Politics of the Dance

A backstage struggle between Stevenson and a managing director splits the ballet

With that, in the imaginary script at least, the curtains would come ringing down on a happy ending. In real life, the conclusion is far from certain, with few expecting the new patchwork arrangement to be a long-term solution. After all, Stevenson's quarter-century in Houston at the ballet has not been a uniformly smooth ride.

When he arrived in 1975, he shook up the organization and ballet supporters by bringing in many of his own dancers and flushing out much of the existing company. He engaged in a lengthy power struggle with powerful board chair Louisa Stude Sarofim, who found some of Stevenson's production choices on the lightweight side. Only in the last few years have Sarofim and Stevenson warmed up to each other.

Neither Stevenson nor Smither returned Insider calls left through the ballet public relations office. Former principal dancer Janie Parker, a protégée of Stevenson's, compares her friend to the greatest figure of American ballet, the late George Ballanchine. She says some long-range accommodation must be made to keep him happy and in Houston.

Ben Stevenson:  His clash with  Conner caused the resignation offer.
Jack Mitchell
Ben Stevenson: His clash with Conner caused the resignation offer.

"He is not a dime-a-dozen director," says Parker. "He is in a league unto himself, a caliber that doesn't come along very often in this century."

Parker thinks the Houston Ballet should work out arrangements similar to what Ballanchine enjoyed in his later years. He took extensive leaves to work with satellite dance companies around the world while maintaining a strong relationship with his New York base.

"He should be in his glory years," Parker emphasizes about Stevenson. "He should not still have to be swimming upstream."

It's a view echoed by a number of longtime Stevenson admirers, including Farb.

"You just don't throw people away like a disposable diaper," says Farb. "If someone is going to resign, they resign artistic director emeritus. He's given six days of his life, weekly for 25 years, to make that company and that school what it is."

Perhaps so, but Houston is not exactly renowned for cherishing its cultural icons into their golden years, even when -- like Stevenson -- they'd really, really like to stay.

He Gets 'Em Coming, He Gets 'Em Going

If you've been wondering who paid for those new, big, impossible-to-miss "smart" signs at the entrance and exit to Bush International Airport -- the ones with prominent pictures and name tags of Mayor Lee P. Brown -- the answer is, You did. To the tune of $522,408.

"They look good at night," says an admiring Aviation Department spokesman, Ernie DeSoto.

"They are interchangeable," DeSoto helpfully adds. "So if for some reason the mayor was not the mayor anymore, they could change the name, and the picture could come out and a new one [could be] put in."

What a relief to know Mayor Brown will not be greeting and bidding adieu to the flying masses forever. It'll just be in this election year and two more -- if he wins a third and final term.

DeSoto says that by putting the greeting signs with Brown's puss outside instead of inside the terminals, it saves the interior advertising space in the airport for paying customers.

You can bet Hizzoner isn't complaining.

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