Dallas, New York and Los Angeles during the fall of 1968, and 16 dancers began the first season, rehearsing and touring 20 Texas communities. They made their Jones Hall debut May 14, 1969. The company included four Academy-trained Houstonians, with imported dancers Judith Aaen and Anthony Sellers as principals. The program included a piece called Workout by Bill Atkinson and Ann Etgen of Dallas, the pas de deux from Auguste Bournonville's Flower Festival at Genzano, Sound of Silence, a new modern dance work by Houston's Camille Long Hill, Herbert Ross's Caprichos based on etchings by Goya, and George Balanchine's Pas de Dix.
Expenses for the company and academy totaled nearly $187,000 for the 1968-69 season and there was an undetermined deficit. Houston Ballet Foundation went bravely ahead, expanding with three Jones Hall performances in 1969-70, fall and spring tours as far as Odessa, Lubbock and Los Alamos, New Mexico, and seven new productions for 15 dancers performing a 26-week season.
But the money very nearly wasn't there to meet a $200,000 funding goal to keep the company afloat. By mid-February 1970, a financial crisis threatened to shut Houston Ballet down if $62,000 wasn't raised almost immediately. Funds did come in and Houston Ballet continued its march into history, but with a curtailed 20-week 1970-71 season – most of it spent on the road touring.
Two people bridged the gap between former artistic director Tatiana Semenova and Popova until the summer of 1970, and then left under honorable conditions. Holgar Linden was a useful interim artistic director, then staff teacher under Popova, also choreographing small recitals. Arnold Mercado, history professor and fine arts director at St. John's School, coordinated business matters – including booking the company's initial tours. He resigned, to the "deep regret" of the board, resuming graduate studies at Rice University.
Mercado was replaced by Allen Thompson for the 1970-71 season, then by George New, former Houston journalist and communications director at Rice University, until mid-March 1972. By the 1971-72 season, Houston Ballet was dancing a restored 26-week season with an expanded 18-member company and tours to the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest. New works included Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, and Allegro Brilliante, Mazilier's Paquita and William Dollar's Le Combat.
Every aspect of the company leapt forward with the April 1972 appointment of Henry Holth, who had been the experienced manager of the Boston Ballet. The Boston Ballet's Nutcracker production was shared for six post-Christmas Jones Hall performances with Houston Ballet's first use of a live orchestra. The number of dancers increased to 27, then to 32 in 1973-74. Tours took the company to Vancouver, Canada, in 1972 and Melbourne, Florida, in 1975.
James Clouser alternated with Tanner as ballet master over the next two seasons, the budget rose to $457,000 and the fund drive rose to $276,000. The business office took space in Jones Hall that had been vacated by Houston Grand Opera in April 1973, and a new push was made for a Ford Foundation grant, which resulted in a four-year $203,582 matching grant in September 1973. It was designed to replace annual deficits with cash reserve funds.
To bolster the size of Jones Hall audiences, guest stars were invited to front the company. American Ballet Theater's Cynthia Gregory appeared first in a 1973 Paquita. She returned, along with Dame Margot Fonteyn, Desmond Kelly, Allegra Kent, Edward Villella, Natalia Makarova and Ivan Nagy during the next few seasons. More solo and leading dancers were added to the company, notably the showy Finnish married couple, Leo Ahonen and Soili Arvola.
Clouser returned from a year's educational leave in the spring of 1974 to become an increasingly popular resident choreographer. After the board discussed concerns about Popova's organizational skills and received a grievance letter about morale problems signed by a number of dancers, Popova was offered a lower position as a teacher for the 1975-76 season, but abruptly resigned in February 1975.
Clouser, who had staged two haunting dance fantasies, Through a Glass Lightly in 1973 and especially Carmina Burana in the spring of 1974, was named acting artistic director while the board searched for a permanent new artistic director. He choreographed several new ballets, including a lavish premiere of Allen's Landing, the first in a multi-season trilogy based on Texas themes, honoring the U. S. bicentennial.
