Stanton Welch Leads The Company Boldly Into The 21st Century
Stanton Welch was quick to credit Ben Stevenson’s accomplishment 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 reflected happily on that time in his life. As he put it, "I simply could not have found a better foundation."
Welch was also 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. Under his leadership, Houston Ballet retired its accumulated deficit and quadrupled the company's endowment. During his 17-year tenure, Conner organized 12 tours that took the company to Austin, Phoenix, San José, Los Angeles and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in the United States, and Toronto, Canada. Traveling abroad, Houston Ballet performed in Spain, Norway, France, Italy, Scotland, Switzerland, Indonesia, London, Hong Kong and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Those tours greatly raised the company’s artistic profile. Following his retirement in 2012, Conner continued in an advisory capacity as Managing Director Emeritus.
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." After several years, Welch has turned his attention back to the women and felt they really excelled by the time he mounted his 2010 production of La Bayadère.
Welch has often worked to energize his company by scheduling ballets on each program that engage most or all of his dancers. Another method involves the stimulus provided by guest choreographers. Reiterating his admiration for Stevenson's bravery in bringing "nearly every important choreographer in the world" to Houston, Welch observes that many of them were represented only infrequently by one or two works, where he is doing their ballets regularly. He particularly cites the works of Jiří Kylián, 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."
During Welch’s Directorship, company premieres and revivals of ballets by this choreographic triumvirate have included Balanchine’s Apollo, Western Symphony, Symphony in C, Serenade, Theme and Variations, Ballet Imperial, The Four Temperaments, Allegro Brilliante, Ballo della Regina and his full-length Jewels; Kylián’s Forgotten Land, Petite Mort, Sinfonietta, Svadebka, Soldier’s Mass, Falling Angels, Stepping Stones and Wings of Wax. Robbins’ choreography has included his Afternoon of a Faun, his comic ballet, The Concert, his effervescent Fancy Free, his poetic ballet, In the Night and his lighthearted Other Dances.
Other internationally recognized dance makers from the Stevenson era have been retained on Welch’s list of guest choreographers: William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Nacho Duato, James Kudelka, Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp and Lila York. Associate choreographer Christopher Bruce has been represented by several works, including the world premiere of his rib-tickling Hush.
Welch has added several new names to the roster of guest choreographers: Jorma Elo, John Neumeier, Edwaard Liang, Nicolo Fonte, Julia Adam, Aszure Barton, Alexander Ekman, Justin Peck, and David Bintley. Continuing an effort begun by Stevenson, Welch has also featured the choreography of former Houston Ballet dancers Melissa Hough, Trey McIntyre, Garrett Smith and Timothy O’Keefe.
While living choreographers are prominent, the list includes masters of bygone eras: Maurice Béjart, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Harald Lander, Sir Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Marius Petipa, Anthony Tudor and Serge Lifar.
Welch's personal choreographic record has been impressive. During his 14 seasons as Artistic Director, he has brought the world, American or Houston Ballet premieres of 39 of his own ballets or new productions of standard works into the company’s repertoire, including world premieres of 22 brand-new ballets he choreographed specifically for Houston Ballet. He continued Houston Ballet's long tradition of creating 7 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.
He gradually undertook new productions of standard full-length ballets, adding to the company’s repertoire of 19th- and 20th-century evening-length works, as well as revising and upgrading some that had been mainstays for 20-30 years. Swan Lake was the first of these in 2006, followed by the American premiere of his realistic, updated Cinderella in 2008. His version humanized the story by doing away with the Fairy Godmother. He also portrayed a feminist Cinderella rejecting the foppish Prince’s marriage proposal in favor of her genuine love for his butler, Dandini.
The world premiere of Welch’s opulent new full-length production of La Bayadère in February 2010 upgraded Houston Ballet’s earlier excerpt that had consisted only of the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene. His new Romeo and Juliet was unveiled in 2015, with a production handsomely dressed in Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s airy scenery and costumes. This production employed the full, uncut Prokofiev musical score. The Houston Ballet premiere of John Neumeier’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a revival of John Cranko’s The Taming of the Shrew rounded out this Shakespearean season. Welch’s new production of Giselle concluded the 2015-16 season and the 2016 Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday season featured the largest, most costly extravaganza – a new $5-million production of The Nutcracker with designs by Tim Goodchild. It followed a 29-year run of the Ben Stevenson/Desmond Heeley version that opened December 4, 1987 -- Houston Ballet’s first season in Wortham Center.
Welch's work with Houston Ballet Academy has seen the same upgrading. He re-named the Houston Ballet Youth Dancers, consisting of top level students, into a second-tier performing company called Houston Ballet II. Since 2004, this ensemble has become increasingly important to the entire organization. It is part of an effort to attract the best young talent from around the world to the Ben Stevenson Academy’s Summer Intensive program. Qualified students who remain in Houston after the summer session for regular winter-season training pass up through the Academy into Houston Ballet II for actual performing experience, and a better chance to join the parent company or another professional ballet company.
To achieve these goals, Houston Ballet built contacts with leading ballet academies around the world, eventually holding Summer Intensive auditions in 17 cities, attracting students from as far away as Japan, China, Romania, Germany, Guatemala, Brazil and France. In turn, those admitted to the Academy and Houston Ballet II have gained performing experience in Houston, in many mid-sized U. S, cities and in foreign countries as near as Mexico and Guatemala and as distant as Hungary. Those who joined Houston Ballet’s professional company have boosted the quality of dancing all the way up through the ranks. The outstanding success of the Summer Intensive can be measured by its enrollment, which more than doubled from 273 students in 2009 to 571 in 2016. They have come from as many as 40 states and 10 foreign countries.
