T urning 50 is a milestone that can be fraught with conflicting emotions: exhilaration at having reached a significant life passage, anxiety about the loss of youth, and satisfaction at having amassed the hard-earned wisdom that life brings.
Whatever ambivalent feelings Houston Ballet may have had about turning 50, none of them were on display when the company launched its golden-anniversary season in September at Wortham Theater Center. Its performances of artistic director Stanton Welch’s staging of Giselle displayed a company in peak form, with the corps de ballet looking especially polished and precise. The stellar debuts of younger dancers Nozomi Iijima as Giselle and Chun Wai Chan as Albrecht bode well for the company’s future, signaling that there are rising young classical stars poised to carry the company forward.
At the end of September, Houston Ballet showcased a different side of its dancers in the mixed-repertory program Locally Grown, World Renowned, which demonstrated their mastery of more contemporary works. And in October, the company headed to Manhattan, the dance capital of the world, to perform at New York City Center, a hallowed venue that they last visited three decades ago.
Houston Ballet has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1955 as a school offering ballet classes for children in a converted Montrose garage at 813 Lovett Boulevard. Today, Houston Ballet has a $33 million budget, 59 dancers, a $70 million endowment, and is America’s fifth-largest ballet company. Over the last decade it has toured to Paris, Germany, Los Angeles, Dubai, and Australia.
On Friday, December 6, the company will throw itself a grand 50th birthday party with The Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance. This annual gala performance typically packs a wallop of high-octane choreography, with all of the company’s stars featured in short works designed to show off their unique talents and pieces d’occasion. This year, the jubilee will celebrate key chapters in the company’s history, including the early years of the 1950s and 1960s when Tatiana Semenova (a former dancer with the Ballet Russe) methodically trained local children to be dancers, and the company’s salad days when it grew from a regional troupe to gain national prominence under the artistic direction of Ben Stevenson from 1976 to 2003.
The jubilee will include special appearances by Stevenson, James Clouser (who served as interim director of the company from 1975 to 1976), and other VIPs. The evening will have a multimedia component, and also feature a performance of the grand classical showpiece Paquita, which the company first danced in the early 1970s. The first act of the jubilee closes with a new work.
The ballet’s 50th-anniversary jubilee event will be a highly emotional one as it welcomes backs dancers from the last 50 years for an alumni weekend—a family reunion of sorts, with public discussions and other events planned. On Saturday, December 7, at
5:00 p.m., a panel discussion with Stanton Welch and company artists from over the years, Celebrating 50 Years of Creativity, will be held at the Houston Ballet Center for Dance at 601 Preston Street.
Throughout Houston Ballet’s history, LGBTQ dancers, choreographers, designers, and administrators have played an integral in the company’s development. We spotlight thirteen LGBTQ individuals who have contributed to Houston Ballet’s rise to international standing.
When Houston Ballet unveiled Indigo, Stanton Welch’s first work for the company in 1999, audiences were riveted by the shock of the new: a new movement vocabulary, a new way of seeing and showcasing the talents of younger dancers in the company, and a new, seductive sensuality that infused the choreographer’s response to two cello concerti by Vivaldi. In 2003, he was named artistic director of the company, and quickly set about raising the level of their classical technique with a special focus on the company’s men. His stagings of 19th-century classics like Swan Lake and new narrative ballets like Marie have been met with decidedly mixed critical response. But he has aggressively expanded the company’s repertoire with blue-chip acquisitions by choreographers Jiří Kylián, Jerome Robbins, and Justin Peck, among others. He has also commissioned memorable new works by emerging dancemakers, including Edwaard Liang’s mesmerizing Murmation in 2013 and Disha Zhang’s haunting 2019 Elapse, the first work for an American company by the young Chinese artist.