Though Clouser was resourceful, talented and popular with audiences and company dancers, British-born Ben Stevenson was chosen by the board's artistic committee for his classical foundation, his intense interest in training Academy students, and his international contacts that could attract the best talent to Houston. The decision was a terrible shock to Clouser and the company, especially when the dancers pressed Stevenson for a quick decision on which ones would be retained. Alas, they quickly learned that 17 of the 28 dancers would not have their contracts renewed. Subsequently, Stevenson said he felt backed into a corner by the dancers' demand, and said he might have acted differently if they had given him more time to observe their performing abilities.
Amid the turmoil, Mrs. Harmon Whittington, a generous board member, financed the purchase of new ground-level quarters at 2615 Colquitt, with four studios nearly tripling Houston Ballet's available rehearsal space to 17,500 square feet. And though Clouser quickly resigned, citing health reasons, he enjoyed one last hurrah with Houston Ballet's world premiere of his rock ballet, Caliban, in May 1976.
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Rise to Power: 1976-1987
When 38-year old Ben Stevenson became artistic director of Houston Ballet in the fall of 1976, he brought a wealth of training from his youth in England and from formative experiences working with three U. S. ballet companies. He had attended London's Arts Educational School, became a soloist with the Sadler's Wells Ballet, then was named principal dancer and ballet master of London Festival Ballet for a decade.
In 1969, he was appointed as director of the Harkness Youth Dancers. Then, he became a prominent guest choreographer and co-director of Washington National Ballet in the early 1970s, and director of Ruth Page's short-lived Chicago Ballet in 1974-75. But financial problems brought about the demise of all three companies and Stevenson came to Houston, highly recommended but seeking some permanency with a financially stable company.
Stevenson's unwavering goal of building a company by training its dancers in a resident academy won full support from Houston Ballet Foundation's trustees and he rode on a wave of astounding growth to bring the company to maturity. But it took time to implement that policy. Having retained only 12 of the 28 dancers from Houston Ballet's Popova/Clouser years, Stevenson had to import nearly two-thirds of his company members.
Initially, four of the five principals were retained: Leo Ahonen, Soili Arvola, Matti Tikkanen, and especially, Andrea Vodehnal, who had begun her childhood training in Houston and had enjoyed a 19-year international career with Ballet Russe, American Festival Ballet and the Washington National Ballet before its demise. But several new dancers from the defunct Washington and/or Chicago companies followed Stevenson to Houston, becoming leading members of Houston Ballet over the next five to 10 years. They included soloists Suzanne Longley, Rosemary Miles, Janie Parker and Dorio Pérez, and corps dancers Michael Bjerknes, Thomas Boyd, Jennifer Holmes, William Pizzuto and Kristine Richmond.
Strong theatrical values were often found in Stevenson's productions of full-length classics: Cinderella and Graduation Ball (1976), Swan Lake (1977), Sleeping Beauty (1978), and Giselle (1979), along with the 1977 world premiere of Australian choreographer Ronald Hynd's full-length revival of Jacques Offenbach's long-forgotten tragicomedy, Papillon, and Australian Barry Moreland's sleek Prodigal Son in Ragtime (1978).
Along with the Houston premiere of his award-winning young-lovers-at-the-barre ballet, Three Preludes, Stevenson enriched Houston Ballet's repertoire with several striking shorter works: his haunting setting of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, (1981), Hans van Manen's austere Adagio Hammerklavier (1982), John Cranko's light romantic comedy, The Lady and the Fool (1978) and Sir Frederick Ashton's coyly choreographed Two Pigeons (1983).
Touring activities steadily expanded throughout the Stevenson era, growing from regional Texas, Midwestern and Southeastern tours to national tours that took the company from Los Angeles to several major Canadian cities, New York and Washington, DC, by the mid-1980s. These tours greatly heightened Houston Ballet's national image, resulting in longer touring residencies in larger cities while providing major budgetary support and lengthening the dancers' annual employment contracts.