Welch takes special pride in an annual 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 extended tours in the late Stevenson years have given way to shorter tours because of higher costs and recessionary times. Nevertheless, the company toured annually to major North American cities from 2005 to 2016, for one-to-three performances in each city: New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Fayetteville, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal. There were biennial week-long tours to New York’s Joyce Theatre in 2011, 2013 and 2015. In April 2009, the company also danced a six-city tour to Spain, its first European tour in seven years. This has been followed by tours to Paris in 2013, Hamburg in 2015 and Australia in 2016.
The years 2007-2011 were heavily involved with the construction and financing of the Houston Ballet Center for Dance. It was the last and largest major project supervised by Managing Director C. C. Conner in his 17-year tenure as Houston Ballet’s Chief Administrative Officer. Conner oversaw and reported on myriad details of the construction process, while General Manager James Nelson administered the company’s normal season operations. Board members Jesse H. Jones II and Anita Stude headed up the massive two-pronged $95-million fundraising campaign to construct the building and increase Houston Ballet’s endowment. The increased endowment was needed to meet the twin costs of maintaining the building while sustaining the company’s operations.
Excavation of the building site was undertaken in July 2009, right in the teeth of the Great Recession, and while the economic downturn forced reduction of the building’s size from seven to six stories, construction costs were reduced from initial estimates and the entire project proceeded on or ahead of schedule. The building was topped out at a jovial street party March 10, 2010, with dancers, staff members, donors and friends of Houston Ballet signing the last construction beam before it was hoisted to the top of the steel scaffolding.
In the middle of February 2011, the company began a complex operation, gradually moving its wardrobe department, administration and finally, the dancers from their former quarters at 1921 West Bell into the new building – all of this interleaved with a repertory program of short ballets and a revival of Ben Stevenson’s opulent production of The Sleeping Beauty. With an overhead walkway connecting the new Center for Dance to Houston Ballet’s shared backstage space in Wortham Theater Center, the move became the last time the company had to truck dancers’ costumes a few miles from West Bell into the theater for a local performance, as though Houston Ballet were going on a national tour.
Throughout the construction period, the company endured a most stressful period brought on by the recession. Salaries were frozen, union contracts were strictly negotiated, commissions for new ballets were put on hold in favor of reviving existing repertoire and, every conceivable economy was taken, right down to refurbishing some of the existing office furniture, rather than purchasing entirely new furniture for the Center for Dance.
Notwithstanding the economies, the situation caused an $89,000 deficit to upset the 2009-10 budget – the company’s first shortfall since 1993. But in comparison to several of its peers, including larger ballet companies across the nation, Houston Ballet suffered no salary reductions, no layoffs of company dancers and no cutback in the number of performances. In the end, the new building cost about $46.6 million– a savings of about $6.4 million from the original cost estimates for land and construction. Mayor Annise Parker presided over the April 9 ribbon-cutting – a joyous moment when public tours of the building and dance demonstrations by company members were offered to the crowd gathered on the steps.
Houston Ballet quickly claimed the new Center for Dance as the largest such facility in the United States at the time of completion. Strategically located on the banks of Buffalo Bayou at Smith at Preston streets, this handsome new building boldly greets travelers driving into the city's Historic Area and Theater District with the message that Houston Ballet is here to stay.
For public outreach, its ground-floor black-box theater, entitled the Margaret Allkek Williams Dance Lab, has welcomed the public as a valuable venue for pre-performance lecture-demonstrations and an occasional performance site for dance companies in the city. Its nine spacious, glass-walled rehearsal studios and numerous administrative offices provide an airy view of the urban landscape. Several top-floor living spaces house 18 students from distant cities or foreign countries attending Houston Ballet Academy.
When the building and the increased endowment funding were completed, Conner retired, handing the Executive Director’s chair to James Nelson February 15, 2012. The change paralleled the smooth transition from Stevenson to Welch during the preceding decade. Nelson began as a Houston Ballet Academy student in 1983, danced with the company for six years (1990-96), completed a business degree at the University of Houston and a graduate degree in non-profit leadership at Stanford, and then became Houston Ballet’s General Manager for 11 years under Conner’s mentorship. Nelson’s daily work with all aspects of the company’s operations fully prepared him for this new executive role.
As a further sign of Houston Ballet’s transition, dancers who joined the company’s ranks during the later Stevenson years – Barbara Bears, Mirelle Hassenboehler, Nicholas Leschke, and Kelly Myernick– have retired as honored dancers under Welch’s Directorship. Houston Ballet has also paid thankful tribute to important early board members who did not quite live to celebrate the company’s golden anniversary: Founder Natasha Rawson and charter board member Harriet Bath; former board presidents Preston Bolton who remodeled his garage apartment to provide Academy students their first dance studio in the 1950s, and Anita Stude who guided the organization safely through trying years; and entrepreneur Preston Frazier who created the hugely profitable Nutcracker Market.
During the years Houston Ballet danced its way through many changes, its collective image has also changed, almost imperceptibly. The security and versatility of individual dancers now runs deeper through its ranks. Where technical virtuosity, strong character portrayals and the aura of stardom were overt during the Stevenson years, these theatrical aspects have receded into the subtler image of a smoothly aligned ensemble focused upon refined dancing as Welch leads the company toward his 15th season as 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.