The celebrated English designer Peter Farmer created Houston Ballet’s first full-length ballet in 1972. The Nutcracker. In 2010, he gave the company his final gift: a ravishing production of La Bayadère (The Temple Dancer), depicting ancient India as it might have been envisioned through the eyes of a 19th-century Impressionist painter. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he defined the visual look of Houston Ballet, designing productions of such repertory staples as Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, and Ben Stevenson’s original narrative ballet, Peer Gynt. He was a true English eccentric with a wry sense of humor who created set drops that looked like museum paintings by Fragonard. Seconds before the curtain rose on a new production, he would dash around the stage waving his spray can directly onto the costumes saying, “I just want to tart them up a bit!” When he died in January 2017, The Guardian of London summed up his achievement thusly: “An imaginary past, a delicate enchantment, a wistful exoticism: these were the hallmarks of Farmer’s atmospheric designs, especially for classic ballets.”
Preston J. Frazier
In 1981, volunteer extraordinaire Preston Frazier proposed staging an event similar to a European street market at St. Philip Presbyterian Church to raise funds for Houston Ballet. Almost four decades later, the Nutcracker Market has grown into one of the city’s most popular events, drawing 113,290 shoppers and generating over $20.6 million in sales at NRG Center in 2018. Since its inception, the Nutcracker Market has contributed over $68 million to Houston Ballet. Frazier was a longtime trustee of Houston Ballet, with an impressive knowledge of dance and a deep love of the company’s dancers. He could watch the graduation performances of Houston Ballet Academy and accurately predict which of the student dancers would one day rise to the highest rank of principal dancer in the professional company.
Mark Arvin will forever be remembered as the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor’s landmark 1991 work Company B, which became a signature piece for Houston Ballet. With his magnetic stage presence and megawatt charm, he made this role indelibly his own at its world premiere at the Kennedy Center. He appeared with Houston Ballet for ten years, rising to the rank of principal dancer and performing as both Romeo and the Prince in Cinderella. In 1993, he gave a ferocious, unforgettable performance as the homoerotic Bull in Christopher Bruce’s haunting spectacle Cruel Garden, which depicted the life and death of the great gay poet Federico García Lorca. In 1995, he made the leap to the Great White Way, performing on Broadway in such productions as Fosse, Chicago, Swing, The Sweet Smell of Success, and Movin’ Out. He died tragically at the age of 40.
One of the great theatrical wizards of the second half of the twentieth century, designer Desmond Heeley won three Tony Awards and worked with the legendary figures of opera, ballet, and dance. From 1985 to 1998, Houston Ballet was his artistic home in America. He created magical, visually stunning productions of The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Coppélia, which became staples of the repertoire and generated tens of millions of dollars at the box office. Heeley’s sophisticated designs played a key role in Houston Ballet’s growth to international stature in the 1990s.
Sean Kelly was a dancer of enormous range who could adapt to many different movement idioms, from leading roles in the great 19th- century classics to modern and contemporary works. In 1991, he debuted the role of Tico Tico in Paul Taylor’s Company B at the Kennedy Center. In 1997, he danced the extraordinarily demanding lead role of The Chosen One in Glen Tetley’s The Rite of Spring. He demonstrated a particular talent for teaching and coaching, and served as ballet master for Houston Ballet during the year following his retirement as a dancer in the late 1990s. He parlayed this skill to make the transition to Broadway, staging and coaching the dance sections of such hit musicals as Movin’ Out for Twyla Tharp and the musical version of Billy Elliot. He is currently resident director for the Asia/Paris tours of Christopher Wheeldon’s Tony Award-winning production of
An American in Paris.
With his all-American good looks, Dominic Walsh emerged as one of Houston Ballet’s most popular stars in the 1990s, excelling in works ranging from leading roles in 19th-century classics to contemporary pieces by Christopher Bruce. In 2000, he made a particularly strong impression as Marc Anthony in Ben Stevenson’s blockbuster production of Cleopatra, a role that he debuted. During the late 1990s, he began to develop as a gifted choreographer, and in 2002 he launched his own company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, which delighted Houston audiences for over a decade with premieres and contemporary works. Today, he lives in Colorado and continues to expand his talents as a designer, having recently created the costumes for a new version of Cinderella in China.
