The Fledgling Years
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 Waltz and Variations, 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. In that production the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier were danced by the Finnish married couple, Soili Arvola and Leo Ahonen, who had joined the company in September 1972 after having guested earlier in March 1972 performing Ms. Arvola’s La Favorita pas de deux. 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.
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.
©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.
Legends abound concerning the first efforts to establish a professional ballet company in Houston...
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