Making History Dance
This is a big year for Houston Ballet’s artistic director Stanton Welch. Not only does 2009 mark the 40th anniversary for the company, but it’s also Welch’s 40th birthday.
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny, I can mark my age by the company’s,” says the softspoken Welch.
But just now he’s not planning any 40th parties; he’s far too busy putting the finishing touches on the world premiere this month of his new full-length ballet based on the life of Marie Antoinette.
Marie is the second full-length ballet Welch has created for the company, and his take on the subject matter—the child bride, political pawn, party queen, and ultimate victim of the revolution—is portrayed through the eyes of the modern media.
Was she the spendthrift, calloused queen who said “let them eat cake” to starving French peasants, or was she a victim of paparazzi and tabloid gossip? That’s the question Welch raises.
“Working on Marie with Stanton has been an experience like one I’ve never had,” says Melody Herrera, one of the dancers to portray the queen. “Mr. Welch presented us with folders containing history on all the characters and surroundings of Marie Antoinette’s life.”
Welch wasn’t the only one doing his homework. He chose London-based designer Kandis Cook who began her research at Versailles, taking in all the opulence and epic proportions of the palace and gardens, studying the costumes in the royal portraits. The results are 150 exquisite costumes invoking the period and simple sets that are almost minimal in design.
“The sets work as a black-box space,” explains Welch, “where you can jump through time and place.” Intricate scrims and drops add defining touches to create the allusion of the French court or Marie’s Austrian home.
Houston Ballet music director Ermanno Florio arranged the score featuring music by Dmitri Shostakovich, and Welch puts his particular choreographic stamp on the piece with his streamlined classical movement, including finding ways for dancers to depict sex and a beheading scene onstage.
When not worrying should there really be a rolling head or not, Welch tries to unwind at his 1920s home in Montrose where he and his partner Tom enjoy gardening and their four four-legged kids: two pugs and two rescues that Welch picked up at the adoption center while buying pet food at Petco. “I have to buy my dog food at Kroger’s now,” Welch admits, “or I’d keep getting more dogs.” They also (well, not the dogs) enjoy dining out particularly at Gravitas where fellow Aussi Jason Gould runs the kitchen. Welch, born in Melbourne to Australian ballet royalty Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, came late to the family fold, starting dance at 17. But he quickly advanced from performing to choreography and became one of the hot young dancemakers in both Australia and around the globe. In 2003 he took over the helm of Houston Ballet when long-time artistic director Ben Stevenson stepped down.
“I really don’t feel like I had to make an adjustment to Texas,” Welch says. “If you’ve seen the movie Australia you’ll understand! They’re really very similar.”
Besides climate and countryside, Welch loves the inner-loop lifestyle where he says he can find anything within 30 blocks. “And after that you can go another 30 blocks and just find more.”
Marie: February 26, 28, March 6, 7, at 7:30 p.m.; March 1 and 8 at 2 p.m., at the Wortham Theater Center’s Brown Theater.
Tickets are $17–$125. For tickets, call 713/227-2787. Tickets are also available at houstonballet.org and the Houston Ballet Box Office at Wortham Theater Center.
Marene Gustin wrote about opera guys Chuck Winkler and Kade Smith in the January issue of OutSmart magazine.