Stevenson's adaptation of the Ibsen/Grieg Peer Gynt (1981) became his first original full-length ballet. Two years later, it was the highlight in Houston Ballet's second European tour, when the company was invited to open Norway's 1983 Bergen Festival in the city's Grieg Hall.
The revered European ballet executive, J. B. ("Jeannot") Cerrone, merited great credit for Houston Ballet's international touring success after he became general manager of the company in 1980. He guided Houston Ballet until 1987, when he became president of the new Harid Foundation Dance Academy in Boca Raton, Florida.
Stevenson himself brought growing recognition from Asia with his 1979 invitation from Columbia University's Cultural Exchange Center to teach a month of classes at the Beijing Academy of Dance. Upon his return, he invited two Chinese students, Li Cunxin and Zhang Weiqiang, for summer classes at Houston Ballet Academy. Li's strong technique won him an extended stay, but his sudden marriage to an Academy student and his refusal to return to China when his visa expired, momentarily caused an international incident. When the issue was resolved in Li's favor, he was permitted to join the company and quickly rose to become Houston Ballet's most popular principal male dancer. Li's 2003 autobiography, Mao's Last Dancer, recounts the incident and has been made into an internationally acclaimed feature film.
Throughout the 1980s, Houston Ballet Foundation vigorously prepared itself for the day when the company could free itself from a crowded Jones Hall schedule shared with the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and the Society for the Performing Arts. While the separate Lyric Theater Foundation struggled through a mid-1980s recession to raise some $70 million to build Houston's Wortham Center for the ballet and opera companies, the ballet foundation quietly and quickly raised $5 million to buy, renovate and equip a two-story dress factory as a huge new training, rehearsal and office facility for the growing company, student academy and administrative staff. 1921 West Bell became Houston Ballet's fifth address in 30 years.
To prepare for an expanded performance schedule on the larger Wortham Center stage, the company increased during Stevenson's first 11 years from 28-43 dancers, plus three apprentice dancers from the academy. The budget grew from a little more than $1 million to $5.5 million. The Houston Ballet Orchestra gradually dissolved its contractual association with the Houston Symphony, growing in size from 38-59 musicians as it formed a stable independent ensemble. And the academy enrollment grew from some 300 to 650 students.
Fifteen years of debt-free financing for this burgeoning enterprise were bolstered by aggressive fund-raising campaigns, constant cost-reduction measures and the establishment of an annual autumn Nutcracker Market, imitating Europe's historic Christmas markets. It was initiated by entrepreneurial board member Preston Frazier in 1981. The Nutcracker Market grew into a huge event that earned 10 percent of Houston Ballet's annual budget by the end of the century.
Houston Ballet was also quick to establish an endowment fund, which grew from $160,000 in 1979 to $868,000 by 1987. Then, on the eve of the Wortham Center opening, the company launched a $15-million endowment fund drive, almost immediately raising $6.3 million in pledges.
And so, after everybody had rigorously faced and sorted through all the challenges involved in this astounding 11-year growth period, the dancers were able to step proudly onto Wortham Center's new Brown Theater stage September 2, 1987. They celebrated that joyous moment dancing the breathtaking Houston Ballet premiere of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet in the opulent Ben Stevenson/David Walker production that became a a staple in the company's repertoire for more than two decades.
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The Company Comes of Age: 1987-2003
The opening of Wortham Center in the fall of 1987 marked the beginning of a new era for Houston Ballet. Suddenly, the dancers had a properly resilient, springy dance floor under their feet, a deeper stage with much more dancing room and theatrical accoutrements that opened new production possibilities and enhanced the stage picture for the audience.
The proscenium frame was immediately filled with a spectacular series of new productions. The inaugural Romeo and Juliet production was followed by the Houston premiere of Baytown-born choreographer Margo Sappington's series of living sculptures, Rodin mis en vie: 11 tableaux vivants representing Auguste Rodin's monumental bronze figures. Her ballet culminated with Rodin's awesome "Gates of Hell," in which the dancers slithered up and down a 20-foot high iron scaffolding as they portrayed the agony of this Dante-esque scene.
