Soles on Ice

For 20 years, prima ballerina Janie Parker's feet have been harnessed to the Houston Ballet. In one more month, she plans to set them free.

But she could not, she says, have performed at the level she demands of herself. She could not, in particular, have kept dancing on her toes. Her body simply will not take it anymore. More than a quarter of a century of rising and falling and turning and gliding and making the most strenuous physical activities look like they take no effort, no effort at all, has left its mark. "I'm feeling the accumulation" is how she puts it. And so, beginning on May 23, Parker will dance a program that includes Image, a half-hour long solo piece inspired by the life of Marilyn Monroe, and then, beginning on June 6, she will dance the role of Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. One modern piece, one classical piece, a chance to show the breadth of her talents, and then it will be over. Janie Parker's career as the prima of the Houston Ballet will be finished.

What promises to be the salvation of her feet has been a cause for sorrow among many Houston Ballet fans. Dr. Donald Baxter, the Houston orthopedic surgeon who watches over the Ballet's dancers, talks for almost half an hour about the problems that Parker has experienced over the years, and at the end he asks only one thing. "If you quote me," he says, "could you quote me as saying this: I saw Janie Parker dance her very first time in Houston, and I'll see her dance for the last time. And I'm going to miss her a lot."

He's not the only one, apparently, which is why the Houston Ballet has made the last two series of its 1995-96 season something of a farewell party for Parker. Those series will cap the 20th year she has danced in Houston, and that's one reason she picked this time to hang up her shoes. She had contemplated calling it quits last year, but that was the 25th anniversary of the Ballet itself, and she didn't want to draw attention away from the company or Artistic Director Ben Stevenson. So she decided to tough it out for 12 more months.

When she talks about her career in Houston, Stevenson's name is never far from her lips. Though she ticks off the names of her chiropractor and her orthopedic surgeon when asked who has made it possible for her to dance so long, Stevenson's is the name she raises when asked why she wanted to dance so long. The tale of their pairing -- how the choreographer helped make the dancer, how the dancer helped establish the choreographer -- has entered the realm of legend in Houston arts circles.

The details have taken on an almost rote familiarity: how Parker began studying dance in her hometown of Atlanta at age eight; how, at 13, she went away to the North Carolina School of the Arts; how she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York; how she then went on to become a dancer at La Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve in Switzerland; how, while there, she attracted the attention of George Balanchine, the most influential man in American ballet; how, in 1975, before Balanchine could lure Parker away to his New York City Ballet, a British choreographer named Ben Stevenson came to Switzerland to set his Cinderella on the company there; how the young dancer and the young dance-maker realized they wanted the same thing, to somehow fuse drama and movement; how Stevenson was chosen to head the nascent Houston Ballet in 1976, and how, as one of his first moves, he asked Janie Parker to be among his performers; how Parker, to the general disbelief of the dance world, chose Stevenson over Balanchine; and how, finally, the two decades since have proven how fortuitous that choice was.

"I don't know if I would have been around this long if I'd danced for Mr. B," says Parker. "He wanted dancers to be music on-stage. I remember seeing him once go over to the piano when we were rehearsing and look at the notes to see the positions they were in, and then using that to suggest our positions. But I wanted something different. I wanted to act, and Ben let me do that. In fact, he showed me how to do it."

In the process, Parker became one of the most visible figures in Houston. In the same way that, say, Nolan Ryan was known even by those who had no interest in baseball, or Hakeem Olajuwon is familiar to those who care nothing for basketball, Parker's face has grown recognizable even to those whose knowledge of ballet begins and ends with how the word is spelled. Well, not necessarily her face: her legs and feet, the supple line of which has graced programs, T-shirts, newspaper feature stories and advertising to the point that their swoop is almost one of the city's defining characteristics.

"Legs and feet, legs and feet," says Parker at one point. "There's been so much talk about my legs and feet that sometimes I wondered if I even existed above the waist."

Janie Parker's feet are completely flat.
"No sunshine under these babies," she says, staring down at where her soles touch the floor of Houston Ballet's rehearsal studio D. "No arch this way, no arch that way. A complete pancake."

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