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 five-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 and architect Preston Bolton remains as the board’s only surviving charter member in Houston.
Semenova was born July 17, 1920, in St. Petersburg but moved to Paris at age five, 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 Two, 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 Board member Preston 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 six 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 Jesse H. 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.
©2017, Carl R. Cunningham
Over the last 50 years, Carl Cunningham has witnessed the entire development of Houston Ballet through his work as performing arts critic of the former Houston Post, and more recently in his writing for several of the city's leading music, opera and dance organizations. He is lead author or co-author of two performing arts histories: Houston Grand Opera at 50 (295 pp. 2005) and Houston Symphony: Celebrating a Century (200 pp. 2013). Both books are published by Houston’s Herring Press.
Carl Cunningham’s complete written work – creative, critical, educational, historical, musicological and theoretical – and his collection of audiotape interviews and research materials – will be preserved by the Woodson Research Center in Rice University’s Fondren Library.
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