Houston Ballet had already danced its way through two well-worn Nutcracker productions, so a new one was definitely in order. Designer Desmond Heeley did the honors with an opulent, sugar-sweet new production that delighted audiences for decades. He was to become the favored designer for many Ben Stevenson full-length productions in succeeding years. Almost all of the season's remaining productions were world, American, Houston or company premieres, including the world premiere of Ronald Hynd's weighty dance dramatization of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame and the American premiere of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's complex, interwoven choreography to Mahler's Song of the Earth.
MacMillan and British choreographer Christopher Bruce brought modern influences to Houston Ballet's repertoire following the American premiere of Bruce's haunting Ghost Dances, using ethnic music and indigenous costuming to commemorate the frightening fate of "disappeared" people at the hands of dictatorial South American regimes. Bruce was named resident (and later associate) choreographer, bringing numerous works into Houston Ballet's repertoire over the next two decades, while MacMillan became artistic associate, adding five ballets, including his full-length Manon.
Throughout the remaining 14 years of his artistic directorship, Stevenson blended elegant new productions of classic ballets – notably La Sylphide, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, La fille mal gardée and Don Quixote -- with world premieres of several of his new full-length and shorter ballets: Alice in Wonderland (1992), Dracula (1997) honoring the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker's novel, The Snow Maiden (1998) featuring Nina Ananiashvili from the Bolshoi Ballet. Finally, he choreographed Cleopatra (2000) for Lauren Anderson, the company's first African-American principal dancer who had begun her training as a 7-year-old Houston Ballet Academy student.
Works of several internationally known choreographers were introduced during those years: Glen Tetley's major settings of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Canadian James Kudelka’s glittering Firebird production and Musings, his affecting choreography of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Paul Taylor's Company B (1991) became a standout favorite in Houston Ballet's repertoire, and the title song from this Andrews Sisters ballet served as a brilliant solo vehicle for principal dancer Mark Arvin. Several works by George Balanchine came into the company's repertoire, along with Jerome Robbins’ In the Night.
Others on the list included Jiří Kylián, Lila York, William Forsythe, Natalie Weir, Brian Enos, Nacho Duato, David Parsons, Houston-born David Rousseve, Farrell Dyde, Gillian Lynne and, especially, Stanton Welch. The world premieres of Welch's Indigo (1999)and Bruiser (2000), and the Houston premiere of his Madame Butterfly (2002) led to his appointment as Houston Ballet's artistic director in 2003.
From the beginning of his directorship, Stevenson held a strong belief that choreographers as well as dancers must be nurtured from within the academy and the ballet company. Summer training institutes resulted in public performances of works by Houston Ballet dancers Daniel Jamison and William Pizzuto as early as the 1981-82 season.
The list of Houston Ballet dancers who also choreographed works steadily increased over the next 20 years: Barbara Bears, Sean Kelly, Ken Kempe, Timothy O'Keefe, Sandra Organ, Kristine Richmond, Dominic Walsh, and the extraordinarily talented Trey McIntyre. Organ and Walsh established their own companies in Houston, and McIntyre's choreography was taken on by several major companies. He formed his own company in Idaho in 2005, after serving eight years as Houston Ballet's choreographic associate.
Many of these new works were introduced on a special Cullen Contemporary Series presented in Wortham Center's smaller Cullen Theater during the early 1990s. At the time, executive director Gary Dunning was concluding a six-year term of stable management that had seen the company through the costly transition into Wortham Center. But his departure in 1992 to become executive director of American Ballet Theatre was followed by more than two years of instability. During that interim, mounting deficits overwhelmed Houston Ballet Foundation's 20-year record of debt-free financing, requiring a severe cut in the 1995-96 budget and a two-year suspension of the Cullen Contemporary Series. Long-term stability was restored following the appointment of Cecil C. Conner, Jr., who has remained as managing director from January 1995 until February 2012. Conner was succeeded by James Nelson, a former dancer with Houston Ballet from 1990-1996 who had served as the company's general manager from 2000 to 2011.
