The Company Comes of Age
The opening of Wortham Theater 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 The 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 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 The 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, The 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, and 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 seven-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 The Rite of Spring, Canadian James Kudelka’s glittering The 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 the 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.
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.
©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...
The Fledgling Years.
Rise to Power.
The Company Comes of Age.
Stanton Welch Leads The Company Boldly Into The 21st Century.