Houston Ballet celebrates Stanton Welch’s 10th year as artistic director.
By Marene Gustin
Stanton Welch is one of the only openly gay men heading up a major American ballet company. He became the artistic director of Houston Ballet, the nation’s fourth-largest ballet company, in 2003. And as a celebration of his 10th year at the helm, Houston Ballet presents an evening of all-Welch works for their spring repertory program, March 6–16.
Not that he’s really looking forward to it. “I always get nervous watching my own works,” he says sheepishly.
But he needn’t worry. Two of the pieces have been well received over the years, and the third, a world premiere, promises to be equally exciting.
Welch, an Australian child of ballet greats Marilyn Jones and Garth Welch, joined the Australian Ballet and became a lead soloist before he found his true calling: choreography.
His first commission for the Australian Ballet was a very personal one. Of Blessed Memory, an abstract 1991 ballet for 20 dancers, is an emotional work that speaks to the bonds and eventual letting-go between mothers and children. His own mother, Jones, came out of retirement to dance the lead role of the mother. Now, former Houston Ballet ballerina Barbara Bears is coming out of her retirement to dance the same role.
Welch says he always pictured Bears in the role; he just needed to wait for her to get old enough to do the part. “My mother was 52 when I set Of Blessed Memory on her,” says Welch. “It’s about children leaving home. Barbara is younger than my mother was, but it’s the perfect role for her.”
The March repertory program is a progression of Welch’s dancemaking talents, from his first commission to Maninyas, a signature dance he created for San Francisco Ballet in 1996. The work is both contemporary and classic, with five couples dancing to Maninyas: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Australian composer Ross Edwards. It is significant because it was the ballet that prompted Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson to invite Welch to Houston to create Indigo for the company in 1999. That, and later commissions for the company, put Welch in the catbird seat to become artistic director when Stevenson resigned in 2003.
The third ballet on the March program is an all-new dance set to Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a popular classical work that introduces young and old alike to the instruments in an orchestra. Originally commissioned for an educational documentary in 1946, Welch’s balletic version includes the documentary’s narration spoken by Jaston Williams of Greater Tuna fame.
It is a short work, but it uses all of the company’s dancers. And, as Welch’s newest ballet, it represents his journey from Of Blessed Memory to today, a journey that has seen him become one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world and a darling of the Houston dance scene.
And while the evening may be stressful for Welch, his focus is already on next season when the company unveils a brand-new production of Romeo and Juliet.
So here’s to the next 10 years at Houston Ballet and more new Welch productions.
What: Houston Ballet Celebrates Stanton Welch’s 10th Anniversary
When: March 6–16
Where: Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue
Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.