Over the long span of his directorship, Stevenson witnessed the arrival, development and retirement of more than one generation of dancers. While younger dancers constantly came up through the academy and ranks within the company to replace those who completed their careers, he occasionally added luster to the ensemble by drawing major talent from outside. Notable appointments included the young Cuban virtuoso dancer, Carlos Acosta, in 1993 and the 1997 appointment of Georgian-born Bolshoi Ballet ballerina Nina Ananiashvili to a dual position as an occasional Houston Ballet principal.
Acosta and Lauren Anderson became a show-stopping pair of principals, whose dancing constantly won accolades – at home as well as on national and international tours. It also brought great praise from major U. S. dance critics for Stevenson's leadership among American ballet companies in featuring black dancers at Houston Ballet's highest level.
Cost factors limited Houston Ballet's ability to tour extensively during the 1990s. But Stevenson spread the fame of Houston Ballet farther afield than ever, with a two-week tour to Beijing and Shanghai, China, during the summer of 1995, and tours to Hong Kong in 1999 and Moscow in 2003. Through cooperative audition procedures, the orchestras of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera gradually achieved an informal association that steadily improved their artistic status throughout the 1980s and 1990s. A succession of increasingly skilled conductors culminated in the 1992 appointment of Italian-born Canadian music director Ermanno Florio, who has brought the orchestra to its current high level.
Personal recognition from Great Britain came to Stevenson in 2000, when Queen Elizabeth II named him an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). In July 2003, Stevenson stepped down as director, assuming the title of artistic director emeritus of Houston Ballet. To honor his contribution, the company gave a heartfelt gala performance featuring many key works from his career, the return of several company stars who had retired, and a touching video tribute. Stevenson then assumed the directorship of Texas Ballet Theatre in Fort Worth as Stanton Welch became Houston Ballet's fifth artistic director.
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Stanton Welch Leads the Company Boldly into the 21st Century: 2003-2009
Stanton Welch has been quick to credit Ben Stevenson's accomplishments in developing a strong, internationally recognized company that had been carefully trained and exposed to a broad range of styles from a long list of guest choreographers. Having been a student in America at the San Francisco Ballet School during the 1980s, Welch knew of Houston Ballet and the caliber of dancer employed by the company. And Stevenson had invited him to work with Houston Ballet's dancers as a guest choreographer four times during the five seasons preceding his appointment. So, the transition was a smooth one and Welch reflects happily on that time in his life. As he puts it, "I simply could not have found a better foundation."
Welch has also been fortunate to work with Cecil Conner, who was already Houston Ballet's longest-serving managing director when Welch arrived. Conner came to Houston Ballet in 1995, bringing a professional background in law and several years managing Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. He retired Houston Ballet's accumulated deficit and tripled the company's endowment. During his tenure, Conner has organized high-profile tours to London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow that greatly raised the company's profile.
It is a new artistic director's responsibility to build upon the foundation that has been established, move the company forward and look ahead to new goals. Welch looked at Houston Ballet, remembering his previous visits as a guest choreographer and concluded that "the energy level, particularly in the men, had dropped a bit, and that was something I really wanted to emphasize upon coming here -- to raise the standards and the caliber of the men.
"So, we concentrated initially on the men and the male standard really rose quickly and thoroughly. Now we have men in every rank who have the ability to perform leading roles. I think that really shows the riches of the company when you see the current stars, the next stars and the kids in the school who will be stars. It's nice to see all those generations." The last few years, Welch has turned his attention back to the women and feels they have really excelled, culminating in his 2010 production of La Bayadère.
