Ushering Houston Ballet into the future
by Marene Gustin • Photo by Mark Hiebert
When Houston Ballet’s Center for Dance officially opens on April 9, it will be a towering achievement for managing director Cecil C. Conner Jr. A fixture on the city’s arts scene for 16 years, the youthful-looking 69-year-old Conner has many achievements under his belt: helping to retire a $1 million deficit, building the company’s endowment to almost $50 million, spearheading international tours in the ’90s, and collaborating with other national companies on spectacular full-length ballets during the past decade.
But the completion of the $53 million, six-story Center for Dance in downtown Houston may be the icing on the cake for Conner’s 16-year career at Houston Ballet. The 115,000-square-foot building includes nine dance studios, a black box Dance Lab that seats 200 for presentations as well as rehearsals, a library, wardrobe center, physical therapy room, dormitory, and artistic and administrative offices for the company and its academy.
“For me, it’s the accomplishment of a dream come true for Houston Ballet,” says Conner. “When I came here in 1995, there were plans and drawings to expand our West Gray facility, which weren’t fulfilled. But this is beyond anything we had then. This is for our long-term future.”
Plans for the environmentally sustainable building really began in 2003 when artistic director Stanton Welch arrived, and it has come to fruition with the aid of Welch, the company, the board of directors, and the entire city. But it was certainly Conner’s ability to raise funds and control expenses during a recession that made the building a reality.
“In mid-2008 through 2009,” says Conner, “it was tough. But now people can see the building, and with the turnaround in the economy—particularly in the last six months—fundraising has been great. We’ve almost reached our goal.”
But anyone familiar with Conner’s background should not be surprised at his ability to pull off building the largest American dance center of its kind during a challenging economic climate.
The dapper, bow-tie-wearing Conner, known as C.C. to friends, started life in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he took dance classes and studied the flute. He planned to attend the music school at Emory University in Atlanta, but his parents convinced him that he needed a career that was more stable. He settled on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then the Columbia University School of Law, winding up with a career that included employment at Goldman, Sachs & Co.; Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett; and Mandelbaum, Schweiger & Conner in the Big Apple. But despite his successes, he wasn’t happy. “All along, the arts were where my heart was at—where I wanted to be,” he recalls.
In 1975 he joined the board of directors of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, Inc. That was also the year that he met David L. Groover (who writes for OutSmart as D. L. Groover). Groover, six years his junior, was editing a short dance documentary for PBS. Conner was helping the producers raise funds for the film. “It was love at first sight for me,” he says. And it was then, at the age of 35, that he came out. “I grew up in that generation where you weren’t open about being gay,” he says, “especially if you worked on Wall Street.”
But love took hold, and the couple has been together ever since then. They co-authored a book, Skeletons from the Opera Closet, a juicy insider’s read from St. Martin’s Press, and forged a life together in New York City, where Conner took the reins of the Joffrey Ballet in 1992, eventually orchestrating that fabled company’s move to Chicago. It was during that time that Houston Ballet launched a nationwide search for a new managing director. “I was recruited, I was offered the job, and I took it,” Conner says.
The couple came to Texas and they haven’t looked back. “Houston has that southern charm I remember from North Carolina, as well as being a big city with a great arts culture,” Conner says. “And it’s easier to spend summer here than in Manhattan because everything here is air-conditioned. In New York the cabs had AC for the drivers, but it didn’t help if you were in the backseat.”
Today the couple lives in a 1916-era two-story stucco home in Montrose, where they enjoy walking to restaurants like Hugo’s and Divino to dine. They also enjoy attending arts events. Conner says that because of Groover’s work as a freelance arts critic, he’s been able to see a lot of Houston theater that he might not have otherwise experienced. But their real passion is travel. “My nephew gave me this book called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” says Conner. “We’ve been to about 400 so far, on six continents. We’ll get to the Antarctic soon.”
Other than traveling, Conner says he has no time for hobbies these days. He doesn’t play any instruments or take dance classes anymore, although both cook—with Conner doing the basic duties while Groover provides the culinary expertise. And they “continuously adopt stray, feral cats.”
As for the future?
Conner says after the Center for Dance opens he will be focused on taking Houston Ballet back on the road. “It’s been two years since the entire company toured. That was when we took Marie to New Orleans,” he says. With the building completion behind him, he plans to spend time raising funds to get Houston Ballet back on the international touring radar. “And making the academy more accessible to more students,” Conner adds.
Currently, Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy has 385 students—but the Center for Dance will allow for a much larger student body due to the increased studio space and the accessible downtown location. The academy could reach 30,000 students in the next five years.
“The new Center for Dance will be a boon for outreach,” he says. “We want to reach out to all of Houston, to allow anyone who wants to experience dance to have the opportunity.”
And that may be Conner’s best legacy yet.
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.