When Trey McIntyre arrived at Houston Ballet Academy in 1987 as a tall, lanky young teenager from Kansas, artistic director Ben Stevenson immediately recognized his natural talent, and in 1989 created the special position of choreographic apprentice for him. He joined the professional company in 1990, and staged his first ballet for it at the age of 20. Throughout the 1990s, he created a series of playful, inventive works for Houston Ballet, including Second Before the Ground (1997), a signature piece that the company performed from Washington D.C. to London, and an enchanting three-act version of Peter Pan (2002) set to music by Edward Elgar. Commissions from the world’s leading ballet companies came in quick succession, including New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet. In 2005, he founded his own company, the Trey McIntyre Project, and he is increasingly recognized as one of America’s most talented living dance makers. Comparing him to 20th-century master Antony Tudor, Alastair Macaulay (chief dance critic for the New York Times) observed, “There’s a fertility of invention and a modernity of spirit here that are all Mr. McIntyre’s own.” McIntyre returns to Houston Ballet in March 2020 to create a new work for his alma mater.
When dancer Phillip Broomhead left the commanding heights of London’s Royal Ballet to join Houston Ballet in 1991, his dashing good looks set hearts racing in Texas. With his refined British classicism, he was the perfect prince in classical ballets like The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. He also showed an affinity for the works of modern-dance masters like Paul Taylor and Glen Tetley. He retired in 2004, joining the artistic staff of Houston Ballet as ballet master and exhibiting great skill as a coach and teacher. Today, he thrives as director of the Orlando Ballet School in Florida.
Cecil C. Conner Jr.
When C.C. Conner arrived in 1995 to assume the position of managing director of Houston Ballet, the company’s deficit had ballooned to over $1 million. He quickly went to work to right the ship financially by retiring the company’s deficit; organizing a series of high-profile international tours to Hong Kong, London, Moscow, and Toronto; and tripling the company’s endowment. He began his career as a Wall Street lawyer at Goldman Sachs, and veered into the world of dance when he managed the modern-dance company of Pauline Koner and later The Joffrey Ballet. A charming Southern gentleman impeccably dressed in his trademark bow tie, he has a deep knowledge and love of dance, and a winning way with the company’s donors. He finished his career in 2012 on a high note, raising over $40 million for Houston Ballet’s state-of-the-art Center for Dance in Houston’s downtown Theater District, and managing the Center’s construction to ensure that it was completed on time and on budget.
Executive Director James Nelson led Houston Ballet through one of the most challenging periods in its history: the year after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when the company found itself homeless after the Wortham Theater Center was damaged by flooding. He and the company’s production department went into overdrive, finding new theaters in which to perform, raising funds to pay for the increased expenses of dancing at alternate locations, and improvising in any number of ways so that the show would go on in the face of daunting obstacles. Nelson has deep roots at Houston Ballet. He began as a student at Houston Ballet Academy in the 1980s, danced with the company in the 1990s, and became general manager in 2000. Since being named the company’s administrative leader in 2012, he has overseen major tours to Australia, Germany, New York, and Dubai.
Although she’s never on stage, Lisa Pinkham’s work is omnipresent when the curtain goes up at Houston Ballet. The Houston-based lighting designer has forged a highly productive relationship with Stanton Welch over the last decade, creating evocative lighting for his full-length stagings of Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Giselle and La Bayadére. In September, her work on Houston Ballet’s mixed-repertory program Locally Grown, World Renowned was a master class in lighting design. Notably, her vision for the world premieres of Oliver Halkowich’s Following and Disha Zhang’s Elapse were highly theatrical, marvelously evocative, and infused the narratives of both works with stunning visual effects.
Harper Watters signaled that he was a dancer to watch when he won the Contemporary Dance Prize as a student in 2011 at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition in Switzerland. His star has continued to rise since he joined the professional company in 2011. He was promoted to soloist in 2017 and has since danced the leading male role of the Prince in The Nutcracker. But it is on social media that he has created his greatest sensation, sashaying to celebrity status in pink platform heels and giving his followers a dishy look at the backstage world of ballet in his online talk show The Pre-Show. He has enticed 165,000 followers on Instagram and generated coverage in the New York Times, which profiled him as one of the gay male ballet dancers who is rethinking masculinity. “If Wendy Williams and Beyoncé had a love child who they put in ballet,” he told the Times, “it would 100 percent be me.”
This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.