Welch's conversation is peppered with the terminology of sports: competition and teamwork. "The more challenging and the more competition – not in an unhealthy way – the more a company grows and thrives," he says. "Good dancers like to dance next to good dancers." At another moment he says: "I think there's very much a sense of the company all wanting to achieve as a team, that next impossible goal. And it's just the same when you're a dancer: every time you approach your role, you want it to be perfect. You want it to be better, you want an extra turn, you want a little more elevation, more on (time with) the music. That's a dancer’s mentality and I think that's what we have. We know we did a good show, we're doing a good show, but we want it to be...better!"
Welch works to energize his company by scheduling ballets on each program that engage most or all of his 54 dancers. Another method involves inviting stimulating guest choreographers. Reiterating his admiration for Stevenson's bravery in bringing "nearly every important choreographer in the world" to Houston, Welch notes that many of them were represented only infrequently by one or two works, where he is doing their ballets more frequently. He particularly cites the works of Jiří Kylian, Jerome Robbins and especially George Balanchine, whose work he has represented almost every season. "They're people who really emphasize the work for men as well as women, and make sure there's no small part in any of their ballets. All the parts are crucial and that has really helped build the company."
Welch's personal choreographic record is amazing. In his seven years as artistic director, he has brought over 20 of his own ballets or new productions of standard works into Houston Ballet's repertoire, including world premieres of 13 brand-new ballets he choreographed specifically for this company. He continued Houston Ballet's long tradition of creating new full-length narrative ballets featuring original scenarios, most notably in 2009 with Marie, his psychologically acute, sympathetic portrait of the controversial French monarch Marie Antoinette, set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Welch's work with Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy has seen the same upgrading. Borrowing a leaf from his native Australian Ballet company, he shaped our academy's top-grade Level Eight students into a junior performing company called Houston Ballet II. Initially, they appeared on nearby stages at the University of Houston and other area venues as far away as Brenham. But their performing circuit has grown wider and wider, taking them all the way to New York, Mexico and Hungary by the end of the 2009-2010 season.
In a reciprocal flow of young dancers, the Academy has drawn students from as many as 40 states and 10 foreign countries for its Summer Intensive program. Welch takes great pride in an annual end-of-session ballet called Studies, which he has choreographed for the entire eight-level student body to perform onstage. Demonstrating Welch's concept of teamwork, all students reach down, helping to teach their previous roles to the next lower level, while they learn new roles as they progress up the Academy ladder toward the ranks of Houston Ballet's professional performing company.
Houston Ballet's extensive tours in the late Stevenson years have given way to shorter tours, mostly in North America, thanks to higher costs and recessionary times encroaching on recent Welch years. Nevertheless, there have been periodic appearances in New York, Montreal, Chicago, New Orleans and especially Washington's Kennedy Center. In April 2009, the company also danced a six-city tour to Spain, its first European tour in seven years.
One could characterize much of the growth during the early Welch years as being an internal strengthening of Houston Ballet as a major arts institution in this city. That is certainly true of the financial and architectural aspects of the company, which took a giant leap forward soon after Welch arrived on the scene. In 2006, Houston Ballet Foundation began an awesome $95 million capital campaign to build and support the Houston Ballet Center for Dance, a sleek new theater-district training and rehearsal facility for the Ben Stevenson Academy and the company dancers, including a student dormitory and administrative offices for staff members.
Strategically located on the banks of Buffalo Bayou and connected to Wortham Center by an overhead walkway at Smith at Preston streets , this handsome new building boldly welcomes visitors to the city's historic area and Theater District with the message that Houston Ballet is here to stay.
©2010, Carl R. Cunningham
Carl Cunningham has witnessed the entire 40-year development of Houston Ballet through his work as performing arts critic of the former Houston Post, and more recently in his writing for six of the city's leading music, opera and dance organizations.
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Ballet: Giselle (1967)
Dancer(s): Erik Bruhn and Carla Fracci
Photo by: Unknown
Ballet: Snow Maiden (1998, World Premiere)
Dancer(s): Carlos Acosta and Nina Ananiashvili
Photo by: Geoff Winningham
Image: Stanton Welch
Photo by: Drew Donovan