The Turning Point

If Richie Hubscher couldn't be the Houston Ballet's prince in white tights, then he would be the dark angel of the Easy Credit Theater

The jangly, skeletal sounds, the plodding rhythm, the raspy, gravelly melodies, the lyrics that told stories both tragic and true, they released in the classically trained ballet dancer something not at all classical. When "Murder in the Red Barn" played, Hubscher picked up a machete -- he was already wearing the appropriate overalls and straw cowboy hat. He twirled the machete, pirouetted around it, stomped, jumped, fell to the floor, crawled. It was real, ugly, dangerous, gritty, sexy, animalistic and dark.

"I don't know if I would call it dark," says Hubscher's sister Donna. "It's life." His life. When their father was in the late stages of his cancer, Donna remembers, she saw him through a cracked door with his hands on his head, somehow trying to stop the pain by rolling his skull in every possible direction. Richie must have witnessed it too, because Donna saw the same movement performed with the same feeling in one of Hubscher's dances. She doesn't think Richie ever dealt with the loss of their parents; he appropriated the movement without even realizing it. "I think Richie had to be an artist, because if he had not been an artist, God help us all," she says. "I'm afraid those things he expresses through his art, he might have turned on himself or on others."

Hubscher wanted to choreograph a dance to Bone Machine for the Jewish Community Center's 1993 choreographers' showcase, but he didn't have any dancers. So he asked his then-girlfriend, Cheryl Pierce, and her friend Stephe Drawn. Neither of them had any dance experience, but Hubscher thought their lack of experience would give the piece a sense of unpolished pedestrianism, of striving desperation. The music, he thought, called for that feeling anyway, and it's hard to get ballet dancers to look pedestrian or desperate no matter how hard they try.

Hubscher hams it up as the star of his own rock opera.
Easy Credit Theater
Hubscher hams it up as the star of his own rock opera.

It was a big gamble. And they realized it as they walked into a JCC full of "real dance companies doing their Martha Graham and Balanchine." Hubscher and friends were wearing thrift-store street clothes and garish sad-clown makeup and "not at all looking like a dance group." When the lights came up, they still didn't look like a dance group, and that was the best part about it. They slogged around like they were all skin and bones with no muscle control, and Hubscher and Pierce performed possibly the sweetest and saddest pas de deux that you'll ever see. It was haggard and cynical but still, somehow, childlike and naive. "She was 15 years old," warbled Waits's recorded voice, "and she'd never seen the ocean. She climbed into a van, with a vagabondŠ." Pierce fell slack against Hubscher's body while he supported her with one arm around her back, and they shifted from side to side in a pathetic slow dance.

The gamble paid off. They got a standing ovation, and Chronicle critic Ann Holmes called the "existential or post-nuclear dance" the most intriguing of the evening. Most of the words that Hubscher regularly uses to describe his work seem to have come from that review: "alienating," "existential," "nihilistic," "perversely comic," "post-nuclear." It's no wonder he likes them. They're big words, interesting words, words that some would be hard-pressed to define. Most important, given the context, they're good words. Hubscher got more ink in one night as a choreographer than he had in 15 years as a member of the corps de ballet. In that review, he was a star.

Some six months later he gave Stevenson and the rest of the Houston Ballet artistic staff an ultimatum: He wanted to be promoted to soloist or be given a choreographic fellowship, or he would leave the company. They weren't interested. Ben Stevenson was, in the end, a director with a company to run, not a father with a child to encourage. Richie Hubscher was still not going to make it in "the system." And at the ancient age of 35, he finally gave up on being Baryshnikov.

"It's like he took all the years of ballet training, where you're taught to look like you're flying, and he took the wings off," says former dancer Rebekah French. "Now, it's all about falling and crawling."

Hubscher works with dancers who have little to no predisposition for flight. Even in the hazy half-light of No tsu oH, it's clear they are not ballerinas. Their small bellies hang down, their rear ends stick out, their shoulders slump, their hands are stiff, and their feet can't seem to decide between a parallel or a turned-out position. In rehearsal they stare intently at their bodies in the old, distorted mirrors leaned against the wall of vintage shoeboxes. Ignoring the rhythm of a slow, plaintive song coming from the record player, they concentrate on the sound of Hubscher's hypnotic counting. The clock on the wall incorrectly says 12; it always feels like midnight in this place, and sometimes they work that late.

Hubscher stands in front of them dragging on a cigarette, his hair disheveled from a very recent nap and the vintage suit jacket that he used as a blanket slung over his shoulder. He's explaining the fundamentals of a pirouette, in intricate detail and with infinite patience. When someone finally makes it around, he thinks it's beautiful, no matter how jerky the movement, how loud the landing, how improper the placement of the knee. He thinks you should think it's beautiful too. Within a month even the newest of these dancers will perform before an audience. In Hubscher's mind, it's not technique that will be important on stage, it's fearlessness. And they have no fear of falling -- on stage or off. They've already fallen through life's cracks. "Everybody who's hung around here very long has a heinous story," says dancer Stephanie Jones. "They had parents who beat them, or they didn't have parents at all, orŠ" She trails off as if the list of atrocities were endless.

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