Hard Times at the Ballet

When the dancers of the Houston Ballet learned their artistic director, Ben Stevenson, had been forced into a medical leave, they had to wonder: were there problems ahead?

To open the Houston Ballet's production of the fourth act of the 19th-century classic La Bayadere, 24 women dressed in pink tights and white tutus descend a darkened ramp to a black and empty stage. With each delicious, slow phrase of the spun-sugar music, a dancer enters from the top of the ramp and makes a slow, deliberate arabesque, rising on one toe, arching her other leg back and up, and offering an exquisite, controlled profile. On and on they come, each dancer advancing solemnly, with downcast eyes, until they fill the stage, a dazzling human bouquet.

The choreography, created in 1877 by the great French choreographer Marius Petipa, is perfectly suited to display the talented corps of the Houston Ballet. It's also perfectly suited to display the talents of the company's leading dancers, in particular Janie Parker, the company's prima ballerina for the last dozen years and a dancer known for her flexible, expressive body and her passionate acting. Other Houston Ballet dancers may turn better. Some may leap higher. Some may even display a crisper, harder technique. But no other dancer in the Houston Ballet can match Parker's emotional vibrancy. None of them has exactly her star quality.

The March 18 performance was only the second time Parker had performed La Bayadere with her frequent partner, Li Cunxin, and the Houston audience had little with which to compare it. Close observers might have noticed that Cunxin's leaps were not as dynamic as usual, and they certainly would have noticed his missed landing and a catch he flubbed. It's not likely that anyone would have noticed much amiss with Parker, who displayed a languishing vulnerability that caught exactly the pain inherent in the ballet's story. In any case, the applause was enthusiastic and sustained, and a curtain call was required.

When Parker emerged from the stage door of the Wortham Theater Center, she had peeled off her stage eyelashes, scrubbed off her makeup and let down her long, light-brown hair. Lipstickless, she wore blue jeans, a white turtleneck with padded shoulders and white leather sneakers. Lines of concern were cut into the fresh Southern face that only 45 minutes ago had radiated a serene, regal smile to generous applause. She was not happy.

Poopy! she said of her performance, poop.
"I was 'over' all evening," she said, meaning the line of her balance was off. "I hate it when I turn in a crappy performance."

Such self-deprecation is typical of Parker. Even after wonderful performances, she has been known to tell starry-eyed fans in the green room how terrible she was. This night, though, was different. It wasn't just that the usually injury-free Parker felt hobbled by a rehearsal accident. Nor was it something as simple as a bad mood. The real problem, and a problem that had distressed the whole company, was that her mentor, Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson, was missing, out on a medical leave of absence that had been forced on him by the Houston Ballet's executive board.

Just as Parker, with her picture on nearly every poster and program, is without a doubt the most visible and important dancer in the Houston Ballet, Stevenson is the force that has made her performances possible. In many ways, the two of them are the Houston Ballet. The Ballet, granted, has other dancers of notable skill and talent, and Stevenson is not the only choreographer and teacher to have made a mark on the company. But to imagine the Ballet without one or, even worse, both of them would be to many people inconceivable, like trying two decades ago to imagine the New York City Ballet without George Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell.

Parker's virtuosity, her beauty, her acting and her durability have been a mainstay of the Houston Ballet. Name an important story-book or romantic ballet performed by the Ballet over the last decade, and Parker has danced the major role. And in May, when the company debuts a lavish new production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Manon, Parker will dance the lead.

Important as Parker has been, the foundation of her success and that of the company lies with Ben Steven-son, the British choreographer and artistic director who took Houston's main dance company from a regional nonentity to one of the top four or five ballets in the nation. He has built a solid repertoire of classics that he often sets himself. He has added new works in other styles, both by himself and resident and guest choreographers. So skilled has the company as a whole become, that when Houston Ballet premiered Company B, Paul Taylor's jazzy new work set to the songs of the Andrews Sisters, critics implied that the Houston dancers performed the work better than did Taylor's. And last spring, when the Boston Globe's dance critic compared the top regional companies, she wrote that if she had to be stranded on a desert island with just one of the works she had recently seen, it would be Houston Ballet's production of Gloria, a dark statement about the carnage of World War I.

Nearly every phase of the Houston Ballet's artistic success can be attributed to Steven-son. His story-book ballets are the bread and butter of the repertoire. His international connections produce new choreography. His eye for talent and his talent for teaching have enabled him to bring along both soloists and the corps.

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