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Creating a ‘Following’

Houston Ballet’s Oliver Halkowich choreographs his first work.

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Artists of Houston Ballet in Oliver Halkowich’s Following. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet

Over the last 17 years, Houston Ballet audiences have seen Oliver Halkowich perform onstage in a variety of roles, from the misunderstood stepsister in Stanton Welch’s Cinderella to a bulldog sailor in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, and a host of other classical characters. With the mixed-repertory program Locally Grown—World Renowned, Halkowich steps into his newest role as a choreographer.

Halkowich has choreographed for Houston Ballet II, MET Dance, and Mercury Ensemble, among others, but this is the first time he’s choreographed with the Houston Ballet. Entitled Following, the work is comprised of seven short vignettes set to the music of Moondog. It features 11 Houston Ballet dancers.

OutSmart: You’ve been choreographing for several years now, and now you have your first commission for the Houston Ballet. Has choreographing always been part of a plan for you?
Oliver Halkowich: I’ve heard that story from other dancers: “I’ll hit this mark at this age and I’ll do this thing at that age.” A little bit of this piece is that for me. I’m calling it Following for many reasons, but partly because I feel as if I followed a current that has led me here. I didn’t swim one way or the other, I’ve just gone with the flow. That doesn’t always work for everyone, but it’s led me to this place. I never imagined that I’d be choreographing. And I also never imagined that I’d be choreographing for the Houston Ballet for their 50th-anniversary season. It’s nothing that I ever dreamt of. There’s one thing that I always knew: I wanted to be a ballet dancer. But everything else just kinda happened—coming to Houston, staying here. This trajectory of what I’ve danced, I’ve just gone with it.

And then me trying out choreography led me to this. I think it’s all kind of been this flow that just happened. I’m at a place where I don’t exactly know what comes next for me. I’ve got to dig a little deeper to understand where the current takes me next, because it’s not obvious right now.

Houston Ballet First Soloist and Choreographer Oliver Halkowich, Demi Soloist Luzenberg Santana and Corps de Ballet Dancer Austen Acevedo with Artists of Houston Ballet rehearsing Following. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet

You know the dancers that you worked with for Following. How did your relationships with them impact the work?
I know these 11 dancers, some more than others. I’m certainly emphasizing their strengths. [Allison Miller] is a ballerina who trained in the Balanchine style, and I have my upbringing as a Balanchine dancer, so her vignette explores that side of me and her. A lot of these dancers are friends. We travel and hang out together, so I know more about them than just their talents on stage, and I want to put that in there. It’s not solely a technical thing, but more of their soul—which helps me to bring life to this piece.

Do the seven vignettes tell a story?
To me they tell a story, but I did that as a way to make the piece. I don’t know that it needs to tell a story for the audience, [other than] the story of dance.

Were there themes that you had in mind when you were creating Following?
I started with a very broad idea. Now that I look at it, I kinda understand it’s more about me and my upbringing in dance—what it means to be a man in dance. I come from a conservative family, but I live in this liberal-arts world, That’s kind of a dichotomy, and I’m certainly exploring that. What’s wonderful about making a dance is that you don’t have to put it into words. That’s what I’m not great at. I’ve never understood exactly what makes me who I am. As an artist, as a dancer, I just pull from my feelings. I’m doing that even more as a choreographer.

Creating any artwork can be a revelatory experience. Has it been that way with you in creating Following? When we sit in the audience and watch it, will we learn anything about you?
I didn’t ever want people to know too much about me as a dancer, because I want people to see [the role I’m playing, not me]. With film actors, I don’t want to know what you did last night or who you’re in a relationship with or what you had for dinner, because then I’m thinking about those things and I’m not watching the film.

I’ve always felt that way as a dancer. I think it’s a little bit different for me as a choreographer, because I’m putting my viewpoint out there. People who know me are going to say, “It’s very Oliver.” But I want people who don’t know me to be able to find something in it that lights them up.

I think what’s special to me, when I go to the theater, is when I find something in a work. Even if I didn’t read anything about it and don’t know the choreographer or the dancers, if something got to me, that’s good.

If it’s not what their goal was, I don’t care. Something in me lit up when I saw that, so if it’s not what they were trying to do, that’s not the point.

Houston Ballet Soloist Harper Watters with Demi Soloists Natalie Varnum and Luzenberg Santana rehearsing Oliver Halkowich’s Following. Photo by Amitava Sarkar (2019), Courtesy of Houston Ballet

So no matter what the audience takes away from Following, you’ll be happy?
There’s a lot of me that I wanted to look at and explore, and that helped me create the piece. But I don’t need anyone to understand that. I just want you to feel something. If you smile for a minute, or feel sad for a minute, you got it, because I used both of those things to make this piece.

I haven’t really told the dancers that much, either. At the [last] rehearsal, I’m just going to ask them to bring their story to it, because they’re the ones who are going to make it something. I’m not doing Oliver’s story on stage. I only used my story to help me create the piece, but the world is not just about me. When I started out, I was the only boy in ballet class. I was very special. You have to get over that as you get older, because the world is not just about you. This piece is not just about me, it’s about the 11 diverse people that are in it. I want them to bring their story to it. The piece is about the dancers and me—and the audience that’s watching it.

What: Following world premiere, as part of the Houston Ballet’s mixed-repertory program Locally Grown—World Renowned. (The program also includes the world premiere of Elapse by China-based choreographer Disha Zhang, a return of audience-favorite Murmuration by Edwaard Liang, and Passion by James Kudelka.)
When: Sept. 19 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 22 at 2:00 p.m.
Where: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue.
Info: Tickets are $25 and up. Call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org

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Olivia Flores Alvarez

Olivia Flores is an arts and culture writer for OutSmart.

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