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, and 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), The 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 though a mid-1980s recession to raise some $70 million to build Houston’s Wortham Theater 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 Theater 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 Theater 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 staple in the company’s repertoire for more than two decades. 

©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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