By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Hubscher and his instructors decided he wasn't ready to leave the nest that year, but when the Houston Ballet returned the following summer, he took Stevenson up on his offer. Unfortunately, because of scheduling conflicts, he never showed up for classes. The third time was a charm, even if Stevenson's final proposal was anything but charming.
Hubscher imitates his mentor with a fey British accent, flicks of the wrist and a pinched expression of disgust: "You're not as good as you were last year," he quotes. "You won't be in the highest class."
The Ballet wasn't easy for Hubscher. He hated the uniform: a white crewneck T-shirt, black tights, white socks and ballet slippers. "I don't look sexy in this at all," he thought. "This isn't The Turning Point. This is everybody line up in a perfect line and do things on the same count." Hubscher had been the star of his class in Florida; here they wondered if he would make it in the company. Hubscher thought he had a cool arabesque; the Ballet staff told him, "That's not an arabesque. We don't know what that is." Hubscher wanted to be Baryshnikov; Stevenson made him play the fat parent in The Nutcracker. "Goddamn it," he says, remembering. "I have a beautiful body. I wanted to be the guy in the white tights dancing with the pretty girl."
But Stevenson puts it this way: "If Mickey Rooney had wanted to be Lawrence Olivier, he wouldn't have had a career, but that doesn't mean that Mickey Rooney wasn't a fabulous talent." Richie Hubscher, it seems, was the Mickey Rooney of the Houston Ballet. But it took him a while to realize that.
Hubscher would never be the Ballet's Lawrence Olivier, but he certainly wasn't suited for its entry-level job, the corps de ballet. In the corps, the point is to blend nicely into a whole. The dancers practice raising their arms to the exact same height, tilting their heads at the exact same angle, leaping in the exact same arc. They wear the exact same costumes, often with headgear that further disguises their individuality. And still Hubscher stood out. He added little flourishes to keep things fresh, and he'd get so excited about dancing that he'd accidentally jump up when the rest of the corps was coming down. He was, as Stevenson puts it, "too free."
The ironic thing was that Hubscher wasn't free at all. Freedom, in the Ballet, comes with being the star. It's only then that you can jump as high as you like, turn as many times as you can, distinguish yourself from others, have a personality, be an artist.
Hubscher thought about his new position at the bottom of the totem pole, like a clown in the circus, while he was sitting in the back of an ale house near his Montrose apartment drinking Long Island iced teas with lots of sugar. He had been without parents since he was 14, but somehow he was so sheltered and naive about certain things that he didn't know what hard liquor tasted like. He thought a Long Island was just a special kind of iced tea. Each morning he woke up with a terrible headache. He blamed it on the cicadas outside his window, the horrible Houston heat, the strange petrochemical smell in the air and the rigorous training of the Ballet. Finally one of the other dancers clued him in by marveling at his ability to put away the drink. "After I stopped drinking," Hubscher says with an innocent, straight face, "things got better."
His relationship with Stevenson helped smooth the transition to the Ballet as well. "His art is to create dancers," says Hubscher. "When he looks at a dancer, he's looking at somebody he's going to sculpt and fill and do something wonderful for." But there was a special sort of bond between the director, who had no children, and this particular dancer, who had no father. Stevenson, like a proud papa, noticed Hubscher had artistic skills beyond dancing. Once, when he was house-sitting for Stevenson (a perk at the Ballet: nice house, full fridge, cable TV, pocket money), he accidentally left some of his drawings behind. Stevenson was so impressed that he asked him to design the set for his new ballet, Cast Out.
The director wasn't always so kind. "With Ben it was always a double-edged sword," remembers Hubscher. "One minute he was making you feel like shit, and the next he was compassionate and understanding." But Hubscher doesn't fault him at all. "He might have been stern, tough, even vicious, but it was always in my best interest. He never failed me." Even in telling him he would never be the next Baryshnikov. In fact, Hubscher says that if Stevenson ever asked him to come back, he probably would. "It was like a fairy tale," he says. "The most indelible thing about the Ballet is you felt like a god, or an angel."
Hubscher's seminal and signature choreographic work is anything but heavenly. It came to him when he was painting in his garage and listening to a tape a friend from the Ballet had given him. It was Tom Waits's Bone Machine, and it would change everything.